Eagleson, William Lewis
William Lewis Eagleson
Editor, journalist, political activist
The immigration of African Americans to the Oklahoma territory, efforts to establish the all-black town, Langston City; and the founding of black newspapers in Kansas and Oklahoma were among William Eagleson's primary interests. He dabbled in politics as well, using his paper to promote black causes. Although he switched back and forth from Republican to Democratic party membership, it is doubtless Eagleson's chief interest was in finding the right niche to enable him to support his race.
Except that he was born a slave in St. Louis, Missouri, on August 9, 1835, the details of Eagleson's early life and his parents' names are unknown. Eagleson was trained as a barber and also learned the printer's trade early on, practicing both throughout his life. He lived in Illinois for a period of time, and in 1877 he relocated to Fort Scott, Kansas. In 1878 he founded the Colored Citizen, the first black-owned newspaper in Kansas. He was able to print the paper from an outdated press with second-hand type. Since Topeka had a burgeoning black population, he considered his chances for success much greater there; consequently, six months later he moved the paper to that city. Reverend T. W. Henderson, a prominent African Methodist Episcopal minister, became his associate editor.
Their newspaper was a strong advocate of black participation in the Republican party. Early on Eagleson had viewed Henderson with a political eye, but he was unsuccessful in his effort to have Henderson nominated for lieutenant governor. Now with a Republican victory in 1878, Eagleson stepped up his drive to put blacks in political office. As a result of the paper's strong appeal to black citizens, both Eagleson and Henderson soon had a chance at such activism themselves. Henderson was appointed chaplain of the House of Representatives—then controlled by the Republicans—and Eagleson became first assistant doorman. After the Colored State Emigration Board was organized to oversee the placement of refugees from the South, the men became prominent members of that board.
In 1879 or 1880, Eagleson suspended publication of the Colored Citizen and by January 30, 1880, he became editor of the Kansas Herald. Later on, for legal purposes, the paper was renamed the Herald of Kansas. He used the paper to tout the Republican party and also to call for racial unity. This activity may be what caused a disagreement between Eagleson and his conservative partner and resulted in the paper's demise on June 11 as well as an end to Eagleson's journalistic career.
- Born in St. Louis, Missouri on August 9
- Marries Elizabeth McKinney
- Founds the Colored Citizen
- Suspends publication of the Colored Citizen
- Helps organize Colored Men's State Convention; founds the Kansas Herald
- Becomes officer in Oklahoma Immigration Association
- Recruits blacks to Oklahoma Territory; publishes the Langston City Herald
- Becomes president of the Colored Men's Independent League
- Becomes messenger to governor of Kansas
- Dies in Topeka, Kansas on June 22
Eagleson continued his work to support the black cause. In 1880 he helped organize the Colored Men's State Convention, becoming a member of the State Executive Committee. He went to Washington, D.C., as a member of a committee to discuss the massive immigration of blacks to Kansas. His break with the Republican party came in the mid-1880s, when he shifted his membership to the Democratic party. To support himself and his family, Eagleson returned to his profession as barber but worked for a while in the city jail. In 1889, when he reemerged from virtual obscurity, he became a prime mover in efforts of blacks to colonize the Oklahoma Territory. On July 17 that year, the Oklahoma Immigration Association was organized, with Eagleson as correspon-ding secretary and business manager. He worked to build the all-black town Langston City, Oklahoma.
Helps Promote All-Black Town
A delegation of twenty blacks urged President Benjamin Harrison to appoint a black person as secretary of Oklahoma Territory. The ultimate goal was to make that territory a Negro state. It received large numbers of black migrants from Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. Several all-Negro towns were established in the newly-opened lands in the territory; Langston City was the first, having been founded in 1889. Eagleson worked with Edwin P. McCabe, Kansas' first black state auditor and his wife, Sarah McCabe, in promoting the all-black community, Langston City, located in Logan County. The town, now known simply as Langston, was named in honor of John Mercer Langston (1829–1897), black lawyer, diplomat, and congressman. Having moved to Langston City in 1891, Eagleson worked aggressively to recruit blacks to the territory. On May 2 of that year, he began publication of the Langston City Herald, the first black paper published in the Oklahoma Territory. He used the paper to call for black colonization of the Cimarron Valley, scheduled to open on September 22. Local whites became so enraged over Eagleson's work that a drunken gang invaded Langston on September 17, attempted to shoot Eagleson, and succeeded in wounding several blacks. This aggression drew Eagleson's ire, and he responded by forming a rifle-armed posse that invaded a camp of white cowboys on September 20 and gave them a stern warning. In the end, a thousand or so black families claimed land that whites controlled and now had their own homes, for which Eagleson and the Herald took credit.
Still in Langston until the end of 1892, Eagleson continued to edit his newspaper and held several offices as well, including that as justice of the peace and city council member. He continued to work in the interest of immigration, dabbled in partisan politics, and placed the Herald in the Republican camp rather than that of the Democrats. Apparently the Republicans were back in his favor.
Although he returned to Topeka, Eagleson maintained his interest in Oklahoma and its political and racial activities. Edwin McCabe was appointed territorial governor but by fall 1892 he turned over to a black group in Guthrie the agency that he owned, that would sell the city's lots as well as his interest in the Herald. Meanwhile, Eagleson was unsuccessful in his efforts to establish another all-black town, Sumner City. He returned to his barbershop business and remained politically active as well. He also devoted his efforts to the Democratic party. His work with black party organizations included serving as president of the Colored Men's Independent League (1895), a group that opposed Republican loyalism. After supporting the successful candidacy of Populist-Democratic fusion governor John W. Leedy, Eagleson was appointed messenger to the governor (1896–97). Leedy lost his bid for reelection in 1898.
Eagleson married Elizabeth McKinney on December 2, 1865, and they had nine children (including one adopted daughter). In 1897, the Eaglesons' oldest son, Albert, established the short-lived Colored Citizen (2d), which folded in December 1900. Eagleson continued his interest in racial uplift, and in his final year he worked to establish a home for the aged to serve Topeka's black community. He suffered from dropsy and died in Topeka on June 22, 1899, leaving a legacy as a race man who worked diligently to develop the black community in the West.
African American Almanac. 8th ed. Eds. Jessie Carney Smith and Joseph M. Palmisano. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Group, 2000.
Porter, Kenneth Wiggins. "William Lewis Eagleson." In Dictionary of American Negro Biography. Ed. Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston. New York: Norton, 1982.
Littlefield, Daniel F., Jr, and Lonnie E. Underhill. "Black Dreams and 'Free' Homes: The Oklahoma Territory, 1891–1894." Phylon 34 (1973): 342-57.
"Black in Oklahoma—Before the Riot." Afro-American Almanac. http://www.toptags.com/aama/events/oklahoma.htm (Accessed 17 September 2005).