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Kansas Historical Quarterly - From Sodom to the Promised Land

E. P. McCabe and the Movement
for Oklahoma Colonization

By Martin Dann

Autumn 1974 (Vol. XL, No. 3), pages 370 to 378
Transcription by Harriette Jensen; HTML composition by Tod Roberts;
digitized with permission of The Kansas Historical Society.
NOTE: The numbers in brackets refer to endnotes for this text.

PRIOR to the Civil War the emigration and colonization of black people had been a subject of intense controversy among both black and white groups. Though black people, as a whole, consistently rejected schemes for the mass exportation of free blacks to another country, as projected by the American Colonization Society before the Civil War, some black pioneers migrated to Liberia, and by the mid-1850's a few thousand had gone to Haiti. The purpose of the Caribbean colonists was not only to find freedom, but to establish a base from which to attack the slave states. Canada and the Northwest territory attracted a sizeable group of black settlers, and communities were established from Ontario to Wisconsin. Free blacks accumulated property in rural areas of the North (as in southwestern Michigan) despite a predominantly urban polarization of Northern black populations. White liberals, as well as racists, saw foreign colonization as a way of effectively removing an increasingly militant black abolitionist group, and at the same time retain possession of the land. President Lincoln reflected a widely held belief when he declared that removal of free blacks to another country was the best way to rid the U.S. of their "troublesome presence."

The short-term successes and long-term failures of the Civil War and Reconstruction, however, coupled with the opening of the West to settlers (facilitated by the Homestead act of 1862), and the reestablishment of repression and new forms of institutionalized oppression by such measures as the Black Codes, the convict lease and crop lien in the South led more and more black people to view some sort of colonization as their only viable alternative. The withdraw of federal troops from the South witnessed an increased interest in the possibilities of foreign and domestic colonization. [1] Such large-scale migrations as those led by Henry Adams and "Pap" Singleton in 1879 and 1880 from the South to Kansas, involving some 40,000 black settlers, were to characterize black migrations for a generation.

The various factors prompting migrations (personal insecurity, economic discontent, the dream of freedom, and the availability of land) converged in the establishment of all-black communities in the West towards the end of the century, and specifically in Oklahoma. What differentiates the Oklahoma efforts from those which preceded it is that earlier efforts had not emphasized the political, economic, and social exclusiveness based on a new political consciousness and racial pride that was practiced by the latter movement. It is precisely this appeal to black nationalism in the attempt to develop an economic and political power base among black people which spoke to increasingly vigorous black resistance. It is furthermore highly significant that the Oklahoma colonization movement coincided with a nascent black populist movement among the agricultural labor force under the Colored Farmers' Alliance.

Efforts to establish Oklahoma as a territory where black people could exercise the right of self-determination had begun during the 1880's. In 1883 a delegation of black men inquired of the secretary of the interior as to their possible claims to the Indian territory, as a continuation of efforts to bring black settlers to Kansas and other Western states. [2] William Eagelson, the editor of the Colored Citizen in Fort Scott, Kan., in 1878 and later of The Herald of Kansas, in Topeka, was one of the most ardent advocates of Western colonization. [3] He later became the editor of the Langston City Herald, the newspaper of that all-black community. But the central figure in this dramatic project in Oklahoma was Edward P. McCabe.

McCabe was born in Troy, N.Y., on October 10, 1850. The family soon moved to Fall River, Mass., and then settled in Newport, R.I. Edward was sent to Bangor, Me., where he attended school until the death of his father. As a young man he traveled to New York City, where he worked as a clerk on Wall street. With this experience he moved to Chicago, where he became a clerk for Potter Palmer, the hotel king, and in 1872 was appointed clerk in the Cook county office of the federal treasury. Stirred by black migrations to the West, he moved to Kansas in 1878 with Abram T. Hall, Jr., city editor of the Chicago Conservator, where they set up a law and real estate office in Nicodemus, a predominantly black community. Hall subsequently went on to St. Louis and became city editor of the National Tribune. But McCabe linked his political fortunes to the future of black colonization. In 1878 he was chosen secretary of the settlement at Nicodemus, one year after it was formally organized. In 1880 he married Sarah Bryant and in the same year he was appointed county clerk from Nicodemus. A leading political figure in the Republican party, McCabe was selected as delegate-at-large from Kansas to the Chicago convention of the Republican party in June, 1880. [4] He was accused (at the State Convention of Colored Men, in April, 1880) of selling out to the conservative faction of the Republican party in caucus. He replied that he "strove hard, single-handed, to secure a representation for my race, but without avail." [5] In 1882 he was elected state auditor, and was reelected in 1884.

By this time the "Oklahoma fever" had caught on. Reports filtered in of secret black "Oklahoma clubs" which had formed throughout Kansas. [6] Repression in the South had reached unbearable proportions, and lynchings were a common occurrence. Black newspapers carried stories of the advisability of leaving the South, as well as accounts of settlers who were waiting on the borders of Oklahoma territory for free land. In March, 1889, the Leavenworth Advocate, a black Republican paper, ran a story under the caption "The Oklahoma Lands." The editors emphasized the fact that the land had "legally" come into the possession of the United States by expropriation from the Seminole and Creek tribes. [7] This, however, did not deter black leaders who saw in the possession of this land a unique opportunity for black self-determination. The Rev. Edward Bryant, black editor of the Birmingham (Ala.) Independent, was quoted: "Were you to leave this southland for 20 years it would be one of the grandest sections of the globe. We would show you Mossback Crackers how to run a country." [8]

By the fall of 1889, an immigration society was established in Topeka with agents throughout the South, to "provide for an exodus of negroes to Oklahoma." [9] They expected 20,000 immigrants. Not surprising was an item two weeks later which noted that Jay Gould wanted to push his railroad into the territory, with Guthrie as a terminal [10] and thus capitalize on the new possibilities of exploiting the land and its inhabitants. Guthrie was a center of black organizational activity in that area.

Such organizations as the First Colored Real Estate Homestead and Emigration Association of the State of Kansas [11] continued to draw settlers into Oklahoma and help them substantially. On February 28, 1890, the American Citizen, a black Republican paper published in Kansas City, Kan., carried the following lengthy article concerning the efforts to establish an all-black community in Oklahoma. The author, A.G. Stacey, noted that there were branches in many cities of Kansas, Missouri, and the Indian territory. E.P. McCabe was usually designated as the leader of the movement, though it is clear that he had the backing of mutual assistance societies in Kansas (such as the First Grand Independent Brotherhood). [12] Although there is some question as to the reliability of the information below, it is significant that such a movement was recognized as a reality by the press and public generally. 

TOPEKA. -- While not generally known, and certainly never advertised in the press, there is a secret political society in existence, membership in which can be obtained only by those of Negro blood. Last year there was organized by a little band of Negroes in Graham county the first Grand Independent Brotherhood, which is based upon the principles of Negro advancement, mentally and morally, and the future control of Oklahoma whenever it shall become a state.... An auxiliary society, called an "immigration society," was formed, which undertook the work of reaching the Negroes of the south to hasten their movement to the promise land.

At first the officers worked only in Arkansas and Mississippi where the results were most marked. Soon there was a scarcity of labor in those states and a corresponding increase of Southern Negroes in the new territory of Oklahoma. Negro settlement began to appear and grow as if by magic. Near Purcell a large one was founded; on the East Canadian two Negro settlements founded; west of Kingfisher others were commenced and grew so rapidly that they were towns before the neighboring whites realized what was being done. Nor was this all. Homesteads were taken, and instead of one family on a quarter section, or four on a square mile, there were often four or five families on a quarter section, where they await the abandonment of a claim by the whites, when it was immediately pounced upon, or where they patiently wait for the day when the Cherokee Strip will be declared open for settlement.

Parties in Oklahoma City and Guthrie declare with confidence that there are not over 2,800 Negroes in that territory. They are only mistaken. Shawnee county has alone furnished 3,000 Negroes all of whom had money. Chautauqua, Montgomery, Wyandotte, and Leavenworth counties have sent at least 4,000 more, while from other counties in the state, headed by Graham, the original home of the society, have gone fully 3,000 more, making 10,000 from Kansas alone. The result of the work of the auxiliary immigration society has been to add some 12,000 Negroes from Arkansas and Mississippi, making in all about 22,000 Negroes in the territory, which number the brotherhood is bending every energy to make 50,000 before September 1....

They proposed to found a Negro state in which the white man will be tolerated as a necessary evil, but to whom no political honors will be given. The brotherhood proposes to fill all state, county, and municipal offices and will have only Negro teachers in their schools, which will be mixed if the white's desire advantages for their children. As one of the brotherhood officers said: "You must demand and see that your demands are enforced, full social equality; you must compel the white man to accept you at his table in his home and in his bed...." They will not ... "permit a white man to be elected to any office whatever. We will rule." [13]

Reaction to these developments from the press was mixed. The Leavenworth Times believed that setting aside one state for blacks might be a solution. [14] But the Leavenworth Advocate urged black people not to go to Oklahoma, as they said it was being misrepresented by promoters, and that all the fertile land had already been taken. Paraphrasing an earlier warning about Kansas, it concluded: "... In God we trusted / In Oklahoma we busted." [15] The Topeka Capital (a white paper) also took a skeptical view of the movement (though it tended to favor migration), and suggested that the whole idea was developed by "speculators, land grabbers and office seekers" who had first tried to induce white settlers to migrate in order to cheat them, and when this failed, these men turned to black people for victims. [16] The Advocate, which staunchly opposed the Farmers' Alliance (and later the Populist part), suggested that blacks were only being used by whites. But such concerns were perhaps motivated by political considerations, as it was recognized that the principal inducements to prospective immigrants were not simply the possession of rich farm lands, but control of the government of the territory. [17] Southern Blacks were clearly divided, and despite the promise of free land, a few rejected migration as a solution to Bourbon oppression: "We want no colonization. We are at home, the only home that we have. We are in our God-given land and we only want protection from government which we helped to make and a country for which our forefathers fought and died...." [18]

Nevertheless, black settlers continued to move toward the borders of the Indian territory. Appeals from Oklahoma were printed in black papers throughout the country which emphasized their quest for national identity, such as the Detroit (Mich.) Plaindealer:

We are here first as American citizens; we are here because as such we have the right to be here to better our condition and if permitted to prove beyond question that we posses the qualifications of earnest, thrifty, capable and law abiding citizens -- -equal, in fact to the more favored race in conducting if necessary the affairs of a State without jars or friction to anyone who may cast their lot with us, of any race or nationality.... You are not wanted in the South. Then embrace this, perhaps your last opportunity to get lands for yourselves and families... [19]

Throughout 1890, white "boomers" in Oklahoma secretly organized in fear that black settlers would take over the entire territory. Ku Klux Klans were formed and raids against black families mounted. [20] The black community, however, resisted efforts to drive them off:

GUTHRIE, O.T. -- Couriers from Langston City, the negro colony, came in this morning and purchased 20 carbines and hastened back to the front. They report that the entire town site is covered with tents of emigrants and that they are determined to protect themselves from any attempt on the part of the whites to keep them from their lands... [21]

The nearest approach to bloodshed occurred when ex-auditor McCabe of Kansas the founder of the negro colony at Langston, started for Guthrie through Iowa lands. He was met by three men, who ordered him to go back whence he came. He declined and they opened fire on him. One shot struck the pummel of his saddle, and being unharmed, he fled back to Langston, and from there came to Guthrie. [22]

In addition to attempts by whites to destroy them, the black settlers also faced the opposition of Indians. Numerous incidents were recorded which indicate the severity of the antagonism.

VENITA, I.T. -- Two hundred or more negro squatters, armed with Winchesters and a brass cannon are entrenched at "Gooseneck," in defiance of the Cherokee nation. The Cherokees after notifying the squatters to vacate the lands, issued an order of sale. This incensed the negroes, and they armed themselves for resistance. They are increasing their forces hourly and swearing vengeance against the Cherokees. [23]

The New York Age more sympathetic to colonization, reported the growing troubles and concluded: "We did not before understand that the red man was affected by color prejudice like the white man." [24]

By the spring of 1891, it had become clear to McCabe, and other leaders of the Oklahoma movement, that there was a limit to the number of new settlers who could be absorbed. Disillusioned blacks wrote that many were in a "terrible condition, almost starving." [25] McCabe's Langston City Herald warned that only those with money should move to Oklahoma as they would have to sustain themselves for at least a year. [26] While he cautioned "Come prepared, or not at all," the agents of the colonization effort continued to promote "Oklahoma -- -the future land and the paradise of Eden and the garden of the Gods ... here the negro ... can rest from mob law, here he can be secure from every ill of the southern policies ..." [27] According to one correspondent, there were 850 agents of the movement in the Southern states. [28] And reports continued of bands of blacks making their painful way westward.

Although the elements of a city had been established in September, it was not until October 22, 1890, that McCabe founded Langston City, "The Only Distinctively Negro City in America." [29] The town was named after John Mercer Langston, a black congressman from Virginia who served in the 51st congress from September, 1890, to March, 1891. Langston had been an early supporter of colonization efforts and actively encouraged (while resident minister to Haiti in 1879) the "Black Exodus" of that year.

McCabe's political concern clearly indicates the importance he placed on self-determination.

I expect to have a Negro population of over one hundred thousand within two years, and we will not only have made substantial advancement for my people, but we will by that time secure control of political affairs. At present we are republicans, but the time will soon come when we will be able to dictate the policy of this territory or state, and when that time comes we will have a Negro state governed by Negroes. We do not wish to antagonize the whites. They are necessary in the development of a new country, but they owe my race homes, and my race owes to itself a governmental control of those homes.... [30]

McCabe and the Langston City promoters were attacked by some who said that they were "reaping a fortune by fleecing the unsuspecting members of their race, charging them 50c apiece for admission to the colony." [31] Though McCabe was never directly accused, a white promoter, W.R. Hill, who founded Hill City, in Graham county, was arrested for alleged shady dealings. [32] Nevertheless, the colonization movement had stirred a new sense of identity and destiny among black people. In a revealing incident, the pastor of a Kansas church asked his audience to join him in singing "America." The congregation refused and the pastor was forced to substitute "John Brown's Body." [33]

McCabe's involvement with Langston City did not sit well with white Republican leaders. He was nicknamed "pushahead," referring to his desire to be appointed governor of the territory. [34] The turning point for McCabe and the black settlers as well, came on September 19, 1892, when he attempted to make a speech at the Republican county convention telling why he had urged blacks to bolt the party.

He was ruled out of order, but climbed upon the stage accompanied by a large number of negro delegates; and scored the Republican leaders roundly. Then there was a rough and tumble fight and the chairman was crowded form the platform. The sheriff and police finally cleared the hall with their clubs. As a result of the fight today, the negroes in the territory will bolt the Republican ticket.... [35]

McCabe's bold confrontation brought the discontent of black people to a head, and nearly six months later it appeared that the break was complete. A call was issued to Oklahoma black settlers for a convention to organize an independent political party. The Republican party had been using black voters to keep their majority, and had encouraged immigration for that purpose. But the black settlers in Oklahoma had come too far to allow a repetition of de facto disfranchisement, or second-class citizenship. The black Republican American Citizen observed this phenomenon and sadly concluded that unless this third party move could be headed off, the Republican party in Oklahoma was doomed. [36]

McCabe apparently moved to Washington, D.C., with J.J. Jennings (another prominent black politician) in 1894 and accepted an appointment under C.H. Taylor, register of deeds for the District of Columbia. [37] In 1897 he returned to Oklahoma to accept the position of deputy auditor of Oklahoma territory, a post he held until 1907 when Oklahoma became a state. With the subsequent disfranchisement of black citizens, McCabe moved to Chicago, where he died in 1923.

For those who struggled on in Oklahoma, it became in fact, a Southern state. [38] Perhaps it was only poetic justice that the 1919 "Grandfather Clause" which was used to disfranchise black people (since 1910) was declared unconstitutional in an Oklahoma case in 1915. The Oklahoma experiment was a modest success, and Langston University, established in 1897, continues to attest to that success. For those who sought the promised land of that day, and for those who seek it on our own, political self-determination was the ultimate, crucial question.


MARTIN DANN is a Ph.D. candidate at the City University of New York. He is on the faculty of Lehman and Brooklyn Colleges and also teaches at the New School for Social Research. He is author of The Black Press (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1971).

1. It is significant that at about the same time that blacks were being enlisted in the Oklahoma colonization movement, a similar project was promoted with its destination in Mexico. -- See Fred J. Rippy, "A Negro Colonization Project in Mexico, 1895," Journal of Negro History, Washington, v. 6, no. 1 (January, 1921). Extensive colonies were also established in Fresno and Shasta counties in California. In reporting this development, the New Orleans Daily Picayune, August 18, 1891, supported it, and suggested that once black people were scattered throughout the country, the whites would be concerned with their black populations, rather than worrying about the South. In addition, emigration to Africa attracted numerous black settlers, including some from Oklahoma. -- See Edwin Redkey, Black Exodus (Yale University Press).
2. New York Globe, April 14, 1883.
3. Cleveland Gazette, July 13, 1889.
4. New York Globe, February 17, 1883; see, also, Glen Schwendemann, "Nicodemus: Negro Haven on the Solomon, Kansas Historical Quarterly, Spring, 1968.
5. Herald of Kansas, Topeka, April 30, 1880.
6. Western Cyclone, Nicodemus, October 7, 1886.
7. Leavenworth Advocate, March 23, 1889.
8. Ibid., August 31, 1889.
9. Ibid., October 12, 1889. See Daniel Littlefield and Lonnie Underhill. "Black Dreams and 'Free' Homes: The Oklahoma Territory, 1891-1894," Phylon, Atlanta, Ga., December, 1973.
10. Ibid., October 26, 1889.
11. American Citizen, Topeka, May 3, 1889.
12. Ibid., Kansas City, March 14, 1890. (See, also, New York Times, February 28, 1890, for similar article.)
13. Ibid., February 28, 1890.
14. Ibid.
15. Leavenworth Advocate, March 29, 1890.
16. American Citizen, March 21, 1890.
17. Leavenworth Advocate, January 31, 1891.
18. Detroit Plaindealer, November 15, 1889 (letter from O.L. Garrett, Canton, Miss.).
19. Ibid., April 25, 1890.
20. Leavenworth Advocate, April 12, 1890; see, also, American Citizen, March 7 and April 4, 1890.
21. New Orleans Daily Picayune, September 22, 1891.
22. Ibid., September 234, 1891.
23. Leavenworth Advocate, May 9, 1891.
24. New York Age, September 26, 1891.
25. Ibid., April 18, 1891 (letter from AJR, Guthrie, O.T.)
26. Leavenworth Advocate, April 11, 1891.
27. Topeka Call, April 24, 1891.
28. New Orleans Daily Picayune, August 27, 1891.
29. Langston City Herald, December 26, 1891.
30. American Citizen, October 23, 1891. This would contradict Littlefield and Underhill's conclusion that McCabe "had evidently given up the idea of a black state."
31. Southern Argus, Topeka, September 3, 1891; see, also, November 12, 1891. Littlefield and Underhill have presented interesting information on this question, but it is difficult to form a definite conclusion as to the mendacity of McCabe's group. There were, undoubtedly, some unscrupulous pirates in the effort whose only interest was monetary -- but clearly McCabe was not one of them.
32. People's Friend, Topeka, December 11, 1896.
33. American Citizen, April 8, 1892.
34. New York Age, November 7, 1891; see, also, issue of September 26, 1891, and American Citizen, November 20, 1891.
35. Ibid., September 23, 1892.
36. Ibid., March 31, 1893.
37. The People's Friend, June 29, 1894.
38. The most comprehensive study of the subject, and of particular interest for a later period is Arthur Tolson, "The Negro in Oklahoma, 1889-1907: A Study in Racial Discrimination" (Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Oklahoma, 1966).