[music, Mary J. Blige’s Family Affair]
Announcer: Alright here we go…Watch the turn right there…What do you say rodeo fans…
Jameela: Hey, Jameela here. I’m in Oklahoma, at the annual Boley Rodeo, the oldest Black Rodeo in the U.S.
Announcer: I wanna see everybody on this side get your hands up, wave you hands in the air like this, c’mon, hey hey hey where we at over here
Jameela: This — place — is — popping! The MC is making his way through Marvin Gaye, the OJays, BB King, Otis Redding.
[Music level up]
Thousands of people are here. And it’s been this way every Memorial Day weekend since it began in 1903.
Announcer: We got a rodeo going on in the arena, bald face calf going down, watch out guys. Y;all need to clear the arena, y’all in the way
Bullfighters where you at, bullfighters
Jameela: Bull riding, calf-roping, steer wrestling, mutton busting…they do it all.
Announcer: These are some of the top ten cowboys in the nation. You looking at some of your top ten in each event, we appreciate them, because they didn’t have to stop, they could’ve kept on the road, we appreciate them.
Jameela: Boley’s about 70 miles due east of Oklahoma City. About 1,000 people live here year round. And it seems like every one of them has come out. And the smell of barbeque is everywhere—food trucks and vendor booths sprinkled along the parade route.
[kitchen and customer ordering]
Jameela: A line forms outside the Bradford family food truck. Nate Bradford Jr., who goes by “June,” is grilling steaks and hamburgers.
Nate Jr.: These people are coming back to their roots. You know, it's one thing through the pandemic. We've…learned that people really start putting value on where they're from, what they're eating, what they're doing – putting value on their time, you know what I mean.
Jameela: The space inside June’s food truck is crammed. Family members bustle about flipping burgers and tending to customers. June, who’s in his early 40s, tells me that his family are fourth generation cattle ranchers and one of the main sponsors of the rodeo.
Nate Jr.: This smoker slash grill you see here set up. Um, this is something that was handed down to my family, it's been in my family over 20 years, right, so G-Line is putting this bad boy to work and I've got people from all over the world come to celebrate.
[kitchen prep sounds]
Nate Jr.: Cowboy style!
[kitchen and customer ordering]
Jameela: In the early 1900s, Boley was the largest and wealthiest Black town in Oklahoma. It was a model of success and self-sufficiency. And it was touted by African-American newspapers and Black political leaders across the country as an oasis in a Jim Crow nation.
Nate Jr.: People came in here on the railway back in the early 1900s. I mean, that roots is deep.
Jameela: All the meat June and his family are cooking up comes from the cattle they raise themselves on their ranch, G-Line Ranch, just outside of Boley.
Nate Jr.: My family came up from Georgia when they migrated here. There was that particular mile section that they was on was known for everyone who migrated from Georgia. So that's how it become Georgia line. And then I come along with my family and I and we decided we're going to name it the G Line Ranch.
Nate Jr.: What I do, our family, what we do is keeping it real. That's G-Line ranch, baby. It's just what is there's nothing else to talk about but G-line.
Jameela: This is a crucial weekend for the town of Boley, and for G-Line.
Nate Jr.: What we're trying to do is we sell our beef. Maybe we can expand, and this will support our all black town, create jobs, create opportunity so our town can grow. Boley is a, I would say, you know, one out of a lower income area, right? …they don't have the you know, they never get to experience fresh quality beef….And we have a come to a point in our ranching or realize that, you know, with the pandemic and everything and with inflation, how far we got set back.
Jameela: How the Bradfords ended up selling their beef here, at the Boley Rodeo, is a complex story that goes back centuries. It’s intimately tied with the way land has been promised, stolen, and seized again and again in the U.S. Before Black ranchers, like the Bradfords, came to Oklahoma, there were land grabs and land runs, migrations and expulsions, and tons and tons of federal discrimination and displacement.
Jameela: Over the course of ten episodes, I’m joining our team of five reporters throughout the U.S. as we pull back the curtain to look at how our history with land has shaped every aspect of our lives. How exactly did we get to this moment in time? We'll break down how race, class, land, and power have been used to build and maintain unfair systems that harm nearly everyone. We’re living with so many different inequities today, but they're the products of deliberate choices made by real people. It's time to reckon with these decisions. It’s time to understand this history so we can help build a just future for everyone. This is a Monument Lab production with funding from the Ford Foundation and music by Blue Dot Sessions. I'm Jameela Hammond and this is Plot of Land.
Jameela: So far in Plot of Land, we’ve looked closely at how the emergence of virtual land, and the structures being created around it, are an all-too clear mirror for looking at our own real systems of land commodification and housing. We examined those pesky cash-for-home offers, and how private equity markets and land speculation are contributing to the U.S.’s housing crisis. And we took you on the ground to Long Beach, where oil and gas pipelines have jeopardized people’s homes and communities, and how they’re fighting back.
In our future episode we’ll head to New York City to look at how a government investment in housing helped an entire generation make Roosevelt Island an economically diverse and multi-racial neighborhood. And what happens when that government withdraws its support and disinvests. Then, we’ll head to Jonesland, where 66 acres of family land is part of a movement—communities fighting for survival in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley. And finally we’ll look at how repair and landback efforts are paving new ways of coexisting with past injustices. We’ll examine the many parameters and conditions that get attached to that repair, and how systems of land and power can be reimagined.
But right now, I want to stay here in Boley, Oklahoma, to spend more time with the Bradfords. Land displacement stretches back more than 150 years here. And fewer and fewer cattle ranches like June’s remain. Even the town of Boley is struggling to survive. June worries about the future of his hometown, the future of his farm and his family. In any given season, if he doesn’t make ends meet, he could have to give up G-Line Ranch.
Nate Jr.: That's heartbreaking to me. My kids’ been coming here to this rodeo since they was kids. I been coming here since I was a kid. My momma did it. You know, it's an ongoing tradition to come here to this town.
Jameela: For the Bradfords it all comes back to land: how they got their land and how long they can hang onto it. Here, I want to bring in my colleagues Katherine Nagasawa and Anya Groner, the Plot of Land reporters who have gotten to know the Bradfords the best. Here’s Kat.
Nate Sr.: C’mon old mama, get on up here!
[more mooing sounds]
Kat: Hey, Kat here. It’s a warm Saturday in April, and I’m standing in a field a few miles outside of Boley. June, his sons Trayvon and Fabian, and his daughter Michaela are gathered in a corral with several dozen cows and calves. June is wearing cowboy boots, leather chaps, and a baseball cap that has the words “G-Line Ranch” next to the silhouette of a deer head with antlers.
Nate Jr.: So right now we’re about to take the calves and put ear tags in them so that’ll help us identify them through the summer with the mamas and keep track of them. And then we’re going to take the steers and castrate those and give them a vaccination shot.
Kat: As June explains the game plan for the afternoon, his dad, Nate Sr., arrives in a tractor followed by June’s younger sister Amanda and her three daughters on a bright pink ATV.
Nate Jr.: …It’s about to get loud, we got more people showing up.
Kat: Who else is coming today?
Nate Jr.: Well it’s just hard to say. We’re out here at our home land. Everybody grew up here. Anybody might show up anytime. But right now my brother’s showing up.
Kat: June’s younger brother Cleon and his two kids pull up in a truck, towing a trailer full of horses. He’s wearing a matching G-Line Ranch cap.
Nate Jr.: Weekend warriors, they’re showing up on the weekend. Let’s get it. G-Line Baby.
Kat: Over the course of the day, more than 20 people, friends and family, all swing by to catch up and hang out on the family land. At one point, June’s wife Ruth grills hamburgers for the group using G-Line beef. They’re delicious, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt that close to where my meat has come from before.
[cow mooing emphatically]
Nate Jr.: I’ve got a lot of little volunteers here. I think we’re going to try to see if some of them can hold these calves down to speed it up a little bit.
Kat: After lunch, June and his dad recruit a posse of kids to help round up calves.
Nate Sr.: Can you handle a rope? Which one of y’all can handle a rope? Raise your hand. Everybody?...
Nate Sr.: Can you ride a calf? Can you ride one? You think so? Okay okay. We gonna find out. [laughs] I
Nate Sr.: These kids ready, they ready to do some wrestling here. Shoot. Man, I see right now we gonna have plenty of help here in a minute.
[Ambient ranch sounds going into narration]
Nate Sr.: Ride him, boy, ride him! Get to the side of him! Push him to the ground! C’mon get him! Grab his head! You got it!
Kat: This is a typical weekend for the Bradfords. Lots of work and lots of family. The ranch brings everyone together, but things aren’t always easy.
Nate Jr.: I’ve got two kids in college. I'm working a full time job, one in school and my wife is working a full time job. And we're trying to grow our cattle business. Wildlife game processing.We are spread thin.
Kat: June’s wife and three kids dedicate most of their weekends to helping out, and he’s invested most of his retirement money into the business. Over the years, it’s allowed him to expand G-Line Ranch to about 2000 acres – about 600 acres owned within the family and 1400 leased. But keeping up with the work and making the business profitable is hard.
Nate Jr.: I enjoy this, but it's turned into a lot of work. I have to restock these ponds for good fishing. We managing the grass for the cattle. And every aspect of it so it’s kinda taking out some of the fun and joy out of owning this land.
Kat: June believes that if he owned the land outright, he might be able to quit his job at a natural gas plant and ranch full time.
Nate Jr.: My goal is to one day to wake up, be out here on this ranch and support my kids and grandkids so that they can live on the ranch, live off the land, get up in the morning and not know what day it is.
Kat: But over the years, June’s family has missed out on key opportunities to buy land for cheap, and now the prices are too high.
Nate Jr.: Something about you know when you’ve been doing it so long, you kind of look like, man I'm getting to an age where in less than ten years I'll be 50 and I thought I'd be full time ranching now.
Kat: Part of the problem is the US Department of Agriculture’s, or USDA’s, long history of discrimination against Black farmers. When the family hasn’t been denied farm loans outright, they’ve received inadequate funds. This treatment has been going on for generations.
Nate Jr.: At that time, starting out, I had big ambitions. I had big dreams, goals. If I could have got the financing that I needed, I honestly feel like I would have been in a better position today.
Kat: The Bradfords are now one of very few Black families left in the farming and ranching industry in the US. Reporting for this episode, my co-reporter Anya Groner and I learned that Black farmers have faced so much discrimination that they’ve been mostly forced out of agriculture. And this is part of a broader pattern of Black land loss. Here’s Anya.
Anya: The 1910 census report shows that just over a century ago, one million Black farmers tended an estimated 15 million acres. That’s about 14% of all U.S. farmland. But by 2017, when the most recent agricultural census was taken, only 50,000 Black farmers remained, and their farms represented a mere half a percentage point of all U.S. farmland. This is why June often refers to himself as “the last Black rancher in Oklahoma.”
[music starts underneath]
Nate Jr.: By the mishandling of the US government of fair lending practices 50 years ago, 60 years ago, has put us in a situation today where we're going to be extinct.
Kat: Extinct. That’s what June fears could be his family’s fate. Will G-Line Ranch be the exception in a landscape where very few Black farmers can thrive? Or is this it? Will they be forced to leave the land their family’s called home for 100 years.
Anya: Black farmers like the Bradfords are part of a much larger story of land dispossession. In Oklahoma, like much of the U.S., there’s a long pattern of land seizures and displacement that began well before G-Line Ranch—well before any Bradfords even set foot in Oklahoma.
Kat: In the early 1900’s June’s great grandfather Bill Bradford bought 120 acres of land from a Creek family, the Gooches. Oklahoma had just become a state in 1907. And at the time, word was out that it was a safe place for Black people like the Bradfords.
Anya: June’s ancestors moved from places like Georgia and Louisiana, where Jim Crow was the law of the land. Racist and discriminatory laws were in Oklahoma’s state constitution too, but in Oklahoma more than 50 Black towns existed — places like Boley, where Black people could build neighborhoods and businesses, could go to the movies and just walk down the street, with more safety than in the South.
Kat: That landscape came at a cost though. It emerged out of more than a century of displacement. For hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of years—the Apache, the Arapaho, the Comanche , the Kiowa, the Osage, the Wichita—lived, hunted, and traveled across the great plains that would become Oklahoma.
Anya: But as Native land along the Eastern seaboard and in the American South became more desirable to white colonists, tribes in the southeast were displaced westward, forced onto the traditional homelands of the great plains tribes. The U.S. government called this chunk of 44 million acres “Indian Territory.”
Kat: Over the course of the 19th Century, through war, law, swindle, and hundreds of broken treaties, white people, with the support of the US government, pushed both the Plains Indians and the southeastern tribes out, forcing them onto smaller and smaller regions of what we now call Oklahoma, and into other parts of what was becoming the United States.
Anya: This westward expansion can be traced back to the initial European conquest and colonization of the Americas. Dr. Claudio Saunt is the associate director of the Institute of Native American Studies at the University of Georgia, where he also teaches American History. Saunt says this movement is often talked about as “Manifest Destiny,” the idea that the U.S. is destined by God to expand its domain.
Claudio Saunt: And really Manifest Destiny is just one more of those justifications, this insistence that or belief that this was God's will, that it was providence, that the United States was going to expand to the West. And I'm sure lots of white Americans … they wanted to believe it because they thought that they were superior and they didn't want to think twice about what they were doing to the original inhabitants of the continent.
Kat: It became widespread practice to expel Indigenous people from their homelands. White churches, vigilante groups, settlers, and governments, both local and national—they all supported it.
Saunt: Manifest Destiny helps to rationalize dispossession. But they didn't dispossess people because of Manifest Destiny. They used Manifest Destiny to excuse the dispossession and to excuse and justify the imperialism in the 19th century.
Kat: That imperialism took a whole new shape in 1829, when Andrew Jackson was inaugurated President. Jackson had led massacres of Native American villages during the first Seminole War, and within weeks of becoming president, Jackson’s cabinet began crafting the now-infamous Indian Removal Act.
Anya: The Indian Removal Act authorized the president to take the land occupied by 100,000 Native Americans in the southeast–the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole. And in exchange those tribes were granted land west of the Mississippi River for “as long as the rivers shall run.” But Professor Saunt said that the very idea of land ownership was at odds with tribal practices, which were based on collective stewardship.
Saunt: They claim the right to use the land and they claimed ownership as long as they were using it. So if someone abandoned a piece of property, they could no longer say 10 or 15 years after the fact that they still owned the land. It would then become someone else's who had decided to farm on that piece of property.
Anya: But for white settlers, this was a period of rapid land commodification. Agriculture was expanding. From the Carolinas to Georgia, from Florida to Tennessee, cotton was becoming lucrative. White settlers saw the Indian Removal Act of 1830 as giving them access to–and possibly ownership of–millions of acres.
Saunt: They were very eager to get their hands on what we call the Black Belt. This arc of very fertile land that cuts through Georgia and Alabama and Mississippi also cuts through the traditional homelands of the Creeks, the Choctaws and the Chickasaw. So they were interested in expanding onto those lands. And, of course, the first step in that process was to dispossess Native Americans.
Kat: But the 100,000 Natives who lived in the southeast, and their tribal leadership, had legal rights to that land—rights that had been secured between two sovereign governments, two sovereign nations. President Jackson didn’t see it that way.
Saunt: He said it was nonsensical to pretend that the United States could…could sign a treaty with a group of…savage peoples. But many other politicians recognized that these treaties were what they said they were, that they were promises, and that the United States should…keep its word.
Anya: Colonists had been encroaching on Native land long before Andrew Jackson became president. The Indian Removal Act aimed to write that land seizure into law.
Saunt: What's unprecedented about it is just how systematic it is. And it's obviously the case that Native peoples had been dispossessed beginning in the 16th century. But again, this was a national policy supported by the federal government. And its goal was to deport, to expel, every single Native person living east of the Mississippi River.
Anya: A huge national debate erupted about whether to expel Native Americans from the south. It got at the core of America’s identity. The opposition was clear: We must put an end to unlawful conquest. So supporters tried to reframe that conquest. It wasn’t bad, it was good, they said. And not just for white citizens, but for Native Americans themselves.
Saunt: The Jackson administration was interested in making this appear …to be a philanthropic endeavor. And they said this was the best thing for Native Americans. And central to that argument was their insistence that Native peoples were disappearing, that they were going to go extinct if the United States did not move them west of the Mississippi River.
Kat: Professor Saunt says the real motivating factor couldn’t be more clear.
Saunt: And I think the answer is simply white supremacy. They cannot stand the thought and they fear the threat of having a sovereign people who are not white living in the U.S. South. They want to be masters. These planter politicians want to be masters of every single square foot of land in the South, and they want to be masters over every single person, their children and their wives and certainly every single person of color.
Anya: The Indian Removal Act passed the Senate easily, but the House was evenly divided. Saunt: It was the single most controversial piece of legislation that Congress had faced up to that time…And Congressmen wrote about it. They said they said that Congress was at a fever pitch, that…the fate of the nation rested on what Congress would do...
Kat: After many threats and much lobbying, the Indian Removal Act eventually passed the House as well, but just by five votes. The narrow margin shows us just how tenuous this moment was. Had another policy prevailed, what would Oklahoma look like today? What would American land practices look like today?
Anya: The Indian Removal Act created the Trail of Tears, forcing the Cherokees, the Choctaw, the Chickasaw, the Creek and the Seminole people off their ancestral homelands. It created the largest single forced displacement of Indigenous people.
Kat: As many as 100,000 people were forced from their land, forced to march to “Indian Territory,” to what today we know as Oklahoma. Today many refer to this as ethnic cleansing or genocide. Some tribes left peacefully, but most resisted. Violent battles ensued, and tens of thousands of Native Americans were starved to death, marched in chains, pushed from one place to the next until…
Saunt: By 1840, almost all of those nations had been moved to the outermost advancing edge of the United States.
Kat: Historians estimate that 15,000 Native Americans died before ever reaching Oklahoma.
Saunt: And in fact, there are letters between high ranking U.S. Army officers in which they say, point blank, that the secretary of war goes for extermination.
Anya: Dr. Kendra Field told us the Indian Removal period helps shed light on the complexity of race in America at that time. Field is a historian at Tufts University, specializing in African American, Native American and US history. She said that by the time of the Trail of Tears, wealthy Native Americans in the southeast had begun enslaving Black people, both to win the favor of white southerners and for their own benefit.
Field: Gradually piece by piece, American racial slavery becomes part of the Cherokee Nation and the Creek Nation, Chickasaw, and Choctaw…And you see the rise of slavery within within the nations.
Anya: So when Native Americans were forced west, Professor Field said they weren’t alone.
Field: So there were African descended women, men and children who were part of Indian Removal, who blunted the worst of the experience for some Native people, but also who were part of Native families, were part of Cherokee and Creek families in the course of this experience.
Anya: Professor Field’s family is both Creek and African-American. And she examines their migration from the deep South to Indian Territory in her book, Growing Up with the Country: Family, Race, and Nation after the Civil War. She said that in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the government rewarded tribes that adopted colonial practices.
Field: There's also efforts by the US government officials to actually encourage Cherokee and Creek leaders to adopt racial slavery, to put up fences, to use a cotton gin. I mean, they're encouraging them through what they call the civilization, the American civilization program, to engage in private property and, and in ways that resemble what they think the ideal of white America is, and to engage in racial slavery as a mark of their quote unquote, civilization.
Kat: As the tribes were forced west, their belongings were carried by the people they enslaved, people like Theola Cudjoe Jones’s ancestors. Theola Cudjoe Jones lives a few miles outside Boley in what’s left of a Black community known as Sand Creek. She’s the fifth generation to live in that area.
Anya: When we meet, she’s wearing a baggy red T-shirt that says Boley Bears, Class of 1963, 50th Reunion. Sitting at her dining table, it’s covered with family photos. Jones says the trauma of her enslaved ancestors being forced to march to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears is still very present.
Theola Cudjoe Jones: Now that trunk over there, that is the trunk that my grandmother brought over on the Trail of Tears. The lives that was lost. Uncalled for. And, you know, to me, it wasn't the Trail of Tears. This is what the Native Americans called it. I call it a Trail of Blood. Because it was bloodshed all the way on the trail and there was bloodshed here after we got to Oklahoma. And this is the end of the trail and the story never been told.
Anya: By 1860, about 14% of the total population in Indian Territory was enslaved. For them, the Trail of Tears was the latest of many displacements. Their ancestors had been kidnapped from West Africa, forced across the Atlantic, sold in what today we call the Deep South, and then forced west to Indian Territory.
Cudjoe Jones: My ancestors are from Ghana, Africa to Jamaica to Florida and to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears.
Kat: When Jones’ ancestors arrived in Indian Territory, Oklahoma wasn’t a state yet. It was technically outside the borders of the U.S. Even so, because the tribes owned slaves, they found themselves implicated in the Civil War. Melissa Stuckey is a professor of African American history at Elizabeth City State University. Stuckey said Native Americans were divided about slavery.
Melissa Stuckey: There are folks who are slave owners and there are folks who are not slave owners. There are folks who ally with the South because they see themselves as protecting their property, their slave property. And there are folks…who don't want to be in rebellion against the government.
Kat: During the Civil War, more than 3,500 Native Americans fought with the Union. At least 7,860 — more than twice as many — fought with the Confederacy. Afterwards, the U.S. government argued that by supporting the Confederacy, tribes forfeited their rights to the land. And the treaties that were signed by Andrew Jackson during the Indian Removal Act? They were declared null and void, opening the door for that land to become Oklahoma, to become part of the United States.
Stuckey: If the Federal Government is playing a long game towards statehood in the territories and in the creation of what we now know of as Oklahoma, the opportunity to rewrite treaties or create new treaties after the Civil War is one that they took advantage of because of those folks who did align with the Confederacy.
Kat: The U.S. government then drafted a series of pacts that completely rewrote the relationship of Native tribes and the U.S. government. Known as the 1866 Treaties, they granted railroad construction right of ways, and made tribes give up more than half of their land in what would become Oklahoma. The eastern half was declared Indian Territory, while the western half was seized by the U.S. and declared Oklahoma Territory.
Anya: Less than two decades later, in the 1880s, a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts named Henry Dawes launched a campaign to "rid the nation of tribalism through the virtues of private property.”
Kat: Dawes wanted to break up the remaining Native land into separate 160-acre parcels, called allotments. Until that point, the land had been communally held by tribes. But with these allotments, each of these newly created 160-acre parcels was assigned to an individual tribal member, a single private property owner. Non-Native speculators had their eyes on this land and it was easier to negotiate with one family than an entire tribe.
Anya: Allotment served another purpose as well. It forced tribes to adopt other private property practices that dominated white society—things like surveying, and parceling, which all furthered the mission of commodifying the land. Today, if you drive through Oklahoma, you can see evidence of that dispossession everywhere.
Kat: Professor Saunt says this land was previously a vast open landscape. But today it’s been transformed into angular, privatized lots, bounded by right-angles. These fixed boundaries are all imposed—manufactured to make it easier to sell that land, to buy it, to own it. To take it.
Saunt: You can see the U.S. survey system, because the grid of roads is laid right across Oklahoma. And you can drive up and down these roads, which all meet at right angles, reflecting the kind of imperial ambitions of the United States.
Kat: Allotment found support from pro-assimilation groups like the “Friends of the Indians.” The group was led by white church leaders, social reformers and government officials. It’s the same group that advocated for boarding schools to separate Native American children from their parents. At these schools, children were prevented from speaking their tribal language, and pressured to conform to the dominant white culture.
Anya: The “Friends of the Indians” favored allotment because they said owning private property would encourage tribes to adopt the “civilized” practices of agriculture and ranching.
Kat: Needless to say, Native Americans opposed allotment, vehemently. Russell Cobb is a writer and academic whose recent work focuses on his home state of Oklahoma. Cobb says that Native Americans thought the idea that one person could own a plot of land was ludicrous.
Russell Cobb: The five tribes opposed allotment vigorously. They did not want it. The idea of one individual owning lands just was anathema. You know, when one leader tried to describe it to some US senators, he said imagine you saying you own this air like that you breathe, it's absurd.
Anya: But their objections held little weight. In 1887, Congress passed the Dawes Act. To make matters worse, the U.S. government also wrote in a carrot and a stick—it would only grant U.S. citizenship, and all of its benefits, to Native Americans who embraced allotment, to those who accepted this breaking up of their tribal lands.
Kat: Cobb said the Dawes Act was only passed by Congress after it was amended to open up another chunk of Indian Territory that had been promised to Native Americans. This region was relabeled “surplus land” and made available to white settlers and land speculators. And at the same time, in the western half of the state, in Oklahoma Territory, the US government gave white settlers first-come first-serve privileges over land.
Cobb: I imagine this whole era being so wild, that you know, this quick transformation of, of different groups of people and of land ownership, and then this massive boom in oil, which would have been like, being Silicon Valley, you know, early 2000s, like just tons of money and tons of people coming in all of a sudden.
Anya: And Russell Cobb would know—this was when his own family came to Oklahoma.
Cobb: My own family they were…poor, white Southerners, they went to Tennessee, and Tennessee didn't work out. So they moved to Arkansas… probably sharecroppers, and then Indian Territory land showed up.
Anya: Newspaper reports from the era describe miles long wagon trains and tent cities popping up overnight. People were coming by horse and train. They were hungry for land.
Cobb: Okay. The people that are participating in land runs and then often squatting on Native-held land, are…they're not wealthy people. These are often desperate people.
Kat: During these land runs, a gun would go off at high noon, and tens of thousands of settlers would race onto the land to stake their claim for a plot.
[movie clip about 1889 Land Run, (1992 film Far and Away) gun and horses galloping!]
Anya: These land runs and homesteading opportunities gave poor white people, like Cobbs’ ancestors, a chance to cash in on the American promise of owning their own land.
Kat: And at this same time, Black people were getting new access to the land as well. At the end of the Civil War, Black people who’d been enslaved by Native Americans were emancipated. They became known as freedmen.
Anya: And the 1866 treaties — the ones that stripped more than half of Indian Territory away from Native Americans — those same treaties made Black freedmen eligible for land allotments. In the late 1800s, Black freedmen in the Creek, Cherokee, and Seminole Nations received 160-acre allotments.
Kat: In fact it was through this process that Theola Cudjoe Jones’s family received their 160 acres in 1902. Her family is part Seminole and part African-American, and some of that original land allotment remains in their possession today. But, and this is key, it wasn’t white-owned land that was given to Black freedmen. The U.S. government required these allotments to come from the Native-held land.
Anya: So, in other words, the U.S. government stole land in the southeast from Native Americans, and deported them west to Indian Territory, where the government then gave them land that was previously held by other tribes. Then they stole half of that land and gave it to white settlers, while breaking the other half up into allotments, some of which went to Native Americans, and some of which went to the people they’d once enslaved?
Kat: Yeah, that’s it. And it was also through that process of land allotments that the Gooch family got their land. The Gooches were the Native American family from the Creek Nation who lived around what’s now Boley, Oklahoma. Remember June Bradford, the fourth generation Black cattle rancher we met at the Boley Rodeo? June’s great grandfather, Bill Bradford, bought his initial 120 acres from the Gooches in the early 1900s when the Bradfords were moving away from the Jim Crow south.
Anya: And before the Gooches got their individual allotment, that land had been communally owned by the Creek Nation, who had been forced onto it from Alabama and Georgia as part of the Trail of Tears. And before that, the Quapaw and Osage tribes lived on that land.
Kat: To keep track of all this, the government created a task force. Professor Kendra Field said their main job was to determine who was eligible for land and who was not.
Kendra Field: So the US government officials that came in as part of the Dawes commission would set up tents or stations where they would have two for each area. And one was for people that were say Creek by blood or Indian by blood more broadly, another is for people that were considered freedmen. And so they made up those two categories, as if all people who were enslaved were Black, and all people who were citizens were Indian, when in fact, so many families span these categories and so many individuals span these categories…
Anya: The process was a bit arbitrary, but the consequences were real. Bureaucrats were making decisions about racial categories that impacted how much land each person received. Scores of Native Americans and Black freedmen were left out of this process altogether. And our American constructs of race became even more rigid at this moment.
Kat: Through this categorizing, this dividing of people into these distinct racial groups – like Native Americans and Black freedmen – the government essentially pit Black and Native people against each other, making them compete for the same land.
Field: And so you can see kind of how power was working, and even how, in many ways white supremacy was working even without white people.
Anya: And these racial categories continue to have repercussions today.
[NPR radio clip, from 2007]
STEVE INSKEEP, host: Today, a federal court will consider the question of who counts as a member of the Cherokee nation. Native Americans are on one side, and on the other side are descendants of African slaves whom the Cherokees once owned. Those descendants are known as the Cherokee Freedmen, and they say their Cherokee citizenship is protected by…
Anya: In some tribes, descendents of Freedmen are still fighting to have their Native citizenship acknowledged.
Kat: Allotment was basically another strategy of dispossession. And all this at a pivotal point in time when land was being aggressively transformed into a vehicle for accumulating wealth—wealth that could be passed through generations.
Anya: And it wasn’t just land that was lost, said Kendra Field. Without access to fishing, hunting, and gathering grounds, without a communal relationship to land – tribes also lost a significant part of their culture.
Kendra Field: It becomes harder and harder to convey and pass down one's heritage without one's land, you know, and without the kind of collective character of that land.
Anya: Allotment in Indian Territory signified an end of a way of life for Native Americans, but it also represented a new beginning for Black southerners – an opportunity to migrate west and leave behind the brutality of slavery and its aftermath.
Dr. Melissa Stuckey says it was a chance for Black folks to establish themselves as economically independent and politically empowered.
Melissa Stuckey: One thing that happened in the American South is that African Americans did not get automatic access to land as part of their freedom, which was something that they absolutely wanted and understood would be integral to being able to have true freedom and experience freedom in a way that did not force them to be dependent on labor under the supervision of white people, white landowners.
Anya: After the Civil War, during Reconstruction, Black representation in local and state government briefly surged. But that period of Black political power was relatively short-lived, and the backlash was violent.
Kendra Field said that by the late 19th and early 20th Century white supremacists regained political power and states established Jim Crow.
Field: And finally, you have the explosion of racial violence, especially lynchings and also the kind of less talked about kind of rise of sexual violence and rape against African descended women.
Anya: The push to create a place where Black people could be free and safe on their own land became imperative. Beyond economics, political leaders and pastors said that land could protect Black people from violence. Newspapers ran op-eds on how, and where, Black people might improve their circumstances. And one idea kept coming up — Oklahoma.
Field: But Oklahoma had kind of a special significance…because of this allotment piece, because of the association with land that might be available for purchase or settlement. There's also the fact that it was actually beyond the U.S. nation state. It was not a state.
Anya: Dr. Field says stories of Oklahoma as a potential safe haven circulated, but getting there wasn’t easy. Travel was expensive and dangerous. White landowners in southern states clung to their formerly enslaved labor force.
Kat: When the Bradfords’ ancestors moved to Oklahoma from Georgia and Louisiana, they were also fleeing a life of sharecropping. June Bradfords’s aunt, Fannie Washington, said it was taking a relentless toll on her grandparents.
Fannie Washington: Black people at that time was getting trapped. In the sharecropping...they weren't ever going to be able to have anything.
Kat: So, the family stole away on a freight train.
Fannie Washington: They had to sneak and rent the boxcar….So it wasn't an easy thing for them at that time and it was a lot of hush hush.
Kat: The Bradfords were part of a wave of more than 100,000 Black people, who between 1890 and 1910 fled southern states for what’s now Oklahoma. Kendra Field said people would gather their kids, as many belongings as they could carry, and just head west—they would walk if they had to. Often they were fleeing acts of extreme violence. Kendra Field recalled the 1892 murders of three Black men in Memphis.
Field: And one of those men was Tom Moss, who was a good friend of Ida B. Wells, the journalist, and he and several of his co owners of this grocery store were the victims of a lynching.
Anya: Their cooperative grocery store, called People’s Grocery, was across the street from a white-owned store. The Black store was doing well, so the white store owners sent their customers to threaten the Black owners. Eventually Moss and his co-owners were imprisoned, and then brutally lynched.
Field: So Ida B. Wells encouraged her followers in Memphis to head West of Oklahoma. In fact, the story was that Tom Moss and his fellow men said, “If you must kill us, turn our faces to the west” … at that point whole churches, congregations and communities set out, in this case on foot, for Oklahoma.
Kat: As more Black people moved to Oklahoma, Black freedmen strategically began to help create Black towns next to the land they’d received through allotment. By the early 20th century, Oklahoma had become home to more Black towns than anywhere else in the United States. Boley town judge and local historian, Henrietta Hicks, says many Black southerners were eager to be a part of this movement.
Henrietta Hicks: There were about 50 black towns that…were established in Oklahoma. And of course, now there are only 13 of those original Black towns that are still, that are still in existence and Boley is one of them. And Boley, as we say, is the crown jewel of the Black towns. It really is the largest of the all Black towns in the state of Oklahoma.
Anya: Boley was founded in 1903 at a creek used to refill the steam engine that ran along the Fort Smith and Western Railroad line. Railroad companies had gotten right of ways to build through Indian Territory with the 1866 treaties. And Henrietta Hicks says the land that would eventually become downtown Boley had originally been allotted to the daughter of a Creek freedman, James Barnett.
Hicks: They got permission from Mr. Barnett to get the land from his daughter, Abigail. She agreed. And that's why the land this land of Boley is on was on her freedman’s land.
Anya: After it was founded, residents of Boley did everything they could to promote the town.
Hicks: They had all kinds of potato sack runs and bike runs asking people to come to Boley because this was a place of freedom. And at that time, Black folk were trying to get away from being beaten, being hung, and being slaves. So they did migrate from all over the country here to Boley.
Kat: Dr. Melissa Stuckey says the railroads, in particular, were invested in Boley’s success and took out ads in local newspapers, like The Boley Progress.
Melissa Stuckey: The Boley Progress really was very explicit. It was explicit in identifying the reasons why people should come to Boley – for economic freedom, for political freedom, for their children's futures, to have a place where, as one Boley resident said, "Where not a single white man here can tell us what to do."
Kat: Black people came to Boley in such great numbers that a tent city formed by the railroad station. This encampment is likely what the Bradfords saw when they first arrived.
Stuckey: For African-Americans coming from the South in particular, it was quite dazzling to arrive in Boley and see that all of the infrastructure, every business; that everything was really operated by African-American people. So not just Black porters, but the person running the train depot was Black. The person running the telegraph office is Black. The person running the newspapers is Black. The hotels, the restaurants…
Anya: Boley residents like the Bradfords supported each other financially. Boleyites used to say that every dollar that came to Boley was circulated three times before it left the town. Black folks were able to build wealth, not only for themselves, but also for each other.
Kat: And Boley had its own bank, the first Black-owned bank in Oklahoma to receive a federal charter. This was a big deal. Black people were often denied loans at white-owned banks and access to loans made all the difference if you were starting a business or running a ranch or a farm. Here’s Dr. Francis Marzette Shelton, the current mayor of Boley.
Francis Marzette Shelton: You had your money and you didn't have to go and ask somebody outside your race for, or explain what you needed it for, and fill out multitudes of paper and not have to sign any portion of your land over.
Anya: By 1911, more than 4,000 people called Boley home, and it was also home to two colleges, three banks, five cotton gins, a soda fountain, an electric company, and multiple churches. Before long, the president of Tuskegee University, Booker T. Washington paid a visit and called it “the finest Black town in America.” To this day, Boley residents echo that sentiment.
Lucy Ellis: It's just like a peace, you know, where I just sit and dream and you be anything you want to be you just dream it.
Henrietta Hicks: Boley was founded as a town that you could be free, a town that you were not oppressed in, a town that you, uh, that you could call your own. That was what it was founded on, founded for. And it still stays the same today. You have a chance to be free. You have a chance to move around, go where you want to go. You have to have a chance to not be considered chattel.
Stuckey: To live in a place where they were safe, to live in a place where they could walk down the street without being shoved off of a sidewalk.
Fannie Washington: And everybody looked like me. And so I felt confident.
Shelton: You stay in Boley long enough, you'll be smiling, and talking, and comfortably walking down the street.
Hicks: So this was a good life in Boley.
[Cow mooing on Bradford land]
Anya: But as amazing as Boley was, at the time the Bradfords moved there, they were taking a big risk.
Kat: Yeah, June’s great-grandfather Bill Bradford and his family came from Louisiana in the early 1900s and bought their 120 acres just outside of Boley. The family still has the original deed from Henry Gooch, the Creek man who received it through an allotment.
Anya: With the Bradfords and hundreds of other families, Black Oklahoman towns were growing and becoming oases. But even as the population and wealth swelled, other forces outside the town’s borders were brewing.
[Boley Rodeo sounds]
Jameela: What…a… story. So now you see what I was saying right? This isn’t your typical rodeo—this isn’t just a rodeo. There’s so much at play here. So much history behind every single thing. And for June and his family, for the Bradfords, as they feed half of Boley on their grill for this special Memorial Day weekend, this history is simmering on the surface.
[music, rodeo sounds]
Nate Sr.: Blacks took such a hit back in the day and I don't think they really they, we haven't come out of it yet, we still struggling with the same problem.
Nate Jr.: What's been done, it's already been done. We're dealing with the aftermath of it.
Jameela: What does the future hold for June and his Dad? Can they keep G-Line Ranch alive?
In the next episode of Plot of Land we’ll stay in Oklahoma, with the Bradford family, to see exactly how all this history has both made their future possible, and put it in jeopardy. (PAUSE) Plot of Land is a Monument Lab production with funding from the Ford Foundation and music by Blue Dot Sessions. And please—share these stories—and rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts. I’m Jameela Hammond and thank you for listening to Plot of Land.