Boley, Okla., is a quiet place. The schools have closed, the brick buildings along Pecan Street are mostly boarded up, and many of the remaining houses are fading back into the countryside more than an hour east of Oklahoma City. But Black towns like Boley were once at the center of the American story, and Karla Slocum thinks they still belong there.
“They are spaces for imagining grander possibilities and asserting Black worth,” Slocum writes in Black Towns, Black Futures: The Enduring Allure of a Black Place in the American West, an exploration of dozens of Black communities founded across Oklahoma in the years after Reconstruction. “In the 21st century, I argue, Black towns retain some of that marvel.”
Slocum, the Thomas Willis Lambeth Distinguished Chair in public policy at Carolina, is an authority on Black spaces. She’s the director of UNC’s Institute of African American Research and co-chair of the Black Communities Conference, which draws scholars and community advocates from across the country. Her earlier work focused on Caribbean farming communities contending with the forces of trade and globalization. As an anthropologist, Slocum is drawn to places where the past complicates the present. “I wanted to tell the contemporary, the more current story of Black towns,” she said in a podcast interview last summer. “But I needed to contend with the history, and I always knew that.”
At the dawn of the 20th century, there were hundreds of Black towns across the U.S., founded as havens for Black enterprise and freedom. Many of them prospered for decades, and Oklahoma had more of those thriving communities than any other state. Boley was once a major stop on the Fort Smith & Western Railroad, a bustling place with banks and colleges and a lively main street of Black-owned businesses. Booker T. Washington visited and called it “the most enterprising and, in many ways, the most interesting of the Negro towns in the United States.”
Boley no longer attracts national attention, but Slocum hasn’t lost interest. Instead of focusing on the bygone history of towns like Boley, she wants to know what those places are like today, what meaning they still hold even as they’ve declined in population and prominence.
“Despite their small size and their uncertain economies, the towns remain attractive, but in different sorts of ways,” Slocum said. “They remain attractive as places that allow us to tell a compelling story about Black success. As places that have a variety of economic possibilities. As places that support Black community.”
Though she grew up in Fishkill, N.Y., Slocum has deep ties to Oklahoma and its Black communities. Her grandfather was Mozell C. Hill, a prominent sociologist who studied at the University of Chicago and went on to teach at Langston University in Oklahoma, then Columbia and New York universities. In the 1940s, Hill completed one of the first academic studies of Oklahoma’s Black towns, finding them “marked by an underlying equalitarian ideology which tends to make the members stress similarities rather than differentiations among them.”
Slocum didn’t know that piece of family lore until she was in graduate school, but it helped shape her academic ambitions. “I had the family connection that sparked my interest in small rural communities where race is a factor. There really wasn’t anybody who had done book-length studies and publications on these towns between my grandfather’s work and mine, so that was pretty cool.”
She started visiting Oklahoma in 2004, meeting the people who still live in the dozen or so small Black communities that remain out of more than 50 that once dotted the landscape. There’s been an uptick in tourism to these out-of-the-way places in recent years, which Slocum attributes to a desire for stories of Black uplift and self-reliance to counter the more pervasive narrative of hardship and suffering. She knows from her experience in the classroom that the tragic episodes of history can be overwhelming.
In the spring semester, Slocum taught a course on the Tulsa massacre, a 1921 rampage that saw white Tulsans destroy the Black business district of Greenwood and kill somewhere between dozens and hundreds of Black residents. “That material is difficult, to say the least,” Slocum said. “It’s painful stuff, and I’ve had to think about how to teach it. Given the intensity of it, even I sometimes need to step away.”
She’s encouraged to see more attention paid to long-buried tragedies like Tulsa — the riot was a major subplot on the acclaimed HBO show Watchmen in 2019 — but Slocum wants to make sure that there’s a more complete picture of America’s long struggle with race. “Experiencing marginality does not foreclose success, and experiencing extensive success does not exclude being marginalized,” she writes near the close of Black Towns, Black Futures.
She hopes her students arrive at that same nuanced understanding. The Institute for African American Research sponsors an initiative called Student Learning to Advance Truth and Equity, which encourages undergraduates to do their own research on UNC’s difficult history with race and inclusion. Recently, a group of anthropology students has been interviewing earlier generations of Black graduates at Carolina, collecting stories about their struggles and successes at the University.
“It’s fascinating to hear these cross-generational conversations. On the one hand, people felt affirmed to hear stories that resonated across time, and they felt like their stories and experiences were being recognized. But we also had people for whom it was really a lot to dredge up. It was very emotional for them.”
There are no simple narratives when it comes to the past, which means there are no simple solutions for reckoning with the present. “We are definitely building on the scholarship and activism of students in the past that opened the way. But I think everybody is crystal clear that there’s still a lot of work to be done here.”
— Eric Johnson ’08
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