Coal Country

coalgate

(Library of Congress)

A geological map of coal claims around Coalgate, Coal County, Indian Territory (Oklahoma) from ca. 1900 shows that following companies contracted with the Choctaw Nation and the federal government for lease rights: Atoka Coal and Mining Company (16), Southwestern Coal & Improvement Company (22), and the McDougall Company (28). The Perry Brothers’ national lease (i.e., before leases with the Indian nations) is designated by the encircled C.

From what I gather, none of the companies were owned by Choctaws or Chickasaws. The companies were subsidiaries of railroads – for example, the Atoka Coal & Mining Company was an off-shoot of the Missouri Pacific Railway.

I am not a historian on mineral rights or resources, but from what I’ve learned, most of Indian Territory’s natural resources did not do much to enrich the majority of tribal members.Several immigrants moved to Indian Territory to work as miners, and unsafe working conditions led to hundreds of deaths. The coal mines in Indian Territory were considered some of the most dangerous in the U.S.

Interestingly, early attempts at unionization in Coalgate were not met with much violence from either side. A strike by the majority of white coal miners, who wanted wage increases, lasted five years. During this time, black “scabs” from Alabama and other southern states were hired instead, which increased racial tensions rather than class tensions between the labor and owning classes – but not much inter-racial violence was recorded.

Though the tribal governments tended to side with the employers, the United Mine Workers finally successfully organized in 1903. Coal mining became a major industry in the decades after Oklahoma became a state,  but by the 1980s, the mines closed after an episode of violent attacks against Union officials.

Coalgate tourist court cropped

Abandoned tourist court on the outskirts of Coalgate, Coal County, Oklahoma.

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Published in: on May 15, 2018 at 12:40 am  Leave a Comment  
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Tombstone History

Tombstones, especially military ones, are great ways to trace histrory. And the history from the tombstone needn’t be a family member, either – sometimes, getting to know strangers from their past life is just as interesting. Plus, the dead don’t engage in awkward small talk, so there’s that.

Bonham

This tombstone for Alvin Reeves is located in the African American portion of a cemetery in Bonham, Fannin County, Texas. Alvin Reeves served as the bugler for the 815th pioneer infantry. This unit was trained in Kansas and was sent to France in 1918. He may have stayed until 1919, which is when most troops turned home.

The United States entered World War I in 1917 because the British intercepted a coded telegram from Germany containing the message that if Mexico kept the US occupied in a war with German help, Mexico would retrieve the lands they lost in the Mexican cession (1848)… plus Texas.

WWI was called “The Great War” before anyone knew there’d be a WWII. It was the first war to institute a nation-wide draft. The U.S. introduced the selective service system to make the draft fairer than previous ones, when a draftee could pay his way out of service if he was rich enough.

African American soldiers were also drafted, of course. They served in segregated regiments. Initially engaged as support personnel, their tasks including building camps and posts for the U.S. army as it began to enter France. Some soldiers stayed in France rather than returning home to the U.S., especially if they were from the South. Knowledge and fear of several horrific lynching and other violent events – like the 1916 “Waco Horror” and the 1919 mass murder of sharecroppers in Elaine, Arkansas – made the transition quite easy. The majority of French had no segregation laws and did not treat African Americans as racially inferior… they simply saw the men as “les Americains” and demonstrated their gratitude towards the soldiers.

I read that the American infantry units introduced many a Frenchman to baseball and jazz music. I also read that American soldiers did not care much for French food. The French and English soldiers were amazed that American soldiers tended to be less precise in their dress code, but very respectful of private property. According to local accounts, the American were in constant search to buy “souvenirs and other trinkets to bring home.”

Published in: on February 14, 2018 at 11:59 pm  Leave a Comment  
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A trip to historic Shreveport

In 1958, Martin Luther King, Jr.  met with community and NAACP leaders to formulate a school integration plan at the (old) Galilee Baptist Church on Williamson Street in Shreveport. Shreveport resident William Hines, who was one of the city’s first African American police officers, gave an oral history to Shondra Houston and her student Senae Hall about his experiences with protecting Dr. King during this historic but also dangerous trip. The interview can be located in its entirety in the Bossier Parish Library Historical Center.

Mr. Hines offered a good description of St. Paul Bottoms, the neighborhood in Shreveport that was mainly inhabited by blacks during the period between Reconstruction and desegregation. A quote from the interview, re-printed below, shares some interesting information about the area when Dr. Martin Luther King visited Shreveport’s Galillee and Evergreen churches.

Shreveport Dr. King meets with civil rights leaders at the Galilee Baptist Church in Shreveport, LA in 1958. Photo courtesy NAACP Simpkins & Brock, LLC).

Dr. King meets with civil rights leaders at the Galilee Baptist Church in Shreveport, LA in 1958. Photo courtesy NAACP Simpkins & Brock, LLC.

Dr. King stayed at the Castle Hotel on 1000 Sprague Street, which sadly, no longer exists. Being an ardent admirer of Dr. King as well as forgotten architecture, I searched around until I found its former location and an image of the hotel while it was still in use.

Shreveport Castle Hotel 1000 Sprague Street from Shreveport Historydotcom

The Castle Hotel at 1000 Sprague Street in Shreveport’s St. Paul’s Bottoms, where Dr. King stayed during his trip to the city.   Historydotcom

“When Martin Luther King came here, I was assigned to offer security for him. I had the privilege of shaking his hand when he first came because myself, Tisdon… We had four black officers and we had to go to Evergreen Church and Galilee to offer security for him. He lived down at the Sprague Street Hotel because blacks didn’t live in the Holiday Inn and all those places. There was a pretty good hotel out on Sprague Street and so that’s where he lived. I gave him security while he was here.”

Shreveport Castle Hotel former site Google Maps

The Castle Hotel is now an empty lot across from the historic Oakwood Cemetery.

I found it odd that I didn’t find a listing for the Castle Hotel in The Green Book, a travel guide published specifically for African American road trippers in the post-war era. Then it occurred to me – maybe the Castle Hotel didn’t pay to have itself listed?

1956 Greenbook Shreveport

The only lodging listings I could find in the Green Book for Shreveport in 1956 did not include the Castle Hotel on Sprague Street.

The only lodging listings I could find in the Green Book for Shreveport in 1956 did not include the Castle Hotel on Sprague Street.

However, I did find other places from the Green Book in Shreveport.

1956 Greenbook Shreveport Esso advertisement 1560 Anna and Pierre

An ad for a new Esso Service Center at Anna and Pierre Streets from the Green Book, a guide for “Negro Travelers,” in 1956

1956 Greenbook Shreveport Esso today

Here’s the old Esso station today (courtesy Google Maps). It really bothers me that this historic area has become so neglected.

The church that Dr. King visited has since moved on to a bigger and more modern sanctuary, but the ca. 1917 building, where the meeting took place, still remains. Galilee Baptist, founded in 1877, is one of Shreveport’s oldest freedman’s churches.

The old church building still stands today Its maintained, though its large congregation has moved on to more modern accommodations

The old Galilee Baptist Church, where Dr. King gathered with other civil rights leaders to plan school integration in the city, is empty but still stands, as of now.

king at smu

Dr. King gave a speech at Southern Methodist University (Dallas) in the same time span. A quote:  “There is a need for all people of good will in this nation to become involved participants, for all too long we have had silent onlookers. But now there must be more involved participants to solve this problem and get rid of this one huge wrong of our nation.”

Death Divided

I love strolling through cemeteries – the older and more overgrown, the better, of course. I’m not particularly ghoulish, though. I just enjoy the underlying history that cemeteries provide. Some of that history is relayed in tomb stones and monuments. Often, however, the history is contained beneath more subtle contexts: the layout of the stones, the level of ruin within the cemetery, the innocuous placing of a fence…

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See that fence in the background? It denotes the racial divide at Pleasant Grove Cemetery in Ladonia, Fannin County, Texas.

… that’s right – the South, which my website Red River Historian documents, still contains the remnants of segregation inside many of its cemeteries. Because even in death, the powers that be insisted that races had to remain separated.

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The cemetery in the ghost town of Cannon (Grayson County, Texas) became segregated after the Civil War. The segregation was denoted through a road that divided the two burial grounds, which is visible in the background. Before the war, enslaved people were sometimes interred with their white masters, but their graves were marked with wooden stakes. After the war, the first African American burials were also marked with wooden markers.

In the pre-Civil War period, segregated burial places were not needed, as blacks – most of whom were enslaved – were either buried without so much as a tomb stone, or were interred amongst their masters. There were some designated “slave cemeteries” in a few select locations – such as near large plantations or in the cities – but most of these burial places are no longer visible, as time, neglect, and outright disrespect have taken their toll on them.

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A wooden marker, most likely for an enlsaved person, at Kentuckytown Cemetery (Grayson County, Texas).

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This enslaved woman was interred with the white family at Vittetoe Cemetery (Grayson County). However, her tomb does not commemorate her name – it simply denotes what she was to those who owned her.

The few free people of color often confined their cemeteries within their church yards, such as St. Augustine Church near Natchitoches, Louisiana.

st augustine church grave

A brick tomb at St. Augustine Church cemetery, which was founded by Creole families in the early 19th century, in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana.

In the period after the Civil War, which historians call “reconstruction,” Southern whites were unwilling to see their former slaves as equals. Cities and communities set aside portions of burial grounds for blacks, but these “Negro Cemeteries” (often deemed “Freedman Cemeteries”) were completely separated, usually by fences, or hedges, or pathways. With little money for upkeep and many African American families leaving the South due to racial violence and economic discrimination, their cemeteries became less maintained. Eventually, many of these boneyards were razed by construction projects or were just simply ignored.

Dallas Greenwood Cemetery Sanborn

The “Negro Cemetery” near Central Expressway in the State-Thomas area of Dallas was bulldozed in the 1960s to make way for the expansion of US 75.

History is lost this way. Of course, that may have been the reason behind the neglect and disregard.

Yet, especially in smaller communities, the “Negro Cemeteries” are still extant and active. Black cemeteries are extremely interesting to me, as their very existence lends an aura of defiance against the southern U.S. social structure. Though the tombs may not be as elaborate as those designed for affluent whites, black graves are just as loud – they serve as the final and eternal stamp on the world, indicating that the person buried there mattered as much as any other man or woman.

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While simple, this grave of a black man in Tatums, Carter County, Oklahoma, makes sure to commemorate the person interred within. Tatums is one of Oklahoma’s historical all-black towns.

I plan on visiting and documenting many more black cemeteries. The southern, segregated graveyard is a fascinating aspect of history that tells a lot about not only the people interred there, but about the community in which they’re buried.