Kristi Eaton / AP

Once forgotten, Oklahoma’s historic all-black towns find renewed interest

Thirteen towns have seen their populations dwindle and have fallen into disrepair but may find a new lease on life

CLEARVIEW, Okla. — Like many people from rural Oklahoma, Shirley Nero left her small town in search of education and job opportunities. After she retired from her position as a school teacher, however, Nero and her husband returned to her beloved hometown of Clearview, a community of fewer than 50 people that is one of the state’s remaining historically all-black towns.

Now, the Neros are helping to drum up interest in Clearview, which had a peak population of more than 600 in the early 1900s, and other historic all-black towns in the state. Though the communities continue to fade — the populations are dwindling, schools and churches have closed and dilapidated homes and buildings are being torn down — there’s been a renewed interest in learning about the settlements and a part of Oklahoma’s history that went untold for many years.

“Oklahoma is unique in the way of all-black towns,” said Nero, who offers group and individual tours of the communities. “We have more historically all-black towns than any other state in the United States.”

In addition to the tours, which have attracted people as far away as Japan, Oklahoma’s all-black towns are highlighted in a new guidebook from the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department and will be featured in an upcoming documentary film.

“Each one has their own identity and we try to focus on that,” Nero said of the 13 towns still remaining. Rentiesville, for example, is known for blues and still hosts an annual festival, so visitors get to see a local blues club. Nero partners with a library in Tulsa to host a tour each June that draws dozens of people. She also hosts private tours on request. In addition to unique aspects of each town, visitors see and learn about the schools and churches in each of the communities, or where they once stood, and meet with the mayors, Nero said.

Larry O’Dell with the Oklahoma Historical Society said that when the federal government relocated the the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole nations to present-day Oklahoma, the tribes brought along slaves. During the Civil War, many of the tribes sided with the Confederacy, and their treaties with the government were ultimately annulled. When they renegotiated, the slaves became freedmen and were compensated with land.

“They were treated just like the other members of the tribe when they allotted land to them and broke up their communal living,” O’Dell said. “So, when these freedmen got land, obviously they settled near each other and eventually these towns in eastern Oklahoma developed.”

In Oklahoma Territory, African-Americans from the Old South took part in the April 22, 1889, Land Run, when more than 50,000 settlers raced to a claim a piece of the more than 2 million acres of unassigned land in “Indian Territory” that was opened to settlers. The African-Americans settled near each other following the Land Run, creating their own towns, Dell said. Altogether, African-Americans — Land Run settlers and freedmen — created more than 50 identifiable towns and settlements between 1865 and 1920.  

Boley Town Council c. 1907-1910

Boley, the largest and most well-known of the towns, was once home to more than 4,000 residents and hosted Booker T. Washington. It now has fewer than 1,200 residents.

Over the years, the towns struggled to survive due to several factors. Many were dependent on railroads that stopped operating. When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, many African-Americans migrated out of the state because the Legislature passed Jim Crow laws, O’Dell said. Another exodus of African-Americans took place during World War II, when they headed to big cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles.

O’Dell said many of the people who call the communities home now are retirees who are returning to their hometowns after living and working in places like California.

They are people like Shirley Nero and her husband, Donnie Nero Sr., a former president of Connors State College, who in June opened up the Oklahoma African American Educators Hall of Fame in Clearview to collect, preserve and share the stories of black educators in the state.

“We kind of saw a need — that we’re left out and we’re not recognized as we should be,” Shirley Nero said. “We need to know these stories and we need to share them.”

Tourism officials have also taken note and recognized the need to document and share the stories of the towns. Earlier this year, the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department released a guide and accompanying web portal highlighting the state’s black history and culture. Coined “The Long Road to Liberty: Oklahoma’s African American History and Culture,” the guide showcases the state’s historic all-black towns as well as landmarks like the Honey Springs Battlefield Historic Site near Checotah, which is where African-American, Native American, Hispanic and Anglo-American soldiers all fought alongside each other in the July 17, 1863, Civil War battle.

A crumbling Clearview store once housed a live bait shop. Fewer than 50 residents now live in the community.
Kristi Eaton

The guide also features Oklahoma’s jazz history and best places to experience soul food.  The idea for the guide originally came from a state lawmaker, who requested that the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department consider producing materials about the state’s historical African-American communities, according to Dick Dutton, executive director of the Tourism Department.

But in researching the topic, he said, tourism officials soon realized there was an opportunity to tell the state’s African-American history and the ongoing contributions.

For more than three decades, people from across the state have been traveling to Clearview every summer for a rodeo that was started to honor black cowboys and black soldiers, said Romeo J. Alford, Jr., whose late father, Romeo J. Alford, Sr., founded the rodeo and built the arena where it’s held every year on the outskirts of town.

“He wanted to build a shrine to the black cowboy and the black soldier. He felt they were two of the most overlooked characters in American history,” the younger Alford said of his father. “Their story has never been told.”

Alford Jr. said the family never anticipated the rodeo would become such a draw, luring black, Native American and white cowboys eager to show off their skills, and giving Clearview residents who have left a reason to return, albeit briefly. “This town comes alive on that Saturday night,” he said.

Though the rodeo was started to showcase the black cowboy, it has always been an open rodeo, meaning skin color and background are not factors in eligibility, Alford Jr. said.

According to the Encyclopedia of African American Society, of the approximately 30,000 cowboys in the Old West from 1866 to 1896, between 5,000 and 9,000 were African-American. “It’s been left out of the history books,” Alford Jr. said. “People are surprised it existed, but it did. I think the story is being told now.”

Kari Barber, who grew up in Oklahoma but never knew about the all-black towns, is now helping to tell those stories through a documentary film about the towns and the people who live in them.  Barber, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, said she first learned about the towns after reading a tiny blurb about an actress staring in a production of “Oklahoma!” who was from one of the historic communities.

“That was the first I ever heard of it,” she said. “That’s when I realized this really interesting part of history that’s also really important in terms of people having a sense of the true history of the state that includes all people, this whole part was missing. I thought it’s not only interesting and fun but also really important.”

The documentary, called “Struggle and Hope,” is set to be released next year. Barber, who started researching for the film in 2012, said the national outrage over police treatment of black Americans and widespread concern over race relations have led to more interest in the documentary. She said she hopes this is a sign that Americans are re-evaluating the contributions of all people to better understand each other.

Townspeople often volunteer to help with the community’s upkeep, Barber noted, and some officials work on a volunteer basis.

“The towns are run by people who love their towns so much — even if they’re old, even if they’re sick, even if they don’t have any money themselves — they work hard to mow the grass and clean the buildings and take care of their town themselves,” she said. “Those of us who live in big cities or cities don’t have to do that. We just rely on other people to take care of it. We don’t think of it as our social responsibility to take care of these places, and those people do.”

Related News

Race & Ethnicity

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Race & Ethnicity

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter