The "Wellston Colony" Mirage

References to a “Wellston Colony” supposed to have existed at the beginning of the twentieth century have become so common that the first thing to be said about it is this: it never existed. In the field of bibliography, a phrase like this is called a bibliographic ghost. Professor X, a trusted scholar, mistakenly refers to a work that doesn’t exist. Subsequent scholars, wanting to be thorough and finding no reason to doubt the word of the trusted Professor X, repeat the reference. The reference takes on a life of its own and expands like gas in a swamp. 

The trusted scholar in this case was Arthur Tolson, who in 1966 wrote a dissertation at the University of Oklahoma called The Negro in Oklahoma Territory, 1889-1907 (nowadays available online). Because he was writing a dissertation, Tolson was thorough, but because he was a young scholar he was not sufficiently critical of his sources. Combing old newspapers--and what a time-consuming job that must have been before the age of online databases, turning all those yellowed pages--he found two articles that referred to a Wellston Colony. Someone should have reminded him that newspaper articles are written to sell newspapers, and that truth-to-verifiable-fact is a secondary consideration. 

This is what Tolson wrote: 
In the fall of 1900, a colony of about 300 Negroes purchased about 1,000 acres of land near Wellston and divided it into cotton patches. This town was located in Lincoln County near the lines of Logan and Oklahoma counties, in the scrub oak country. Later the Oklahoma Guide reported that the first contingent of the colony arrived 150 strong, from Grimes County, Texas, to build homes on the land, and other members of the colony were on the way.

Had he begun his first sentence as he should have, saying “two newspapers reported that a colony…,” all might have been well. A historian doesn’t just “report the facts” that he has found, he places them within his own interpretation. Failing to do that, he has failed as a historian.

To be charitable, Tolson was dealing with masses of material, and he may have thought that his position was clear. Something like an interpretation is implied when in the paragraph above he continues:

However, the existence of the colony was denied by the Wellston News, apparently in an attempt to discourage more Negroes from coming into the area. The News announced: “It is not true that a colony of negroes purchased a large tract of land near Wellston for cotton raising.”

This is better but still problematical. Tolson doesn’t say that no such thing happened but that the Wellston papers declared it had not. Here he may be revealing his own biases, because as a young scholar doing ground-breaking work on the history of blacks in Oklahoma, he may have preferred to think that there were a large number of all-black towns or settlements started in the period before statehood. And indeed there were--Tolson names about fifty--but Wellston Colony was not one them.

It should be noted in passing that Tolson appears to have gotten his citations wrong, but this in itself is not a problem. His sources are both findable online at Gateway of Oklahoma History. Neither carries the articles that he attributes to them, but two others do and on or about the dates he specified. One appeared in the Southwest World for 10 Nov 1900, and the other in the Oklahoma State Capital on the same date. Tolson is paraphrasing these two articles, sometimes word for word, so there is no doubt about  his source--though of course the articles could have appeared in other papers besides those that I found. (The newspaper database at Gateway to Oklahoma History makes no pretense to be complete.)

Let me offer one example of how swamp gas expands. In his Progressive Oklahoma: The Making of a New Kind of State (Oklahoma University Press, 1980. ), the well respected historian Danney Goble writes: “As late as 1900, a group of three hundred Negroes—fleeing the violence that had been unleashed by the White Man’s Union of Grimes County, Texas—established the collective settlement of Wellston Colony, reminiscent of the dozens established a decade earlier.” Goble cites Tolson’s study. With or without footnotes, in the fifty years since Tolson wrote, so have fifty other researchers and black-history fans, whether writing for scholarly journals or posting online.

What did Tolson’s two articles say? Let the reader judge:

That is from the Southwest World. The Oklahoma State Capital gives it a twist, heightening the scandal.

Though it is to their editors’ credit that neither article is nasty, it is clear that neither welcomes the idea of a black colony, and the headlines of the second are alarmist. Both articles are intended to sell newspapers.

Given this slender basis in fact--the articles were published, and their words are there for us to read--what can be reliably stated about the Wellston Colony?

First, forget about Grimes County. Black people may well have come from there to Wellston and vicinity, but methodologically it would be a a labor of hercules and probably impossible to prove on the basis of the existing vital statistics. Chief among these are land and census records. The homestead records at the Bureau of Land Management are of limited use since they don’t give the homesteader’s place of birth or origin. They have to be correlated with the census records. Once every ten years these indicate the county and state of an individual’s residence, but for the place of birth they give only the state, never the county. In the pure good of theory, one might get a general picture of which state people came from by searching the census records for every black living within five miles of Wellston in 1900, but the researcher would need to bear in mind that census records are not very reliable. Many people are missed in every census, especially black people enumerated by white census takers, and the writing of an uneducated enumerator can be illegible. At best the results could show only a tendency for residents to come from one or another state.  

The other reason why Grimes County has to be put to one side is that the white-supremacist politics prevailing there were characteristic of the surrounding counties, indeed of the whole of southeast Texas. Even if it were possible to fix the names of the three thousand blacks who made their exodus from Grimes County between 1900 and 1910, it would again be a herculean labor to try to trace their various destinations.

Methodologically, it makes more sense to start with the newly arrived blacks around the Wellston area in the census year 1900. In fact, I have tried my hand at this, and the results are not without interest.

I started with the 1903 plat map for Wellston Township ( and looked at sections 9 and 10, then 4 and 5 (north of Wellston and south of State Highway 66B).  That's where the colony was supposed to be, and the sections are more cut up there than in other areas, often into forty-acre parcels. However, a colleague who examined county land records found no evidence of any bulk purchases. Land purchases were made by individuals, and the census records for the landowners of 1904 show them all to be white. Unsurprisingly, I found that I could not connect any of the 1903 landowners in these sections with burials in black cemeteries. 
I looked particularly at Sweet Home, the nearest black cemetery and a very sizable one, where I did find one tendency that should be noted. Searching the 1900 census for individuals buried at Sweet Home and born before 1880 (making them adults in the supposed year of exodus), I found a larger number than would be expected. Perhaps as many as fifty percent did come from Texas. This supports the idea of a Texas migration, since the largest number of blacks who came to Oklahoma before statehood came from Kansas.
Black newspapers at Gateway to Oklahoma History were no help. The Oklahoma Guide, started in 1909, had an occasional Wellston column that provided some names but they didn’t lead anywhere. There was a black paper in Fallis called the Fallis Blade but only a few issues are available at GOH. There was a black community north of Fallis called Dudley, but the Dudley cemetery has only about twenty-five  recorded internments. Another paper, the Black Dispatch, didn’t start until 1917, too late to be of use.
Academic databases, as I indicated at the start, were a dry hole. Every reference to "Wellston Colony" ultimately goes back to Arthur Tolson's 1966 dissertation. 

Therefore, my provisional conclusion is that while there were plans to create Wellston Colony, and some people may have even made the trip from TX and bought land, the colony never took root. If the settlers did buy land, white folks must have bought them out. 
Studies of “all-black towns” in Oklahoma strongly suggest that town planners carefully placed their nascent communities at a distance from any white town. This made excellent sense, since despite the realestate speculators hoopla about a paradise of freedom in Oklahoma, black settlers found themselves unwelcome in many towns, and after the Jim Crow arrived with statehood they were expelled from several. “Nearly every thriving city in the two territories had witnessed an expulsion campaign by statehood,” writes Goble, and he mentions in particular Norman, Sapulpa, Lawton, Perry, Marshall, and Shawnee.
The question then arises, were there black communities near Wellston? Indeed there were. Not all-black but predominantly black. There was Sweet Home, about two miles away from Wellston, too close to have been incorporated as a town. To the north there were Fallis (which later became predominantly white) and Dudley (townsite plat filed 1905), and further to the east there was a large predominantly black community south of Davenport that never acquired a name. Other Lincoln County communities that were founded or were mostly settled by black families before or soon after statehood include Key West, Fallis, Payson, De Graffenreid, Kickapoo, and Rock Springs. To the east of Wellston a few miles, across the Oklahoma County line, was Luther, which began as a predominantly black town, one whose tale does not belong on this Lincoln County website. Please visit Sherron McAllister’s large database called Luther Area Studies.

No comments:

Post a Comment