Endangered Black History - Langston stays vital in Oklahoma's heritage

Langston, a historically black community, remains an important piece of Oklahoma's heritage.

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Bruce Fisher, administrative programs officer at the Oklahoma History Center.
Bruce Fisher, administrative programs officer at the Oklahoma History Center.

Photo by Paul B. Southerland, The Oklahoman

LANGSTON — From a distance, Langston University could pass for a casino; little else on this lonesome stretch of State Highway 33 stands as tall or sprawls as far. But Langston has no need for a casino: It's a gamble that's been paying off for more than 100 years.

Two men founded the township of Langston on April 22, 1890. Charles Robbins, who was white, owned the land, and Edward P. McCabe, who was black, owned the vision. The men had pragmatic concerns; as land developers, they wanted to make money. But McCabe, a former state auditor in Kansas, also saw in the territories an opportunity to improve standards of living for others of his race.

"African-Americans were looking for a place to come and have a better life," said Bruce Fisher, administrative programs officer at the Oklahoma History Center. "Life in the South was another form of slavery. Jim Crow laws were so oppressive."

At that point, blacks didn't live under segregation laws in Indian Territory. For decades, American Indian tribes had been relocated from their traditional lands to the area surrounding and including what would become Oklahoma. With them came about 2,000 black slaves, who were freed and granted land after the Civil War.

Sense of community

The Dawes Act of 1887 further reduced American Indian land holdings in the territories, ushering in the major land run of 1889. Langston was founded a year later, and by 1892, it was flourishing. More than two dozen businesses had opened, including a bank, and McCabe had started a newspaper. The black population swelled.

"McCabe encouraged them to come," Fisher said. "His thinking was that if we can get enough African-Americans to come to Oklahoma, then maybe we can have enough stock to influence people. … At one point, his idea was to appeal to the president to make it an all-black state."

Currie Ballard kneels beside a tombstone in Langston's Beulahland Cemetery in February 1999.
Currie Ballard kneels beside a tombstone in Langston's Beulahland Cemetery in February 1999.

Photo by Paul Hellstern, The Oklahoman

By 1905, Fisher said, blacks possessed about 1.5 million acres of land in the Oklahoma Territory.

"We owned more land here in Oklahoma than we did in total in the rest of the country," he said.

With the land came a sense of community and security, said black historian Currie Ballard. After Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups flourished in some Southern states — growing, Ballard said, "like weeds."

"You couldn't own property in some of those states," he said. "Blacks participated in all of the land runs in this state, all of them, and a town like Langston says, 'I can come here and own property. I can come here and educate my children through a public school system. … Eventually I've got a university. I've got my own town constable. I can vote for my own mayor and city trustees.' So this was a whole refreshing, different way of black people living."

Segregation's effect

At least, it was for awhile. The first law passed after statehood established segregation in Oklahoma. No longer could blacks go anywhere they wanted. They had to ride black-only buses, shop at black-only stores, use black-only restrooms.

Langston University grew out of this incipient racism. In order to qualify for federal funds, states with land grant colleges had to admit blacks or provide alternative educational opportunities. When a black woman attempted to enroll in Central State University in Edmond and was denied, Ballard said, it set the stage for blacks to demand their own college.

In 1897, the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal College — which would later become Langston University — was established in Langston.

"This institution was able to educate young black men and women primarily in two fields: teaching and agriculture," Ballard said. "It mirrored Oklahoma State University as far as curriculum."

The university's first president was Inman Page, an influential black educator, born into slavery, who was one of the first blacks to attend Brown University. During his 17 years in Langston, the student population increased from 40 to more than 600, according to the Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. A memorial marker stands on campus, not far from the Centennial Plaza, where visitors can see bronze busts of each Langston University president.

One of the early industrial shop classes at Langston University. The college started with four teachers, 41 students and 40 acres of land; within eight years, it had grown to 15 teachers, 160 acres and a main building that could hold 500 students. The university's fortunes wavered over the years, but it is now a vital school with a student population of about 4,000.
One of the early industrial shop classes at Langston University. The college started with four teachers, 41 students and 40 acres of land; within eight years, it had grown to 15 teachers, 160 acres and a main building that could hold 500 students. The university's fortunes wavered over the years, but it is now a vital school with a student population of about 4,000.

Photo provided

Among Langston's famous alums are Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher (Bruce Fisher's mother), the first black admitted to the University of Oklahoma's law school; Clara Luper, who led nonviolent protests at Oklahoma City drugstore lunch counters; Dr. Ernest Holloway, who as its president brought Langston University back from the edge of collapse; and Marques Haynes, one of the greatest basketball players of all time.

The following are some places and features to check out in Langston.

City of Langston

Bruce Fisher, administrative programs officer at the Oklahoma History Center.
Statue of John Mercer Langston, the black statesman for whom the town and university are named. The statue is on the Langston University campus.

Photo by David McDaniel, The Oklahoman

Langston takes its name from John Mercer Langston, a prominent 19th-century black abolitionist, lawyer, politician and public speaker.

The town and university have enjoyed disparate fortunes. The university is sparkling clean; it even has its own entrance directly off the highway.

The town, however, has not prospered. Abandoned homes and businesses dot the streets, and many of the occupied structures could use extensive repairs.

Some of the decline can be attributed, oddly enough, to the success of the civil rights movement.

"The price of integration," Fisher said, "is that it gave people so many choices that it became easier for them to drive the short distance to Guthrie, where they could shop at very nice stores. ... When they had the choice for better accommodations and cheaper prices, they went elsewhere."

On one street, a towering 1927 home is falling into disrepair; for generations, the family that owned it maintained the house, but now, with no local relatives left to care for it, the home looks forlorn and lost.

It's made even worse by proximity to another damaged structure across the street. That building, which Ballard calls the Canterbury House, originally was a boardinghouse for Langston students. For a time, it housed the Langston municipal government, but fire tore through the building years ago. It has not been repaired. Less than a football field away is Beulahland Cemetery, which holds the graves of former slaves and Civil War soldiers.

An odd side note: In documentation provided by the Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, Ballard discovered that Langston's first high school was founded by the Catholic church — in Europe.

"McCabe had written to Belgium," Ballard said, "and Belgian monks came to Langston ... (and) were instrumental in paving the way for educating my people in this territory. That's something that just kind of slipped through the cracks of history. ... It shocked me."

Melvin B. Tolson's home

Melvin B. Tolson, famed poet and scholar, seen here during his tenure as mayor of Langston.
Melvin B. Tolson, famed poet and scholar, seen here during his tenure as mayor of Langston.

Photo provided

A marker outside a weathered house identifies it as the home of Melvin B. Tolson, one of America's finest educators and poets. If you don't recognize his name, perhaps you'll remember Denzel Washington's portrayal of him in "The Great Debaters."

Under Tolson's guidance, debaters from Wiley College, a black school in Texas, took on teams at white universities — something that had never before happened.

The film highlights only that part of his career, but Tolson worked for 17 years at Langston University (from 1947-64) and was the town's mayor for three terms. He was poet laureate of the African republic of Liberia and director of Langston's Dust Bowl Theater.

"He shined like a new copper penny," Ballard said.

The marker at his house reads, in part: "Melvin B. Tolson, 1900 — 1966. A black poet lived here."

Currie Ballard talks about the impact of Melvin B. Tolson and the heritage center named in his honor.

Video produced by Paige Dillard

Indian Meridian marker

The Indian Meridian obelisk stands in the middle of a Langston intersection. It marks the Ozark trail, which settlers traveled more than 100 years ago, and is the point in Oklahoma from which all distances are measured. In the years since this photograph was taken, the paint pointing the way to Perkins has faded or chipped away.
The Indian Meridian obelisk stands in the middle of a Langston intersection. It marks the Ozark trail, which settlers traveled more than 100 years ago, and is the point in Oklahoma from which all distances are measured. In the years since this photograph was taken, the paint pointing the way to Perkins has faded or chipped away.

Photo by Paul Hellstern, The Oklahoman

A battered obelisk stands smack dab in the middle of the Washington and Logan intersection. Perhaps 25 feet tall, its once-white surface is pocked and chipped, a casualty of time and innumerable car crashes. It's unlit, you see, and many a driver, startled to see it looming out of the rural darkness, has collided with history.

"They've bumped it and bumped it," an observer once told The Oklahoman, "but they've never moved it."

The marker is worth seeing for its incongruence. In truth, though, it has a purpose: It's the spot from which all distances in Oklahoma are measured. And it has stood there since 1870.

Langston University

Even now, you can see the influence of Booker T. Washington on the Langston campus.

As the 20th century dawned, there were two competing educational philosophies at play in black schools. W.E.B. Dubois thought only 10 percent of blacks — the "Talented 10" — should be educated well enough to be leaders, Ballard said.

Washington had an opposing viewpoint: Educate everyone, but give them both a diploma and a trade.

"You would obtain your degree in accounting or business or teaching," Ballard said, "but you would also learn ... carpentry, cabinet finishing, brick masonry, stone masonry, roofing, plumbing or electrical work."

In 1937, Langston students literally built on Washington's ideas, constructing several cottages on campus. The cottages still stand. Students don't maintain them anymore; that task has fallen to the university.

The Melvin B. Tolson Black Heritage Center, established in 1970, holds more than 7,000 volumes, a collection of artifacts and other materials. Its three major research areas are African history, black history in the U.S. and blacks in the humanities and arts.

In part, it owes its existence to Ernest Holloway, a longtime Langston University president who died in December. Holloway instructed campus recruiters to keep an eye out for items of historical significance. That effort built the collection at the Heritage Center.

The university is renowned for its work with goats. The E (Kika) de la Garza Institute for Goat Research raises and studies Angora, meat and cashmere goats on pastureland away from the actual campus, with "special emphasis on the high-producing dairy goat," according to the university website.

The institute includes a 150-goat dairy, creamery, a field demonstration building and laboratory and office buildings. Special labs conduct milk, fiber and stable isotope analysis.

Cottages on the Langston University campus, as seen in January 2010.
Cottages on the Langston University campus, as seen in January 2010.

Photo by Steve Gooch, The Oklahoman

Full list of Black History Month events

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.

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