African-American town promoters established at least eighty-eight, and perhaps as many as two hundred, black towns throughout the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Black towns, either mostly or completely African-American incorporated communities with autonomous black city governments and commercially oriented economies often serving a hinterland of black farmers, were created with clearly defined economic and political motives. The founders of towns such as Nicodemus, Kansas; Boley, Oklahoma; and Mound Bayou, Mississippi, like the entrepreneurs who created Chicago, Denver, and thousands of other municipalities across the nation, hoped their enterprises would be profitable and appealed to early settlers with the promise of rising real estate values. However, they added special enticements for African Americans: the ability to escape racial oppression, control their economic destinies, and prove black capacity for self-government.
The first all-black communities began in Upper Canada (Ontario) as an offshoot of the abolitionist movement. In 1829 the settlement of Wilberforce was created to resettle black refugees expelled from Cincinnati. Wilberforce, as well as most of the later Canadian settlements, such as Dawn and Elgin, were operated largely by white charities and were designed to give African Americans land and teach them usable skills. However, most of these efforts were poorly funded and managed, and none survived very long. The first black town in the United States was created in 1835, when "Free Frank" McWhorter, an ex-Kentucky slave, founded the short-lived community of New Philadelphia, Illinois. More black towns emerged in the first years after the Civil War. Texas led the way in the late 1860s, with the founding of Shankleville in 1867 and Kendleton in 1870. These communities, populated by exslaves from the surrounding countryside, arose from the desire of freedpeople to own land without interference.
The vast majority of black towns emerged in the West, however, following the end of Reconstruction. Like whites, blacks were lured by the promise of the West. African Americans, largely unable to secure land and economic opportunity in the ex-Confederate states, looked to the West, with its reserves of inexpensive land that could be accessed through the Homestead Act. Moreover for the African Americans who had briefly held political power in the Reconstruction-era South before being overwhelmed by conservative white regimes, the possibility of distinct black political autonomy was particularly attractive. Six representative communities—Nicodemus, Kansas; Langston City, Oklahoma; Boley, Indian Territory; Mound Bayou, Mississippi; Dearfield, Colorado; and Allensworth, California—all shared these characteristics and will be discussed in depth.
Nicodemus, Kansas, was the first predominantly black community that gained national attention. Nicodemus was founded by W. R. Hill, a white minister and land speculator, who during the mid-1870s joined three black Kansas residents—W. H. Smith, Simon P. Rountree, and Z. T. Fletcher—in planning an agricultural community in sparsely populated western Kansas. After naming Nicodemus after a legendary African slave prince who purchased his freedom, they soon recruited settlers from the South.
The first thirty colonists arrived from Kentucky in July 1877, followed by 150 from the same state in March 1878. Other newcomers arrived later in the year from Tennessee, Missouri, and Mississippi. By 1880, 258 blacks and 58 whites resided in the town and surrounding township. Both the townspeople and the farmers, who grew corn and wheat, helped Nicodemus emerge as a small, briefly thriving community. The first retail stores opened in 1879. Town founder and postmaster Z. T. Fletcher opened the St. Francis Hotel in 1885. Two white residents established the town's newspapers, the Nicodemus Western Cyclone in 1886 and the Nicodemus Enterprise one year later. By 1886 Nicodemus had three churches and a new schoolhouse.
The town's success attracted other African Americans, including Edwin P. McCabe, who would soon become the most famous black politician outside the South. Born in Troy, New York, in 1850, McCabe arrived in Nicodemus in 1878 and began working as a land agent. In 1880, when Kansas governor John P. St. John established Graham County (which included Nicodemus), McCabe was appointed acting county clerk, beginning a long career of elective and appointive office holding. In November 1881 McCabe was elected clerk for Graham County, and the following year, at age thirty-two, he became the highest-ranking African-American elected official outside the South when Kansas voters chose him as state auditor.
Nicodemus's fortunes, however, began to decline in the late 1880s. An 1885 blizzard destroyed 40 percent of the wheat crop, prompting the first exodus from the area. By 1888 three railroads had bypassed the town, despite its purchase of $16,000 in bonds to attract a rail line. Moreover, toward the end of the decade Oklahoma became more appealing to prospective black homesteaders.
The Twin Territories, Oklahoma and Indian Territory, became the most important center of black town activity in the nation. Thirty-two all-black towns emerged in the territories, including Langston City (Oklahoma Territory) and Boley (Indian Territory). Although the specific reasons for town founding varied, most grew out of the desire for political autonomy among the black ex-slaves of Indian peoples, antiblack violence in the South, and the political maneuvers of Edwin McCabe and other black politicians who settled in Oklahoma. For African Americans such as McCabe, Oklahoma Territory, whose former Native American reservations were opened to non-Indian settlement in 1889, represented not only the last major chance for homesteading but also a singular opportunity to develop communities where black people could achieve their economic potential and exercise their political rights without interference. McCabe, who emerged as the leading advocate of black settlement, would also become a town promoter, combining political and racial objectives with personal profit.
McCabe and his wife, Sarah, moved to Oklahoma Territory in April 1890 and six months later joined
Charles Robbins, a white land speculator, and William L. Eagleson, a black newspaper publisher, in founding Langston City, an all-black community about ten miles northeast of Guthrie, the territorial capital. Langston City was named after the Virginia black congressman who supported migration to Oklahoma. The McCabes, who owned most of the town lots, immediately began advertising for prospective purchasers through their newspaper, the Langston City Herald, which was sold in neighboring states. The Herald portrayed the town as an ideal community for African Americans. "Langston City is a Negro City, and we are proud of that fact," proclaimed McCabe in the Herald. "Her city officers are all colored. Her teachers are colored. Her public schools furnish thorough educational advantages to nearly two hundred colored children." The Herald also touted the agricultural potential of the region, claiming the central Oklahoma prairie could produce superior cotton, wheat, and tobacco. "Here is found a genial climate, about like that of … Northern Mississippi … admirably suited to the wants of the Negro from the Southern states. A land where every staple … can be raised with profit." By February 1892 Langston City had six hundred residents from fifteen states including Georgia, Maryland, and California, with the largest numbers from neighboring Texas. Local businesses included a cotton gin, a soap factory, a bank, and two hotels. An opera house, a racetrack, a billiard parlor, three saloons, Masonic lodges, and social clubs provided various forms of entertainment.
Like Nicodemus, Langston City residents counted on a railroad line to improve their town's fortunes. From 1892 to 1900 McCabe waged a steady but ultimately unsuccessful campaign to persuade the St. Louis & San Francisco Railroad to extend its tracks through Langston City. When the rail line bypassed the town, many disheartened Langston residents believed they lost their main opportunity to prosper. Throughout the railroad campaign, however, town promoters urged other reasons for migration to their community. The Herald (no longer owned by the McCabes) continued to emphasize the superior racial climate of the area. In 1896 McCabe, using his political connections as chief clerk of the Oklahoma Territorial Legislature, obtained for Langston City the Colored Agricultural and Normal School (later Langston University). The location of the school, the only publicly supported black educational institution in the territory, in Langston City ensured the town's permanence.
Boley, the largest all-black town in Indian Territory, was founded in the former Creek nation in 1904 by two white entrepreneurs, William Boley, a manager for the Fort Smith & Western Railroad, and Lake Moore, an attorney and former federal commissioner to the region's Indian tribes. Boley and Moore chose Tom Haynes, an African American, to handle promotion of the town. Unlike Lang-ston City, Boley was on a rail line and in a timbered, well-watered prairie that easily supported the type of agriculture familiar to most prospective black settlers. The frontier character of the town was evident from its founding. Newcomers, who usually arrived by train, lived in tents until they could clear trees and brush to construct homes and stores. During the town's first year, Creek Indians rode several times through Boley's streets on shooting sprees that killed several people. Boley's reputation for lawlessness continued into 1905, when peace officer William Shavers was killed while leading a posse after a gang of white horse thieves who terrorized the town.
With one thousand residents and more than two thousand farmers in the surrounding countryside by 1907, Boley's permanence seemed assured. Local businesses included a hotel, sawmill, and cotton gin. Churches, a public school, fraternal lodges, women's clubs, and a literary society attest to the cultural development of the town. A community newspaper, the Boley Progress, was founded in 1905 to report on local matters and promote town growth. After a 1905 visit, Booker T. Washington described Boley as a "rude, bustling, Western town [that nonetheless] represented a dawning race consciousness … which shall demonstrate the right of the negro … to have a worthy place in the civilization that the American people are creating."
Despite Washington's endorsement, Boley's spectacular growth was over by 1910. When the Twin Territories became the state of Oklahoma in 1907, the Democrats emerged as the dominant political party. They quickly disfranchised black voters and segregated public schools and accommodations. Their actions eliminated the town's major appeal as a community where African Americans could escape the Jim Crow restrictions they faced in southern states. Although African Americans continued to vote in municipal elections, political control at the local level could not compensate for marginal influence at the courthouse or the state capital, where crucial decisions affecting the town's schools and roads were now routinely made by unsympathetic officials. Moreover, after the initial years of prosperity, declining agricultural prices and crop failures
|Black towns, listed by state|
|sources: Adapted from Kenneth Marvin Hamilton, Black Towns and Profit: Promotion and Development in the Trans-Appalachian West, 1877–1915 (Urbana, Ill., 1991); and Ben Wayne Wiley, Ebonyville in the South and Southwest: Political Life in the All-Black Town, Ph.D. diss., University of Texas at Arlington (1984).|
|North Folk Colored|
|Two unnamed towns in|
gradually reduced the number of black farmers who were the foundation of the town's economy. Although Boley remained the site of a famous black rodeo, it ceased to be an important center of African American life in the state.
Although most black towns were in the West, Mound Bayou, Mississippi, the most successful of these enterprises, emerged east of the Mississippi River. Founded by the Louisville, New Orleans & Texas Railroad in 1887, the town was situated along the rail line that extended through the Yazoo-Mississippi delta, an area of thick woods, bayous, and swamps that nonetheless contained some of the richest cotton-producing lands in the state. When the fear of swampland diseases deterred white settlement, the railroad hired two prominent African-American politicians, James Hill and Isaiah Montgomery, as land promoters. Hill had once been Mississippi's secretary of state, while Montgomery was the patriarch of a well-known family of ex-slaves of Joseph Davis. After the Civil War, the Montgomery family acquired the Davis Bend plantations of their former master and his more famous brother, Confederate ex-president Jefferson Davis. When the Davis heirs successfully reclaimed the lands in the 1880s, the Montgomery family sought business opportunities elsewhere in the state.
The railroad, which wanted settlers on the least populated lands along its route, chose a town site fifteen miles east of the Mississippi River and ninety miles south of Memphis. The four-square-mile area selected included two bayous and several Indian burial mounds, inspiring Montgomery to name the town and colony Mound Bayou. Montgomery, the more active of the two promoters, sold the first town lots to relatives and friends from the Davis Bend plantations. In the fall of 1887 he led the first twelve settlers to Mound Bayou. By 1888 the town had forty residents, and about two hundred people had settled in the surrounding countryside. Twelve years later it had grown to 287 residents, with 1,500 African Americans in the vicinity.
With rail transportation assured and a sizable population of black farmers nearby, Montgomery and other promoters concentrated on efforts to increase the number and size of local African American businesses. Montgomery's close association with Booker T. Washington aided those efforts. Montgomery and Washington met in 1895 when the Mississippi planter served as a commissioner for the Atlanta Exposition, where Washington gave the speech that launched his national career. Washington, who saw in Montgomery and Mound Bayou the embodiment of his philosophy of black economic self-help, featured the Mississippian in exhibitions and conferences sponsored by Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University). Montgomery, in turn, used the Tuskegee educator's fame and contacts to attract investors. Although Montgomery accepted a federal post in Jackson in 1902 and ceased his direct involvement in Mound Bayou promotional activities, Washington's interest in the town remained strong. He switched his support to merchant-farmer Charles Banks, who settled there in 1904 and founded the Bank of Mound Bayou. In 1908, following a visit to Mound Bayou, the Tuskegee educator prompted a number of flattering articles on the town in national magazines and profiled the community in books he published in 1909 and 1911.
Mound Bayou's population peaked at eleven hundred in 1911, with nearly eight thousand in the surrounding rural area. The sizable population ensured economic support for the town, which featured the largest number of African-American-owned businesses of any of the all-black communities. Mound Bayou's businesses included its bank, a savings and loan association, two sawmills, three cotton gins, and the only black-owned cottonseed mill in the United States. By 1914, however, some businesses, including the Bank of Mound Bayou, closed, and the town experienced its first population losses. Booker T. Washington's death in 1915 ended its national promotion. By the early 1920s the town lost its vitality and began to resemble other small delta communities.
One all-black Colorado town, Dearfield, emerged in Weld County. Dearfield was conceived by O. T. Jackson, who arrived in the state in 1887 and became a messenger for Colorado governors. Inspired by Booker T. Washington's autobiography, Up from Slavery, Jackson argued that successful farm colonies were possible on the Colorado plains and chose as his first site a forty-acre tract twenty-five miles southeast of Greeley, which he personally homesteaded. Jackson attracted other black Denver investors who made additional land purchases. Among them was Dr. J. H. P. Westbrook, a physician, who suggested the name Dearfield. The town's population peaked at seven hundred in 1921, with families occupying nearly fifteen thousand acres in the area. Dearfield's farmers grew wheat, corn, and sugar beets, and like their Weld County neighbors, prospered during World War I because of the European demand for American foodstuffs. Town founder Jackson was also its most prominent businessman; he owned the town grocery store, restaurant, service station, and dance hall. The war years were the apex of the town's prosperity. Declining agricultural prices and the attractiveness of urban employment caused Dearfield to steadily lose population. Only a handful of "pioneers" remained when Jackson died in Dearfield in 1949.
In 1908 white and black land speculators combined to create the westernmost all-black town in the United States: Allensworth, California. The town was conceived by the California Colony and Home Promoting Association (CCHPA), a Los Angeles–based land development company owned by African Americans. CCHPA hoped to encourage black settlement in California's rapidly growing San Joaquin Valley and envisioned a town as the commercial center of a thriving agricultural colony. Since CCHPA had no resources to purchase land, it joined with three white firms, the Pacific Farming Company (owners of the site of the prospective town), the Central Land Company, and the Los Angeles Purchasing Company, to create an eighty-acre town site in Tulare County along the Santa Fe Railroad, about halfway between Fresno and Bakersfield. Allensworth was named for Lt. Col. Allen Allensworth, chaplain of the all-black Twenty-fourth Infantry Regiment and the highest-ranking African American in the U.S. Army. After his retirement, Allensworth settled in Los Angeles and became president of the CCHPA in 1907.
Initial sales were slow, and by 1910 the town had only eighty residents. Most of the adults worked ten-acre farms nearby, which they purchased for $110 per acre on an installment plan. The town's slow growth prompted Allens-worth to intensify his promotional efforts. In January 1912 he sent a lengthy letter to the New York Age, the nation's largest African-American newspaper, promoting the town site by linking it to Booker T. Washington's call for black economic self-help and suggesting that his town's objectives were similar to those of Mound Bayou. By May 1912 Allensworth concentrated recruiting efforts on black veterans, issuing a promotional newspaper, The Sentiment Maker, which specifically targeted black military personnel.
The town of Allensworth had one hundred residents in 1914. Despite their small numbers, they owned dozens of city lots and three thousand acres of nearby farmland. Oscar O. Overr, a migrant from Topeka, Kansas, was the community's most prosperous resident, with a 640-acre farm and four acres of town lots. In 1914 Overr became California's first elected black justice of the peace. Allens-worth also had a twenty-acre park named after Booker T. Washington and a library named for Colonel Allensworth's wife, Josephine, which received as its first holdings the family's book collection. After the colonel's death on September 14, 1914, Overr and William A. Payne, the town's first schoolteacher, attempted to establish the Allensworth Agricultural and Manual Training School. Modeled after Tuskegee Institute, the school would train California's black youth in vocational skills. Overr and Payne failed to obtain state funding, however, because urban black political leaders feared the school would encourage segregation. The school promotion scheme was the last concerted effort to lure settlers to Allensworth. Except for a brief period in the 1920s, the town's population never exceeded one hundred residents.
None of the surviving black towns ever reached the potential envisioned by their founder-promoters. Allens-worth and Dearfield have long been emptied of residents. Nicodemus, Boley, Mound Bayou, and Langston City continue, but they are not dynamic centers of economic or cultural activity for their regions. Like thousands of small towns throughout the United States, these African-American communities were subject to the vagaries of transportation access, unpredictable agricultural productivity, detrimental county or state political decisions, and shifting settlement patterns. Moreover, towns such as Nicodemus, Allensworth, and Dearfield, which had few black farmers in their hinterlands to sustain their prosperity, were especially vulnerable to decline.
Moreover, none of the black towns could successfully compete with the attraction of larger cities, which lured millions of Americans from farms, hamlets, and small towns across the nation during the twentieth century. By 1915 thousands of southern African Americans who might have considered black towns now sought northern cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and New York for both political freedom and economic opportunity. Paradoxically, the initial reason for the founding of these towns may have hastened their demise. The racial insularity of these communities, which seemed attractive to one generation, proved restricting to the next. Nonetheless, for one brief period in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, nearly one hundred fledgling black communities throughout the nation symbolized the aspirations of African Americans for political freedom and economic opportunity.
Crockett, Norman L. The Black Towns. Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas, 1979.
de Graaf, Lawrence B., Kevin Mulroy, and Quintard Taylor, eds. Seeking El Dorado: African Americans in California, 1769–1997. Los Angeles: Autry Museum of Western Heritage; Seattle: University of Seattle Press, 2001.
Franklin, Jimmie Lewis. Journey Toward Hope: A History of Blacks in Oklahoma. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982.
Hamilton, Kenneth Marvin. Black Towns and Profit: Promotion and Development in the Trans-Appalachian West, 1877–1915. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.
Smallwood, James M. Time of Hope, Time of Despair: Black Texans During Reconstruction. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat, 1981.
Taylor, Quintard. In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528–1990. New York: Norton, 1998.
quintard taylor (1996)