Damario Solomon-Simmons was OK Policy’s legislative liaison from December 2013 to 2016 and is currently a national civil rights attorney.
In 2003, when I was doing my externship at the U.S. State Department in Washington D.C., I had to work hard just to convince my friends that there were actually Black people in Oklahoma. However, not only does Oklahoma have a rich history involving Black People, but Oklahoma’s Black history is among the most interesting in the nation. I can prove it.
At the end of the Civil War, the newly emancipated African-Americans suffered from so much hostility that scholar Michael Eric Dyson writes, “Black folk were always on the move, throwing off oppression like stifling clothes and inhabiting new lands with old hopes of freedom.” The search took them to Kansas, Canada, Mexico, and even back home to Africa. But it was Oklahoma that got the most attention from freedom-thirsty African-Americans. They viewed Oklahoma, then known as Indian Territory, as the most sensible place to start their new lives.
The Honorable Edward P. McCabe, widely considered the father of America’s all-Black town movement, even traveled to Washington D.C. to meet with President Benjamin Harrison to lobby for Oklahoma to be admitted as a Black state. Those ambitious African-Americans calling for a Black state even inspired New Hampshire Senator Henry W. Blair to introduce a bill favoring Oklahoma’s admission to the Union as such.
While obviously Oklahoma did not become a Black state, Oklahoma did become and still is home to the greatest number of all-Black towns in this nation’s history. This comes as no surprise when one examines the thinking of the African-Americans who came to Oklahoma like William H. Twine, writing in 1905:
Some of us have made our last move and we propose to stand our ground where we have our homes and our investments until hell freezes over and then fight the devils on ice… [T]he Indian Territory is the last stand the Negro of America can make as pioneer and we propose to let it go down that the stand was made here.
The record number of all-Black towns that formed across Oklahoma and their continuing existence is a testament to the freedom-chasing spirit of people like Twine. Their heritage includes scores of Black pioneers from Oklahoma history, such as Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, who in 1948 successfully sued the University of Oklahoma to admit her into its law school; Ralph Ellison, who profoundly detailed the agony of being a Black man in America in his novel, Invisible Man; Chief Cow Tom (my direct ancestor), an African-Creek who negotiated the Creek Treaty of 1866 which ended all slavery in the Creek Nation; Jake Simmons, Jr. (Cow Tom’s great-grandson and my great uncle), the most important Black businessman in the history of the oil industry; Roscoe Dunjee, a newspaper publisher, NAACP leader, and civil rights advocate; Clara Luper, who in 1958 conducted one of the nation’s first sit-ins to protest segregation in Oklahoma City; and Bessie Coleman (Brave Bessie or Queen Bess), the world’s first licensed Black pilot, just to name a few.
Third, Black Oklahoma gave the world two of the greatest institutions ever produced by African-Americans: Greenwood and Booker T. Washington High School both of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The wealth of Greenwood, also known as Black Wall Street, was so remarkable that the great Dr. W.E.B. Dubois said, “I have never seen a colored community so highly organized as that of Tulsa. The colored people of Tulsa have accumulated property, have established stores and business organizations and have made money in oil.” Before Greenwood’s near total destruction during the so-called 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, the neighborhood had a population of almost 11,000 two- and three-story brick buildings lining the street, housing a variety of commercial establishments and educational institutions including two black schools, a hospital, two movie theaters, and numerous offices for Tulsa’s unusually large number of Black lawyers, doctors, and other professionals.
Driving Greenwood to greatness was Tulsa’s Booker T. Washington High School (“BTW”). With its deep tradition of academic excellence, social consciousness, and athletic prowess, BTW is ranked as one of the top high schools in the state and country. A cursory look at a BTW alumni list will reveal a who’s who of prominent African-Americans, such as “America’s Historian” the late great Dr. John Hope Franklin, Historian and Psychologist Dr. Julian Hare, musical icon The Gap Band, Olympic Gold Medalists Kenny Monday and Wayman Tisdale (arguably the greatest college basketball player of all-time), and legendary BTW Principal E.W. Woods.
So even though Oklahoma never officially became a Black state, it has been the stage for many great accomplishments by African-Americans for us to remember, celebrate, and carry on the spirit of in this Black state of mine.