What is now present-day Oklahoma had more historic all-Black towns than any other location in the U.S. Now, mayors from the towns still in existence are coming together for a first-of-its-kind conference to share and gather information.
The Oklahoma All-Black Towns State Conference will be held in Oklahoma City on August 20 at the Oklahoma History Center. It will bring together mayors of the 13 historic all-Black towns still around, which are dotted throughout rural areas, mostly in the eastern half of the state.
From 1865 to 1920, African Americans created more than 50 identifiable Black towns and settlements in Oklahoma and Indian territories, now present-day Oklahoma.
“It’s a way to have our Black town mayors and Black towns come together,” said Shirley Nero, who is helping coordinate the event with her husband Donnie Nero, in an interview with the Daily Yonder. “And one of the reasons is that we’re in a rural setting, and most of them are in the southeastern part of the state and the mid-eastern part of the state. We don’t have the opportunity to come together, really, as a group to share ideas and network with each other.”
For years, Shirley Nero has been offering tours of the historic all-Black towns throughout Oklahoma. Every June, she works with the Rudisill Library, part of the Tulsa City-County Library system, to offer a tour of a handful of the towns.
She said her most fun recent tour was showing a group of remote workers from Tulsa around each of the all-Black communities over a period of six months.
The State Conference will feature the existing historic all-Black communities as well as some communities with Black mayors, followed by presentations from state agencies who may be able to work with the communities in terms of grants or developing tourism initiatives. State Senator Roger Thompson will serve as the keynote speaker. Thompson, a Republican from Okemah, Oklahoma, is the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, in which the committee vets legislation with a fiscal impact on the state, including budget bills.
“It’s an idea of networking with others, and what’s available,” Nero said. “And to get these Black towns to come to one central location in Oklahoma City, even though we’re mostly in the eastern part of the state. And it was also an idea for them to see what the Black towns are like.”
Donnie Nero believes the upcoming conference will benefit not only the towns but the state agencies as well.
“What we want are those personal contacts,” he said. “Instead of just calling an agency, let’s call a person within the agency who can help us, so I think if nothing else occurs, we’ll accomplish that so they’ll be able to know what our needs are.”
Many of the communities that are historic all-Black towns are considered rural. Several of the communities are located in what was then known as Indian Territory. Many of the Black residents who moved to the area were slaves of the Five Tribes and then became Freedmen.
“They developed along the railroad tracks, most of them,” said Nero, who lives in the historic all-Black town of Clearview, of the historic all-Black townships. “They were basically developed on Freedmen land. So that was land that was given to them, the Freedmen, just like they were allotted lands that were given to the Native Americans. So they weren’t developed in a town per se, like Muskogee or Okemah. We were segregated. So that’s how they developed into the rural part of the state.”
A few people would promote the town to people from nearby areas, including Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, she added.
She said there is renewed interest in Oklahoma’s historic all-Black towns, especially with the recent centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre. More and more people are learning about the history of Oklahoma, but some people, she notes referring to recent legislation passed about teaching race in schools, are trying to keep from teaching about that history.
Nero, a former educator, said although many people in Oklahoma say they didn’t learn about the Tulsa Race Massacre in school, she was one person who did teach it.
“I kind of defend my teachers, because I know what it was like teaching what you can teach a ninth-grader and what they can retain, whether they remember it or not, they may have heard it,” she said. “So, yes, there is an interest as you grow old and older, as an adult. And then there’s some of that responsibility on parents, if you want to learn it. You can go out and teach your kids, take them to museums, and teach them those things.”
Boley is one such town. With about 1,200 people calling it home, it hosts the nation’s oldest African American community-based rodeo every Memorial Day weekend, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society.
Boley Mayor Francis Shelton said it will be exciting for all the mayors to come together from the 13 communities.
The towns “can come together as a force, instead of everyone working on their own,” she told the Daily Yonder. She said she hopes to learn more about how state agencies work to be able to keep the towns alive and viable.