Oklahoma! Where the Black Towns Once Thrived
First stop on The Root's Black Bucket List of must-see places: Oklahoma, rich with bison, broncos and black history.
For those curious about further exploring Oklahoma's black history, a drive to one of Oklahoma's historic black towns is a good next stop. These settlements emerged in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when civic leaders openly recruited blacks in the antebellum South and other parts of the country to settle in Oklahoma Territory. (Statehood came in 1907.) Centered by black-run governments and stores, most often trading points for the surrounding black farms, many of the towns thrived. Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison modeled the setting for her 1997 novel Paradise after a black Oklahoma town.
Most of the towns served as trading centers for the nearby farms, but the town of Boley was once an urban hub of about 50,000 residents. It had its own bank, five hotels and several restaurants.
Anxious to see what had become of the Boley of my father's day, one of 13 surviving black towns in the state, I took an hour-long drive past fields of soybean and other crops. As I wander through the town on foot, it's clear that with only 2,000 residents, the place has faded from its heyday. Many of the low-rise brick buildings are now boarded up.
Still, an old-school charm hangs over the place. At McCormick's restaurant, they serve up a wholesome spread of pork chops, mashed potatoes, gravy and sweet potato pie. And the spirited crowd at Faith Covenant Church rattles the room with gospel songs during Sunday worship services.
Visitors who want to explore the state's rich Native American scene have various options. The "Five Civilized Tribes" (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Seminole, Choctaw, Creek), which were forced to migrate to Indian Territory from the eastern part of the U.S. in the early 1800s, all have capitals in different parts of Oklahoma. Each of them has a history of tribesmen with black roots, too. The community of Freedmen -- blacks who are affiliated with Indian tribes -- is active throughout the state.
The Cherokee Nation, centered in the town of Tahlequah, about an hour by car from Tulsa, is the most accessible of the state's Indian strongholds. During an afternoon visit to this bucolic college town, dominated by Northeastern State University, I start with a walk around Cherokee Capitol Square, a collection of well-kept brick buildings. The stately Cherokee Supreme Court and many of the other buildings carry signs in the Cherokee language, as well as in English. Cherokee tribesmen arrived in these parts on the Trail of Tears in the late 1830s.
For a refresher on the Trail of Tears history, including the hardships suffered and details about the new life the Indians built, often alongside blacks, the Cherokee Heritage Center, located four miles away, is an excellent stop. Owned and managed by the Cherokee Nation, it includes exhibitions about how the early Indians lived, farmed and staked their place in Oklahoma. In the summer, an open-air production of the Trail of Tears, a drama depicting the removal of the tribe from homelands in the southeastern U.S., is staged in an amphitheater.
With the rugged nature of this rural state all around me, I feel the call of the wild. In sparsely populated Oklahoma, opportunities to hike, canoe, kayak or horseback ride on untrammeled turf are never far away. In these parts the allure is the Illinois River, which meanders through the plains, and is the most beloved option.
And so, within an hour I am already in a canoe, paddling gently downsteam. Ashore, for as far as I can see, grass and trees and fields of alfalfa stretch across the distance. Somewhere beyond all that is Greenwood Avenue, with its haunting racial legacy. But for a fleeting minute, all that seems far away.
Gary Lee is a travel writer and former foreign correspondent in Russia and Germany. He lives in Washington, D.C., but also spends a good chunk of his time in Paris and Peru.