Jun 7, 2021
Black people ended up living in the Oklahoma and Indian Territories even before the Civil War. These two territories were the western and eastern halves of what is today the State of Oklahoma. Five native American tribes were forced out of Southern states by President Andrew Jackson in the 1830s. They were allowed to claim as their territory land in what would become eastern Oklahoma. At that time, some of the tribes had black slaves.
The end of the Civil War and the construction of the railroads set the stage for the enormous growth of capitalism throughout the United States. This system had consequences in what is now called the West for white, black and native settlers. A Massachusetts senator would later comment that “Native Americans [have in their culture] no selfishness, which is at the bottom of civilization.” What he really meant is that their culture believed in communal sharing of all resources including land, as opposed to capitalist society, in which some white men were growing ever richer.
In both the Indian Territory and the Oklahoma Territory, politicians promoted land ownership, to spread settlers over the entire continent. So individual land ownership was forced on the native tribes. Everyone had to claim 160 acres for themselves, if they wanted to be able to farm in these areas. In this way, some black people, freed after the Civil War, became landowners out west.
Black people in the South, following the Civil War, wanted to leave the horrors of the plantation system, as well as the share-cropping system, which was a different form of slavery in the South. Thousands chose to move westward. The Northern states already had in place segregation in law and in work, so that black people were not welcome after the Civil War, and those who already lived in the North had already faced decades of brutality. Again the western areas beckoned to black people trying to make a new life for themselves.
But race relations in the U.S. were not cordial then, any more than they are now. White settlers out west carried with them all kinds of prejudices, first against black people and native people, but also against immigrants. And many men could not overcome the attitudes they had learned demeaning women.
No sooner had black people, white people, native people become landowners, than scammers found ways to get their land away from them. The 1897 Land Act transferred some two million acres of tribal land to black freedmen, but land developers and railroad companies were already out west working to trick those who lacked education or to buy up land for a dollar an acre, far below the going price for land. In the late 1800s, the Ku Klux Klan was setting up chapters in the Oklahoma Territory and local politicians ensured the laws helped segregate black people. The “sundown towns” prevented black people from entering or moving around after dusk.
By the early 1900s, the U.S. Congress was considering laws to make new states out west, and to include provisions of segregation as tortured as those already in the South or North!