Stories of the Ages: Endangered black history — Boley. State's "crown jewel" needs help to regain sparkle

Boley needs help to regain sparkle

Street scene of Oklahoma Avenue in Guthrie in November 1937.
Street scene of Oklahoma Avenue in Guthrie in November 1937.

The Oklahoman Archives

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GUTHRIE — Tool through downtown Guthrie, and you may think that you've gone back in time.

The buildings are a stunning mix of styles: Victorian, Romanesque, Beaux Arts, Neo-Classical and Italianate, among others.

Most are beautifully preserved or restored, housing restaurants, hotels and other businesses. Take away the modern cars and stoplights, and for at least a four-block stretch, the city looks much as it did in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Guthrie was, of course, once the most significant location in Oklahoma Territory.

When the day of the main land run dawned in 1889, the town was home to only a few railroad workers, a railway stop and a federal land office, where people were required to register their land claims.

By nightfall, thousands of settlers had made their way to the town.

"Within days, Guthrie morphed into a huge tent city dominating the landscape," according to the Oklahoma Territorial Museum's website. "Just as quickly, wooden buildings replaced the tents that spread across the hills along the Cottonwood Creek. Guthrie became one of the largest cities west of the Mississippi."

Initially, Guthrie was four towns: Guthrie, East Guthrie, West Guthrie and Capitol Hill. Each had its own mayor and rules until the towns formally merged in 1890.

A group of men outside J.W. Matthews' pool hall and barber shop in Guthrie, date unknown.
A group of men outside J.W. Matthews' pool hall and barber shop in Guthrie, date unknown.

Photo courtesy of Oklahoma Territorial Museum

That year, Guthrie became the territorial capital, a status it held until statehood in 1907. Weighty buildings, formed of stone and brick, sprung up downtown, including the Ragsdale Bank, a hardware store and a sizable railway station.

A 2001 National Historic Landmarks Survey notes that a water works system was up and running within two months of the land run, and electric lights were installed within four months.

Over the years, blacks settled primarily on the west side of the city, in an area that came to be known as "Little Africa" or "The Elbow," said historian Currie Ballard. The community, centered on Ninth Street south of Noble Avenue, was the hub of black residences and businesses.

Three children - Nellie, Ollie, and William J. Matthews - in this studio portrait taken in Guthrie, Oklahoma Territory, circa 1900.
Three children - Nellie, Ollie, and William J. Matthews - in this studio portrait taken in Guthrie, Oklahoma Territory, circa 1900.

Photo courtesy of Western History Collections, University of Oklahoma Libraries, Guthrie Public Library Collection 6

In a 1938 interview, part of the Works Progress Administration's pioneer history project, Clyde Stanley Hyde recalled the city's early days.

"Over in what is now The Elbow colored district, but was then just open land, was a soldiers' camp, located about where the mills are now," said Hyde, who was white. "One day in '90, a soldier, Harry Simms, was over on the school section, and not thinking of the danger set a can on top of the magazine ... and shot at the can. The shot went low, hitting the magazine.

"What happened is well remembered by many early day folks, including myself. The magazine went up in the air, scattering cans, pulverized rock and dirt, with a terrible blast which shook the city of Guthrie as it had not been before nor has since been shaken."

In the interview, available online through the University of Oklahoma Libraries, Hyde mentions two black businessmen, including "Hot Tamale" Mason, who sold — you guessed it — tamales at the corner of Second Street and Harrison.

That intersection "was the crossroads of Oklahoma," Hyde said, "and there on the northwest corner was the well-known Reaves Saloon and gambling house. The Blue Bell Saloon was directly across the street east. To the north was Waley Ong's Chinese Cafe. ... In the same block was Frink and Himself's Cafe. Frink, a colored man, fed ‘whites only' and the higher ups of the town patronized him."

In 1892, the Prince Hall Masons established a lodge in Guthrie, making it the first place for black Freemasons in the territory. The fraternal group takes it name from Prince Hall, co-founder of the first black lodge in the country and its grand master until his death in 1807.

Ballard, like many historians, says Hall was born a free man in Barbados; others say he was a freed Boston slave.

Whatever the case, he was an early abolitionist who paved the way for blacks to participate in freemasonry, supporting civic activities and raising money to help members of the community. (Ultimately Oklahoma's black masons would build a temple in Boley.)

"When you joined the Masons, you obtained a burial policy so that when a loved one would pass, the interment would be taken care of, which was a neat thing to the black community," said Ballard, who is a nonpracticing Mason. "What that did was prevent the families from literally having to pass the hat at church trying to bury someone."

By the end of the 1890s, segregation largely had been established by territorial policies, but the temperature of that issue soared in the years leading up to statehood.

By 1906, when delegates to the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention met in Guthrie to establish Oklahoma as a state, segregation was a flash point.

"The Democratic Party promised to separate the races, and with that as a central part of its platform, it ultimately secured an overwhelming majority of the delegates at Guthrie," Jimmie Lewis Franklin wrote in the Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture.

"Led by the Negro Press Association, blacks waged a determined battle to defeat the forces of segregation but could not overcome the pro-southern sentiment that had taken root in the territories.

"The politicians at the convention wanted to redeem the commitment to keep the races apart in all areas of social life, but Republican Pres. Theodore Roosevelt had threatened to veto Oklahoma statehood if that took place. The spirit of the constitutional convention echoed in the racial language of its leader, William ‘Alfalfa Bill' Murray, who exclaimed that blacks would always remain bootblacks, barbers, and farmers."

Statehood was official in November 1907. Guthrie became the state capital and held that distinction until 1910, when a statewide vote was held to determine which city should be the capital. Oklahoma City, with a population roughly six times higher than Guthrie's, won. The state's first law established segregation as official government policy.

Group of children and their teacher in music class in Guthrie, date unknown. The photo possibly highlights some kind of pageant.
Group of children and their teacher in music class in Guthrie, date unknown. The photo possibly highlights some kind of pageant.

Photo courtesy of Western History Collections, University of Oklahoma Libraries, Guthrie Public Library Collection 6.

"Everything was separate," Ballard said. "Everything! All aspects of life were separate in this state. That's a lot of energy to build two sets of bathrooms, two sets of water pipes. A lot of expense."

Guthrie's growth stabilized after statehood, although blacks continued to play a significant role. The Sanitarium was established as the state's second black hospital, and black schools thrived. The city's first black library opened its doors in 1908.

For a time between 1915 and the early 1940s, Guthrie was home to Claver College, one of only two black Catholic colleges in the country, Ballard said. Named after Peter Claver, the patron saint of slaves and blacks, the school apparently occupied rented buildings in Guthrie, although no one knows precisely where. The college was founded by Sister Katharine Mary Drexel, a Pennsylvania banking heiress who also created Xavier University of Louisiana, another black school. Drexel was canonized on Oct. 1, 2000.

Claver College is intriguing in its obscurity. Ballard found a graduate, Anderson Tipton, who went on to serve as a principal in the Guthrie school system. Ballard obtained two report cards and a graduation booklet — the only known artifacts from the school. Without those, Claver could've disappeared from history.

Currie Ballard talks about Claver College in Guthrie, Oklahoma. It was one of only two black, catholic university in the U.S.

Video produced by Paige Dillard

Guthrie's black history is growing obscured by time. The Elbow, for one, no longer is accessible.

"It was built on a flood plain," Ballard said, "and the city of Guthrie ... finally condemned that area. You can't even get to it now."

At least, you can't get to it easily. Nathan Turner, director of the Territorial Museum and Historic Carnegie Library, trekked into The Elbow in 2001.

Nature already had reclaimed much of the community.

"It was wild," Turner recalled. "It was interesting. You could see the streets. Everything was grown over, and a lot of the buildings had fallen down. The park was still there with a swing set. It had a pavilion area. You could see where some homeless people had been there. It was eerie. It was like that show on A&E, ‘Life After People.' ... It was shut down in the mid-70s, so it's 30-some years of growth."

Fortunately, Guthrie has a long memory, and Turner's museum has extensive records of the city's past — white and black. Guthrie's future looks bright.

What to see

As anyone who has visited Guthrie can tell you, there's plenty to see and do. Explore the historic downtown area, which is dotted with boutiques and restaurants. Pop into one or all of the city's museums, including the State Capitol Publishing Museum, the OK Frontier Drugstore Museum and Apothecary Garden, the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame Guthrie Annex and Owen's Art Place Museum. Attend a play at the Pollard Theatre or solve a murder mystery at one of the city's bed-and-breakfasts. Time your visit to coincide with a city event, such as the Guthrie Art Walk (April and November) or the International Bluegrass Festival (first weekend in October).

Take time out to visit black history sites as well. These include:

Excelsior Library

In 1908, the first black library in Oklahoma and the Southwest opened in Guthrie, receiving partial funding from the city. It was founded by Judith Carter Horton, who served as librarian for 11 years before taking a teaching job at a local black high school. The original two-story building was torn down, replaced by a brick structure that is now used for art instruction.

A marker stands outside the building at 323 S 2nd St. It reads, in part, "A graduate of Overland College, Mrs. Horton stated in her solicitation of funds: ‘The opening of these channels of instruction and activity will be fraught with inestimable good to our race by keeping our boys and girls off the streets, away from the haunts of idleness and vice, to say nothing of its economic value in teaching principles of industry and thrift.' The library was adopted as an official Guthrie branch library after two years of operation."

A collection of images from a Faver High School Yearbook dated 1917.
A collection of images from a .1917 Faver High School yearbook. Faver, Guthrie's black high school for more than half of the 20th Century, is now an alternative school. The yearbook is part of the Currie Ballard Collection at the Oklahoma History Center

Photos by Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman

Faver High School

Guthrie's black high school graduated its first class in 1906, Turner said. Six years later, classes began at a building on Grant Street.

The school building was donated by a county commissioner, Stonewall J. Faver, for whom the school was named. Classes continued there until 1951, when the school moved into its current location in the 1000 block of E Perkins.

It remained a black school until May 1967, when its final commencement was held. After that, all schools integrated. Faver is now an alternative school in the Guthrie school system.

Prentiss Hall, 78, graduated from Faver in 1951.

Hall was a lineman on the Faver Pirates football team, which practiced each Thursday in the Guthrie Bluejays stadium.

"When we came to practice," he said, "they (white players) stopped and watched. They were somewhat amazed at what we did with one man that it took two or three of them to do. We won the championship in 1951. We were undefeated."

Black students understood that they could have attended the white school as early as the late 1940s, Hall said.

"We could've gone there if we had pushed the matter," he said. "It wasn't official, but the sentiment was there and you felt as if you could go."

Hall, who said he rarely felt discriminated against in Guthrie, spent his early years in The Elbow. "It was just everyday living," he said, "same as it was anywhere else. When the water was coming up, when there was going to be a flood, you had to come out and move to high ground."

Territorial Museum and Carnegie Library

The museum boasts an impressive black history collection, including family histories and job records. The African-American Experience in Oklahoma Territory exhibit tells the story of black settlers, businesses and women. Its focus is on the territorial years through statehood, Turner said, and it is available as a traveling exhibit.

The Carnegie Library was established in 1902. It received funding from Andrew Carnegie, a wealthy steel manufacturer from Pennsylvania.

Plans were made to tear it down to make way for a new library in 1972, but a patron stepped in and offered to build the museum next door if the city agreed not to destroy the library. It is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

With its rotunda, carved wood and antique features, it's a handsome bit of history.

Share your memories of and thoughts on preserving Oklahoma's black history

Over the next month, as The Oklahoman and NewsOK explore key places and events in Oklahoma's black history, we would like to invite you to share your thoughts and memories.

How should these sites be preserved? How can Oklahoma's black history be shared with others in the future? What historical events do you remember?

Please email featuresdesk@opubco.com with your thoughts, opinions and ideas, or leave a comment below. We plan to use reader comments in a story at the end of this project.