Eric Standridge is a historian and author who focuses on Oklahoma's history, with an emphasis on LeFlore County and Poteau.
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 1830s.
Though it's not commonly discussed, 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 continued. 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 1800s. 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 1920s, 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.
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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 for 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 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.
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.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2017 Eric Standridge
Pat Burroughs on June 03, 2020:
Doctor Montgomery was our vet from the start, before I ever married. My husband and I always took our pets to him after we married. He was one of the finest people I have ever known and I considered him a friend till the day he died. Poteau was so blest to have him and his family living there.
Marlea Evans on May 15, 2018:
I am the filmmaker of the piece marked below, in several versions. But thank you, Eric for detailing a bit of the history. My father was hired as superintendent after integration was decided...I was barely a teen and did not understand much of history, except that I was proud our school was integrated. We got flack in the family for both sides. We were hated for being on the side of integration; having my friend Claud Evans in our house was considered "not done." And we were criticized for not doing enough for integration. Alpheus Varner and Fox Wood families welcomed the Montgomery family when they arrived, though some did not. The loss of the black teachers was terrible, but I think part of the deal made by the board. We can all wish things had been different. I am just proud that I captured some of the Montgomery family story in a part of the world known as "Little Dixie."
Jack Gatewood on February 07, 2018:
I remember those days very well. I was in my Dad's office one day when the Dunbar principal, (Mr. Collins?) Dad's friend, came in. My Dad asked him what he though of Dunbar closing. The Black principal said, I know one man who is going to lose his job. He looked unhappy. As a young teen, I didn't get to hear the rest of the conversation.
Eric Standridge (author) from Oklahoma on December 17, 2017:
It is an over-simplification, however, to write the full story would easily turn this article into a novel. Segregation was a sad period in United States history, and we still feel the ramifications of it even today.
Really, this is just a brief glance in to one small portion of a small areas history.
In Poteau, from all of the accounts that I've found, the response was overall positive. However, going back into the town's history, it wasn't always that way. I have heard stories even as late as the 1940's that breaks my heart to hear; even some in the area up through the 1980's.
Jodi Morris on December 17, 2017:
I appreciate drawing attention to Poteau's history but the article oversimplifies the history of segregation on several points. Segregation was wide spread nationally, with segregation of U.S. armed forces and major league baseball being two examples. Segregation of access for African Americans in the South was most prominant but other races, ethnicities and religiious and linguistic minorities were often segregated also. The Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision did not mandate segregation but allowed it if "equal" accomodation was provided separately. Northern states did pass laws saying you could not segregate schools strictly based on race, but created school zones with boundaries that created defacto segregation in neighborhoods segregated by cultural, financial and real estate practices. Nothing is said about white reaction to integration in Poteau. Closing Dunbar did not guarantee acceptance into the white school. Finally the loss of jobs for black teachers due to integration affected thousands of African American educators.