OKLA. CITY —
In 1791 a slave rebellion broke out in what was then the French colony of Haiti and over the next several years French citizens fleeing the conflict made their way to New Orleans. Those refugees brought with them traditions that were to have an impact on their new homeland.
They included the custom of constructing small homes that were one room wide and featured several other rooms behind the front one with doors at both the front and back of the structure that in time became know as “shotgun houses.” The term shotgun is said to reflect the fact that a bullet could be fired through the front door and go through every room in the house.
In recent years, historians have traced the origins of shotgun houses to West Africa and concluded that the African slaves brought to Haiti built them in accordance with African traditions.
Shotgun houses gradually made their way to the rest of Louisiana and other Southern states in the 19th century where they served as homes for people of modest incomes. There is now a plaque on the shotgun structure in Tupelo, Mississippi, where Elvis Presley was born in 1935. The design of shotgun houses were first brought to what was then Oklahoma Territory by slaves who were affiliated with the Five Civilized Tribes who were settled there in the 19th century.
On the Oklahoma Historical Society’s website it describes them as part of Oklahoma’s “folk architecture” traditions. Most of the shotgun houses built in Oklahoma prior to statehood were constructed in African American communities such as Boley according to an article in the Journal of Cultural Geography authored by former OSU Professor George Carney.
Shotgun houses were later constructed in communities in Oklahoma that experienced an oil boom such as Cushing, Glenpool and Seminole and places that were home to oil refineries such as Enid.
Carney wrote how those houses were popular in those locales because they could quickly be assembled and did not require blueprints or the services of a skilled carpenter. They could be constructed out of materials that were readily available. Those structures proved to be very resilient and many of them are still in existence today.
The southwest Oklahoma town of Frederick is home to a number of shotgun homes. As set forth on the website of the municipality of Frederick, those homes were actually constructed in Burkburnett, Texas, an oil town that was the subject of the movie “Boom Town” that featured Clark Gable and Spencer Trace. The homes were moved to Frederick in the 1920s by a businessman in that community.
How that herculean task was accomplished was not set forth.
In recent decades, the shotgun houses of New Orleans have been recognized as an important part of that city’s heritage and are being celebrated in community events there that include symposiums and walking tours.
Many of them have been renovated and are now occupied by some of the young people who have migrated to New Orleans recently.
It may be time for the communities that have shotgun houses in Oklahoma to take steps to preserve them and commemorate the people who built them.
William F. O’Brien is an Oklahoma City attorney.