A Safer Place
Anthropologist Karla Slocum ’81 writes that after the Civil War, Black people in the U.S. could not find opportunity or security in most Southern towns. So they built their own.
Langston, Oklahoma. Kinloch, Missouri. Mound Bayou in Mississippi, and Hobson City in Alabama. These small, rural towns are the tiniest of dots on the map today, but in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they were bustling havens known as “Black towns,” established by former slaves searching for opportunity, prosperity, and safety from the racism and violence of the Jim Crow South. Hundreds of Black towns were founded throughout the American South and West after the Civil War “with the purpose of Black self-reliance and security,” writes anthropologist Karla Slocum ’81, a professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and director of UNC’s Institute of African American Research.
The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.
How did you get interested in Black towns?
Before I started doing research on Black towns in Oklahoma, I studied predominantly Black communities in the Caribbean that came out of a plantation experience — an experience of extreme racial hostility. The people in these communities prided themselves on being able to get away from plantations and live independently. Black towns in the U.S. have the same narrative — people getting out of the Deep South during the Jim Crow era and trying to start their own communities so they could be free and live self-sufficiently.
Karla Slocum ’81 is the Thomas Willis Lambeth Distinguished Chair of Public Policy, a professor of Anthropology, and director of the Institute of African American Research at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
She’s also ...
• Author of Free Trade and Freedom: Neoliberalism, Place and Nation in the Caribbean (2006) and Black Towns, Black Futures: The Enduring Allure of a Black Place in the American West (2019).
• Co-founder/co-chair, “Black Communities: A Conference for Collaboration”
• Co-creator of #TulsaSyllabus, a resource guide to the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921
• Collaborator, “Mapping Black Towns,” a digital resource on Black settlements in the U.S.
“There are so many silences around the Black presence, and the Black town story helps round out the American story.”
Slocum has spent more than 15 years researching Black towns, mainly in Oklahoma. Her recent book, Black Towns, Black Futures: The Enduring Allure of a Black Place in the American West, joins a growing effort by scholars and journalists to reshape the narrative of U.S. history into something more accurate and complete. “There are so many silences around the Black presence,” Slocum told Wyoming Public Radio last fall. “The Black town story helps add to and round out the American story.” There’s a family connection, too. My grandfather was a sociologist, and in the 1930s and ’40s, he did his master’s and doctoral research on Black towns in Oklahoma, and eventually worked at a historically Black university in one of the towns. His brother had lived in Black towns in Oklahoma as well, and became a school superintendent and mayor.
Your work focuses on place and identity. Is there a place that has shaped you?
The town of Fishkill, New York — I was there from about age 4 until 12. It was the kind of place where, when I broke my leg in fifth grade, the minister in our church came to the house to check on us, and my teacher came over to tutor me every day after he was done teaching. So it had a small town feel. We were one of the few Black families in the community, and I was usually the only Black kid in my class. I would never say that there was open hostility, but I was definitely aware of the way I stood out. I remember once being on the bus with my sister, and a boy was counting all the kids on the bus, and he said, “There’s 48 people on this bus and two raisins.” He meant my sister and me. I came home, told my father, and he explained that there are people like that in the world, and we can’t change that kind of thing. We all had our experiences like that. My father had a sports car, and he told stories about being stopped a lot by the police, who questioned whether or not he belonged in that car.
How about your experience at NMH?
It was similar to Fishkill: I was in a close-knit, predominantly white setting, and I made some good, lifelong friends, mostly white. I have a photograph of a day when I was leaving to go home and my closest friends were all waiting for my grandmother to pick me up. We took pictures of each other doing handstands in the field and playing around. That photo makes me think of the closeness among us, and I recall being touched that they were there to say good-bye to me. But I was also aware of my difference at NMH. I experienced some stereotypical comments as a Black person. When I got into the University of Virginia, I started to hear comments like “She got in because of affirmative action.” And I had two, maybe three experiences of students using the N-word in my presence. I hope I don’t make NMH sound like it was a bad experience because there was a lot that was positive. I’m just telling you, carefully, what it was like.
Back to your work … What were Black towns like in their heyday?
They were built on racial solidarity during a time of incredible hostility and violence. They drew Black people in because the chance to have land, make a home, and achieve prosperity in a connected community was really alluring. My grandfather’s research stressed that while there were class divisions, those divisions were not that stark, and there was actually a lot of mobility and fluidity among different classes because there was this overarching idea that people were there to support one another as a race.
As you launched the research for what would become Black Towns, Black Futures, how did local residents react when you showed up and started asking questions?
When I first went to Oklahoma, I expected that my family ties would hold some significance. But people in these towns have seen so many others traipse through, looking for family roots. I didn’t get a negative reception, but I also didn’t get the fascination that I thought I would. That was eye-opening. Humbling, actually. What I’ve always known as an anthropologist, and what I should have known before I went to Oklahoma, is that the work is about the ties you build once you are in a place and can connect with people.
So how did you connect with people?
I spent deep, extended time in the communities — several months at a stretch and a few years altogether. While I was there, I went to town council meetings to hear what people’s concerns were; I hung out at the eateries to see what people were chatting about. Another big place where I spent time was the senior citizens daily lunches. I hung out at rodeos also.
I interviewed over 100 people with the help of research assistants, but there were probably five or six people whom I got to know well and I learned deeply about their lives in the communities. I met one woman in her 70s who just wanted to drive around and show me things. I’d arrive at her house, and she’d grab her jacket and say, “Let’s go.” I felt like I was on a joy ride with her, learning about community life just by going on adventures with her. One time, we ended up at a picnic of Black (motorcycle) bikers visiting from one of the cities in Oklahoma. That was meaningful because I was interested in the connections that people formed with these towns, especially Black people from other places. So, as an anthropologist, those adventures were the best sort of experience because I got a window into things that a tourist would not.
Have these towns changed much since their peak more than a century ago?
They have — and we should expect change to occur in any place over that period of time. Their populations are smaller. They were known for having active business districts but that has waned significantly over the past 100 years. There are more older people than young people living there now; young people have moved away to find work in cities elsewhere. But this is like most of rural America today.
The towns are all still predominantly Black, as they have always been. A couple of the towns have prisons in them and the prisons have large white populations, so if you look at census data in those towns, it looks like they’re almost 50 percent white, but that is not the case in everyday life. Also, some white people have been moving to the outskirts of the towns over the past couple of decades, buying up larger tracts of land and building homes. In my book, I talk about this as a kind of rural gentrification. And there are mixed feelings about it. Many people in Black towns feel like racial diversity is a social good in our society, and they embrace it. They think that if white people want to come in and help build up the community, all the better.
At the same time, there is sometimes an uneasy feeling with what is clearly racial disparity when white people start moving in. Some Black residents ask, “How do their homes look compared to our homes?” It bothers them to see that white people’s houses might be bigger or have a grander, more manicured presence. But for Black town residents, there’s an emphasis on the communities’ historic identity and no change in racial demographics can change that. One Black town mayor said, “We’ll be a Black town no matter who moves in here.”
How widely known are Black towns?
Generally, the American public does not know that the United States has what I estimate to be over 1,000 historically Black settlements, concentrated in the South, the Southwest, the West, and the Midwest. We tend to have a bias in this country toward knowing about big places, and Black towns are very, very tiny. And they’re rural. Then add on the fact that these are Black communities. Those three qualities contribute to the fact that the towns are little-known.
“Black towns allow us to think about racism and Black achievement all tied to one small place. It’s a reminder that place stories in general and Black place stories in particular are complex.”
How can an understanding of these Black towns be applied to other cities and communities across the country?
We have so few opportunities to hear about Black success in this country, so Black town stories that highlight Black success become ways to vindicate Black people from the negative associations that are much more pervasive. However, my interest is in making sure we address the complexities of the stories. The Black success story in Oklahoma doesn’t mean racism didn’t exist. It doesn’t say much about the extreme violence that led many people to come to these communities in the first place. It doesn’t say much about the racism that people continued to experience outside of their communities. So, Black towns allow us to think about racism and Black achievement all tied to one small place, which is useful for reminding us that place stories in general and Black place stories in particular are complex.
You taught a course at UNC recently on Oklahoma’s 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre — when a white mob attacked the affluent Black neighborhood of Greenwood, torching businesses and homes, killing dozens of people, and injuring hundreds. Why this course, and why now?
It’s a history that’s not widely known and the time was ripe. More Americans are now aware of what happened in Greenwood for a few reasons: the HBO show “Watchmen,” and Donald Trump’s rally in Tulsa last summer. This year is also the 100th anniversary of the massacre. The goal for the class is to make students aware of not just HBO’s version of what happened but also the deeper history of what happened, including the specific parts of American history that gave rise to the massacre. There are oral histories of the survivors; there are other films; there are articles written by a famous lawyer at Harvard, Charles Ogletree, who worked on a reparations case for the survivors. I want students to become familiar with primary sources and to think about the broader context of the massacre, including its relevance today.
How will you build on the research you did for your book?
The project I’m doing right now is called “Mapping Black Towns.” It’s a collaboration with people from different fields — geography, urban planning, archaeology, history — and we’re identifying all the historically Black towns by state. Eventually, this will be a digital map that will help people understand not just where these places are and how many there are, but also their formation dates, whether they still exist, their changing demographics, their environmental conditions, their infrastructure over time, and the threats and violence they have experienced. In places such as Massachusetts, we’ll be likely to find pre-emancipation free Black settlements; we’ll see more post-emancipation settlements in the Southeast and heading across the West. I think it will be quite eye-opening for people to see the United States map filled with so many historically Black places.
Interview by Jennifer Sutton