· · · OKLAHOMA · · ·


Oklahoma’s Racial Boundaries

I have no doubt that today there are half a million people in the Indian Territory.… A small fraction are full-blooded Indians, another portion are mixed bloods, and a large share of them are white people who are members of the tribe simply by marriage or adoption.… Then, in connection with that, there are a number of negroes.


Oklahoma came close to being two states. The western half, whose residents were primarily white, would have been the state of Oklahoma. The eastern half, whose residents were primarily Indians, would have been the state of Sequoyah—named in memory of the Cherokee who had devised the first American Indian alphabet and, not, presumably, in memory of the fact that a pole had once been erected to display his head because of boundaries he had helped negotiate (see “Sequoyah” earlier in this book).

In addition, another effort was made to create a different racial boundary. When Indian lands were made available for settlement, a movement was initiated among African Americans to migrate to the new territory (named Oklahoma) in sufficient numbers to constitute a majority of the population. Had the effort succeeded, Oklahoma would have become, in effect, an African American state. But the movement triggered a countereffort to embed white supremacy in the Oklahoma constitution.

Proposed states of Oklahoma and Sequoyah

Green McCurtain, “Alfalfa Bill” Murray, and Edward P. McCabe were three of the principal participants in these different efforts to create, in effect, racial boundary lines. Of the three, only McCurtain, a Choctaw, was born and raised in present-day Oklahoma. At the time of his birth in 1848, Oklahoma was part of a region known as the Indian Territory. The Indian Territory was not composed of U.S. citizens with a governor appointed by the president but rather of American Indian reservations, each with its own tribal leadership. McCurtain was forty-four, married, and treasurer of the Choctaw government when his career was profoundly altered by events in Washington. Aspiring settlers seeking land in the West had been pressuring Congress to open up unassigned lands in the western half of the Indian Territory. Americans rich and poor, along with railroads and other corporations, recognized the opportunities available with this land. “Fully a hundred thousand people are intending to rush into Oklahoma, as soon as it is opened for settlement,” the Atchison Daily Champion reported in February 1889. As arrangements with the tribes were completed, the gates opened, and settlers poured into the new Territory of Oklahoma.

Chief Green McCurtain (1848-1910) (photo credit 40.1)

McCurtain first surfaced in outside news accounts as a result of his tribe’s agreement with the federal government. The Choctaw Nation bore little resemblance to the tribe that had arrived from Mississippi some sixty years before, as could be gleaned from an 1891 Dallas Morning News article on the land transfer: “Some of the members [of the Choctaw Council] could not speak Choctaw and some could not speak English.… Appointed delegates to Washington to watch the interests of the Choctaws … are Gov. W. N. Jones, Treasurer Green McCurtain, and Thomas D. Ainsworth.”

The final paragraph of the same news item contained an omen regarding the state of Sequoyah: “It is frequently suggested that the Five Civilized Tribes [the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles] should form a federation for their mutual protection. This is not likely to be done for some time on account of local jealousies. When it is done it will be too late, and only precipitate the transfer of that country to the control of the whites.”

As it happened, the Five Tribes set aside their jealousies less than two years later when Congress added a clause to its 1893 appropriation for the Office of Indian Affairs. Inserted into the bill in the last few hours before Congress adjourned, the amendment gave the consent of the United States for tribes to divide and deed their lands to individual members. In addition, those Indians who acquired ownership of their share of land would become citizens of the United States. The option was accepted with virtually no debate.

The seemingly benign amendment regarding land deeds enabled a geographic shift of politically epic proportions. Transferring ownership of Indian land from a tribe to its members would shift the authority to sell the land. From the perspective of Indian leaders, such a shift would be nothing short of divide and conquer.1 In 1896 McCurtain, now the elected chief of the Choctaw Nation, called for a convention of the Five Tribes to plan their opposition. When they met in November of that year, the delegates ultimately agreed to relinquish their tribal form of government and to divide their lands among each tribe’s individual members—on condition that the Indian Territory be admitted as a state.

It was not a decision easily reached. Very few, in fact, of the delegates who voted in favor of the resolution fully agreed with it—including the man who had initiated the summit, Green McCurtain. “It has come to the point where the Indian must take a decisive step forward or forever be swallowed up and lose his identity,” he agreed, but he opposed the demand for immediate statehood. “Today the Choctaw Indian—and what I say applies equally to the other tribes—is not prepared to have a state or territorial government.… It will result in the red man being outvoted by the white occupants of the territory.”2 McCurtain preferred a gradual implementation of the land shift, to buy time for American Indians to learn how the levers of power worked in white America. Once acclimated, he hoped, Indians would be able to maintain their hold on those levers when the land transition was completed and statehood conferred.

Even that, he knew, was a huge hope, since those levers of power weren’t always securely fastened. When a proposal for Oklahoma statehood first came before Congress in 1905, the Dallas Morning News showed how they could become unhinged.

A circumstance in this statehood controversy worthy of remark is the beautiful faith of the Indians that Congress will redeem the promises … made as far back as 1839.… These agreements between the government and the Indians … were not intended to express a fixed policy for all future time but were designed to meet the exigencies of the period in which they were made.

McCurtain put it differently:

No Indian can get the better of a paleface.… Two Oklahoma palefaces once hunted in my camp. They spent the evening with me and over the fire.… Bill said, “Sam, let’s trade horses—my bay for your roan.”

“It’s a go,” Sam agreed. “Shake on it, partner.”

They shook hands. Then Bill said with a loud laugh, “I’ve bested ye this time. My hoss is dead. Died yesterday.”

“So’s mine,” Sam said, “Died this morn’n. And what’s more, I’ve took his shoes off.”3

Despite his misgivings, when the Sequoyah Convention for statehood was convened in August 1905, McCurtain joined in, serving as one of its vice presidents. A fellow vice president, representing the Chickasaw Nation, was William H. Murray, soon to be widely known as “Alfalfa Bill” for his urging Oklahomans to grow alfalfa. Murray, however, was not of Chickasaw descent. Born to a poor family in Toadsuck, Texas in 1869, he had arrived in the Indian Territory in 1897 as a young lawyer and became involved in the successful election campaign of Chickasaw governor Douglas Johnston. Not long after, he married Johnston’s niece—a social event in Indian society which so emulated white high society that Oklahoma’s Daily Ardmoreite headlined the wedding announcement as “Prominent Young Attorney Secures a Chickasaw Queen.”

Though Murray was a fellow vice president at the Sequoyah Convention, he privately doubted the effort would succeed. He was not alone. “There is not the faintest chance to get the Indian Territory admitted separately,” Idaho’s Daily Statesman asserted. “If it were necessary to create a state where Indians would exercise such great influence the experiment might be tried, but in this case it is not necessary and the country will never consent.” Murray, for his part, was not aiming to create an Indian state. His goal was to organize future voters in the Indian Territory in order to strengthen that constituency in the future state Murray anticipated—one that would combine the Oklahoma Territory and the Indian Territory.4

“Alfalfa Bill” Murray (1869-1956) (photo credit 40.2)

The effort to create a state of Sequoyah was ultimately torpedoed by President Theodore Roosevelt. “I recommend that Indian Territory and Oklahoma be admitted as one state,” he had told Congress in his 1905 State of the Union message. That the boundaries of the Indian Territory would thereby be obliterated did not concern him. “There is no obligation,” he told Congress, “to treat territorial subdivisions, which are matters of convenience only.”

With the president endorsing a state that combined the two territories, the action moved to the Oklahoma statehood convention in Guthrie in 1906. At this venue, the delegates elected “Alfalfa Bill” as the convention president. Murray’s opening address praised Green McCurtain and the other chiefs as “great men,” then went on to paint the colors, as it were, of the state he foresaw. “We must provide the means for the advancement of the negro race, and accept him as God gave him to us and use him for the good of society,” he declared. “As a rule, they are failures as lawyers, doctors and in other professions. He must be taught in line with his own sphere as porters, bootblacks, and barbers.… It is an entirely false notion that the negro can rise to the equal state of a white man.”

While many states had enacted Jim Crow laws, Murray sought to embed white supremacy in the Oklahoma constitution. Other white delegates disagreed—not with Murray’s racial views, but with the political wisdom of including them in a constitution that would require approval by Congress and the signature of President Roosevelt. Ultimately, the delegates, including Murray, opted to avoid a confrontation. They contented themselves with a resolution stating “it is the sense of this body that separate coaches and waiting rooms be required for the negro race … [but] consider this a legislative matter rather than a constitutional question.”

Oklahoma became a state on November 16, 1907. On the legislature’s opening day, it enacted Senate Bill No. 1, mandating segregated railroad coaches and waiting rooms as its first order of business.

In thus privileging white people, Oklahoma faced the issue of its red people, whose political support was essential, given the state’s demographics. Anticipating this need, the Oklahoma constitution included a section devoted to the definition of race. “Wherever in this Constitution and laws of this state, the word or words, ‘colored,’ ‘colored race,’ ‘negro,’ or ‘negro race’ are used,” Article 23 stated, “the same shall be construed to mean or apply to all persons of African descent. The term ‘white race’ shall include all other persons.” Legally speaking, American Indians were now white people in Oklahoma.

Edward P. McCabe was one of several thousand African Americans who had migrated to Oklahoma since the 1890s. Most of these settlers were from the South, seeking economic opportunity and escape from persecution. Unfortunately for them, many poor Southern whites (such as Murray) had also migrated to Oklahoma for economic opportunity.

Compared to Murray, McCabe came from an economically advantaged background. Born in Troy, New York, in 1850, he had been raised in Newport, Rhode Island, and educated at a boarding school in Maine. As a young man, he became an attorney in Chicago and then moved to Kansas where, in 1882, he became the first African American elected to state office, serving as the Kansas auditor.

McCabe became involved in the Topeka-based Oklahoma Immigration Association, part of the larger movement to encourage African American migration to Oklahoma. In 1890 he himself relocated there and, with landowner Charles Robbins, founded the town of Langston. He started a newspaper, the Langston City Herald, which trumpeted the town’s existence as “a Negro city.”5 Other newspapers sounded a bugle: “The blacks, it appears, are preparing themselves to try the experiment, not merely of the equality, but of the supremacy of their race,” the New York Times alerted its readers in March of that year. It warned that a “secret society of negroes which has undertaken this work in Oklahoma has a candidate of its own for the Governorship of the Territory.” Though there was no secret society, there was such a candidate, and he was Edward P. McCabe. With the imminent creation of the Oklahoma Territory, McCabe had gone to Washington at the behest of the Oklahoma Immigration Association to seek support for his appointment as governor. “There is much bitterness over the candidacy of Edward P. McCabe, colored, for governor of [the Oklahoma] Territory,” the Times reported, citing an unnamed Oklahoman who “declares emphatically that if President Harrison appoints McCabe governor, the latter will be assassinated.”

Opposition to McCabe’s appointment—and to an African American—majority state—was not, however, universal. “A partial solution of the Southern negro question … is now at hand,” Chicago Tribune columnist William H. Thomas wrote. “A governor is soon to be appointed to preside over [the Oklahoma Territory] and a reliable, capable colored man should be placed in that position. That would mean a home for the colored man in the South.”

Edward P. McCabe (1850-1920) (photo credit 40.3)

President Benjamin Harrison, concerned with the potential for violence, ultimately chose a man with military experience, former Indiana congressman George W. Steele, to be governor of the Oklahoma Territory. Even after this appointment, however, articles in the press continued to sound alarms about a conspiracy to make Oklahoma a black-majority state. “Few people here seem to realize the possibility of Oklahoma becoming a Negro State,” a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune told its readers in 1891, “so quietly, yet so constantly, have the blacks been coming into the territory.” (In point of fact, the African American population in the territory was less than 9 percent.)6

A New York Times editorial in 1892, entitled “Not Ready for Statehood,” joined the chorus of concern. “Oklahoma contains more conflicting elements than does any other Territory in the Union,” it began. “With allotment comes citizenship to the Indian, ill prepared for the privileges that go with that state.… Then comes the negro race, which is a considerable factor in Oklahoma, a factor determined to maintain its rights according to its own peculiar ideas.”

The Chicago Tribune noted that Oklahoma’s racial conflicts were not as simple as white people versus red and black. “Another cause for excitement,” it commented in September 1891, “is the hatred of the Indians for the negro.… They know that they themselves cannot prevent the negroes from settling on the land, but they hint in unmistakable terms that they will make it very uncomfortable for the ‘black man’ if he settles among them.”

The racial boundary between African Americans and American Indians was, in fact, even more complicated. Prior to the Civil War, some wealthy members of the Five Civilized Tribes had been slave owners—these slave owners typically being of mixed Indian-white descent. On the other hand, runaway slaves frequently took refuge among these same tribes, and (further blurring the boundary) intermarried, resulting in a growing population of African American Indians.7

Oklahoma’s part-white Indians and part-black Indians had separate misgivings about the influx of African American settlers. Part-black Indians feared the influx might cause “pure” Indians to discriminate against their tribal claims, particularly claims of land allotments. Indeed, the Chickasaws did create a “colored committee” to determine the validity of tribal claims by part-black Chickasaws, with none other than “Alfalfa Bill” Murray among its panelists. At the other end of the spectrum, part-white Indians were concerned that the influx of African Americans might negatively impact their own tenuous status with the white ruling class.

Oklahoma’s statehood convention in 1906–7 marked the success of the combined opposition of whites and American Indians over African Americans. Soon after statehood became official, Edward McCabe returned to Chicago. There, however, he immediately set his sights on undermining Oklahoma Senate Bill No. 1 by suing the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway for not providing equal accommodations for black passengers. He lost, but his appeal of the decision eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. He lost there, too. During these defeats, McCabe’s extraordinarily energetic career began running out of steam. By 1911 Oklahoma’s Ada News reported that he had become a waiter in a Chicago area restaurant. He died quietly in 1920, so quietly that the event appears to have been noted only in the city where he was buried. “Mr. McCabe was a highly educated scholarly gentleman,” the Topeka Plaindealer wrote. “He never bartered or catered to the white man the rights of the colored race and always stood up for his people. For this we reverence and honor his name.… It is to be regretted that he died in needy circumstance and a charge on the public.”

Green McCurtain’s career had sputtered to an end as well. In 1910 Congress investigated charges of bribery involving McCurtain. He testified that he had ultimately rejected the bribe, and no evidence to the contrary was found. He passed away later that year. A wire-service obituary sent to newspapers nationwide began, “Green McCurtain, chief of the tribe of Choctaws Indians, who sprang a sensation before a congressional committee by swearing he had been offered one-fourth of the profits of a $10,000,000 deal after the sale of Indian lands, died yesterday. He was 62 years of age.” Fourteen paragraphs followed, all dealing exclusively with the bribery accusation.8

“Alfalfa Bill” Murray’s career did not sputter. He went on to become an Oklahoma congressman and governor. Upon his death in 1956, a wire-service obituary also appeared in newspapers nationwide. “William H. (Alfalfa Bill) Murray, one of the principal framers of Oklahoma’s constitution … died today at the age of 86,” it began, going on to recount his career as governor, his short-lived presidential bid in 1932, his feud with President Franklin Roosevelt over “constitutional safeguards of liberty,” and the election of his son, Johnston, as Oklahoma governor in 1950.9

These contrasting obituaries sum up the complex racial boundaries that came into conflict with the emergence of Oklahoma. The result of that conflict, however, was not complex. The whites won.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!