BRYAN COUNTY HISTORY: Oberlin, an all-black town

Bryan County Genealogy Library

Most All-Black towns were created in Oklahoma when former slaves of the five civilized tribes were granted allotments of forty acres. Most chose to live near other African Americans for security and fellowship. They formed communities with churches, schools, businesses, and newspapers. As they grew larger and more established, they advertised in the “states” for other freed slaves to join them. Many of those migrating to the Territory participated in the land run of 1889. From 1865 to 1920 African Americans created at least fifty identifiable towns. Some lasted only a few years, and others couldn’t survive the depression years.

When Oklahoma became a state, many black residents were disappointed by the quick passage of Jim Crow laws. All-Black communities allowed African Americans to live apart from some of the prejudices and restrictions they faced in mixed-race towns.

Oberlin officially had a post office from 1897 to 1937, but in November of 1905 the Durant Daily News reported that the post office was “discontinued by the government”, because one postmaster stole funds and the other was robbed. The loss was a little over $100. Perhaps the closure didn’t last long.

Oberlin news notes in the Guthrie Oklahoma Safeguard of 1905 list Jere Mimms as one of the “general merchants”. It’s unclear how many businesses prospered in the town, but a later article reported a robbery of clothing and shoes from another store.

In 1910 M. J. Wright wrote a report in the Baptist Revival newspaper about how pleased he was after visiting Rev. J. Shoals at the St. Paul Church in Oberlin. He thought the church needed a hundred pastors of Shoals’ caliber.

The names of many other Oberlin residents can be garnered from the “locals” of area newspapers and from The Black Dispatch, published in Oklahoma City. Gilbert Parnell, a WWI soldier from Oberlin, was killed in action in 1919. Prof. D. J. Counter taught at Oberlin High School in 1920. In 1922 Governor Robertson revoked the commission of Oberlin’s notary, Edgar Calvin Minor, because he had verified some phony signatures on mortgages. Willie Rotal married Cora Walker in 1923. Unfortunately there are also reports of several murders and other criminal activities, so living in an single-race community wasn’t idyllic. There was a stabbing at one of the popular “negro picnics” in 1936.

State officials and representatives from the WPA dedicated a new 2-room structure for the “negro school” at Oberlin in April of 1937. However, schools and churches and productive citizens weren’t enough to keep many all-black towns alive. The financial crisis of the Depression, changes in the cotton market, and the aftermath of the pandemic all contributed to their slow demise. There were also a few direct actions aimed at guaranteeing their failure.

In some areas white farmers made a pact to never buy a product from a black farmer or hire a black employee.

Most All-Black towns are now only memories, and like Oberlin, are valued mostly for their cemeteries and the records they contain of past lives.* Of the fifty towns that once existed, only thirteen remain: Langston, Tullahassee, Red Bird, Taft, Summit, Grayson, Rentiesville, Vernon, Lima, Tatums, Brooksville, Clearview, and Boley.

*Oberlin Cemetery was the final resting place of sixteen members of the Gardner family, victims of a house fire at Boswell in 1959. At the time, it was the worst residential fire in the history of the state.

Bryan County History is a weekly feature contributed by members of the Bryan County Genealogy Library and Archives in Calera. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Texoma Marketing and Media Group. Is there a historic event or topic you want to read about? Contact the library at P.O. Box 153, Calera, OK 74730.