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Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 15, No. 2
June, 1937

By Frank A. Balyeat

Page 191

One of the most interesting chapters in the history of education of the whole world is that of the Five Civilized Tribes during the three-quarters of a century that they occupied the Indian Territory before it became a part of the State of Oklahoma. Much less is known of the lack of schools for the multitude of white children who shared this area in the last forty years of the territory.

Prior to about 1870 the education of the white children in the Indian Territory was not a serious problem. The families of missionaries, of government officials, and the few white traders had access to the mission schools and, in some cases, as tuition pupils to the tribal schools. Some parents who could afford to do so sent their children back to the States. As the number of pupils increased slightly, parents co-operated to provide a building in which a teacher was employed by the group or else taught a subscription school. Railway employees and miners had not yet come to the Territory, and slave labor had made unnecessary the importing of farm hands or cotton tenants. Hence, prior to about 1870, the total number of whites in the Indian Territory was small and their children did not suffer for lack of schools.

Though this was still the Red Man's realm, the white race that had crowded him out of the East was now ready and eager to crowd into the land that had been assigned to the Indian and assured to him and his heirs forever. As available free land was becoming exhausted, land hunters and home seekers looked with covetous eyes at this fertile and attractive "island" on which the rising tide of Westward expansion had to divide. Many did not know of the solemn treaty promises by the United States to preserve this region forever as an Indian country and to protect it from

Page 192

the whites. Some who did know of these treaties thought of clever evasions and arguments for abrogation. While the statesmen moralized and deliberated, the home seeker and the speculator determined to go in and possess the land. The economic law of demand for the best and most accessible free land was beginning to enforce itself, and with a vengeance that could not long be withstood. Treaty pledges were soon forgotten or broken.

The discovery of coal and the beginning of railroads hastened the rate at which the white population filtered in after about 1870. Inasmuch as the Indian Territory was never included in the federal census before 1890, it is impossible to tell how many whites there were before that time. The census of 1890 showed 109,000 white people in Indian territory, or 61% of the entire population. If Agent Benett's proportions in his 1889 estimate are applied to the 1890 census figures, then 42% of the Indian Territory white population were farm laborers and mechanics, with their families. These held government permits to live there. About 25% were licensed traders, government employees, miners, and railway employees, with their families. Another 3% were classified as sojourners, prospectors, and visitors. The remaining 32% of the whites were characterized by the government agent as interlopers and criminals, principally refugees from border states. Certainly a motley array of white population.

From reliable reports and estimates we may safely assume that there were at least 30,000 white children of school age in 1890. At least 80% of these did not and could not attend a free school and more than 50% did not have access to a school of any sort. The lack of schools was tragic. Not a rural area in Indian Territory could organize on a legal basis at any time before statehood. Nor were villages under 200 population nor suburbs outside of corporate limits entitled to tax for any purpose. Yet tens of thousands were growing up under such conditions. A small minority attended tribal schools

Page 193

as tuition pupils. Most farmers could not or would not send under these circumstances.

In some rural communities the prevailing spirit was for schools. In these areas some leader would organize a nucleus of parents to build a school house by subscription and donated labor. Often the movement began in a neighborhood Sunday School or through the efforts of an itinerant preacher. Such buildings, erected wholly at the expense of parents with large families and small means, were necessarily inexpensive and crudely furnished and equipped. Districts were usually large and many of the children rode ponies to school, if the creeks could be forded or if some cattle rancher had not recently fenced across the only available road.

A committee of parents or some self-chosen leader directed the cooperative effort of providing schools for this rapidly increasing multitude of neglected and deserving white children. Teachers were chosen from the nondescript applicants and either allowed to use the building for a subscription school or had the meager salary guaranteed by a few of the more ambitious parents. The teacher taught as he pleased and from such texts as he knew or could get, reported to no one, and was supervised by no one. While there were many very worthy and efficient teachers, there were many who could not qualify in the tribal and the town schools. Some were self-styled "professors", who often turned out to be men who had real and urgent reasons for moving out of the States.

Many of the farmers raised cotton on land rented from the Indians and just barely made a living. As a federal supervisor once observed, most of them could not have been convicted on a charge of race suicide. The majority of them felt that as soon as a child was old enough to attend school he was large enough to hoe and pick cotton, hence his school attendance was brief and irregular. The result was that an unusually high percentage of the native white population was illiterate. To be sure, there were many

Page 194

of the inferior class that had drifted into the Indian Territory, but a majority of these farmers were sturdy, well-meaning, hardworking parents who deeply regretted that their children were denied the educational opportunities then becoming common in most parts of the United States.

Federal supervisors of the schools of the Five Tribes repeatedly and insistently appealed to Congress for aid. Precedents and misunderstanding delayed federal aid for the white children. The various sections held mass meetings to discuss the deplorable situation and to memorialize Congress for relief. In 1901 congress authorized an investigation to determine "whether it is practicable to provide a system of taxation of personal property, occupations, franchises, and so forth, in the Indian Territory to maintain a system of free schools..." The report of the investigating Commissioner said in part, "I doubt if there is a section in the United States today where there is such a deplorable condition as to education for the the Territory presents." He found in the Indian Territory 560 post offices, 108 incorporated towns, and 42 others large enough to incorporate. One-third of the incorporated towns had no tax systems and some of the others had not provided tax support for schools.

In 1904 Congress appropriated $100,000.00 which was used to extend educational opportunities to Indian Territory white children. Each year till statehood, in 1907, the appropriation was repeated, and in the last year reached $300,000.00.

This money was used for the rural areas and was limited to those communities with most children. Hence the towns and many of the more sparsely settled rural areas could not be included in the limited program. Each rural community had to provide its own building, as the federal money could be used only for teachers' pay. In some communities the white children attended the government rural schools provided for Indians out of tribal funds, the federal appropriation being used in the form of tuition. As late

Page 195

as 1906 not more than half of the petitioning communities could be granted schools.

Railroads and mines and the growing farming and stock raising industries called for towns. At first along the railroads, then at several inland places, boys and girls were brought together faster than educational facilities could be provided. Until 1898 no legal means existed for organizing town schools. Private and subscription schools served the minority that was being educated in these towns and villages, for they could not share the federal money.

Many interesting stories are told of how these communities cooperatively and voluntarily started school systems in their towns. Varied and ingenious were the plans for raising the needed school revenue. Many of the hastily improvised buildings or those rented for the purpose were badly over-crowded. There was no system for certificating teachers. In most places the retarded pupils were not ready for high school work, but those who were ready were long denied this privilege in many of the communities. Terms were usually short and teachers poorly paid.

After 1902 incorporated towns of 2,000 population of the Indian Territory could vote bonds for municipal improvements, including school houses. That made for expanded and improved school opportunities in these towns. But just as the support was entirely local, so was the authority and responsibility. There was no Territorial school system.

Thus in the two decades immediately preceding statehood, the numerous and rapidly increasing white population got a slow and meager start toward schooling. The special federal census of 1907 showed 538,000 whites in the Indian Territory, an increase of 275% in 17 years, and was then 79% of the entire population of the Territory. There were then nearly 200,000 white children between 6 and 20 years of age. Few of these had educational chances com-

Page 196

parable with even the slower States, while most of these children had little schooling at all and that of a poor sort.

It is impossible to measure the results of educational opportunity as existed for Indian Territory white children prior to 1907. Several contemporary writers pointed out that increased crime came from the idleness and ignorance of the youth. But for every person who became a criminal because of this neglect, there were doubtless hundreds whose vocational and civic efficiency was greatly lessened, whose ability to enjoy the fruits of their labors was decreased, and whose attitude toward society and government was distorted by their limited educational attainment. The effect has varied with the type of individual. Many parents have come to accept ignorance as pardonable and have ambition for their children to take school advantages now that they are offered. Some even oppose schools. The number who developed these attitudes during the years of school famine is astonishing, yet these are decidedly in the minority. For most of the parents and children the coming of statehood, with its free school system, was an emancipation. For them the many lean years when they were denied the right to provide schools for their children seemed to develop a strong determination to make good the loss when the barriers were removed.

One tangible result of lack of schools is seen in the illiteracy of native whites, ten years old and over, as shown by the census of 1910. In some counties as many as 13% of the whites over ten years old were illiterate, though most of the Indian Territory counties ranged from about 4% to 9%. The 1920 census showed that 13 years of a free school system had greatly reduced the white illiteracy, in many counties reducing the percentage to less than half of what it was in 1910.

Not all of this improvement in the percentage that could read and write was a result of the free school system for white children, as well as for the Indians who had been cared for all along. Much

Page 197

of the results came from schools for adults, the "moonlight" schools, as they were called. The way in which many of these grown folk have responded to these advantages has been as pathetic as it has encouraging. Only time can erase the blot of this part of America that was caused by enforced and unavoidable ignorance. Many agencies and forces have been cooperating in the determined effort to hasten the erasure.

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