Friday, June 21, 2013

All-Black Towns in Oklahoma

As reported by the Tulsa World, "Tour visits historic all-black towns of Oklahoma," by Nour Habib a World Scene Writer, on 6 June 2013 -- GRAYSON - Leon Anderson gets around town on his four-wheeler.

Anderson, the mayor of Grayson, doesn't really need much else to make his way around the small town - roughly 1.1 square miles with a population of about 150. It's a town small enough that residents can point out most landmarks from where they stand as they talk about them.

Anderson, who was appointed mayor from amongst Grayson's five trustees, knows quite a bit about his town's history. As he stands on the site that now holds the community center and town hall building, as well as the ruins of the old grade school, he talks about Grayson's beginnings more than 100 years ago.

Once called Wildcat, Grayson was established in 1902 and re-named after a Muscogee Creek chief. In the early 1900s, the town had nearly 1,000 residents.

Grayson, Oklahoma

Anderson also has other tidbits of information that he thinks people might find interesting, like the fact that civil rights activist Clara Luper attended school in Grayson.

Anderson will share much of this information with visitors who come through town on Saturday during the Tulsa Library's All-Black Town Tour.

Grayson, located in southeastern Okmulgee County, is one of 13 all-black towns still in existence in Oklahoma. It'll be the first stop in the tour, which is presented by the library's African American Resource Center.

"It's important to educate people on the historical significance of these towns," said Shirley Nero, a historian and retired educator who currently serves on the Oklahoma Historical Society board.

Nero has been acting as a tour guide during the library's event for several years. The library has conducted the tour - held in June in honor of Juneteenth, a holiday that commemorates the celebration of Texas slaves when they heard the delayed news of their freedom - for more than 15 years.

Recently, Nero says she's seen a resurgent interest in the black towns. On Tuesday afternoon, a camera crew came to her home in Clearview - another of Oklahoma's historically black towns - to request an interview.

Oklahoma had more all-black towns than any other state. The towns began forming after the Civil War. Most of Oklahoma's all-black towns formed in what was then Indian Territory, settled by freedmen who were once slaves for the Indians.

Red Bird, Oklahoma

These towns began gaining a reputation and attracted Exodusters, or African-Americans in the South who began migrating to Oklahoma and other states.

"They came looking for freedom, to get away from prejudices," said Jimmie White, a history professor at Connors State College and a tour guide for the library's event.

White said those who moved to the black communities also came for an opportunity that they wouldn't have elsewhere.

"In these black communities, they had the chance to run a city, run their own towns," he said.

Robert Fox's grandfather was among the Exodusters who came from Texas at the turn of the 20th century.

Fox, 77, was raised in Grayson and returned about 10 years ago after retiring from a truck-driving job in Los Angeles.

Fox remembers the town when it was still semi-thriving. On Tuesday afternoon, as he sat on the porch of the home he constructed after returning to Grayson, he pointed to an area about a block away.

"There was a Catholic church there," he said. A block at the opposite direction held a second church.

He also remembers where the grocery and drug stores sat.

Now, none of them exist.

"People had to leave here and go other places to make a living," Fox said.

The town began dying out.

White said many of the black towns in Oklahoma died during the Dust Bowl, which caused a lot of people to move west.

But the residents of the towns hope to see them rebuild.

And part of the purpose behind the tours is to help preserve the towns through raising awareness.

"We're as much a part of Oklahoma history as the Indians are," Nero said.

Map of Oklahoma's All Black Towns


Where: Departs Rudisill Regional Library, 1520 N. Hartford, at 7:30 a.m. Saturday. Stops include the towns of Grayson, Vernon, Lima and Brooksville. Return to library at 5:30 p.m.

Tickets: $35. Purchase in advance because tickets are sold on a first-come, first-serve basis. Cost includes breakfast, lunch and snacks. (source: Tulsa World)


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