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ROBERTSON, JAMES BROOKS AYERS (1871-1938)

J. B. A. Robertson

As governor of Oklahoma from 1919 to 1923, J. B. A. Robertson narrowly avoided impeachment, used martial law numerous times, faced an indictment in a bank scandal, and called a special session of the Oklahoma Legislature to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment for women's voting rights. The turbulence of his administration has long obscured his accomplishments. Born at Keokuk County, Iowa, in 1871, James Robertson transplanted to Chandler, Oklahoma Territory, twenty-one years later. A former teacher in Iowa, Robertson had begun studying law. In Chandler he renewed his studies, passing his bar exam in 1898. The next year he married Olive Stubblefield.

In 1900 Lincoln County residents elected him county attorney, the first of many elective posts before his gubernatorial inauguration. Defeated in bids for territorial councilman in 1903 and for the 1907 Constitutional Convention, Robertson assisted in drafting initiative and referendum legislation for the state constitution.

In 1909 Gov. Charles N. Haskell appointed him temporary (later permanent) judge of the Tenth District after authorities charged Judge W. N. Maben with accepting bribes. Robertson resigned in1910 to challenge Lee Cruce and "Alfalfa Bill" Murray for the Democratic governor's nomination. Robertson withdrew from the race and supported Cruce, creating ill will between Murray and Robertson. Later that year Governor Haskell appointed Robertson to the Oklahoma Capitol Commission. Disagreeing with commission policies, he resigned his post. In 1911 he began a stint as a commissioner to the Oklahoma Supreme Court Commission Number One. In 1910 three new U.S. Representative seats opened for Oklahoma. In 1912 Robertson challenged William Murray, Joe Thompson, Claude Weaver, and others for the Democratic nomination but placed seventh. In 1914 Robertson resigned his commissioner's seat and again ran for governor. Former Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice Robert L. Williams, former bank robber Al Jennings, State Treasurer Robert Dunlap, and R. E. Herring bid against him in the Democratic primary. Despite his wife's death during the campaign, Robertson fought hard and lost by only 2,101 votes. He contested the election results but, afraid it would hurt the Democrat's chance for election, he withdrew his claims.

In 1918 Robertson finally ascended to Oklahoma's highest office. Defeating William Murray in the primary, he then overwhelmed the Republican candidate, Horace G. McKeever. Becoming the first governor from former Oklahoma Territory and the first inaugurated at the new capitol, in his inaugural speech he discussed the close of World War I, federal government restoring states rights, aggressive road building, and the unemployment plight of returning veterans.

Improvement of Oklahoma roads topped Robertson's list. He proposed a fifty-million-dollar good roads bond that, unfortunately, Oklahomans eventually voted down. His administration still created more than 1,550 miles of hard-surfaced roads.

Education represented another priority for the new governor. Administration-sponsored legislation strengthened the compulsory education law, added to appropriations to for rural schools, gave scholarships to two persons per county to attend Oklahoma A&M and to twenty-five African Americans to attend Langston University, created teachers' old-age pensions, authorized rural school busing, authorized part-time adult education classes, and extended state aid to African American rural schools. During Robertson's first legislative session, 315 bills were passed by the relatively friendly legislature, with the Seventh Legislature approving the first state budget law, later abandoned in 1921. The governor and legislators passed other, less liberal, laws to curb radicalism, teach only English in schools, display proper reverence to the flag in school, prohibit the display of a red flag or emblem of disloyalty, and prohibit the desecration of the American flag.

In 1920 Robertson called a special session to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment, allowing Oklahoma women voting rights. That same year the Republican Party had its greatest success, capturing a number of national political offices, and electing Warren G. Harding president. Republicans gained the majority in the state's House of Representatives, although Democrats continued to control the Senate. The Republican-dominated House impeached Lt. Gov. Martin Trapp and then attempted to impeach the State Treasurer A. N. Leecraft and finally Governor Robertson. These all failed, and the Senate quashed the charges against Trapp. The session produced no appropriations bill, and the House adjourned while the Senate was still in session. The governor had to call a special session to get the House to approve the budget.

In 1921 a dispute with Texas occurred over the boundary between the two states. Oil discovery at the Burkburnett Field on the south bank of the Red River caused both states to issue overlapping leases to oil companies. For several months Oklahoma National Guardsman faced Texas Rangers; violence loomed. Robertson met with Texas governor W. P. Hobby, but settlement was only reached after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Oklahoma's claim.

The governor also tackled the problem of race relations. Racial violence terrorized not only Oklahoma but also the nation after World War I. The revival of the Ku Klux Klan and the emergence of African American returning war veterans with a new sense of independence fueled the flame of violent outbreaks. After lynchings and attempted lynchings occurred in Oklahoma City, Okmulgee, Tulsa, and other towns during his first year in office, Robertson created a commission on race relations that consisted of five prominent whites and three African Americans, including Roscoe Dunjee, editor of the Black Dispatch in Oklahoma City. This did not stem the violence, and in 1921 one of the worst race riots in the nations history occurred in Tulsa. The governor declared martial law there and sent Gen. Charles F. Barrett and the National Guard to control the city.

This was not the only incident of mob violence during Robertson's reign. In 1919 violence erupted at Drumright during a telephone operator strike. Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and socialists were active in the area and used this opportunity to demonstrate. Turning violent, the mob apparently held the mayor, chief of police, and a councilman in the city jail and threatened to lynch them. Robertson sent out the Guard to control the town. The governor took a strong position against strikers, especially public officials, and had harsh words for the twenty-eight Tulsa police officers who struck early in his administration. The governor threatened to send the Guard to Sapulpa in June 1919 to control a streetcar strike. Telegraphing the sheriff, he claimed that peace officers might be advising, assisting, and encouraging citizens to violate the law, and he threatened to investigate.

The culmination of Robertson's stand on strikes and the government's role in strikebreaking occurred during the coal strike of October 1919. Citing dissatisfaction with the conditions in coalfields, miners announced a national walkout. Seeking to prevent the Oklahoma miners from joining this strike, Robertson called industry leaders and miner representatives to McAlester on October 29. Talks failed, and eight thousand miners walked out, causing the governor to declare martial law in six southeastern counties. National Guardsmen protected mining operations and threatened to use convict labor to keep the mines producing. The mining industry settled the strike on December 10, and the governor eventually lifted martial law. Other strikes occurred during his term, but Robertson did not again use troops until the railway shopmen's strike of 1922 in Shawnee.

In 1922 District Judge Mark Bozarth called a grand jury to investigate the failure of Okmulgee's Bank of Commerce. Robertson was one of the thirty persons indicted. The grand jury charged that state officials, including the governor, had accepted bribes to keep the bank operating after they knew it to be insolvent. Robertson did not clear himself of the allegations until after leaving office. In 1922 he was succeeded by John C. Walton. Robertson again ran in the 1926 governor's primary and was defeated by Henry S. Johnston. In 1930 Robertson lost bids for the Oklahoma Senate and for the Oklahoma Supreme Court. His last public service came as attorney for the Oklahoma Corporation Commission. He died of cancer on March 7, 1938. His second wife, Isabelle, and two children survived him.

SEE ALSO: DEMOCRATIC PARTY, ENGLISH LANGUAGE LAW, GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS, HIGHWAYS, KU KLUX KLAN, LABOR STRIKES, OKLAHOMA NATIONAL GUARD, RED RIVER BOUNDARY COMMISSION, TULSA RACE RIOT, TWENTIETH CENTURY

BIBLIOGRAPHY: J. B. A. Robertson Papers, State Archives Division, Oklahoma Department of Libraries, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Jimmie L. White, Jr., "James Brooks Ayers Robertson, Governor of Oklahoma, 1917-1923," in Oklahoma's Governors, 1907-1920: Turbulent Politics, ed. LeRoy H. Fischer (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1981).

Larry O'Dell

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