Boley was a Rip-Roaring Place, Honey
In Oklahoma’s Black Belt, land ownership and power built Black wealth
The biggest weekend of the year in this tiny town kicks off with an hours-long parade. Cowboys and cowgirls trot their horses along downtown blocks lined with watchful spectators and vendors selling their juiciest barbecue meats.
Inside a squatty stone community center, a vintage photography exhibit documents Boley’s better days, when a pair of banks and dozens of homegrown businesses on those same streets bustled as the town center of a prosperous agricultural region.
The parade kicks off the Boley Rodeo & Barbecue Festival, one of the nation’s more well-known celebrations of Black cowboy culture, taking place as it does in the largest of what once were 50 Black towns in the state.
Only 13 still exist.
The rodeo celebrates a certain Black presence in Oklahoma and the history of the Western frontier, as well as its place in Black farming, past and present.
Nearly half the Black-operated farms in the nation today are beef cattle ranches. In Oklahoma, it’s two of every three. And most of the Black farms are in the eastern part of the state, where Boley is located.
Yet, the Memorial Day weekend festivities also celebrate a place Boley, other Black towns, and the Greenwood section of Tulsa — home to the “Black Wall Street” destroyed in 1921 — occupy in America’s history.
Black folks, “not only farmers, but doctors, lawyers, and craftsmen of all kinds,” came here seeking “greater opportunities and more freedom of action than they [were] able to find in the older communities North or South,” Booker T. Washington, the noted Black educator and civil rights leader, wrote after visiting the town just two years after its official establishment in 1903.
Back then, Black folks by the thousands came west. Land was plentiful, and so were the cattle. The soil was fertile. Cotton, the region’s king crop, was high.
“Boley, like the other negro towns that have sprung up in other parts of the country, represents a dawning race consciousness, a wholesome desire to do something to make the race respected,” Washington wrote, “something which shall demonstrate the right of the negro, not merely as an individual, but as a race, to have a worthy and permanent place in the civilization that the American people are creating.”
The land that made Boley
Without the Trail of Tears, Boley as Booker T. Washington described it would not have been. And the Trail of Tears was a dispute over rich agricultural land.
In 1830, Congress passed and President Andrew Jackson signed into law the Indian Removal Act, which effectively evicted thousands of Native Americans who made up the “Five Civilized Tribes” from their ancestral homelands in the Southeast and the Plains and gave their stolen lands to white settlers.
Thousands of Native Americans were displaced to land that included what is now Oklahoma.
The Muscogee Creek Nation was one of the tribes, along with the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole, rooted in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee and North Carolina. The Muscogee enslaved people and brought those enslaved with them to the area around what now is Boley.
The Muscogee aligned themselves with the Confederacy during the Civil War. Several factors may have influenced the decision, including the tribe’s historic ties to the American South and to white Southern ancestors, religious ties, the defense of separateness and anti-Blackness as an idea and economic reality, according to David Chang, author of “The Color of the Land: Race, Nation, and the Politics of Landownership in Oklahoma, 1832-1929.”
Afterwards, in order to be accepted back into the Union, they agreed to grant Black people freedom as well as full tribal citizenship. Over time, they were forced to give up much of their land to the federal government. They were also pushed to allot land to all tribal citizens.
One of the newly enfranchised Creek Freedmen was James Barnett, and 160 acres of land was allocated to his daughter, Abigail. Boley, about 70 miles southwest of Tulsa, would rise on that land, as would the lives of those who would make it their home, place of business or ticket to success.
“At this time, the U.S. is an agricultural society. So to seek opportunity, to seek economic independence, is often to seek land ownership,” Chang said.
Black cowboys are born
Enslaved people weren’t the only thing the Muscogee brought to the land that later would become Oklahoma and part of its Black Cowboy culture. Cattle had been an essential part of their economic life in the Southeast, and they brought their herds and their know-how, too.
Some tribes in the Indian Territory had already been cattle herding, but struggling to do well. Not the newcomers. With the help of those they had enslaved, they developed a successful cattle industry on the new frontier.
After the Civil War, the Muscogee economy struggled. Next door in Texas, cattle farming was booming, and many of the large herds were driven to railheads and to slaughter on trails that went through the Indian Territory. Black cowboys became a skilled workforce for those drives.
Many had been trained as cowhands on cattle ranches prior to the Civil War, and they operated those ranches when their slaveholders went off in support of the Confederacy.
After the war, the formerly enslaved were able to move around freely, and that gave them the opportunity to work nearly every type of job on the long drives to Kansas and other key markets.
And cowboy work paid more than sharecropping, the other principal way for a Black man to make a living. They often were paid the same amount as the white men who rode beside them, and more than the Mexican vaqueros and the Tejanos whose ancestors had been so critical in the years before.
Generations in the making
Much of the land obtained by Oklahoma’s first-generation Freedmen was great for growing cotton. In other areas, the financial grass was greener on the other side — rich in coal and oil.
Abigail Barnett’s land, as it turned out, was most valuable because of its location. It was smack dab on the path of a developing railroad route west from the transportation hub of Fort Smith, Arkansas, just across the eastern border.
There were no towns in the region, so Boley became its regional business center. It would be an early 20th century town run by Black folks for Black folks, a place where local governments empowered by Black voters would control most of the essential institutions of daily life.
“It might be somebody who can sell the inputs that you need for your farm,” said Chang, a professor of history at the University of Minnesota. “It might be a small bank, and the idea of a small financial institution is very important in this situation because of course, capitalism is about capital and you have to have access to capital. And who has the capital? The banks.”
Boley would have two, including the first nationally chartered bank in the nation owned by Black folks. Eventually, it also would have three cotton gins, its own electrical plant and more than its share of bustling, Black-owned businesses.
Its townsfolk were among Boley’s biggest boosters. They took out ads in newspapers and sent word to family and friends back East, telling them how good the living could be in this place with more promise and prosperity than persecution and punishment.
“It was a project that was generations in the making for these African American people,” Chang said. “This kind of sovereign institution, whether it be a farm or a church, or a growing store or a small bank, is an effort of taking away the fragility of many African Americans at this time.”
A raisin in the sun
As much as Booker T. Washington’s prose described Boley’s beginnings and what it could be, another Black man’s poem, written some four decades later, might well describe the condition of so many Black Americans years later, including those who’d planted their seeds of hope in Boley. “What happens to a dream deferred?” Langston Hughes asked, in his poem “Harlem.” Does it shrivel up, he wondered, “like a raisin in the sun?”
But the dream of Boley was deferred long before the town was established.
The Indian Appropriations Act of 1889 opened up two million acres of forcibly unoccupied land for claim by U.S. citizens, mostly white settlers, including some who rushed in to claim land before the official opening date. Those early rushers are the “Sooners” of Oklahoma lore, those claimants who acted sooner than the others.
The settlers assumed considerable governmental power when Oklahoma became a state in 1907. They used it in the same way that other states, most prominently those of the former Confederacy, did.
Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. has discussed that period and process in American history as Redemption, “when the gains of Reconstruction were systematically erased and the country witnessed the rise of a white supremacist ideology that, we might say, went rogue, an ideology that would long outlast the circumstances of its origin.”
Segregation in schools and public transportation would become law, not just culture. Black voting would be suppressed and Black voters disenfranchised. The promise of a better life that had drawn Black folks to Boley and the rest of the state would seem more and more to be a return to what they had sought to put behind them.
Boley’s Black-run local government created somewhat of a protective bubble for its residents. But other problems intruded.
“The population started declining in the ’20s when the boll weevil came along, which is a bug, and it chewed up the cotton,” said Henrietta Hicks, the town historian and Boley native. “Plus the fact, the [federal] government stopped the farmers, especially Black farmers, from growing the amount of cotton that could feed a family.”
The Great Depression hastened the town’s decline, as did the fate of the Fort Smith and Western rail line: Founded in Boley in 1899, it ceased operation in February 1939.
“And then on top of that, there’s the increasing rabidity of white supremacy across the nation, and especially in Eastern Oklahoma,” said Chang, the University of Minnesota history professor.
“The rise of outlaw elements of white supremacy, like the Ku Klux Klan, and very much legal instruments of white supremacy — like much of the government of the state of Oklahoma and all of its counties — made it difficult for these towns to really survive.”
By 1950, Boley’s population — about 4,000 several years after it was incorporated in 1905 — was 646.
Today, Boley is barely an echo of its past.
Most of the businesses are dusty, vacant shells. The schools have all shut down. Machines do much of the work that field hands did before. And the charms of city life seduce the young.
Still, a younger generation of Boley Bears, locals who’ve taken on the name of the old high school’s mascot, want to keep the town alive. Some have returned and some never left.
They know they’re investing in a Boley that isn’t what it was.
But who says it can’t be better?