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Oklahoma Civil Rights Trail financed, awaiting action from governor

State Sen. Kevin Matthews, D-Tulsa, authored the bill that created the Oklahoma Civil Rights Trail grant program.
Kyle Phillips
/
For Oklahoma Voice
State Sen. Kevin Matthews, D-Tulsa, authored the bill that created the Oklahoma Civil Rights Trail grant program.

OKLAHOMA CITY – Oklahoma’s 13 original Black towns will soon be connected on the Oklahoma Civil Rights Trail.

The trail will link towns that are significant to civil rights history through a grant program with the Oklahoma Historical Society. Because the towns cover a vast geography, the trail will allow visitors to pick and choose which to visit.

The state Legislature approved the trail’s grant program in 2023, but waited until this year to approve a one-time $1.5 million allocation to improve visitors centers, signage or catalog oral history in participating towns.

The trail will connect Boley, Brooksville, Clearview, Grayson, Langston, Lima, Red Bird, Rentiesville, Summit, Taft, Tatums, Tullahassee and Vernon. Greenwood Rising history center in Tulsa’s historic Greenwood District and the city’s Pathway to Hope as well as the Clara Luper Center, which will be built in Oklahoma City, will be along the trail.

It will also include significant Native American historical sites.

Grayson Mayor Leon Anderson said he hopes the trail will help Black towns develop economically, preserve historical sites and retain their younger population.

“I have people in my community say, ‘We don’t want to lose our identity,’ that’s one of the things that we’ve been talking about, is because from where we are, you know, we’ve lost out,” Anderson said.

The Okmulgee County town, which had a population of 127 people during the 2020 census, shares a zip code with neighboring town Henryetta. Many of the original Black towns have populations less than 150, according to 2020 census data.

Anderson said not having a unique zip code or being able to preserve sites, such as schools, that are significant to the town has a negative impact on its community.

Sen. Kevin Matthews, D-Tulsa, authored the bill that created the grant program.

Matthews said the idea for the trail came to him when he was working on Greenwood Rising, a Black history center in Tulsa, with the Centennial Commission. While touring Black towns in the state, Matthews said he started meeting with mayors in 2019 to begin groundwork for the trail.

He based the idea off the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, which has historical civil rights sites in 15 southern states.

The National African American Museum of History and Culture had 5 million visitors within its first two years, which demonstrates interest in Black history, Matthews said.

Oklahoma’s Native American history is important to highlight as well, Matthews said.

“Oklahoma is, has, Native American country,” Matthews said. “We have African Americans that came here on the Trail of Tears… and so those stories are connected.”

Matthews said the trail will take two to three years to complete. He expects it will also revive tourism in the participating towns.

“It’s a boom for our state,” Matthews said.

The Oklahoma Historical Society will run the grant program in conjunction with participating towns.

Oklahoma Historical Society Executive Director Trait Thompson said the program is in the process of having Gov. Kevin Stitt approve the rules it has set for distributing grants.

Stitt will have to issue a governor’s declaration to approve the rules, which must be listed in the Oklahoma Register by July 17, Thompson said.

“I don’t imagine that there will be any problem with them [the rules],” Thompson said. “They’re pretty non-controversial. I don’t anticipate any issues. This really just sets out the parameters for how we’re going to administer the grant program.”

Grant funding will be available to municipal governments, county governments, tribal governments and nonprofit organizations across the state.

It will allow them to undergo projects such as installing signage, repairing or enhancing visitors centers or creating historical markers that highlight civil rights history. It can also be used to do preservation work or conducting, transcribing and cataloging oral history.

The one-time grant amounts will range from $1,000 to $50,000.

Thompson said he estimates the Oklahoma Historical Society will be able to begin accepting applications in early 2025.

“So we [Oklahoma] have a lot of history when it comes to civil rights, and it’s because of our unique way that we were formed, but I don’t think a lot of people recognize that,” Thompson said.

Taft Mayor Elsie Ceasar said the trail will allow Oklahomans to experience what the different Black towns represent.

Ceasar, who is a member of the Oklahoma Conference of Black Mayors, said she has participated in discussions about the trail, but is still waiting for concrete details.