This is still rough. I am so upset by the parallels to the present behavior of Republicans toward Blacks that I have rushed it a little. And the first paragraph went into italics as I posted this.
copyright 2021 by Hershel Parker
Dovey Costner--Being Black in the Carolinas, Texas, Indian Territory, and Oklahoma
The Smithsonian Magazine for April 2021 features Tim Madigan’s article on the Tulsa Massacre of June 1921, that “murderous attack on the most prosperous black community in the nation.” Preceding this in the Smithsonian is Victor Luckerson’s “The Promise of Oklahoma” on the last-ditch attempt of “eleven black leaders” in 1907 to prevent “Indian Territory” and “Oklahoma Territory” from becoming the state of Oklahoma. They and other blacks had hoped for a different result--perhaps (a wild hope) even a Negro Oklahoma. Their reasoning was that once Oklahoma was a state the white majority would enforce segregation and voter suppression just as in the Deep South. They were, of course, right. A “Grandfather Clause” went into effect in 1910 to allow illiterate men to vote if they could prove their grandfathers had voted before 1866. Illiterate blacks would be excluded.
So Moses Costner, son of Randal, made a big gamble sometime in the next years after 1880. Well before 1885, when Randal died, Moses had taken his large family to Texas, to Grimes County, surely by one or more wagons. (Gene Costner took his family from Mississippi to Oklahoma as late as 1915 or so in wagons “covered” somehow--maybe not just what we think of as “covered wagons”--pausing for harvest work along the way in Arkansas.) Moses must have had his reasons, but for a Black family this was about the worst spot in Texas to have gone. In the online “Texas History Now” Charles Christopher Jackson tells a somber story that Wikipedia picked up and quotes. Americans brought slaves with them before Texas won its independence, and Grimes county’s “slave population continued to increase at an astonishing rate during the last decade of antebellum Texas, as a result not only of purchases by current residents but also of continuing heavy migration of slaveholders from the lower South.” By 1860 Grimes had more slaves than whites. In the lawlessness that followed the war there was violence, “Whites against Whites, Blacks against Blacks, Blacks against Whites,” but the most violent crimes were by Whites against Blacks. In 1867, Jackson says, twenty nine instances of White violence against Blacks were reported--and of course many were not reported. He summarizes: “As the anarchy deepened, armed bands of Whites meted out vigilante justice; the Ku Klux Klan emerged in the county at Navasota in April 1868. In self-defense, local Blacks formed their own ‘militias.’ The secret activities of the county’s Loyal Leagues” (or Union League) “organized among the freedmen by Republicans as an agency of political indoctrination, inflamed White fears of Black conspiracies against White lives and property.”
By the 1890s or 1900 Whites in Grimes county, the prouder ones, descendants of settlers in Mexican Texas, had decided that they no longer wanted to be outnumbered by Blacks, now that Blacks had been free so long. One solution was to drive them out of the county. Simon Curtis tried to fight back. The Lenoir, North Carolina News on 6 February 1903 reported: “Negro Sues for Banishment. During the past year a large number of negroes have been driven out of Grimes county in eastern Texas by an organization calling themselves the White Men’s Union. All negroes free to emigrate have done so. Among them was Simon Curtis, who moved to Houston Centre, and who has filed in the United States Court at Houston suit for $40,000 damages against the white men who compelled him to leave his home in Grimes. It is the first suit of the kind ever brought in Texas, and is likely to affect the movement prevailing in many of the eastern Texas counties to get rid of the negroes.” The dust settled fast, and on 3 August 1904 the Lincoln, Nebraska State Journal reported that at the Democratic state convention in Houston the “white men’s union delegation from Grimes county was seated.” At some point in all this ugliness Moses Costner, his children, and his grandchildren sought refuge in Bryant County in Indian Territory or Oklahoma (a state as of September 1907). They had been “driven out of Grimes county,” even if no Whites had threatened them personally. If the Bennington, Oklahoma Tribune of 8 September 1911 is accurate, Dovey told a reporter for the Denison Texas Herald that week that he had rented part of "the old Colvert farm at Riverside for the past several years and has lived on or near that place for ten years." That would put the move to Indian Territory at 1900 or 1911, during the great flight from Grimes County.
Almost any place would have seemed safer than Grimes Count, but they may have heard cheering news from north of the Red River. As late as the middle of 1907 some had irrational hopes that Oklahoma could be a Negro state, and there were already a few “negro towns” in Indian Territory to celebrate.
“The negro, James Williams, who was lynched at Sterrett, had been arrested on a charge of assaulting Rosa Misner, a fourteen year old girl, near Colbert. The mob took possession of a train at Colbert, went to Sterrett, where deputy marshals were waiting to transfer their prisoners to Durant, overpowered the officers and hanged the negro to an oil derrick.”
What was going on elsewhere in Oklahoma was going on locally, where the Black Costners were being progressively anxious. The 17 August 1911 Blackwell Sun printed 4 headlines about a Caddo crime: “A Negro Lynched. Black Assailant of White Woman Killed by Mob. Body Afterwards Burned. Other Negroes Warned and General Exodus Begun.” A thousand armed citizens followed the assailant (of Mrs. Campbell) south toward the Red River, the Texas line. In “brilliant moonlight” they poured such a rain of bullets that his body was “torn to shreds.” Later the mob saturated a bile of wood with oil and burned the body until it was consumed.
Side by side on pages with this local article was a report on the Coatesville, Pennsylvania, capture of “a negro desperado” who in despair had shot himself in the mouth and fallen out of the cherry tree he was hiding in. A thousand people raided the hospital and strapped him to the bed and carried it out of town. They lighted dry grass and weeds under it and set the screaming man on fire then fed the fire with fence rails. Almost as many women as men were in the mob. So much for the higher civilization in Pennsylvania where some of the mob were surely Quakers or descendants of Quakers. Some Oklahomans learned about Coatesville even as they learned about Durant.
Within hours of the news spreading on the 3rd the Katy (MK&T) station was thronged. The Knoxville Journal and Tribune on the 4th had the news: “All outgoing trains were crowded, while extra facilities were required for the handling of their baggage and express. More than 1,500 purchased tickets for McAlester, Muskogee, Atoka, Okla., and Bonhan, White Right, and Denison, Texas and smaller towns. The ticket sales amounted to nearly a thousand dollars.” This was Sunday, and negroes were going to the depot rather than church. The Knoxville paper continued: “Cattle, hogs and crops were sacrificed at ridiculous prices in order to raise money while much other personal property was left behind. Farmers were in an angry mood following the report of the killing, but the community is quiet tonight since the negroes have fled. A large Sunday crowd at the depot cheered each departing train which carried the blacks from the town. The three negroes arrested for the killing were taken in an automobile to Tishomingo. Officers there at first hesitated to keep the prisoners, fearing a mob would pursue them and attempt a lynching. There ws no agitation here” [in Caddo] “in favor of such a demonstration.”
Dovey Costner, a negro renter on the Colbert farm, near the Colbert Ferry, four miles north of Denison on Red river, was in Denison Tuesday” (the 5th) “and sought financial assistance in organizing a movement to send a number of negro families to Liberia. He stated that there were nearly fifty families along Red river north of Denison who were ready and anxious to leave for that country. They are willing to dispose of all their cattle, horses, crops and even their land. The Chelsea paper continued:
Costner says that there are about fifty families who either own their farms or rent lands, obey the laws and live respectably in the neighborhood. Some have resided there for more than ten years and have the confidence and respect of all their white neighbors. Recently these negroes have been subjected to many embarrassing assertions by white men, their homes have been entered during the night and searched for the alleged assaulters of the wives of white men, that there [they] are now afraid to venture on the public roads and into the small towns nearly, least they be accused of some fiendish crime and lynched. Costner, who has more than the average education for a negro farmer, said he and his two brothers were cultivating about one hundred and fifty acres of corn and cotton and expected to realize considerable money off their crops this year, but are ready to load up their household goods and leave their crops, it not being considered safe for them to remain if the present condition continues to prevail.
Costner is of the belief that the lawless negro element which has created the present strained relation between whites and blacks is due largely to the invasion of Bryan county by negroes from north Texas and southern Oklahoma towns. He says that to his knowledge many are of the low vagrant element which infests low negro restaurants, pool halls and joints in prohibition districts.
A flippant reporter re-wrote the article for the Pontotoc County Enterprise in Ada, Oklahoma on 8 September: “Negroes in the riot-ridden land of Bryan county, Oklahoma, just north of Denison, are turning their faces toward the dark continent of their forefathers, where the tomtom sounds the call of battle, where only the breech-clout bedecks the body and, above all, where race riots are unknown.” The negroes causing trouble were not residents but “floaters of the type that infest the red light districts of every city.” The “better class of negroes” were “living in daily fear of their lives at the hands of the lower element of whites,” who have repeatedly searched their houses and subjected them “to humiliating treatment.” Now, said Costner, “Negroes Want to Emigrate.”