A three-year grant from the National Park Service is examining the role Black Homesteaders played in the history of present-day Oklahoma.
“I would say the first unique part of this project is the fact that Oklahoma had the largest number of Black homesteaders out of all of the states that have been studied overall. And so the sheer number of people is really important,” said Kalenda Eaton, associate professor of African and African American studies at the University of Oklahoma and director of the Oklahoma Black Homesteader Project.
She added that many Black homesteaders came from nearby states, including Arkansas, Texas, and Kansas, but also Tennessee and elsewhere.
This project is important, Eaton said, because it pre-dates the Great Migration, the 20th century movement of millions of Black Southerners to the North, Midwest, and West.
“This study that we’re conducting is a part of a funded project by the National Park Service that really details who these individuals were, what the communities were that were established, that were not so well known, or maybe even towns, but just kind of large communities, what the effects of the migration was on the South on communities that were already established in the West. And then also, what the experience says were of people who left everything behind it for the most part, and then decided to venture out west,” she added.
Eaton, who is joined by a team of researchers, said that this project changes the typical American narrative of a white man bootstrapping his way out West and focuses on communities of color moving out West to, in essence, survive.
The state of Oklahoma was once home to more than 50 historic all-Black communities, but the remaining 13 are mostly in what was then known as Indian Territory, on the eastern half of the state, she said. Prior to the land runs, approximately 8,000 people of African descent lived in Indian Territory as Freedmen.
Those individuals had been located in their communities since around the 1830s, so when the land runs occurred, “more people were moving in and some were settling near some of these already established Freedmen communities, some are purchasing land from Freedmen and establishing towns like Boley, for example, and others are kind of far removed from Indian Freedom and from Black Indian Freedmen.”
“They were moving out west in order to survive really, and imagine new possibilities for themselves and their families in ways that they didn’t necessarily always have where they were,” she added.
The project is using archival research and transcription and Census data collection, among other items.
“We are finding full files, or creating full files, I should say, on these individuals who were successful, and the homesteading process, and getting copies of their claims, their deeds – when they proved on their land. And so we’re putting all this together and creating an archive of this moment,” Eaton said.
Although the project is academic in nature, Eaton said she wants to make sure it is accessible to individuals interested in history. They have set up a Twitter account at @oklabhp.
“We think it’d be really great for genealogists who are interested in finding out more about their family members, their ancestors,” she said. “It’s wonderful for people who are studying rural communities, and farming communities in the West. And it’s also generally just important for those who are interested in American history. And what this moment meant for so many thousands of people within the United States.