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Economic hardship threatens Oklahoma's historic Black towns

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Black leaders in Oklahoma want to keep the state's historic freedmen towns alive. They were established after the Civil War on Indian land but are now experiencing economic hardship. Elizabeth Caldwell from member station KWGS reports there's no clear path to how they could survive.

(LAUGHTER)

ELIZABETH CALDWELL, BYLINE: In eastern Oklahoma at the Honey Springs Visitor Center, director Adam Lynn is telling a tour group about the largest Civil War battle that took place here in Indian country.

ADAM LYNN: Most importantly, this is thought to be one of the most culturally, if not the most culturally diverse conflict to take place in the entire Civil War. That's a large statement since there were over 10,000 battles, skirmishes, and conflicts that took place.

CALDWELL: The Union's first Black soldiers fought at Honey Springs in the summer of 1863 alongside members of the Creek, Cherokee, and Seminole nations. Lynn says the Black soldiers deserve a lot of credit.

LYNN: They played a large role in Union victory here. They were the very first African American regiment to see combat in the entire Civil War, as well.

CALDWELL: After the Union won the war, the tribes, in negotiation with the federal government, granted their former slaves land. These freedmen helped to create at least 50 all-Black towns in Oklahoma. Cymone Davis is the former town manager of Oklahoma's oldest historically Black town, Tullahassee. She says freedmen's towns are important not only for historical reasons but because they set examples for ownership.

CYMONE DAVIS: Black towns are governed by a municipal boundary line or trustees and city councils who are of the community - same people - Black people, Black town, Black mayor, Black council. And so it's really important for us to see ourselves in these roles, knowing that we are guiding our own future. And that's what Black towns represent.

CALDWELL: There are about 13 historic all-Black towns in Oklahoma still operating today, but most are rural with tiny populations. Not all residents are Black, and people are leaving for better opportunities. Tullahassee doesn't even have a place to shop for food. Lori Thompson, who assists Tullahassee's mayor, says she'd like to see a small store in the community.

LORI THOMPSON: But, of course, we - you know, we would love to have big things and, you know, have a real grocery store and that type of stuff. That would be great, too, but got to start small.

CALDWELL: At least the town has a community center and hopes its history could attract visitors. About 30 miles away is another all-Black town called Rentiesville. It's home to the Oklahoma Blues Hall of Fame. Volunteer Shelly Zaikis says an annual blues festival is largely funded by grants and donations.

SHELLY ZAIKIS: It's not, like, a real moneymaker, you know? It's more for the heart of the music. And the musicians just - they have to play.

CALDWELL: A lot of people come just for the festival. The mayor of Rentiesville, Mildred Burkhalter, says her town of 135 people has hopes for an RV park and a gift shop to offer a place for tourists to stay year-round.

MILDRED BURKHALTER: We have big ideas, but the main thing is we have to have the resources to put those things in place.

CALDWELL: Where to find those resources is not clear, but Burkhalter says with growing restrictions on how Black history is taught in school, preserving these towns matters.

BURKHALTER: The history - it can't be told the way you want to tell it, so the only way you're going to know about it is that you're going to have to pay visits. You're going to have to come in to these little towns and see what it's all about.

CALDWELL: Burkhalter says for however long her town is on the map, that history will remain alive. For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Caldwell in Rentiesville, Okla.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOWELL FULSON'S "LOW SOCIETY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elizabeth Caldwell
Before joining Public Radio Tulsa, Elizabeth Caldwell was a freelance reporter and a teacher. She holds a master's from Hollins University. Her audio work has appeared at KCRW, CBC's The World This Weekend, and The Missouri Review. She is a south Florida native.