Even before the city of Muskogee came into existence, the Three Forks region was rich with cultural diversity. A large African American presence has existed in the region since it became a part of the U.S. following the Louisiana Purchase.
Both free and enslaved blacks were a part of the Indian removals that brought members of the Creek and Cherokee tribes to the Indian Territory. Interviews of Cherokee and Creek freedmen indicate that those held as slaves had a surprising amount of latitude. They worked almost as tenant farmers, choosing their own home sites, earning money from skilled labor, even owning guns for hunting.
Following the Civil War, many of the now freed tribal members returned to their former homes in the bottom lands of the Three Rivers. They rebuilt their homes on land they could now claim as their own. They also built institutions such as schools, churches and farming cooperatives, like cotton gins.
The antebellum years also brought an influx of “state blacks,” those former slaves of the South seeking a better life in the Indian nations. At first, there was some mistrust between the tribal freedmen and state blacks, but over time the two groups melded together.
When the mostly black and Indian community of Creek Agency became the new railroad town of Muskogee in 1872, the population continued to be dominated by freedmen. In Muskogee’s first municipal election, there were more black voters than white.
This gradually changed when the federal court was placed in Muskogee and an influx of attorneys came to town. The Dawes Commission also brought a battalion of government workers and shifted the demographics of the city.
Still, Muskogee’s black community was vibrant and successful. Despite the injustices of segregation, which became the law at statehood in 1907, freedmen descendants built businesses, pursued quality education in their schools, established churches and organized civic clubs.
Though some black residents worked as general laborers, porters and domestics, just as many occupied skilled trades as plumbers, bricklayers, machinists, butchers, tailors and carpenters. They owned small businesses such as grocery stores, millineries, livery stables, and blacksmith shops.
There were a number of African American members of the professions as well, working as lawyers, teachers, physicians, surgeons, dentists and pharmacists. Black entrepreneurs opened funeral homes, clothing emporiums, restaurants, hotels, newspaper offices and photography studios.
The black business district clustered along Second Street and Market Street and served the black neighborhoods that bordered these corridors.
Smaller businesses could also be found within those neighborhoods where elementary schools named Langston, Dunbar, Douglass and Wheatley were built.
A Negro Business Directory published in 1942 proudly proclaimed that Muskogee and neighboring Taft had a black population of 15,000. Driven by a well-organized black businessmen’s club, the directory stated that “Muskogee Negroes enjoy a (prestige) unequaled anywhere else in America.”
Quoting a long-time Muskogee resident, the publication proclaimed, “There’s more Negro lawyers, doctors, realtors, etc., to the square foot than there is anywhere else in the world.”
The success and vibrancy of this part of Muskogee’s past should be celebrated as testimony to what a community can accomplish when it strives for the best.