Thursday, May 26, 2011

In Search of Oklahoma Freedmen Landmarks

Source: Oklahoma Map Produced by:
Oklahoma Tourism & Recreation Department - Travel & Tourism Division 

 Most of the landmarks are gone. But---they were there--and should not be forgotten.

There were the old black towns.  Over two dozen of them were there at one time, and now today the few that remain are only a ghost of what they once were.  Boley the most well known of the towns, still exists.

Boley Oklahoma
Source: The Encyclopedia of African American Heritage

Towns like Boley, Tullahassee, and Red Bird, and Langston, are still around, but others like Foreman, Wybark, and Gibson Station are not.

Location of some black towns of Oklahoma

There were many institutions, yet nothing remains of the old Creek Seminole College for Freedmen.

The old Creek & Seminole College no longer exists, and nothing marks where this facility was.
Source: Archives & Manuscripts Division of the Oklahoma Historical Society

Near Valiant Oklahoma, there was a beautiful boarding school for Choctaw Freedmen called Oak Hill. Later changed to Elliott Academy, only a marker on the side of the road remains.

Image of Oak Hill Academy, for Choctaw Freedmen
Source: The Choctaw Freedmen, by Robert Flickinger 1914

State Historical Marker for Oak Hill Academy, now remembered as Elliott Academy stands near Valiant OK

Old Agency Cemetery--a sadly forgotton burial ground in the Creek Nation

Old Agency Cemetery, once a major burial ground for Creek Freedmen is now inaccessible, although thousands of people pass it daily on Highway 69 right outside of Muskogee.

Agency Cemetery as Seen from Highway 69 in Muskogee Oklahoma

However, should one venture into this sacred burial ground---amazing history is there. Creek leader, former soldier, tribal leader and well known attorney Sugar T. George is buried there.

At one time this 10 foot marble marker stood over the grave of Sugar T. George, Creek tribal leader. It now lies toppled over and on the ground,  unattended, unseen and long forgotten.

How startling to see the once beautiful marker over the grave site of Sugar T. George, ling on the ground.  This amazing Freedman leader, was a former tribal councilman who served in both the House of Warriors and the House of Kings in the Muscogee Creek Nation. He was also at one time, town king of North Fork Colored, and also served as superintendent of the Tullahassee Mission School for Creek Freedmen. 

A few feet away, another marker also bearing his name rests.

Original marker for Sugar George
Photos of Sugar George taken at Agency Cemetery by Tonia Holleman and Angela Walton-Raji

Not far from the entrance to the cemetery lies one of the oldest of the Creek Freedman leaders---Harry Island.

Pushed over on its back lies the dignified headstone of Harry Island official interpreter of the Creek Nation.

About a mile away from Old Agency is the Durant Family Cemetery---with the headstone of Rev. MondayDurant.  There is no access into the Durant Cemetery from the road and it is covered by thick brush. Maps of the city do indicate where this burial ground is located.  Even an aeriel view shows the cemetery, without entrance or access road.

Aerial view of Durant in Muskogee Oklahoma. There is no access to this burial ground

Thanks to the efforts of Sue Tolbert of Muskogee, images were captured of the headstone of the Rev. Monday Durant, who was also a leader in the Creek Nation. Image was taken several years ago, before the burial ground was consumed by the brush.

The grave site of Creek Leader, Monday Durant, Muskogee Oklahoma. 
Photo taken before neglect swallowed this historic site.
Photo courtesy of Sue Tolbert

Smaller landmarks are of course completely gone, such as tiny school in the Choctaw Nation, near Atoka, known as Salt Creek.

Salt Creek School
Source: Archives & Manuscripts Division of the Oklahoma Historical Society

 The beautiful Tullahassee Mission School was a Creek Freedman boarding school. In its earlier days it was a school for Creeks by blood and did not admit African Creeks. Then when abandoned by the priveleged Creeks it was a school for tribe's former slaves.  It later became Filpper Davis College owned and operated by the AME Church.  

Tullahassee Mission School in 1891

Source: Archives & Manuscripts Division of the Oklahoma Historical Society

However, today, only a marker tells part of the story.

Historical Marker near historical school

The Cherokee Colored High School

Six miles northeast of Tahlequah in an area known as Double Springs, there was the short lived Cherokee Colored High School. Located on the main road northwest of Tahlequah, the school was prevented from being located in Bartlesville when town citizens did not want a black school in their midst. It was therefore located near, but not in, Tahlequah. [A comprehensive history of the school was written in the 2010 issue of Voices of Indian Territory by Dr. James McCullagh of the University of North Iowa.] 

Today, one cannot find indication that the school ever existed. No historical marker can be found along highway 82, near Tahlequah. But thanks to Dr. McCullagh, a photo of the school accompanies the article.

Photo courtesy of Dr. James McCullagh, University of Northern Iowa

The school's history was written about in the Chronicle of Oklahoma.  

Early information about the Cherokee Colored High School

Sadly the school was burned in 1916 and nothing remains of its past.

Other Schools:

In 1909 a list of schools once supported by the Baptists was listed and for Indian Territory (which was by then, Oklahoma) two schools were listed: Sango Baptist Colleg (of which there is no image to be found), and Dawes Academy in Ardmore.

Partial List of Baptist Supported Schools 1909

All that remains of Dawes Academy are the steps behind Calvary Missionary  Baptist Church.

Steps of the Old Dawes Academy

Dawes Academy Steps in Perspective. Located in Ardmore OK at Calvary Baptist Church
Photos courtesy of Joyce Settles

So many rich stories yet nothing remains to show that such rich history took place on Oklahoma soil. Nothing reflects the schools, the burial sites, so many of the old towns.

Is there effort being made to tell their stories?  

One cannot expect anyone in Tahlequah to tell the story of the old high  school, with the political climate being what it is. But there are the descendants whose ancestors were educated there.  The legacy belongs to them--as well as to all Oklahomans.

In the Creek Nation, Sango College remains a dim memory mentioned occasionally on the faded pages of old journals, like that of Tullahassee Mission.

Choctaw Freedmen had Oak Hill, and Chickasaw Freedmen had Dawes Academy--yet, too they are gone and now forgotten. Seminole Freedmen and Creeks briefly had the college in Boley, but yet, there is no evidence upon the soil.

The history of black people in what is now Oklahoma, predates statehood. In fact the presence of African descended people began in the 1830s during the years of the removal. 

Slaves came, free people of color also came in smaller numbers.  After slavery officially ended in 1866, the black towns thrived for several decades.  Schools appeared on the landscape, but now, 100 years later, no historic landmarks speak out from the land. But African people lived on the soil and their home was the Choctaw Nation, the Chickasaw Nation, the Cherokee Nation the Muscogee Creek Nation, and the Seminole Nation.

We were there, and our history is part of the legacy of the Territory, the legacy of the Five Tribes, and the legacy of what is now Oklahoma.