Posts Tagged ‘Oklahoma history’

Note: This is the fourth in a series I’m doing on the book “An Oklahoma I Had Never Seen Before,” edited by Davis D. Joyce. You can see them all under the Oklahoma history tag.

In this Chapter of “An Oklahoma I Had Never Seen Before,” Dr. Kenny Brown, Director of Graduate Studies Program
U.S. History and Southwestern Studies at the University of Central Oklahoma, argues for a new interpretation of progressive politics in Oklahoma leading up to and just following statehood.

Brown begins with an overview of progressivism in the broader United States in that era, and how difficult it is to put a thumb on just what the term means. Clearly, it entailed an opposition to trusts and monopolies, and a desire to use regulation to prevent both. Beyond that, though, things get complicated. The term was applied to completely disparate groups of people in different regions with different values and goals.

American historians have interpreted “progressivism” as a unified movement, a diverse movement, a collection of varied yet still similar movements, an impulse, an impulse with many “strains,” a spirit of the age, a reform ethos, a reform wave, or some other type of elusive and ill-defined entity. According to various interpretations, “progressives” were liberal, conservative, working-class, middle-class, upper-class, rural, urban, forward-looking, backward-looking, Christian, scientific, Middle Western, found in every part of the country yet different in each section, proconsumer, probusiness, or proefficiency.

Brown uses this confusion over national progressivism as a backdrop to explain the various factions of what came to be called progressivism in the lead up to the writing and ratification of the Oklahoma constitution. He claims that Oklahoma historians have the same confusion about progressivism, largely because they take the generalizations of the politicians they are writing about at face value. He points to a number of histories of Oklahoma and early Oklahoma politics, some specifically on progressivism, and finds all wanting for useful definitions of the term.

It occurs to me that much of this kind of confusion still exists today, in both parties. For example, it is clear to everyone both in and out of the Republican Party that there is no unified definition of conservatism in the United States, especially right now. There are a number of factions, all claiming to be conservative, but with completely different goals and worldviews. Are conservatives poor white men, rich bankers and Wall Street brokers, Rand and Ron Paul libertarians, neo-conservative hawks, evangelicals, probusiness, anti-immigration, pro-military, anti-interventionist, Birchers or Buckleyites? There are people who call themselves conservative that fit under each of these labels, but it would be impossible to associate with all of them at once.

Brown frames progressivism in early pre-statehood Oklahoma in the context of the business environment in the United States following the depression of the 1890s. Corporations had sought stability through mergers and elimination of competition. As a relatively small number of large corporations began to emerge from this trend, a concern developed about the influence these companies might have in politics. As a result, interest groups formed based on the corporate model, that explicitly advocated for the interests of their constituents. This is the period when you really got the establishment of unions, interest groups like the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association.

Oklahoma was not immune to this trend. At the turn of the century, four large companies consolidated the Oklahoma railroads. At the same time, a large coal mining company was formed in the state. Based on these corporate models, trade associations began forming before statehood. There were Oklahoma Territory Medical and Dental Associations. Social organizations like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union formed as well. By 1905, there were eighty clubs listed in the Oklahoma and Indian Territory Federation of Women’s Clubs.

The federation accomplished much of its impressive agenda: establishment of public libraries, formation of public kindergartens, and creation of parks, gardens, and other city beautification projects. As statehood approached, the federation advocated provisions in the constitution to ensure a humane juvenile justice system and to restrict child labor.

These clubs played a major role in setting up Oklahoma as a dry state when it came time to write the constitution.One woman stands out as a major force in early Oklahoma politics, Kate Barnard. Unlike most of the female advocates in the state, Barnard was single and without wealth. Barnard came of age in a poor neighborhood in south Oklahoma City. I guess south Oklahoma City has always been the poor part of the area. She will be the focus of the next essay in this series.

Barnard was an early labor advocate, particularly on the issue of child labor. This set her up in opposition later to some of the other progressive elements in the state, particularly farmers who wanted to be able to use children. Originally, Barnard was able to form a coalition between labor and the farm bloc over vague anti-corporate interests, but those broke down once she moved on child labor. When she started advocating on behalf of Indians who were being unfairly treated in the new government, she earned enemies from both sides of the aisle.

The issue of Indian lands demonstrated a major inconsistency in the logic used to attack large business interests. Critics accused corporate leaders of callously abusing farmers, workers, consumers, and other hapless common people. But many Oklahoma farmers, workers, and consumers unhesitatingly defrauded untutored Indians. Homegrown politicians seldom noted this hypocrisy, but a Chicago journalist observed, “In Wall Street they go after ‘theirs’ with the ticker and the seduction of stock certificates. In Oklahoma they seek the same thing with the abstract of the title men and the virgin soil. In Wall Street they shear the lambs and in Oklahoma they just take it away from the unsophisticated Indians.”

Over time, as the state tried to develop economically, anti-corporatism began to fall apart. Politicians would still pay lip service to it, the focus in the legislature moved to, segregation, morality legislation and “blue laws”.I’ve massively oversimplified the detailed and nuanced analysis Brown gives in this essay. I’ll end with his last paragraph, which sums up the chapter well.

The vague and trendy terminology of anticorporatism at first unified voters and acted as a catalyst to effect many reforms that seldom lived up to expectations. In Oklahoma these changes came rapidly. After the initial surge in 1907 and 1908, conflicts quickly emerged, and the difficulty of making tough decisions became more apparent. As this happened, successful politicians turned to more conventional ethnocultural issues, such as prohibition and Jim Crow laws, or they pleased constituents by log-rolling to locate state institutions in their home districts. These trends should be understood, and the inconsistencies and complexities of the politicians and interest groups should be recognized. Telling the story of the era, with its rich variety and contradictions, is far more productive and insightful than trying to generalize using the inadequate concept of “progressivism.”

Back when I was in elementary school in rural Oklahoma, we celebrated the centennial of the land run. We learned all about how the territory was opened up for settlement, and how sooners snuck in early to stake their claims. The day of the centennial, we had a mock land run on the playground, staking out our section of the yard with string. We even ate our lunch outside on our own claims.

While I was learning a whitewashed (pun intended) version of the history of settlement of the state by non-Native peoples, an alternative meeting was being held in Guthrie to commemorate the violations of the rights of Native Americans. One speaker at the event was Dr. Jerald C. Walker, then president of Oklahoma City University.

You can read the entire speech starting on page 15, here.

The essay is broken up into two sections. First, a history of the Walker family and its relation to the land run. Second, the history of the land run from the perspective of Native Americans.

The essay begins with Walker explaining how his family came to Oklahoma, and its relationship with the tribes. Walker’s grandfather was a white Republican immigrant, who married into a mixed-blood Cherokee family.

My father insisted that grandfather was “one-fifth of the Republican part” in Fry Township, Tulsa County. It was clear Joseph Dulaney Walker regarded the Democratic party as the party of secession, Jim Crow laws, and fiscal responsibility.

My how times have changed.

Even though he would not have understood the term, he was the community’s “liberal.” He was so in the sense that he had no use for the Jim Crow laws enacted after statehood. He gave legal counsel free of cost or consideration to the area’s whites, blacks, and Indians of modest financial means.

While J. D. Walker, and two of his sons were liberals, the rest of the family was not. This conflict was highly formative for Jerald C. Walker.

If I were to write an autobiography, it would b entitled, Between Two Worlds. I have, effectively, lived my life between the two often conflicting worlds of values, opinions, and historical interpretations into which I was born…

Jerald Walker spends the rest of the essay outlining the Native American view of the land run, and answers to objections to this view.

It was, from the perspective of the great majority of the Indian population of what was to have been a uniquely Indian area, another invasion of Indian land by non-Indians. It was a perfectly legal invasion from the non-Indian perspective, but nothing more than another land grab by property hungry non-Indians from the Native American perspective.

Walker outlines how non-Indians had illegally encroached upon Indian territory so much by 1890, that the majority of people in the territory were white.

One oft-repeated bitter joke in the full-blood and mixed-blood circles of my childhood stated that “the Scotch-Irish kept the sabbath on the American frontier and everything else they could get their hands on.” Will Rogers ironically joked, “We spoiled the best territory in the world to make a state.” A white state like Oklahoma was inevitable, Rogers said, because “Indians were so cruel that they were all killed by civilized white men for encroaching on white domain.”

Walker responds to four different justifications for the land run, dispatching each fairly effectively.

The essay ends with a look at how the Oklahoma state government of 1989 was working with the tribes to improve their relationship, and how effective or ineffective those efforts were being.

This post is a summary and review of an essay in the book “An Oklahoma I Had Never Seen Before,” edited by Davis Joyce. For an introduction to this series, check here.

The first essay in “An Oklahoma I Had Never Seen Before” is by George Milburn. Aptly titled Oklahoma, this piece first appeared in the March 1946 Yale Review. You can find it online starting on page 101 of American Thought 1947, where it was also published.

Oklahoma begins with a humorous description of where the state is situated and its social and political makeup. Milburn does a good job explaining the diversity (and hypocrisy) of his home state.

Oklahoma is to sociology as Australia is to zoology. It is a place where the trials and errors of men, instead of nature, have been made only yesterday, and the results are as egregious as a duckbill, or a kangaroo. Oklahoma is filled with man-made contradictions, perversities and monstrosities.

As examples of how Oklahoma is a state of contrasts, he cites the history of forcing Native Americans to migrate here, then taking the land back away from them; Oklahoma’s political fickleness (something that it can’t be accused of today), and its sense of humor (or lack-thereof). One line from this section sounds like it is being said today.

Although Oklahoma is one of the wealthiest States in the Union, at the same time it is one of the most poverty-stricken.

It is amazing how little changes in 50+ years.

The next portion of the essay outlines his reluctance to write about Oklahoma at all. He explains how touchy some of those in his own state can be, recounting a run in he had with the University of Oklahoma auxiliary of the Ku Klux Clan back when he wrote for the university paper. What had made them so mad was his suggestion that Oklahoma (and its premiere university) were a comic-opera. He points out that the popularity of the comic-opera Oklahoma! (of “sweeping down the plains” fame) is particularly ironic considering how upset everyone was at his suggestion.

Milburn laments the authors who have written works set in the state without having spent any real time here. He points out Edna Ferber’s book Cimarron as an example, but the one most of the modern readers will think of, The Grapes of Wrath, sets up my favorite line.

It is evident that Mr. Steinbeck wrote his book without ever having set foot in the State.

I appreciated this because, while I’m a fan of Steinbeck’s account of Oklahoma migrants attempting to build a life in California, I completely agree. Steinbeck clearly didn’t know what Oklahoma actually looked like. His descriptions of eastern Oklahoma as a dusty prairie are laughable to anyone who has ever lived here.

“Oklahoma” feels like something Christopher Hitchens or H.L. Mencken might have written. It is acerbic, but in the kind of way that disarms potential anger. Honestly, I think this essay should be required reading in any Oklahoma History class. Ironically, Milburn is somewhat prescient on the teaching of Oklahoma History, a common subject in state classrooms.

Of course, Oklahoma is still on the map. And even if it its history is not a subject for schoolboys, it is still a good one for political scientists because, in my opinion, no other place in the world offers a more gruesome study of democracy in the raw-nor of how thoroughly it can be cooked.

That sounds so much like something Frosty Troy, Brittany Novotny or Ed Shadid could say about today.

Let’s hope the rest of the essays are this good.

I’m going to begin a series blogging my way through “An Oklahoma I Had Never Seen Before”, edited by Davis D. Joyce in 1998. This book is basically the Oklahoma version of A People’s History of the United States, which should be very interesting if you know anything at all about this state. I picked it up a while back at while digging around in a used book store. I was actually on the prowl for the titles ostensibly penned by Sally Kern or James Inhofe. I was going to read them so you don’t have to, and review them here. Fortunately for my sanity, and the quality of people who sell books to that store, neither was available. This was.

Each chapter is an essay, nineteen in all, covering a different period or group of people in Oklahoma. There are essays on black Oklahomans, gays, Mennonite pacifists and abortion rights advocates, to name a few.

I’m particularly looking forward to the chapter on Woody Guthrie’s Oklahoma years. (An embarrassing confession, I am a huge Wilco fan, and didn’t come to fully appreciate Woody Guthrie until I rediscovered him through the two Mermaid Avenue albums of unreleased Guthrie songs they collaborated with Billy Bragg on.)

The editor, Davis D. Joyce, is also a biographer for Howard Zinn, so it only makes sense that he’d put together this book. In 2003, he teamed up with Noam Chomsky to write Howard Zinn: A Radical American Vision.

On that note, let’s begin the series.

Editor’s Preface

Joyce begins his preface by explaining the title and why it is a quotation. It was on the comment form of one of his students at the end of the semester.

What I had done in the course was to begin to try to introduce the kind of material found in this volume.

The next paragraph sums up pretty much my entire view of Oklahoma.

I love Oklahoma. I love its land, its people. I love its history. But, just as I always thought the bumper sticker slogan “America: Love It or Leave It” was silly, narrow-minded, and in appropriate-I always like “America: Change It or Lose It” better-I react negatively to those who react predictably negatively to every criticism of Oklahoma. Love it or leave it? No. Some of use love it enough to stay and try to change it-America and Oklahoma.

This is where I start pumping my fist and singing along to Red City Radio.

Joyce goes on to say that, while this sentiment frames the book, the idea behind it is explicitly that of Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. He quotes a couple of passages from Zinn explaining the goal of his book, namely to tell the stories of those who are usually voiceless throughout accounts of history. Joyce wants to get us to reconsider who the heroes and villains are when we think of Oklahoma history.

Joyce is careful to point out that this book is not comprehensive, but it is a good place to start. Much of the material in the book saw its first light of day in these pages.

He ends the preface by pointing out that this book is clearly political. Part of the goal is to help today’s radicals understand and appreciate their history, so they will be better equipped for the fights of this generation.