All Black Town Boley, Oklahoma
“Boley was once the crown jewel of all the black towns in Oklahoma,” historian Currie Ballard said recently, standing in the rain near a vacant downtown building. “Booker T. Washington came to Boley … twice and deemed it the finest black town in the world — and Booker T. Washington had literally been all around the world. Boley, its significance in commerce, its significance in education, parallels no other black town in the nation.”
The town, about an hour’s drive east of Oklahoma City, was born from the ashes of the Civil War. The federal government forced American Indian tribes who had backed the confederates to allot land to their freed slaves, and the community was founded along a railroad line on 160 acres within the Creek Nation. It takes its name from a white railway worker, one of three men — white and black — who joined forces to give black Americans this opportunity for self-governance.
The community came together in 1903 and incorporated two years later. The population increased as blacks from other states, fleeing restrictive Jim Crow laws, relocated to the territories. The town, marketed as a place free from racial persecution, grew to include a bank, post office and railway station, as well as churches, businesses and schools. It housed the Prince Hall Masonic lodge and a black hospital. In 1925, it became home to the State Training School for Incorrigible Negro Boys — an institution that would become vital to the town’s sustainability.
“Upon Oklahoma statehood in 1907,” Melissa Stuckey wrote for www.blackpast.org, “the citizens of Boley, like all African Americans in Oklahoma, experienced major setbacks in their civil rights. Although the day to day effects of segregation were muted in Boley, most people in the town were disfranchised in 1910 when the grandfather clause became law. However, Boley was an important location for all blacks in the state as they worked to fight disfranchisement for the next two decades.”
By the late 1920s, the town had reached its peak. Facing tough economic times, in part due to sharecropping and the low price of cotton, people left to find their fortunes elsewhere. The exodus began.
Despite its decline, Boley has managed to limp into the 21st century, surviving long after many of the state’s other 18 to 35 black communities faded.
If town leaders get their way, Boley will thrive again.
Photo by David McDaniel, The Oklahoman
Photo by David McDaniel, The Oklahoman
Mayor Joan Matthews, 66, has a number of revitalization projects in mind. She wants to repair the rusty water tower, which can be seen from two miles away; finish interior construction on a police station, which was struck by a tornado; get the county to repair the roads; and persuade property owners to clean up their land or donate it to the town.
“It’s hard to get people to cooperate, especially absentee owners,” she said. “A lot of the people who own lots here are not from here. They’ve never been here. They don’t even know where the lots they own are, because they bought them in a tax sale. The taxes hadn’t been paid. They paid them, and after a certain time, three or five years, they got the land.”
Trouble is, renovations and improvements take money, and Boley has a limited tax base. Concerned residents and officials recently met with Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb, who assured them he sees the value of their community and wants it to return to glory. But, he said, the state has no money available to help.
Over the years, the school for incorrigible boys transitioned into a Department of Human Services facility before becoming what it is today: the John Lilley Correctional Center, a minimum security prison. At one point, Matthews said, it was the main employer of Boley residents.
As state budgets have tightened, she said, fewer jobs have become available. Those who retire or quit aren’t always replaced.
Still, the importance of the prison to Boley is difficult to overstate. At its heyday, Boley’s population numbered more than 25,000. According to the most recent Census, that figure has dropped to 1,184, including the inmates. The actual number of residents is probably closer to 300, as the total count of female residents is only 160, compared with the prison-weighted male population of 1,024.
With numbers that small, making fixes to the town is a stretch. The water tower alone would cost $175,000 or more, about $583 per resident. Like many rural towns, Boley suffered through hard times in the 1920s and 1930s.
The town still hosts the nation’s oldest African American community-based rodeo every Memorial Day weekend. Boley’s downtown business district is listed in the National Register of Historic Places (NR 75001568) and has been designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service.
Booker T. Washington, founder of the National Negro Business League and the Tuskegee Institute, in Alabama, visited the town in 1905 and proclaimed it “the most enterprising and in many ways the most interesting of the Negro towns in the United States.” The town supported two colleges: Creek-Seminole College, and Methodist Episcopal College. Boley also had its own electrical generating plant, water system, and ice plant. The Masonic Grand Lodge completed a majestic Masonic Temple around 1912. At the time, it was said to be the tallest building between Okmulgee and Oklahoma City.