Tour visits Oklahoma's historic black towns: Annual bus trips open doors to often-overlooked information about the state's cultural history.
(Tulsa World (OK) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Sep. 10--MUSKOGEE -- If Cassandra Gaines can persuade them, all of the state's legislators would hop on a bus to learn more about the intriguing history of Oklahoma's black towns.
"I want to show them the untold history, the rough treasure we have that so many people from out of state see the importance of," she said. "I want them to see the rough diamond that everybody else is coming to see."
Gaines is the multicultural coordinator and historic black town tour director for Muskogee. She started the tours in 1997 and said they have gained in popularity over the years.
More than 50 people from across the country and Canada attended a July 14 tour, and Gaines is filling up bus seats for the next one on Oct. 2. Later this month, she'll be generating more interest for the tours at the African Diaspora Heritage Trail conference in Hamilton, Bermuda.
About 60 black towns were founded following the Civil War by blacks who were recently freed from Southern slavery or who were members of American Indian tribes. Most of these towns -- more than 20 -- were incorporated in Oklahoma on land previously occupied by one of the Five Civilized Tribes.
Each tour offers a small boost to the town's small economies. Souvenirs are bought, dinners are eaten and museums are scoured to catch a glimpse of the past.
"It's not a whole lot, but it helps and some people who have been on tour have shown interest in buying property up in the towns," Gaines said. "Some of them are moving back. It's much cheaper than in the big cities. New homes are popping up everywhere in these little towns. You can't expect a young person to come, but if somebody is looking for a place to retire or a place to invest, this is their opportunity."
Michael Bennett, a television producer and host of Globetrotting on BET's Jazz Network, was among those touring this summer. Bennett is pitching a one-hour history on the Oklahoma black towns to the major networks.
"As an African-American myself, until I visited Oklahoma earlier this year, I had no idea the history behind these towns," Bennett said.
Most striking for Bennett was the fact that for the most part the towns that formed in Oklahoma after the Civil War were self-sufficient.
"It kind of shocked me. The first female African-American mayor (Lelia Foley-Davis) sat by me -- I'm sitting there in total awe," Bennett said.
The fact these black citizens owned and operated their own banks and real estate firms was not part of the history books Bennett read growing up.
"It's quite amazing," he said.
The communities of Taft, Boley and Rentiesville are on tap for Gaines' next tour group on Oct. 2.
In Taft , visitors are presented with breakfast and blues music by Harold Aldridge and Pat Moss. They're greeted by the first female black mayor Lelia Foley-Davis.
There are about 1,600 people who work in Taft at the Jess Dunn Correctional Center and the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center for women. A few hundred people are actual residents of Taft.
You can't go to Rentiesville without hearing about the remarkable lives of two of its most prominent sons, John Hope Franklin, a renowned scholar, and D.C. Minner, an inspiring bluesman.
Franklin, 91, is James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of History at Duke University. Franklin has written more than a dozen books and is considered a preeminent authority on black history.
Minner and his wife, Selby, operate the last business in Rentiesville, the Down Home Blues Club. They also host the annual Dusk Til Dawn Blues Festival Labor Day weekend, which attracts thousands.
Tourgoers also stop by the Honey Springs Battlefield Memorial Park, 3 1/2 miles northeast of Checotah. It is the site of the largest Civil War battle in Indian Territory that for the first time had Indians, blacks, whites and Hispanics in combat. A re-enactment is held at the battle site every three years.
Boley was the largest black town in the state with about 7,000 residents in 1911. There were many businesses including the first black-owned bank, telephone and electric companies.
Pretty Boy Floyd's partner George Birdwell attempted to rob the bank in 1932 with two other men.
As the story goes, Birdwell was shot dead by the bookkeeper, who retrieved a shotgun from the vault. The bank president sounded the alarm, and Birdwell's two cohorts, a young black man named Charley Glass and C.C. Patterson, were met by a group of armed citizens. Glass was killed and Patterson was severely wounded and went on to serve time in prison in McAlester.
Today the Boley population is around 700. Henrietta Hicks is the local historian at the museum which has a variety of artifacts.
Boley is the home of Smokaroma, the maker of the pressure smokers that are sold all over the world. The town also hosts the annual Boley Rodeo.
For more information about the Black Town tours, call 1-888-687-6137, ext. 23, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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