|The Town that Freedom built
After the Civil War, the enslaved people owned by the Indian nations in Indian Territory were freed in two ways: through the 13th
amendment as well as through new treaties signed between the tribes and the federal government in 1866.
The treaties stipulated new conditions of tribal existence, which led to the eventual break up of Indian Territory and the formation of the
state of Oklahoma. One of the conditions - which was not placed on white Southerners after the Civil War - was that the tribes had to
provide land for the freed people. Many African American families founded farms, and quite quickly, small towns developed to encourage
commerce and the building of community churches and schools. The Creeks and the Cherokees were the first to implement the land
allotments and thus, the first all-black towns were established there. With the encouragement of Civil Rights leaders like Booker T.
Washington, towns like Boley, Langston, Rentiesville, and Taft grew into sizable alternatives for African Americans throughout the South,
who viewed Indian Territory as a kind of "promised land" free of racism and segregation (unfortunately, that turned out to be wishful
thinking, as the Tulsa Race Riot attests).
By the 1890s - after the enactment of the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 - land speculators wooed blacks to this self-segregated and
self-sufficient place. In Carter County, northwest of Ardmore, Lee and Mary Tatum founded an eponymous community surrounding their
hotel and store after applying for a post office. Though never a very large town, Tatums became an important center of rural black life in the
early 20th century. Using some funds from the Rosenwald Foundation, citizens built a large school in the 1920s, the same decade in which
the silent movie, "Black Gold," was filmed in town. A decade later, "Pretty Boy" Charles Floyd laid low in Tatums for a while, too.
Though the town is still incorporated, Tatums has lost a considerable amount of its population due to economic downturns, and it didn't help
that the town also never saw a railroad pass through, either. Today, Tatums is just a little way-side stop along OK 7. It's the history that merits
this town a closer look.
|The Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, erected in 1919, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
|Mary and Lee Tatum, the founders of their namesake town. Click on the picture
to see a tribute to the couple's accomplishments. (Photo from tatums.us)
|Booker T. Washington, a prominent Civil Rights leader of the
post-Civil War era, encouraged self-sufficiency and
self-segregation for African Americans. The black newspaper
The Muskogee Cimeter reported on his upcoming visit in a
special edition in 1905. To read the entire special edition,
click to the Library of Congress - Chronicling America.
|In the 1920s, the citizens of Tatums built two sturdy school buildings using funds from the county and from the Rosenwald Foundation. Julius
Rosenwald, an executive at Sears Roebuck and a supporter of Booker T. Washington's philosophy, originated the philanthropic foundation to help
black communities build school houses and libraries. Thousands of schools were built with Rosenwald funds throughout the American South.
(Photo on the left is from Fisk University; photo on the right is from the Oklahoma Historical Society.)
|A remnant from the boarding house, owned by sisters Mary Manning and
Viola Springer, where Pretty Boyd Floyd once overnighted. The "wayside
hotel" housed both blacks and whites and also offered meals - it was,
according to locals, a cozy and very inviting place.
|Varner's grocery and meat market is closed for business; there aren't
any retail establishments left in town at all anymore, actually. Most
days, Tatums is simply a sleepy village, but it becomes very active on
Sundays, when families gather for church services.
|Tatum's Headstart Center is now gone, and was in ruins when I visited a
few years back. The building sat on the site of the Rosenwald school
and may have been erected with bricks from the old building.
|Lovely old home, slightly the worse for wear, in Tatums.
Looking to go on a roadtrip to Tatums? I don't blame you. It's just
northwest of Ardmore on OK 7. Here's a map to guide you there.
By the way, make sure to stop by Tatums' cemetery on the west
side of town, too - lots of fantastic tombstone tributes!