Desegregation in Oklahoma: The First School in Oklahoma to Be Integrated
Slavery, Freedmen, and Southeast Oklahoma
The first black slaves began to arrive in what would become Oklahoma long before the American Civil War. They arrived during the push for westward migration. As the wild frontier began to dwindle, many white cotton farmers began to seek land in the American Southeast, primarily within the Mississippi River Valley.
This was already the home of many Native Americans from the Five Civilized Tribes. As more pressure was put on the federal government to open more land, the government began to force the Native Americans from their lands. This eventually led to the Indian Removals of the 1830’s.
Not commonly thought of, many of these Native Americans owned slaves. During the Choctaw Trail of Tears and other removals, the Native Americans brought those slaves with them.
Many settled in what is now LeFlore County. Large plantations began to spring up across the countryside, most of which were worked by black men, women, and children. While most people associate slavery with the Deep South, a form of slavery existed within the tribes. This was closer to indentured servitude, however, bondage is bondage. These workers would spend the entire day taking care of the crops and other menial tasks, which provided a huge profit for their “owners”.
When the American Civil War broke out, it divided the Indian Territory. This was a time of great unrest, where lawlessness abounded and fortunes were lost. Because the Indian Territory was not governed by the United States, it became a place filled with bandits and outlaws, especially following the civil war.
Separate but Equal in Oklahoma
Following the civil war, things settled down somewhat, however, the practice of indentured servitude was still practiced. The U.S. Federal Government forced the Native Americans to abolish slavery. They were then required to grant the former black slaves citizenship. While this helped, most of the “freedmen” were still poor and highly untrained. Because of this, many freedmen remained working for their former owners.
Across the country, many freedmen began immigrating in to what would become Oklahoma Territory. Some of these also made their way into Indian Territory in search of a better life.
In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court made a proclamation that all facilities must be “Separate but Equal”. This created a major rift between white, black, and Native American. As the railroads arrived in Indian Territory, they were required to have two separate entrances, one for white and one for black. While many of the Native Americans were accepted into “white culture”, those with dark colored skin were not.
They began forming their own towns, such as the “Black Wallstreet” in Tulsa. Most of these towns were near the white settlements, but still set apart. The remnants of one such town can still be seen in Okmulgee. The “white” settlement centered around Sever’s Block on 8th street. Just down the road was the old Creek Capital building. Towards the north was an old shanty-town that consisted of the majority of the black population. Today, the black hospital and a couple other buildings still remain.
The First Desegregated School in Oklahoma
In Poteau, the white settlement was centered on Broadway, between College and Flener streets. The largest black population worked for a Native American by the name of Benjamin H. Harper. At the time, the area where the current downtown district is was a large cotton plantation. After the railroads moved in, Mr. Harper sold his land for a small fortune. This left the black population with nowhere to go.
Because the road between the KCS and Frisco railroad lines was beginning to thrive, the black population began building east of the KCS tracks. Today, not much is left of the old black town. One of the most important landmarks is the Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist Church. This church is located at 1312 Clayton Avenue. While the modern church was established in 1999, the building dates back to the late 1800’s. The congregation is still predominantly black.
In 1907, Oklahoma officially became a state. During the negotiations for statehood, tense battles took place over the Supreme Courts mandate of “Separate but Equal”. Eventually, a compromise was met. However, that still called for separate schools for black students.
The first all-black school opened in Poteau in 1914. P. J. Carter was the only teacher there and the school consisted of 10 children. This was a sturdy built building and remained in use for many years. By the early 1920’s, there were as many as 40 students attending here at a time. With this rapid growth, it was evident that a new building was needed.
The original building was torn down and a new, larger rock building was erected in its place. The school was named in honor of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Mr. Dunbar was the first influential black poet in American literature. Not only was he an inspired writer, but he was also one of the first black men to transcend the “separate but equal” policies. He was an inspiration to much of the black generations that followed him.
This all changed in 1954 with the Brown vs. Board of Education in Topeka ruling. This was a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that declared state laws establishing separate schools were unconstitutional. Prior to this, most of the traditionally southern states in the southeast quadrant of the United States required schools to be separate. In most of the northern states it was forbidden. Those to the north and west of Oklahoma essentially had no legislation, or it was optional. The Supreme Court case made it illegal all across the United States.
In 1955 Poteau became the first state school district in Oklahoma to announce that it would integrate. Veterinarian John Montgomery, a graduate of the Tuskegee Institute, spearheaded the integration policy and led the area's civil rights movement. The Poteau Daily News featured headline story ran as follows:
Poteau's Dunbar Students Will Be Integrated
Poteau, April 6 - All 25 Negro students at Poteau's Dunbar elementary school will be integrated with three white grade schools next autumn.
Superintendant G. E. Evans said the Board of Education voted unanimously to close the Negro school. Poteau was the first town in Oklahoma to desegregate its high school students.
The integration will include the junior college here, also operated by the board.
Two Negro teachers, Mr. and Mrs. James Collins, will lose their jobs in the switch. They did not file formal applications for jobs because there are no vacancies in the elementary grades, Evans said.
Poteau’s Dunbar School was shut down soon after. Today, the property that it was on now belongs to The Oaks nursing home. Dunbar Park, two blocks west of where Dunbar School was, is the only testament to the old all-black school in Poteau.
When you're blessed to have an opportunity to make a change for the better, then you ought to do it.” - Dr. John Montgomery
Although the information contained here came from a variety of sources, most comes from The Birth of Poteau, Poteau Public School Archives, Interviews with residents, Dr. Montgomery, and early written interviews and accounts.
© 2017 Eric Standridge