Between 1865 and 1915, about 50 years after the Civil War, there were at least 60 black towns settled in America. With more than 20, Oklahoma led all other states.
It is documented that nowhere else, neither in the Deep South nor in the Far West, did so many African American men and women come together to create, occupy, and govern their own communities.
From 1865 to 1920, African Americans created more than 50 identifiable towns and settlements, with some still existing at the beginning of the 21st century, according to Oklahoma Historical Society.
By 1888, at least 200 black towns and communities had been established nationwide. According to an article on The Washington Post, some of these towns were modelled on black towns that had been formed after the American Revolution and during the antebellum era – from the late 1700s to 1860.
They were mostly formed by the millions of slaves who were freed after the Civil War. These former slaves managed to purchase some lands just to ensure their independence without any interference from a white world.
Oklahoma had a unique history. For many decades, the area which is known today as the state of Oklahoma was something else – it was known as the “Indian Territory.”
The significant number of all-black towns that would grow in this territory began with the Trail of Tears, a series of forced relocations of Native Americans in the United States from their ancestral homelands in the Southeastern U.S., to areas to the west that had been designated as Indian Territory, which is present-day Oklahoma.
Many African Americans were enslaved by these tribes and moved to Indian Territory with the tribes. These tribes had in the 19th century posed an obstacle to white settlers who sought to expand to the South and West and find more land to harvest cotton.
The Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chicasaw and Seminole nations (known as the Five Civilised Tribes) were already occupying those lands in question. In the 1820s, the federal government negotiated treaties that traded these Indian-held lands that the white settlers wanted for plots further West, according to NPR.
The U.S. then acquired parts of Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Kentucky and North Carolina, as well as, three-quarters of Alabama and Florida.
Tribal leaders agreed to the treaties, hoping that peace will be maintained while they would also be able to retain some of their lands. But these hopes were dashed when in 1823, the Supreme Court ruled that Indians could not hold title to lands within the boundaries of the U.S. Some tribes in the southeastern U.S. decided to relocate westward but many others refused to move, leading to instances of warfare.
Congress then passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830 that mandated the U.S. to set aside lands west of the Mississippi River for tribes. Four years later, another act was passed, and this would create what became known as Indian Territory.
The U.S. government began claiming lands in the North and East by force, and many tribes had to move – about 60 tribes relocated to Indian Territory within less than five decades. Thousands of Cherokees, who had then refused to move from their lands in Georgia, were forcibly evicted by U.S. soldiers. About 4,000 Cherokee died during what has been described as the “gruelling 1,200-mile trek known as the ‘Trail of Tears’.”
As already mentioned, many African-Americans who were enslaved by the tribes made the journey to Indian Territory with the tribes. There, they created farming communities that supported a variety of businesses, schools, churches, and others.
When the Land Run of 1889 opened yet more “free” or unassigned land to non-Indian settlement, African Americans from the Old South rushed to the area that would later make up the state of Oklahoma, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society.
Varying accounts say that these newly-created towns were advertised in newspapers throughout the southern U.S. as “promise lands” for black settlers.
“For several decades, these all-black towns provided their residents with lives free of the regular racial brutality and prejudice often experienced by blacks living in racially-mixed communities. Residents could depend on and support each other. Black-owned farms, schools, and businesses took root,” an account by The University of Tulsa said.
Many all-black communities thrived in the “rich topsoil of the new territory”.
But soon after gaining statehood in 1907, the passage of Jim Crow laws by the Oklahoma Legislature that enforced racial segregation forced many African Americans to migrate to the west, as well as, to Canada and Mexico.
The Great Depression also destroyed many of the towns and settlements, forcing residents to find work elsewhere. As people moved, taxes began to fall, placing the towns under financial stress.
Many railroads around the 1930s also failed, cutting many rural towns in Oklahoma off from their market. Thus, many of the black towns could not survive. Despite the difficulties, thirteen still remain, with the largest and most renowned of these being Boley.
Today, there are about 42 million people who identify as Black or African American living in America, making up 12% of the total population. Oklahoma, bordered by Kansas on the north, Missouri on the northeast, Arkansas on the east, Texas on the south, New Mexico on the west, and Colorado on the northwest, has one of the highest percentages of black people – at 7.1% (276,559) of the about total 3 million population of the state.
Here are the historic all-black towns that survived:
All-black towns no longer in existence: