Photo: Colored Agricultural and Normal University (Langston University) boys dorm
In 1892 three Memphis men who owned a grocery store were lynched. Their crime was owning a store that competed favorably with a white owned store. One of the men, Thomas Moss, was a good friend of Ida B. Wells. After the lynching Wells wrote, “There is therefore only one thing left that we can do; save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons.” One of the destinations for Black leaving Memphis was Oklahoma, largely due to a Black attorney, investor and political figure, Edward P. McCabe.
McCabe was a unique figure in American history. Born in 1850, he was one of the first Blacks to work on Wall Street in New York. By 1882 he was State Auditor for Kansas, making him the highest ranked Black state official outside of the South. As opportunities in Kansas decreased, McCabe looked to the new horizon of the Oklahoma Territory. Around 1892 McCabe acquired a 320-acre tract near Guthrie, Oklahoma, which became the town of Langston. McCabe immediately appealed to Blacks everywhere — especially in the deep South — to seek greener pastures out west. He even got the support of John Mercer Langston, a Congressman from Virginia (and first dean of Howard University’s law school) to open a Black school in Langston, another selling point. In 1897, a Colored Agricultural and Normal School was opened, which would later become Langston University.
Langston was founded in 1890. By 1892 the town had 200 residents and 25 businesses, including a bank. There was also the Langston City Herald Newspaper, which McCabe also founded. Oklahoma, for McCabe, represented a place where political and economic opportunity was possible and Langston was to embody the best of it. From doctors to clergy, carpenters to teachers, the small town of Langston had it all. While it was not a utopia, it did provide Blacks an opportunity to live free from the daily threat of lynching and the chance to engage freely in their own civic affairs. Langston and McCabe were partially responsible for the tremendous growth of Oklahoma’s Black population. Indeed, between 1900 and 1906, Oklahoma’s Black population at least doubled.
When Thomas Moss was asked whether he had any last words he said, “Tell my people to go west. There is no justice for them here.” Oklahoma offered a unique promise. The Oklahoma Territory, by 1900, had 50,000 Black farmers. Perhaps the jewel in the Oklahoman crown was the all-Black town of Langston. Any dreams of an enduring utopia were ended in 1907, however, when the Oklahoma and Indian Territories combined, forming the state of Oklahoma. The Democrat-controlled state legislature passed a series of bills to restrict Black voting and to create legalized segregation, much like many Oklahoman Blacks had fled in the South. Still, McCabe’s legacy lives on through Langston University and those who know the story.