Jameela: Hey, it’s Jameela Hammond, the host of Plot of Land. Plot of Land is a podcast that pulls 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? Over the course of ten episodes, I’m joining our team of five reporters throughout the U.S. to 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.
So far on Plot of Land we’ve taken you through the metaverse and into the worlds of virtual land; we’ve examined the speculative worlds of private equity and tenants rights, and the oil pipelines and community organizing of Los Angeles. In our last episode, I joined reporters Katherine Nagasawa and Anya Groner in Boley, Oklahoma, one of the state’s last Black towns. And we’re going to stay in Boley for this episode, to look at how this long history of people being displaced from land is playing out today and how those same people are struggling to keep their place on the map. Here are Plot of Land reporters Katherine Nagasawa and Anya Groner.
Kat: On a peaceful Sunday evening, with the sun low on the horizon, Anya and I drove just outside of Boley, down a gravel road surrounded by trees. We were paying a visit to Bill Bradford’s original plot of land.
Anya: He’d bought 120 acres here in 1919, after working for years as a sharecropper and saving up. Bill Bradford was Nate Bradford Sr.’s grandpa, and Nate Jr.’s great-grandpa. Both Nate Sr. and Nate Jr., who everyone calls June, are with us today.
Kat: Down the hill from us, a herd of June’s cows graze beside a pond. In a small clearing stands the remains of a one-story brick and wooden house – the original homestead that Bill Bradford built for his family.
Nate Sr.: The house has got a partition in it so it's actually a two room house…
There used to be a porch right there and they hauled water and it had a spring down here somewhere...
In those days I guess it was a pretty good house. You know, back in that time.
Kat: The tin roof is rusty and the door is missing, but most of the windows are still intact. On the front of the house, layers of siding create a textured collage. Nobody has lived here for years, but June and his dad still like to come back when they can. There’s a deep sense of connection, a reminder of the century-plus that their family has called Oklahoma home.
Nate Jr.: You know, there's something spiritual, you might say, about just kind of seeing where your people was at and having it, you know, comforting you. There's something about it. I mean, I just kind of feeling I'm here in these woods by myself and looking around and seeing these old trails, you know, wagon trails, you know, down here, there's a wagon trail. It ain't. You know, the trails kind of gone, but actually the woods still line up from that. They used to make whiskey down there. My old man, you know, my uncles and stuff, they made living and they made whiskey.
Anya: So did the Bradfords’ ancestors' new home in Boley measure up to their dreams of freedom and autonomy after leaving behind the Jim Crow south? Or, like the aftermath of Reconstruction, did it fail to deliver on its promises? To understand that, we need to consider the broader context, what Indian Territory meant not only to Black residents, but also to the southeastern tribes and white settlers who lived there.
Kat: Yeah, around the turn of the 20th century, there were all these different groups trying to carve up Indian Territory, to stake their claim to land. And at the same time, the inevitability of Oklahoma becoming a state was looming ever closer. The majority of western territories were already states, but in Indian Territory, where there was so much strategizing and jockeying for position, it was unclear exactly how statehood would play out.
Anya: There was a kind of free-for-all wildness to the moment. Even before Oklahoma was a state, it was producing more oil than almost anywhere else in North America. Oil speculators were flocking. When they struck black gold, they got rich, and with money came political influence. All the same tactics people were using to get land –homesteading, land runs, marrying, lying, even murdering, all of that’s happening around mineral rights as well.
Kat: So the question became: whose state would it be? Who would benefit from state power? And at whose expense would that power come?
Anya: Dr. Kendra Field is a historian at Tufts University, specializing in African-American, Native American and U.S. history. The first bid for statehood came in 1890 from a Black man named E.P. McCabe. Dr. Field said that for McCabe, statehood was an extension of Black power.
Kendra Field: There had been a movement and a hope that Oklahoma would become potentially an all Black state, and so there had been hopes of Black statehood, and what you might even think of as a kind of nascent black nationalism that had been attached to the territory….
Kat: McCabe was a land developer, a speculator, a lawyer, an immigration promoter, a newspaper owner, and a politician. He was a very ambitious man.
Anya: So in 1890, McCabe travels to D.C. to meet with President Benjamin Harrison about appointing him governor of Indian Territory and creating a Black state in Oklahoma under his leadership. Here’s Boley resident Damien McCormick reading from some of McCabe’s appeal.
Damien McCormick: “We wish to remove from the disgraceful surroundings that so degraded my people and in the new territory, in Oklahoma, show the people of the United States and of the world that we are not only loyal citizens, but that we are capable of advancement, and that we can be an honor to those who broke down barriers of our slavery.”
Kat: McCabe lays out the indignities Black people suffered, not only slavery, but also sexual violence.
McCormick: “Some of us have the blood of those who owned us as chattels, but disavowed us as sons and daughters. We are willing to abide by that decision. But in a new country and on new lands.”
Anya: The U.S., at this point, is deeply invested in white supremacy, Jim Crow segregation, and imperialism. It has taken over Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Philippines, Guam, and Hawaii. Journalist and writer Dr. Russell Cobb says this national ideology was completely at odds with Black autonomy, much less a Black state.
Russell Cobb: The United States, vigorously and clearly, and unequivocally wanted to be an empire on equal footing with Great Britain. To have a hole in the middle of that empire? That, you know, that would have been amazing, actually….like a homeland, a sovereign homeland, for Indigenous people and African-Americans?
Kat: Melissa Stuckey is a professor of African American history at Elizabeth City State University. She says that McCabe’s campaign and quest for statehood does not end well for him.
Melissa Stuckey: He is very quickly run out of Oklahoma upon, you know, sort of threat of death. The idea that if he becomes, for example, a governor of the state, then he's signing his own death warrant.
Anya: So fifteen years pass without much movement on statehood. But then, in 1906, as prescribed by the 1898 Curtis Act, the U.S. dissolved tribal governments, abolished tribal courts, and brought everyone in Indian Territory under federal law. So rather than cede what sovereignty they had, the tribes put their differences aside and held a convention to propose a Native state. They called it Sequoyah.
Cobb: So they decided as a way to try to hold off on what seemed inevitable, proposed this state of Sequoyah that would basically unite the eastern half of Oklahoma, the Five Tribes areas, it would've been about the size of Indiana.
Kat: They hold a vote in the territory to ratify a new state constitution. Turnout is light, but the proposed state of Sequoyah wins by a landslide. About 56 thousand in favor and nine thousand opposed.
Anya: But this is the era of Jim Crow, racial terror and eugenics. Congress sees the future of the nation as white, and they’re not about to give statehood to Native Americans. So even though Congress was constitutionally obligated to vote on Sequoyah because there was a formal petition, they didn’t.
Kat: Yeah, they just ignored it, knowing there wasn’t enough national support to force a vote. There was also another group called the Single Statehood Executive Committee, which was making their own bid for statehood. The Single Statehood Executive Committee was primarily made up of white settlers who had arrived in the twin territories to participate in land runs and they had grievances.
Kat: Well, as long as Natives retained their sovereignty, white people weren’t actually citizens of that land, which meant they couldn’t vote within tribal nations. Even as they were stealing land, white settlers were complaining that they lacked governmental power. They wanted local representation and local schools. Indian Territory was set up to favor, well, Indians.
Anya: So white settlers were trying to figure out how to create a state that served them?
Kat: Yep, and after the Sequoyah Convention, that white state started coming together pretty quickly. Unlike the Black state that McCabe proposed, or Sequoyah, both of which would’ve been established on Indian Territory, this new proposed state combined Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory, making it twice as large.
Cobb: By authority vested in me by the high contracting parties, in obedience to their request. I now call upon the Reverend WH Dodson of First Baptist Church of Guthrie to perform the marriage ceremony.
Anya: That’s Dr. Cobb reading from the proceedings of this mock wedding ceremony. At 10:16 am on November 16, 1907, Theodore Roosevelt signed the proclamation for Oklahoma’s statehood. An hour later, this ceremony began in Guthrie, Oklahoma. Twenty-five thousand people showed up.
Cobb: To you as the representative of Mr. Oklahoma, I present the hand and fortune of Miss Indian Territory, convinced by his 18 years of consistent wooing that his love is genuine, his suit sincere, and his person most honorable.
Anya: So Mr. Oklahoma is given the hand of Miss Indian Territory, who is portrayed as this beautiful orphaned maiden.
Cobb: With pride and pleasure, I present him Miss Indian Territory, who was reared as a political orphan, tutored by federal office holders, and controlled by an indifferent guardian.
Anya: And of course this is hugely symbolic, right? Indian Territory is presented as female. Her “parents”— presumably the tribes — are dead.
Cobb: Only the warm smiles of God's pure sunshine, this beauteous maiden comes to him, as the last descendant of the proudest race to have ever trod foot on American soil. A race whose sons have never bowed their necks to the heel of the oppressor, the original occupants of the American continent.
Anya: But here’s the kicker. Miss Indian Territory comes with a dowry of land and the rights that land brings with it. The ceremony literally celebrates the loss of Native American sovereignty and power.
Cobb: Although an orphan, Miss Indian Territory, brings to her spouse a dowry that equals in fertile lands, productive minds, and sterling and upright citizenship, the fortune of her wooer to Oklahoma, in whose identity Indian Territory is about to be merged forever.
Anya: So they’re pronounced man and wife, and in 1907 Oklahoma joins the union. It becomes a state.
Kat: But it’s not just any state. Dr. Stuckey says Oklahoma immediately becomes a Jim Crow state.
Melissa Stuckey: School segregation was embedded into the Constitution. And then the first law passed by the state, or one of the first laws passed by the state, was a Jim Crow car law that segregated train cars.
Kat: And for Black people who had migrated from the South escaping violence and seeking opportunity, this was absolutely devastating. They were met with some of the same laws they were trying to get away from.
Anya: The town of Okemah, which neighbors Boley, became a sundown town, barring non-white people from staying outdoors past sunset. Black diners have to enter restaurants from the back door and, if they go to the movie theater, they sit in the balcony. And in Black towns like Boley, Jim Crow laws forced businesses to create white-only spaces, even though they served almost no white clientele.
Stuckey: One entrepreneur in town created a hotel that catered only to white patrons. And again, the majority of people in Boley were disgusted. They were appalled and furious that one of their own would create a space of segregation, a space where they did not have access to and was for the exclusive use of white visitors.
Kat: And it’s not just segregation, race itself ends up getting codified in the Oklahoma state constitution.
Stuckey: And in fact in the Oklahoma Constitution, race is defined as that anyone of African descent is Black and everyone else is white. So Native Americans in this aspect are given the status as white citizens, although they certainly were not treated as such in terms of being robbed of their lands by private citizens who found any kind of loophole to be able to take land over time.
Kat: The new state of Oklahoma didn’t account for people of mixed-Black heritage. If you had any Black ancestry, anywhere in your family history, you were legally considered part of this broad category called “Colored.”
Anya: Statehood also opened up Black-owned land to white oil and land speculators, who’d been lobbying for access to allotments for years. See, when allotments were first created, the new landowners weren’t allowed to sell their acres. This was designed to prevent land theft. While the new state constitution continued to prevent Native Americans from selling their allotments, Black freedmen became able to sell up to 120 of their 160 acres.
Kat: With a single piece of legislation, more than 1.5 million acres of Black-owned land were suddenly available for white people to purchase or steal. Theola Cudjoe Jones lives just outside Boley today. More than a century ago, her ancestors came to Oklahoma, enslaved on the Trail of Tears. She explains how the rampant corruption after statehood led to land theft.
Theola Cudjoe Jones: There had been so much land lost and people’s lives lost because a lot of people will go to pay their taxes. And the taxes would be paid in someone else's name, and this person would never show back up at home. So I called it in my time land snatching. And it's not, it's not ever mentioned. But this is what was going on.
Anya: People also stole land through a process called guardianship. Basically, the state appointed guardians to “manage” the land and bank accounts of tribal members and freedmen that they deemed too young or “unfit.” Many of these guardians manipulated funds, sold property, and in some cases even murdered the clients they were meant to represent, instead naming themselves as heirs to property, mineral rights, and wealth.
Kat: Dr. Melissa Stuckey said because of a discriminatory literacy requirement in the new state’s constitution, Black residents had little political leverage.
Stuckey: So they would have to read and write parts of the Oklahoma Constitution to the satisfaction of election inspectors. And if they did not read from the Constitution to the satisfaction of those inspectors, they would be denied the right to vote.
Kat: Then, Oklahoma’s Voter Registration Act of 1910 inserted a literacy requirement and a grandfather clause that granted voting rights only to those whose ancestors were legally able to vote in 1866. Black political power was further eroded.
Stuckey: So bank owners, teachers, MDs, farmers alike were disenfranchised by the Grandfather Clause voting amendment. It was used as a cudgel to, to beat down African-American male voters and was a very effective one in that aspect.
Anya: For Black towns like Boley, this clause denied them representation on the state level.
Stuckey: You know, that really kind of took the wind out of the sails that Boley was sailing on or flying on as a dream.
Anya: Black folks fought back, to the extent that they were able. The Negro Protective League of Oklahoma and Indian Territory launched in 1905 to advocate for Black Oklahomans.
Kat: But their lawful protests were outmatched by violently enforced white supremacy. Dr. Cobb says in the eight years following statehood, 40 people were lynched in Oklahoma. The first lynching happened just a month after statehood. Nearly all victims were Black.
Cobb: There was not just the Klan, there were all kinds of white supremacist organizations, paramilitary type groups…they, they weren't like officially the police, or the Highway Patrol, but they would be associated with them and often worked in cahoots with them to terrorize. I just don't think there's any other better word to describe it, like terrorize Black people who were successful.
Kat: In 1911, a white mob lynched a Black mother and her son. The mob hung Laura and L.D. Nelson from a railroad bridge in Okemah, just twelve miles from Boley.
Cobb: And the whole town gathered to watch it and they made postcards of it…
Kat: The same thing happened in 1921 in Tulsa with the race massacre. People actually made postcards and kept them.
Cobb: It was like this campaign of terror.
Kat: One way to understand this violence is as a backlash to Black success, a backlash to Black land ownership, and the success of Black towns.
Anya: Racial violence casts such a long shadow. The Tulsa Massacre was covered up and essentially forgotten for decades. So were many of these lynchings. Ms. Cudjoe Jones believes her great-great grandfather John Horse Cudjoe was lynched in 1913 over a land dispute.
Cudjoe Jones: And you know, more Black people were lynched. That was the most thing that was going on were Black people being lynched. And, you know, people sit back and say it never happened. You have to have a past to have a future. And no matter what is in that history, good, bad or ugly, it has to be told.
Anya: For some residents of Boley, Oklahoma’s adoption of Jim Crow laws and rampant lynchings were clear signs that the promise of Black towns had ended. Indian Territory was now part of the U.S.. Not long after statehood, a number of Black residents responded by seeking to leave both the state and the nation. In fact, Dr. Field’s ancestors Monroe Coleman and Alexander Davis were part of a Back to Africa movement to immigrate to what would later become Ghana.
Field: There were thousands of African-Americans that gave money to that cause, hoping to migrate themselves to West Africa, again outside of the U.S. nation. There were others that migrated to the western plains of Canada. So Mexico, Canada, West Africa, these were all places that Black Oklahomans began to look to, some of them, within 5 to 10 years of having arrived in Oklahoma.
Anya: For Black people, like the Bradfords, who migrated to Boley with high hopes and decided to stay into the twentieth century, new questions emerged: how would they thrive in this Jim Crow state? Was the promise of Black autonomy really over?
Anya: Jim Crow wasn’t the only problem for Black Oklahomans. In the first thirty years of the century, a series of economic hits came in rapid succession–the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression, and the arrival of a devastating cotton parasite called the Boll Weevil. Boley’s population started declining.
The situation got so bad that by 1939, Boley declared bankruptcy. And then the railroad infrastructure that connected Boley to larger cities shut down. Everything and everyone traveled by rail. Here’s Dr. Willard Tillman, director of the Oklahoma Black Historical Research Project.
Willard Tillman: They had to find another means of transportation, you know, and during that time we didn't have you know, no big trucks to do all this kind of stuff and all that. So it was really, I think, the beginning of the downfall of a lot of these striving communities.
Anya: The state of Oklahoma went from having over 50 Black towns to 13.
Kat: But not everyone left. Remember how Bill Bradford bought 120 acres in 1919? He stayed put, and it was on that land that he taught his kids and grandkids how to farm cotton and peanuts. We asked Nate Sr. and his sisters Fannie, Patricia, and Lucy what it was like growing up on the land in the 1960s and ’70s. Times weren’t easy, they said, but the family managed to hold on.
Nate Sr.: I used to love the smell of dirt. When you turn the dirt over, you know, plowing up the proper land and stuff, I used to love that.
Fannie Washington: My brother, younger than me, Nathan, he taught me how to drive. I drove a stick truck and he wasn't tall enough to reach the pedals, so he had me to reach the pedals and guide it. And he would shift the gears. He'd say, “Clutch it, clutch it!”
Patricia Harris: You know, I remember growing up, if someone had a field we had to help do, it was almost like sharecropping, but nobody got paid for this stuff and you would go and help the neighbor to get their crop in. We could stay out of school for two weeks to do the fall harvesting, this what they called it.
Lucy Ellis: You had, if it wasn't raining outside and sometime if it was raining, you was outside playing. You know it wasn't none of that sitting in the house, we couldn't, it wasn't allowed.
Harris: So Boley represents, it really gave me, it really gave me my whole start in life because I was always told like that. Well, my parents always told me you could do whatever you want to…growing up with that type of atmosphere around you. Even though we were poor, we didn't know it. You couldn't tell me what I couldn't do.
Kat: The sense of possibility and safety and autonomy that the elder Bradford siblings experienced in their youth came in the face of rampant land dispossession all around them. Dr. Kendra Field said that what had earlier been accomplished by federal laws like the Indian Removal Act, or allotment, were now happening at the state, local and even interpersonal level.
Field: There were town ordinances and, you know, Farmers Associations –white landowners associations that made agreements to not sell land to any African Americans.
Kat: These kinds of local policies date all the way back to statehood. In 1911, the Okemah Ledger reported that white farmers signed oaths pledging to “never rent, lease, or sell any land in Okfuskee County to any person or persons of Negro blood, or agent of theirs, unless the land be located more than one mile from a white or Indian resident.”
Anya: And Kat, it wasn’t just farmers associations – banks also refused to loan money to Black residents. This happened to Nate Sr’s father, Elotis Bradford. By the time Elotis was seeking loans, all but one of Boley’s Black-owned banks had closed and the white-owned banks, wouldn’t give him what he needed to be successful…
Nate Sr.: Well the way I understood it, the guy that was giving the loans, he would always talk my dad into taking less than what he went for. And we'd wind up getting somebody else's hand-me-down, you know, some old used tractor….You know, if we'd had some decent equipment. We could've done a lot more. And been prosperous with it. Because my mama n’them, my mom and dad, they was hard-working people now. They know how to manage that farm.
Anya: With smaller and smaller loans, the family scaled back. By the time Nate Sr. was in middle school, the Bradfords had shut down their cotton and peanut production entirely.
Nate Sr.: And Dad said he wasn't going to do any more because it's getting too expensive. So he, you know, he just went back to work and we just kind of stopped farming. That's when the farming started stopping.
Anya: And when Nate Sr looked at neighboring farms, he started to notice a pattern in whose farm was succeeding and whose wasn’t.
Nate Sr.: Well, most of the peoples that I came up with, they didn't want nothing to do with the farm much….they didn't mess with it no more because it wasn't for black people, I put it like that.
Anya: Back in the 1930s, all farms, both white and Black owned, suffered from the boll weevil, and the Dust Bowl, and the Great Depression. But by the 1960s, something different was going on. As Black farms were failing, white farms prospered. Nate Sr remembers his father saying that when loans were denied to Black farmers, more money became available to white farmers.
Nate Sr.: They kinda sanctioned the Black people. You know, start taking resources, you know? You know, that's how you would take a community down, if you take the resources.
Anya: By the time Nate Sr’s generation became adults, many of them left Boley. Some of his siblings and cousins headed to urban centers like Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Others moved to California for jobs in Los Angeles or farm work in Bakersfield.
Kat: Nate Sr. told me he moved to Oklahoma City in 1973 after high school and stayed there for 8 years, but he eventually felt pulled back to Boley.
Nate Sr.: I kind of wanted to, I like to raise my kids on the farm cause…my wife's kind of the same way. We kind of like to have our space, and that's…why I moved back to Boley.
Kat: When Nate Sr moved back to Boley in 1981, he put in an application for a loan from the FSA, or Farm Service Agency, a subset of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA.
Nate Sr.: Oh, I was gonna get a home and I was gonna buy a whole farm, something like 200 acres or something or another.
Kat: He had the land all picked out. A local Black doctor offered to lease him a prime cattle grazing pasture, with the intention of eventually selling it to him.
Nate Sr.: He vouched for me to have all this property. He was going to, I showed them on my papers. My paper had on the lease that I was leasing with the option to buy we had signed it and notarized in Okemah at the courthouse.
Kat: But even with the documentation promising a future sale, Nate Sr was denied a loan.
Nate Sr: There's always some kind of excuse. You know, something? Some reason they wouldn't buy it, you know?
Kat: And that loss set him back permanently.
Nate Sr.: I could have got all that land for $200 an acre at the time, you know, less than $200 an acre. And you know, like I said, I'd have been a millionaire by now.
Kat: When Nate Sr. applied for a FSA loan again four years later, he was approved for loans to buy cattle, but not land.
Nate Sr.: Well my loan officer said...see, now he was Black, too. He seemed like he was almost, trying to help me get some stuff. And so he said, "I can get you the cows, but I can’t get you to the land and stuff." But he said he could approve the cows, at ten and a quarter interest rate, you know. Even with that, that was high.
Kat: Meanwhile, the doctor who had offered to sell Nate Sr. his land found another buyer, and the opportunity to buy at that price never came again.
Nate Sr.: Otherwise, I could have passed a lot of that land on to the boys because my boys, they came up, they wanted to do the same. They wanted to farm too, they like to farm.
Kat: The next year, Nate Sr. came up short on his payments for the cattle loan, so the loan officer lowered the interest rate and payments. Still, he tried to make the farm work. But again and again, USDA agents failed him. Sometimes they’d withhold information about benefits he was eligible for. Other years his loans would be delayed so long that he’d be knocked out of sync with the seasonal farming cycle.
Anya: Loan delays could be as long as a year, forcing Nate Sr. to choose between selling the cows off early or keeping them an extra year. Both were bad options that cost him profits, leaving him barely able to pay back his loan interest.
Nate Sr.: That's how things happen, you know, when they get you confused like that, you start making the wrong decisions.
Anya: Another hardship were supervised loans which required him to get a sign off from a local USDA officer for every single expense.
Nate Sr.: So whenever you went whenever you went to buy your feed and whatever stuff you had, you know, you would have to go down and get them to sign the papers, to sign the check. Everything you done they had to co-sign with you…
Anya: But supervised loans were rarely given to white farmers. As an experienced farmer, Nate Sr found the process to be patronizing.
Nate Sr.: See, it kind of degrades you in a way. It did kind of make you feel like, you know, you couldn't handle your own business, you know what I'm saying? That they didn't trust you.
Anya: Nate Sr.’s financial struggles had intergenerational consequences. Instead of building wealth to pass down to his sons, as he’d intended, Nate Sr quit farming – just like his dad had – and took another job.
Nate Sr.: So it was pretty stressful the way we had to operate, you know, a lot of times. I actually believe if they had, if they had gotten behind me, I think I really could’ve done well with it cause, even at that I was doing pretty good with it, you know.
Anya: The U.S. Department of Agriculture was formed to support all American farmers so that they’d succeed, regardless of pests and bad weather, and other unforeseeable factors. But Nate Sr. says that for him and other Black farmers – racism within the USDA set him up to fail.
Nate Sr.: I hated to dwell too much on the negative and I would just stick with that. You know, it was there, but you just pretend like it wasn't there. You know, I thought, well, I ain't going to even going to go there, you know? You know, you try to stay positive. But. But I do know that it wasn't fair now. I knew it wasn’t fair at the time. But like I say, there's nothing you could do about it…
Kat: It turned out that the discrimination Nate Sr. had suffered was part of a trend that had been happening nationwide for decades. In 1999, a class-action lawsuit called Pigford v. Glickman ruled that the USDA had denied Black farmers loans that they had granted to white farmers in equivalent situations.
Kat: The settlement mandated debt relief and payments to qualified farmers. Over the years, about 20,000 farmers have collected almost $1 billion, making Pigford the largest paid Civil Rights settlement to date.
Anya: But due to delay tactics around the timing of the consent decree, an additional 70,000 Black farmers filed late and were denied funds. In 2010, a subsequent court case, Pigford II, made another $1.2 billion available to farmers.
Kat: This all sounds like a lot of money, but let me put it in perspective. A 2022 study published in the Journal of the American Economic Association estimated that the land taken from Black farmers over the course of the 20th century is valued at 326 billion in today’s dollars. And then when you consider the intergenerational wealth, the lost businesses and opportunity for growth, the Pigford II funds are actually a drop in the bucket. Most farmers, including Nate Sr., received a single payment of $50,000.
Nate Sr.: They got it down, they said well, what is this? Shoelace level? It didn't help on the farm none. Blacks took such a hit back in the day and we haven't come out of it yet, we still struggling with the same problem.
Kat: Willard Tillman’s organization, the Oklahoma Black Historical Research Project, advocates for Black farmers. He said the money from the Pigford lawsuit was the least the government could do.
Willard Tillman: It was just like a Band-Aid to relieve this and say, well, okay, now we all equal. We've taken care of that. And that's the same. But it's not. You discriminated against me for the last 40 years. How do you expect me to be equal with you? Just by $50,000.
Kat: Growing up, June watched Nate Sr. struggle and eventually give up on the ranch. He didn’t think he’d follow in his father’s footsteps.
Nate Jr.: And so, as an African-American, I didn't know one African-American that was full time ranching. And at the time Black farmers lawsuit, the Pigford lawsuit was taking place. It was kind of like dooming and glooming a little bit. I didn't see farming or ranching as a future, you know.
Kat: Instead of staying in Boley, June went to a state college in Okmulgee to study Automotive Technology. But ironically – just like his dad – he says that it was leaving home that made him realize he wanted to pursue ranching.
Nate Jr.: When you finally leave home and you start thinking about what's important to you. That is when I realized that ranching, my heart was, is here. You know what I really, really enjoy is, seeing my animals, the welfare of my animals being good. It's just a good way of life, you know.
Kat: June had a son right out of high school and he says becoming a father made him grow up fast. After graduating, June and his family lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma. During the week he worked as a mechanic. On weekends he returned to Boley to ranch.
Nate Jr.: I was working, working in the city and was coming down helping them…kind of part time weekend warrior stuff. But we'd run from Friday to Sunday, sunup to sundown horseback.
Kat: June’s operation was scrappy at first, and he worked late hours at the car dealership to make extra money to invest in the ranch.
Nate Jr.: And I lived up there in an apartment, so I'd work on that car in the dealership at night when everybody, everybody leaving.
Kat: But even that wasn’t much.
Nate Jr.: I didn't make no killing. I'll just buy feed you know. It feel good going in and buying your feed and buy fuel and have money in your pocket.
Kat: Eventually June was able to purchase cattle and lease land through an FSA loan. But weekend ranching on leased land wasn’t sustainable. June wanted land to call his own.
Nate Jr.: So that's when I kind of had a turning point… Just trying to figure out how to make it all work and …Find me a little piece of land and come on back home.
Kat: June applied for and got a second FSA loan to purchase 160 acres and build a house. After five years of commuting from his job in Tulsa and the family land in Boley, he and his family finally moved back home.
But still, to be profitable, June needed to grow his herd, which required even more land.
Anya: When his wife’s father passed away, June thought he could move towards his vision of a larger and more sustainable ranching business. His father-in-law had owned 40 acres which were split between his six children after his death. June hoped to use his wife Ruth’s portion as a down payment to purchase the remaining inherited land, valued at $12,000, from her siblings.
Nate Jr.: I called the bank to ask for the money for the $12,000. I said, I don't have, you know, I don't have 20% down. But what I have with my wife's part is 20%. And I needed him to finance roughly that remaining amount. And they wouldn't do it.
Anya: Since then land prices have shot up.
Nate Jr.: But now, you know, I can't buy 40 acres around here. Some of it’s around $150,000-$200,000 for 40.
Anya: Looking back on it today, June feels like he should’ve gone to other banks, shopping around until he got a loan. But he was young and no one was advising him.
Nate Jr.: You don't have nobody much in your circle, that's really doing anything. You know, no more than what you doing. And you just you start thinking like, okay, well, this is just as big as the pot is. You know, this as far as I'm going to go. So let's just work on what we got.
Anya: In the meantime, Oklahoma was in a season of droughts and June was struggling to keep up with his existing loan payments. He needed his FSA loans restructured.
Kat: Taking out big loans is part of modern farming. What June was asking for wasn’t unusual. Remember, the FSA’s main job is to help farmers stay in business especially during hard times. But, as with his father, June thinks racism played a role in their refusal to help.
Nate Jr.: They never seen a successful black farmer or rancher, right? So for me to walk in and say, hey, I need $40,000 or $15,000 to buy a tractor or a piece of land. And he's going to automatically start thinking about, “well, my son didn't come here and ask for that kind of money or my boy ain't doing that, how can you be doing that?” And then not knowing that they really just kind of was kind of stereotyping and didn't see that you was possibly capable of being successful in that because you had a passion for it.
Anya: Over the years, June’s worked with three different loan officers in three different counties, but no matter where he goes, he’s encountered the same treatment. Willard Tillman told me June’s story is common. Most lending decisions are made by local representatives of the USDA and those officers tend to protect the interests of people they know.
Tillman: It's just people that are in that community that have…a lot of more power about who gets this and who gets that. And that's basically by those committees. And those are run by people that's within that community that know everybody and know this and that about everything. And so a lot of times the good old boy system is used to get what they need.
Anya: When USDA officers weren’t denying Black farmers outright, they were giving them bad loans.
Tillman: But with USDA and things of that nature, they would actually give some of these younger people loans, but it was a loan designed for failure.
Kat: And, Tillman said, the FSA would require Black farmers to have high levels of collateral.
Tillman: If you’re having to go through USDA with a guaranteed loan, you have to put up 150% collateral. They want your grandbabies, they want your cat, your dog and everything. But all the equipment that you have, you know, equipment when you buy it has a value. You're putting 50% more on the value of something that's already new and you ain't even used it.
Kat: Eventually June gave up on the FSA and began getting his loans at banks. They required only 100% collateral instead of the FSA’s 150%.
Nate Jr.: So. If I had a truck that was worth $5,000 and it was paid for. I know that I can go in and borrow $5,000. Kat: Bank loans required a lower collateral, but they often came with a higher interest rate, particularly for Black farmers like June, who were labeled high risk based on their lending history with the FSA.
Tillman: Due to a lot of discriminatory things that were basically done in the past, their credit is not the same, you know…when you go to the bank and try to get some money, you're already an at-risk person, you know. Because the interest rate is two, three times higher and that's based upon the color of his skin.
Kat: That high risk label worked almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Labeling a farmer high risk could actually make him high risk because it would force him to agree to less favorable interest rates.
Anya: In the end, even though June got bank loans, he was still unable to invest in land, which is what he knew he needed to do to create enough equity to expand his ranch and make it profitable.
Nate Jr.: So if I'd been worth $2 million right now if I needed to buy something that was worth $400,000, I could use the equity off my $800,000 that's been paid for, so that's how you stay ahead of it, because once you get the equity paid for, you able to take up some more equity and buy some more land.
Kat: Unable to get loans for land, June resorted to taking out smaller loans to buy used cars, which he’d repair and resell to make money to invest in his ranch.
Nate Jr.: Customers come in and they would trade them in and I'd give them a couple of hundred dollars, $800 for a vehicle on a trade-in, on a Friday and turn around and put it on the resale parking lot on Sunday and they were sold, so I would double my money.
Kat: So the same loan officer would lend you money to fix up cars, but not for the property?
Nate Jr.: Yes. Yes, he would allow me money to buy old cars, but not loan me money to buy real estate…I don't know what that was about, but that's the way it was..
Anya: June experienced racism not just from loan officers but from his own neighbors. His father-in-law’s land ended up in the hands of white out-of-towners who wouldn’t lease to him, though they leased land to white ranchers.
Nate Jr.: My dad tried to lease it. I tried to lease it. My brother tried to lease it. They never leased it to a Black person. I’ve never known one Black person to ever have it. But you would have people come from other areas that would lease it. And you, you know, like, well, heck, I'm right here next to it, you know, why wouldn't they lease it to us?
Anya: And when another neighbor’s 640 acres of land went up for sale, those neighbors also refused to sell to him.
Nate Jr.: You know, we just read between lines with that deal. It was something that never did get accomplished.
Anya: Today those 640 acres, which had been valued at $450,000, are worth 3 million.
Nate Jr.: We would have had the needed equity to expand to where I would've been a full time rancher today. So it kind of, you know, it put a kapeesh on the opportunity to be a full time rancher.
Kat: As hard as June works, he’ll never be able to make the kind of money that land speculators make. For 640 acres to go from $450,000 to $3 million represents more than a six-fold profit.
Anya: And, as the USDA tries to reform itself, there’s a new land grab that’s driving up prices, making farmland less accessible and pushing out small farmers.
[News Clip: Oklahoma now home to more than 2,000 marijuana dispensaries, more than Colorado, Oregon or even California. The draw? Ease of access and fewer regulations than competing states.]
Anya: Until June 26, 2018, marijuana was illegal in Oklahoma. But then, when a referendum to legalize it for medical use appeared on the ballot, SQ 788, it passed by a whopping thirteen point margin, a surprising win for a red state.
Kat: Often financed by Chinese corporations, marijuana grow houses started popping up all over Oklahoma, including around Boley.
Tillman: Well, we just got a lot of, a lot of weed growers here. I mean, they're growing two or three times more weed than the whole state could consume. You know. So that's another thing why they started calling it the wild, wild weed west, you know, because of the land grab and everything else.
Anya: Even before marijuana was legalized, foreign investors were already buying up land in Oklahoma. The Kirkpatrick Foundation reports that from 2004 to 2014, the amount of Oklahoma farmland owned by foreign investors increased nearly five fold. And that number has only grown since medical marijuana was legalized.
Kat: This land grab is part of a new trend where foreign investors outbid farmers to buy up U.S. farmland. As of 2020, 37.5 million acres of U.S. land was foreign-owned, the majority owned by Chinese corporations. It’s a situation which some say presents a national food security risk.
Anya: To slow this down, the House Appropriations Committee voted in the summer of 2022 to add language to a USDA-FDA funding bill that would prevent China from buying more U.S. farmland.
Kat: In the early mornings as June drives from Boley to his day job, he notices the purplish glow of the lights from all of the new grow houses.
Nate Jr.: So many of them came in here, you could look out in the fields, it would look like spaceships or something, UFOs out there. Because you're not used to seeing light out there. I mean, you know, being in a rural area where a store is fifteen miles away and houses are two to three miles apart, you don’t see that kind of lighting in one area. But they came in and really stormed in here and bought a lot of acreage. Those marijuana growers, and built fast. And they was putting up a lot of stuff. And as the world was slowing down, they was speeding up with production of marijuana.
Kat: Mayor Shelton says Boley doesn’t see any profits from the cannabis business.
Mayor Francis Shelton: Everything that's done out there is taken out of this community. I haven't even seen any of them patronize the restaurant here.
Kat: Meanwhile more and more small farmers, including the dwindling population of Black ranchers, are lured by the opportunity to make a quick fortune by selling their land.
Kat: Do you know people who've sold their land to the, to foreign investors who are, for the marijuana grow houses?
Nate Jr.: Yeah, I know a couple of people that sold, you know, made out like a bandit and sold their land. I mean, they gave quite a bit for the property and they was happy with the sale. A lot of them gave cash. I mean, pitchers of cash, they had a room full of cash in buckets.
Kat: That kind of money would tempt anyone, but Henrietta Hicks says you can’t put a price on family history.
Henrietta Hicks: But when they offer you that kind of money, it's hard to turn that down. You don't have time to think about grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews or the land--if I get rid of it, how am I going to get it back? What does this land really mean to me?
Kat: This trade-off is top of mind for farmers like June who are struggling to make ends meet.
Kat: Do you think you'd ever get to a point where you would consider selling for an all cash offer because your land is probably very valuable now, right?
Nate Jr.: Yes, it's appreciated in value. Selling my place. Um. You know, it's only going to be on the table because we had to sell it in order to survive.
Anya: After working for nearly two decades building his ranch, June still has to work 40 hours a week at a natural gas processing facility, which only leaves him with weekends and off-time to tend to the ranch. He doesn’t get a lot of sleep.
According to Willard Tillman, June’s work arrangement is really common among Black farmers.
Tillman: The average guy right now is not a 100% farmer. You know, like Nathan, he works a job. Kevin, they work. He's a fireman. He works a job. They all have other jobs. But they're not making what they really could make if they had enough land to support that, they'd rather do that and not go to that other job, you know?
Anya: June is always brainstorming about new ways to make ends meet. During the pandemic, when large meat processing facilities faced constant Covid outbreaks, his son Fabian convinced him to open a small-scale deer processing facility.
Nate Jr.: I love white tailed deer hunting. So, I'm a big deer hunter. But guess what? Now, just to make a living, we actually started processing deer… But now I turned that into a job just trying to make enough money to make the land and stuff and everything pay.
Kat: As Anya and I worked on this story, we kept wondering: what would G-Line ranch look like today if the Bradfords had gotten the financial support they had asked for all along? And so we started looking around at other farmers in Oklahoma, white farmers, and in particular one family named the Drummonds.
[clip from Food Network’s The Pioneer Woman cooking show: I’m Ree Drummond, I’m a writer, blogger, photographer, mother, and I’m an accidental country girl. I live on a ranch in the middle of nowhere and I’ve got a lot of mouths to feed. My style of food is simple, yet scrumptious, and all my recipes have to be approved by cowboys, hungry kids, and me! Here’s what’s happening…]
Anya: That was from The Pioneer Woman, a cooking show on the Food Network that Ree Drummond adapted from her popular blog by the same name. Ree Drummond is a bit of a celebrity and is everywhere in Oklahoma.
Kat: Like the Bradfords, the Drummonds are a multi-generational Oklahoman family. Frederick Drummond, a Scottish immigrant, made his way to Osage County in 1886, at the age of 22, where he married and eventually helped organize the Hominy Trading Company. His sons went into ranching and their sons went into ranching. By the 1980s the brothers and their descendants managed more than two hundred thousand acres of land in Oklahoma and southern Kansas.
Anya: Today, Ladd and his wife Ree Drummond are the biggest landowners in the state, and the 23rd biggest landowners in the nation, with 433,000 acres to their name. The Drummond’s success is an extreme example of the way white farmers have built generational wealth at the expense of non-white farmers.
Kat: Unlike the Bradfords, the Drummonds benefitted massively from government subsidies. According to a 2017 report by Daily Mail, between 2006 and 2016, the Bureau of Land Management gave Drummond Land & Cattle Co almost $24 million to let burros and wild horses graze on their land. That passive income is in addition to the profit they make from their cattle, TV shows, and cookbooks.
Anya: It’s hard to reconcile the differences between these two families.
Nate Jr.: What's been done it's already been done. we're dealing with the aftermath of it at this point in time. That opportunity has come and gone. You know. So it's just, you know, you miss those, miss those opportunities they just go. And what do you do?
[ARPA/USDA loan forgiveness clip: …under the law, the Covid relief bill known as the American Rescue Plan, that sweeping 1.9 trillion dollar package that will include cash payouts to many Americans. Let’s take you right now to the Oval Office.]
Kat: Last year, the federal government tried to address these racial inequities through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). ARPA ordered the USDA to pay back up to 120% of loans given to “socially disadvantaged farmers,” a category which includes Black farmers. I asked June what he thought about it.
Kat: I'm curious, like if the USDA program did go into effect, the one, the loan forgiveness one. What would it do? How would it affect you?
Nate Jr.: Well, they would give me the capital I need to expand. It would, you know, it would help us with longevity. Staying in business. I've got kids coming along and we can finally have an opportunity to expand because, you know, if you're not growing, you're dying…
Anya: But immediately after the legislation was announced, it was tied up in court. A group of white litigants filed thirteen different lawsuits. One of those litigants, Sid Miller, who’s actually the Texas agricultural commissioner, claimed the legislation discriminates against white farmers.
Kat: Willard Tillman calls this a classic example of opportunity hoarding, a practice common among white farmers organizations, both official and unofficial. Remember those farmers from Okemah who pledged not to hire or sell land to Black farmers, or how Nate Sr’s neighbors and later June’s neighbors wouldn’t sell them land?
Tillman: If they see that they can either get in and stop somebody else from getting it they'll do it, you know, but they think that they should be rewarded again.
Kat: The American Rescue Plan Act was part of a much larger Corona Food Assistance Program, a $23.5 billion dollar pandemic subsidy meant to aid struggling farmers over the course of the pandemic. Ultimately, only 0.1% of those funds ended up going to Black farmers like June.
Nate Jr.: I guess I really don't understand how could, they just hold up something that, that was going to benefit us, so we don't be extinct. And we were, you know, suffering from this the most. Because of lack of opportunity, lack of equity, lack of the capital being having access to.
Kat: More than ever, June wants to get his story out. His new e-book Looking to the Hills talks about his family background. June also takes videos of himself and his cattle to share the story of G-Line Ranch with others. One morning when we were driving in his truck to feed some calves, he showed me some of his favorite TikToks.
Nate Jr.: I made a little TikTok, have a couple of, some calves on here, and I thought it was kind of cute. You can check it out.
[sound of the TikTok]
Nate Jr.: Just a few calves on the other location. Little nosy, little boogers always wanted to get up on you and smell on each other and smell on you. Thought it was cool.
Kat: What's the secret to a good TikTok? A good farm TikTok.
Nate Jr.: Oh, wow, well people really like to see, so I went viral. I was de-horning an ingrown horn on one of my cows. I told my daughter, I said, “Well, I might make a tik tok of this.” I didn't think about it, it’s just another day on the ranch, I just went to working on her head and I went viral and I got up the next day, I got up at morning was like, hey, I got hey, honey, I got like 13,000 followers now. She's of course, she’s in the bed. "What you got? What?" Yeah. Yeah. And so, you know, I'm like, okay, cool. I got some friends now.
Kat: June’s growing TikTok following has connected him with other Black farmers and ranchers across the country.
Nate Jr.: I get to see what everybody else is doing and create some other relationships through social media, which is pretty neat. That’s how I got that bull.
Anya: Besides getting a bull through an Instagram contact, TikTok helped June put his financial struggles into a larger social context, calling attention to historical patterns of discrimination.
Nate Jr.: We was behind before we got here, you know. So there needs to be a level of ownership in them understanding that they need to level the playing field and how do you hold somebody accountable? You know, if me or you go out here and have an accident on a highway, we hit somebody. There's somebody responsible for that accident. Point blank. If I hit you and I'm in the wrong, I'm in the wrong. FSA, they do it, they in the wrong, they in the wrong.
Nate Jr.: Why can't we hold the government responsible? It ain't personal, you know, some people taking this is their deal, you know, no, the government should be held responsible. Period.
Kat: But what do you do when legal attempts to make things right don’t work? Pigford I and II tried to serve as a remedy, but June’s family says the settlements weren’t enough. The Covid relief package for disadvantaged farmers is currently held up in court.
Nate Jr.: It needs to be actions. You know, we don't need no grants, some education. I found that the dang government their idea to fix it is "we're going to educate people." We educated. We need, we need capital. We need money.
Kat: But the losses June’s talking about are so extensive, that experts like Willard Tillman aren’t sure meaningful compensation is even possible.
Tillman: I don't think they got enough money to make it right. You know, they put a Band-Aid on it, but with the Black farmers lawsuit and all that stuff, give people $50,000 and all that kind of stuff. But the real damage is loss of land…The loss of Black agriculture.
Kat: The Bradfords are in a hard place. June doesn’t expect the government to fix this anytime soon, but he loves his ranch too much to quit.
Nate Jr.: I got two brothers that's trying. I got a sister that's trying. My dad does the best he can do. You know, when we built that building down there, he was, he had prostate cancer. And he was going through radiation. He would come here after he get through his therapy, radiation that morning. He'd be here about 10, 11:00 every day helping us man up and put that building in. So it's a lot of work. It's a big deal. A lot of man hours.
Kat: You put so much into this, your whole family has.
Nate Jr.: Yeah. We put everything we had in this deal.
Nate Jr.: And if they think that black farmers and ranchers are going to sit here and go out of business and not not fight to the end, they crazy. I'm not going to forget about it. Never will. They need to address the issue and be held accountable for their actions.
Kat: The Bradford family is fighting to stay in business, despite the odds. And so is the town of Boley. Everyone we talked to in Boley is determined to make sure this historic town has a future.
Anya: It’s raining as Kat and I walk over to meet local historian and town judge Henrietta Hicks for a driving tour of Boley. The Town Hall is a double-wide trailer not far from the platform where the first Boleyites arrived by train more than a century ago. Ms. Hicks arrived early, wearing a kelly green beret and matching denim jacket and jeans.
Henrietta Hicks: All right, as we ride through the town of Boley, I'm with two lovely ladies. Make a right turn here.
Anya: Kat drives us slowly down Pecan Street and Hicks points out some of the fourteen buildings on the National Historic Registry: diners, banks, churches, and dance halls.
Hicks: We're now in front of the public safety facility. This is the police department and the court system. Inside this building, we have the offices for the chief of police. We have offices for the court clerk, and we have the judge's chambers and two jail cells.
Anya: At 87, Hicks knows everything and everyone in Boley. She knows who bought a house from a Sears Roebuck catalog in 1900 and where the wild onions grow. She shows us the First and Last Chance, a dancehall where children used to gather. Her interest in the past is matched by her hope for the future.
Hicks: If we can exist from 1903 to now, we want you to know it. There are people that if you work hard, you can, you can survive…We have been a great town, and we are still a great town with a great community. And as the great poet said, “Life ain't been no crystal stair.”
Anya: And yet despite its glorious history, Hicks wonders if the town will survive.
Hicks: The biggest threat to Boley is the exodus of people and the lack of money. That would, that would be the biggest threat.
Anya: That exodus she speaks of has been happening for decades. When we get back to the town hall, Kat points out an artist’s rendering of a revitalization plan from decades ago hanging on the wall outside the mayor’s office. How do you encourage people back to a small town? And what is a new generation going to find and build in Boley, if they do come?
Kat: Soon after, Amanda Bradford joined us at the office. Speaking of “small town,” she’s not only the town clerk, she’s also June’s younger sister. Amanda has short curly hair, a bright smile, and wears large clear framed glasses. With her today is her third and youngest daughter Amara, who’s four years old.
[Amara in background]
Amanda, who’s in her late 30s, is part of a new generation of Boleyites planning for the town’s future. But that’s hard to do without a high school. Boley’s closed in 2008. Recently, Amanda’s been trying to create other opportunities to help bring young people together. This past year, she started a community garden for kids, and she’s helping her teenage daughter Chy set up a snow cone shop to draw in young people.
Amanda Bradford: It’s called “Swaggy Ice.” I had no idea about Swaggy or, you know, I was like, what is Swaggy? I had asked somebody literally what is swaggy? But my kids, that was my daughter's thing. So it will be Swaggy Ice and I just want kids to be able to come and enjoy a snow cone and sit around and we can just talk about things.
Kat: Amanda is also the lead project manager for the traveling Smithsonian exhibit, “Crossroads: Change in Rural America.” It came through Boley in May 2022, overlapping with the Boley Rodeo.
Amanda: We are the first African-American town to be chosen in Oklahoma for this exhibition. It's a Museum on Main Street, brought to you by Crossroads. And it's just, it’s highlighting rural America and bringing attention to these small towns.
Kat: Amanda worked with older Boley residents, including Henrietta Hicks, to develop the exhibit.
Amanda: I've known her most of my life. But just hearing, you know, the stories about the town...made me more interested in keeping it going and revitalizing the community.
Kat: For Amanda, learning her town’s history was transformative–because Boley wasn’t always a point of pride for her.
Amanda: You know, at one point Boley was not a place where, you know, you should be proud to be from. Especially being around a lot of the surrounding towns…you know, the sundown towns. It wasn't somewhere to be proud of. And now you know that we are speaking about our history. Others are interested in our history, even those that are from those surrounding small towns. And I think just kind of getting it out there and saying it with pride and not, saying it, you know, kind of with shame.
Kat: Amanda believes that Boley’s future is linked to more young people understanding its history.
Amanda: I mean, Boley is a legacy and the history, as everyone says, is gold. So why let that go? I have, I brought that back to my family, meaning my brothers, my mom, my dad and their families…and it means even more to them now that I've brought that information to them, and the importance of the community and the things that go on.
Anya: Later, Kat and I meet up with 40-year-old Damien McCormick. He welcomes us into the duplex he’s renting while he fixes up his grandmother’s old homestead. Damien’s grandmother was Abigail Barnett, the Creek freedman who leased her allotment to the town of Boley when she was only twelve years old. Damien remembers spending childhood summers at her homestead, a curved stone house that overlooks Pecan Street.
Damien McCormick: If you go up on the hill, you can kind of see down the whole town. And she used to call that my blue heaven, which had a big neon light in cursive, My Blue Heaven. And this was back when neon lights were like, no one had neon lights on their houses and it's on native stone, stone structure. I'm going to redo that.
Anya: On the back patio, Damien tells us about his decision to move to Boley less than a year ago with his wife and two children. They’d been living in Bogota, Colombia, and before that, Miami.
McCormick: I decided to come back to Boley because my family's got land here, and my family was pretty integral in the creation, the inception of the town. So as I got older, I kind of realized the importance of that…and decided, you know, it's past time that I come down and try to do my part in what they started.
Anya: Despite their cosmopolitan upbringing, Damien’s family is adapting quickly to their new surroundings.
McCormick: My kids love it here and they're city kids. And I'm seeing a whole new side to both of them. They love the open air, the space. It’s almost like you’re isolated, but you’re not. You've got people that are close to you here in town because you know them.
Anya: Reestablishing those town bonds can be healing.
McCormick: A lot of people will tell me, like my dad passed away when I was 12, and so there's a lot of people here that remember my dad. So they’ll like, tell me stories about him and stuff like that. As I’m learning more, they'll tell me stuff about my uncle, they'll tell me stuff about my granddad, as I’m learning more about it, learning more how they operated in the town, and how they, their closeness to the town, it's making me closer to the town.
Anya: Damien’s fully embraced small-town life. Like a number of the residents we’ve talked with, he wears multiple hats. He’s in the volunteer fire department and recently got elected to the town water board.
McCormick: It's just tickling me to death how, you know, I actually have a direct impact on the quality of the water in the town.
Anya: Previously a business strategist, Damien now works as a consultant for the state of Oklahoma. He believes the future of Boley can’t rely on the attraction of history alone.
McCormick: I think that that historical identity has helped give it the history of autonomy and self-sufficiency. And I think that's what needs to carry forward. And I think we can kind of jettison the racial identity part, but not forget it, not forget it. But, you know, it doesn't need to be the driving force going forward.
Anya: To draw in newcomers, Damien tells us his plans to open several businesses.
McCormick: The bar is one idea. I'm going to do an RV park that I'm clearing out, I don’t know if you guys saw next to the restaurant there, I'm clearing out some land there for an RV park so people can come in and stop by, at least. Just things that allow people to feel welcome here, allow people to kind of sit down and, we’ve already got the park, Karen’s done a good job of getting that set up.
Kat: Henrietta Hicks conducts tours of the town regularly. In fact, the day before Anya and I met with her, she’d guided several busloads of visitors down Pecan Street, discussing Boley’s past. Dr. Melissa Stuckey, a Black history professor who studies Boley, says there’s growing interest in overlooked Black histories.
Stuckey: People are recognizing that there's such a thirst and such a hunger for African-American history and that folks are willing to spend money, they want to spend money. They want to come. They want to have experiences Black towns in Oklahoma are poised to take part in that, and to determine their roles in that.
Kat: Black history is often glossed over in American schools, but tours in places like Boley can help fill that gap.
Stuckey: Folks who do get opportunities to learn and to experience express constantly that they want to know these parts of the American past, the African-American past, their own senses of themselves as participants and as inheritors of a particular past they want. The thirst for this knowledge and for these experiences is tremendous.
[rodeo sounds:prayer, amens, and then upbeat music begins]
Jameela: Hey, Jameela here again. It’s hard to sit here on these packed metal bleachers, and not think of all this history, all this displacement, all the hopes and effort being invested to make a future for the next generation of Boleyites. But I’m also at a RODEO. The oldest Black rodeo in the country, at that. Cowboys and cowgirls are taking laps around the ring, and damn if I, born and raised in Southern California, don’t feel all the way connected. Everything about being here speaks to me.
[piano music swells then fades into prayer snippet]
Jameela: There’s a feeling of anticipation all around me. Folks have been training all year, preparing until the very last moment. And everybody’s got their event, the thing that pulls them here more than anything.
Amanda: My favorite part of it is the bull riding. That's my favorite part. That and barrel racing.
Boley Rodeo visitor: Pony Express for sure. Pony Express is just the excitement that everybody waits for is like going to a track meet and watching the relay race, on a whole nother level. Like you got 16 horses in the arena at one time. It's very, very adrenaline rush. So yeah, it’s always got to be one of my top events, and that's my favorite.
Mayor Francis Shelton: I've been going to the rodeo since the sixties, and there have been movie stars, African-American movie stars who've been part of the parade, or people who are well known in sports and music, and they've been here. And so I look forward to it. My minister said one day that he knew that summer was coming when Boley had a rodeo, that it was going to be the end of school for a while.
Jameela: As a member of the press, I get to sit in the bullpen. The animals are all around me. They look calm and watchful, but they’re massive. Any moment now, the gate will open and the first bull will be released. A cowboy will leap from the fence onto the animal’s back and hold on for dear life.
[music plus announcement]
Jameela: This is my first rodeo, but I’m already planning to take my family back. I feel humbled and honored to bear witness with this community. In an alternate history – one where Native Americans weren’t forcibly marched on the Trail of Tears, where Black people and Native Americans weren’t fighting over the same scraps of land, where Black ranchers received the same support as white ranchers – a Black rodeo might not be such a rare thing.
Jameela: All around me people are screaming. Out in the ring, the bull is bucking but the rider is locked in and focused.
I want Boley to succeed. I want the forces that have destroyed other communities to fail. But so much of Boley’s future is waiting in the bullpen—the impact of tourism, the exploding cannabis industry, plain old capitalism. Only time will tell. Time, and people like June Bradford. June says he’ll never give up.
Nate Jr.: Oh, yeah. They're going to read about us, they going to hear about us. Because we're going we're going to definitely try to lay our mark on this land and try to change the narrative. Of everything. When you put all you got into something. When you lay it out on the line. It all gonna come out in the end. It's going to be a sight to see, I may not be here to see it all but that day, that legacy is gonna continue to live on. Yeah.
Jameela: If you think about it, the way bull riders hang on isn’t that different from what the town of Boley and the Bradfords have done all these years–enriching the land they have, scraping by, laying the foundation for their own futures. The odds are stacked against them and they know it, but, for now, they’re still holding on.
[Quiet night sounds]
Stay tuned for more Plot of Land as we head to New York City for our next episode to look at how policy investment based on housing as a human right helped create a multi-racial and economically diverse community, until the government withdrew funding.
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.