, Muskogee, OK

December 9, 2012

Private schools led in Indian Territory

By Jonita Mullins
Three Rivers History

— The uniqueness of Oklahoma’s history can be seen in many ways, but especially in education. Given that Indian Territory was not a true territory, but rather a loose grouping of Indian Nations, it is no surprise that education didn’t follow the usual path found elsewhere on the American frontier. Public education was limited and available only to tribal members. This made private education efforts important for the Three Forks area.

In 1876, the Baptist Mission Board, headquartered in Nashville, Tenn., established a mission school in Indian Territory. The Rev. N.A. Leslie and his wife, along with the Rev. Cain and his wife, began a school at what is today Fourth and Elgin streets in Muskogee.  The Rev. Leslie was a Native American, and his wife was African American. The Cains were also African American. Their school, however, was open to anyone who wanted to attend, and students of all races were admitted.

This school was so well-received that it became necessary to expand, so it was moved to a house located at Fourth and Court to the west of where the Haskell Building is located today. Grant Foreman wrote that Mrs. Leslie insisted upon cleanliness in her students and wasn’t above getting out the washtub for any student who didn’t abide by her rules.

This school was a “subscription” school, meaning tuition was required for students attending it. Virtually all of Muskogee’s first schools were subscription schools because of the lack of a public education system.

The Rev. Cain would later be instrumental in helping establish First Baptist Church in Muskogee. The church occupied various buildings in its beginning but eventually built a brick structure at Sixth and Denison streets in 1900 that stands today and is on the National Register of Historical Places.

In 1878, the United States government leased the Union Agency building to the American Baptist Mission Board out of New York. The Union Agency had abandoned the building on Agency Hill to move into Muskogee to be closer to the railroad. The Baptist Mission Board used the Agency building (now the Five Civilized Tribes Museum) to open a school for freedmen children.

Operated as a boarding school, it had space for 20 boys and 20 girls. The Rev. Ira Crain was the superintendent of this school for a time.

Other early schools for African-American students included Tullahassee, located in the Choska Bottom northwest of Muskogee. It had begun as a Presbyterian Mission school for Creeks, but following a fire in 1880, the school was rebuilt to serve freedmen students.

On the south side of the Arkansas River, somewhere in the vicinity of Fern Mountain, was the Pecan Creek School. It too first served Creeks and later Creek freedmen students.

In 1899, Muskogee was in its second year of offering public education. But many churches in the community continued to sponsor schools. That year, the African American Baptist congregations began a new school called Sango Baptist College. It was named for A.G.W. Sango, an African American lawyer and educator. The school was located at Fifth and Howard streets.

These early schools helped to create a strong foundation for education among African Americans in Indian Territory and later Oklahoma. Many leading black educators came out of these early schools and carried on their tradition of excellence.

Reach Jonita Mullins at