The Story of Black Wall Street #007: The Making of a Jim Crow State

As one of the last states to join the Union, Oklahoma could have charted a new course for race relations in the 20th century. Instead, it chose Jim Crow.

Welcome to the seventh edition of Run It Back, my biweekly newsletter about neglected black history. For the foreseeable future the newsletter will be focused on Tulsa’s Black Wall Street, which I’m currently writing a book about for Random House.

In the fall of 1907, eleven black leaders and businessmen traveled from Indian Territory to Washington D.C. in a last-ditch effort to prevent Oklahoma from becoming a state. They were real estate men, newspaper editors, and Creek tribal representatives who had carved unlikely paths to success on the outskirts of America. They were not subservient to the white farm owners in the South, or the factory owners in the North. Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory were their own animal, where the racial hierarchies of the old world were not yet locked in place. Maybe, the men hoped, theirs could be a new kind of state. 

Jim Crow had hovered around the Twin Territories for decades but never with the vicelike grip it had in the Deep South. It was common for whites and blacks to attend the same schools as late as 1900. Blacks served in the tribal governments of Indian Territory and held public office in Oklahoma Territory (to help establish your bearings: Tulsa is in the former Indian Territory; Oklahoma City, further west, is in the former Oklahoma Territory). In the early days of Tulsa, black people owned businesses in the predominantly white downtown district and even had white employees.

Still, as more blacks poured into the state, restrictions on them grew. In Oklahoma Territory, an 1890 law allowed counties to vote on segregated schools but didn’t mandate the policy. By 1901 integrated schools were fully banned. Around the same time, many Oklahoma towns expelled their black residents under threat of violence, including Norman, the home of the University of Oklahoma. Black political aspirations dimmed as many Republicans began advocating Jim Crow policies in an effort to secure white votes, abandoning the ideals of Reconstruction for good. "We are vilified and abused by the Guthrie lily-whites until election time draws near and then the crack of the whip is heard,” a black Republican named C.H. Tandy said during this period. “I have talked to all my brethren and they are mad. We won't stand it any longer.”

As the drumbeat advocating statehood grew louder, blacks were largely shut out of the drafting of a state constitution. While Republicans were reneging on their commitment to black advancement, Democrats had already been seeking to subjugate black people for decades--and the constitutional convention that convened in Guthrie was overwhelmingly filled with Democrats. William H. Murray, the Democratic delegate who was appointed president of the convention, summed up the philosophy of Oklahoma’s white leaders in his inaugural convention speech:

 “As a rule [Negroes] are failures as lawyers, doctors, and in other professions. He must be taught in the line of his own sphere. He must be taught in the line of his own sphere, as porters, bootblacks, and barbers and many lines of agriculture, horticulture and mechanics in which he is an adept, but it is an entirely false notion that the negro can rise to the equal of a white man in the professions or become an equal citizen to grapple with public questions.”

Murray called for separate schools, separate train cars, and a ban on interracial marriage. But black leaders refused to cede their civil rights so easily. While the mostly white convention was happening in Guthrie, black people organized a competing convention in Muskogee in December 1906. They declared the constitution “a disgrace to our western civilization.” In April 1907, three hundred blacks met at the Oklahoma City courthouse to convene the Negro Protective League, an organization that attempted to galvanize opposition to the constitution in every town and hamlet. Ultimately, voters would decide the fate of the document, so the Protective League organized petitions and mailed out thousands of letters to black citizens directing them to vote against the constitution. The effort failed, and the constitution was passed by a five-to-two margin in September 1907.

It was all these setbacks that led eleven black men from the Twin Territories to Washington in October 1907. They hoped that Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican at the time, would reject Oklahoma’s racist constitution and block the state’s admission to the Union. But Murray and the other white constitution backers had anticipated that outcome, and they’d been careful to leave some Jim Crow language, like the segregation of train cars, out of the document. 

By the time the black leaders were standing face to face with Roosevelt, he had seemingly already made up his mind. Reports of the exact details of the meeting vary--one black newspaper editor who was present said Roosevelt heard their case and described the president as “a man who believes in the doctrine of a square deal to every man.” Another newspaper account claimed Roosevelt “made it clear that he was not ‘open to conviction’ regarding defects in the constitution.” Either way, the trip was fruitless. On Nov. 16, 1907, Roosevelt signed the proclamation turning Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory into the 46th U.S. state, Oklahoma. 

Parade on Oklahoma Avenue in Guthrie on Statehood Day, Nov. 16, 1907. Photo courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society

Ironically, the Oklahoma constitution was hailed as a milestone victory for the progressive movement. Men like William Murray, who earned the folksy nickname “Alfalfa Bill,” were seen as anti-corporate crusaders in an age of oppressive monopolies. The constitution allowed for municipal ownership of utilities, increased taxes on corporations, made many more public offices subject to democratic elections, and set train fares at two cents per mile. The progressive magazine The Nation declared that Oklahoma’s constitution had come “nearer than any other document in existence to expressing the ideas and aspirations of the day.”

But this was an entirely white framework through which to understand progress. The constitution also established separate schools for white and colored children (Native Americans would be classified as white, according to the document). The drafters’ zeal for oppressing blacks predictably led to the restriction of other people’s rights--an early push at the convention to expand suffrage to women failed when delegates realized that black women were likely to vote in large numbers. Even if the constitution didn’t explicitly advocate segregation in all aspects of life, it left the door open for the legislature to finish the work of cementing Jim Crow.

The first bill passed in the first legislative session established segregated train cars weeks after statehood. The legislature soon passed the grandfather clause, which circumvented voter rights protections by instituting a literacy test on any person whose ancestors had not been allowed to vote before 1866 (that included all descendants of slaves). Ultimately the legislature would segregate nearly every aspect of public life--hospitals, cemeteries, even phone booths. Oklahoma created a legal framework for discrimination that was actually more rigid than many of the laws in the Deep South, where Jim Crow was sometimes upheld by custom and violence rather than explicit legal mandate. While segregation emerged from the vestiges of slavery and failed Reconstruction in the South, in Oklahoma it was erected statute by statute. 

Black people had no direct say in the creation of these laws--only a single black representative, A.C. Hamlin, served in the state legislature before 1964. But black Oklahomans did not accept these injustices passively. Long before the formal Civil Rights Movement, they sued railroad companies over their segregation policies. They fought the grandfather clause all the way to the Supreme Court, and won. They desegregated colleges before Brown v. Board. The lawmakers did everything they could to stifle the independent streak of the black folks who’d ventured out west. But the spirit never left. 

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Goble, Danney. Progressive Oklahoma: The Making of a New Kind of State

“Small Comfort for Negroes, President Shook Their Hand But Would Not Hear Their Statehood Kick.” The Shawnee Herald. Oct 29 1907.

“That Washington Trip.” The Muskogee Cimeter. Nov 1 1907.

Tolson, Arthur. “The Negro in Oklahoma Territory: 1889-1907: A Study in Racial Discrimination.”

Wickett, Murray. Contested Territory: Whites, Native Americans, and African Americans in Oklahoma, 1865–1907