Modern Day Edwards Street has seen many decades pass since the Ku Klux Klan led a parade there after the last early-day African American resident left in 1920.
Little has been known about African American life on Edwards Street during Edmond’s territorial years. Their houses, school and house of worship are gone. A people’s history had been virtually lost for generations.
History has been brought to light by former Edmond resident, Christopher Lehman, professor of African American Studies, St. Cloud State University, Minn.
(Editor’s note: This is the first of a two part series about early-day Edwards Street.)
“In my research essay titled "Edmond's First African American Community,” I argue in the article that Edmond's African American community was unique in Oklahoma's territorial years (1889-1907), because it was built by both African American Edmondites and African Americans from neighboring towns as well as Guthrie and Oklahoma City,” Lehman said. “These alliances allowed for Edmond's African American community to build and sustain its own school and church, and both institutions were on West Edwards Street. The people fostered a strong African American identity and maintained a high degree of literacy until segregation tore apart the community when Oklahoma became a state.”
Lehman’s essay is archived at the Oklahoma Historical Society. He hopes it serves as an educational tool for coming generations.
Lehman’s parents, Paul and Marion Lehman, moved to Edmond in 1976 when Christopher was a 2-year-old. His father went on to teach as an English professor at the University of Central Oklahoma. Paul Lehman was the first African American to teach at UCO. In 1969, Paul also became the first African American television reporter (KWTV).
Christopher left Edmond in 1991 to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in History at Oklahoma State University, becoming the first African American to graduate through OSU’s Honors College. He also earned a Master of Arts in History degree, and a Ph.D. in Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Lehman has served as a summer visiting fellow at Harvard University.
AFRICAN AMERICANS BRING HOPE
Wilderness and vast stretches of prairie land greeted Oklahoma’s ‘89er pioneers when they staked their future in a new land of possibilities.
“Edmond did not immediately attract African Americans. Fifty thousand European Americans comprised the overwhelming majority of settlers of Oklahoma’s Land Run in 1889, but about 2,600 African American farmers, ministers and educators made their way to Oklahoma by the following year,” Christopher stated in his essay.
The families began moving to Edmond in 1891. Only 50 of Edmond’s 1,550 Edmond residents were African American and mostly settled in west Edmond, Christopher said. The greater majority of African American families in Edmond proper lived on a 500-foot stretch of West Edwards.
Bird and Nancy Gee were the first African Americans to purchase property in Edmond, Christopher wrote. Bird was born a slave in Missouri but was barely an adult when slavery ended in 1865. His parents had wealth after emancipation.
“In 1870 in Kansas, they owned real estate worth $600 and had a personal estate of $700,” Christopher wrote.
A CULTURE LEFT SILENT
Christopher did not know until 2018 that W. Edwards Street was once a community of African Americans. He only knew from his father that Tuftime School had existed as a school for African American children. Tuftime School was named by its 1895-96 principal William Sulcer.
Tuftime’s doors opened to educate children in September 1892, at 21 W. Edwards. Within four years, 24 pupils were enrolled. K. S. Smith became the school’s first instructor.
“Smith offered courses in arithmetic, geography, and physiology, and the school also provided a weekly Christian Sunday School lesson,” Christopher wrote.
One-third of the 24 students enrolled in 1896 were from 12 families, and one-third of the pupils lived in two households, Christopher said.
The culture and aspirations of the African Americans on W. Edwards has virtually been forgotten, Christopher continued.
“I think that the fact that the African American community of West Edwards disappeared completely by 1920, coupled with the promotion of Edmond by some Edmond residents that the community was ‘whites only’ — and that, that was a selling point — led people over the years, myself included, to think of Edmond as a city in which African Americans had never lived before the 1970s, he explained.
No mention of the W. Edwards community was noted in the history books Christopher said.
“I think it’s important for people who inhabit a city to know about the history of all of its residents even if the demographics were small,” Christopher said. “They were still present and they still contributed to the city’s history.”
A piece of public art on Edwards Street highlighting the African American community’s historical significance would pay homage to those early day settlers, he said.
Edmond’s first African American school teacher since the close of Tuftime would not come again until 1976 when the late Oretha Moulder became the first black teacher hired by Edmond Public Schools. Her biggest challenge of her career came with teaching generations of children to embrace multiculturalism, she told The Edmond Sun in 1999.
“You have to know where you came from before you can fully appreciate where you’re going and where you are. And you can’t measure the distance you have traveled unless you know where you started from,” Paul Lehman told The Edmond Sun in the 1999 series about race relations.
WORKING FOR BETTER LIVES
West Edwards was strong with African American pride, Lehman said. European Americans would go to the blacksmith’s shop or buy produce the African American farmers would sell.
One of the people who lived on West Edwards, William Covington, ran his own grocery store. But most of the W. Edwards residents were farmers, Lehman said. At least one person on the street worked as a blacksmith. Tuftime School was administered by teachers living outside of town, he added. Federal law mandated the new townsites could not exceed 320 acres.
“What I gathered was that the community did relatively well for itself because they stayed within the boundaries of segregation. They stayed at Tuftime and they attended their own church,” Lehman said.
Edwards Street resident, Solomon Veasy, used the 35th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation to advertise a fundraiser for African American Baptist trustees to build “a church house in Edmond.”
The Edmond Sun-Democrat stated the Emancipation Proclamation observance was set for Saturday Jan. 1, 1898.
The December 1897 advertisement called for the “colored people of Edmond” to come to the Emancipation Day of celebration, Christopher said. Veasy was a minister of the African American Church Mount Zion on Edwards Street and led the event, Lehman continued.
In 1901 the trustees purchased two lots for the Mount Zion Baptist Colored Association. Mount Zion Baptist Church was located at the western end of the street at 31 W. Edwards, two houses west of Tuftime School.
Elders of the African American community managed the church. In 1901 the church’s trustees were David Veasy, William Covington, and Hartzell resident Henry Clem, the father of former slave and Tuftime School teacher Charles Douglas Clem.
The majority of the African American community of West Edwards had migrated from Kansas. They were literate and had attended school. Their parents had the financial means to leave the South after the Civil War. The families were used to relocating in order to establish better lives for themselves, he said.
“So when segregation became intense in Kansas, people just decided to leave Kansas and go to Oklahoma Territory thinking that would be another new place to start, and where hopefully segregation would not be as intense as it was in Kansas,” Christopher said. “But ultimately it was.”
SEEDS OF RACIAL DIVIDE
Racial tension mounted against the African American community on West Edwards. The KKK movement spread following the Civil War and Reconstruction.
Jim Crow laws based on skin pigment limited African American freedoms. Intolerance and fear among some Edmond residents led to a white-only community, Christopher added.
West Edwards residents had formed a community to achieve success.
“The KKK paraded down Edwards Street after the last African American family left town,” Christopher said.
In 1903 a young African American student, Caroline Covington, entered what is now known as the Territorial Schoolhouse to take her graduation test.
“And there, according to one of the papers, was a near riot that took place because she dared to enter the classroom,” Christopher said. “Ultimately the instructor told her she had to go back to Tuftime and bring the exam with her and take it there. Now she graduated, but I think that was the first noticeable offense.”
Within three years Oklahoma County stopped sending teachers to Tuftime School. The Estes family had moved away. Only about half of the student body was left. So the county closed the school in 1905, Lehman said.
“People began to leave in order to find other schools for their children to attend,” Christopher explained.
The city’s history is documented by historian Stella Barton Fordice, who wrote a thesis in 1927 for a Master of Arts degree at then-Central State College. The thesis is archived at the Edmond Historical Society. African American families were told their dwindling numbers did not justify a separate school.
“Then some time later, when only two Negro families remained in the town, the citizens signed a petition asking that they move away. They moved without disturbance,” Fordice wrote.
Some of the residents moved to Oklahoma City. Others left Oklahoma or moved to the nearby African American towns. Every African American resident had left the original Edmond townsite by 1920 when
Hazel Covington was the last of the town’s original African American residents to sell their properties, Christopher said.