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Tatums, Carter County, Oklahoma: Oil Boom and Rosenwald School

Old grocery store.
Varner's Grocery no longer serves customers as Tatums is no longer an active town - except on Sundays, when descendants gather at the town's church.

After the Civil War, the enslaved people formerly owned by the Indian nations in Indian Territory were freed in two ways: through the 13th amendment as well as through new treaties signed between the tribes and the federal government in 1866.


The treaties stipulated new conditions of tribal existence, which led to the eventual break up of Indian Territory and the formation of the state of Oklahoma. One of the conditions —which was not placed on white Southerners after the Civil War — was that the tribes had to provide land for the freed people. Many African American families founded farms, and quite quickly, small towns developed with growing commerce, churches and schools. The Creeks and the Cherokees were the first to implement the land allotments and thus, the first all-black towns were established there. With the encouragement of Civil Rights leaders like Booker T. Washington, towns like Boley, Langston, Rentiesville, and Taft grew into sizable alternatives for African Americans in the American South, who viewed Indian Territory as a kind of "promised land" free of racism and segregation. This turned out to be wishful thinking, as the Tulsa Race Massacre attests.

Tatums Rising

By the 1890s — after the enactment of the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 — land speculators wooed blacks to Indian Territory. In Carter County, northwest of Ardmore, Lee and Mary Tatums founded an eponymous community surrounding their hotel and store after applying for a post office. Tatums in northwestern Carter County, Oklahoma became an important center of black life in the early 20th century, especially when oil discoveries led to the founding of an-all black owned refinery operation. Using some funds from the Rosenwald Foundation, citizens built a large school in the 1920s, the same decade in which the silent movie, "Black Gold," was filmed in town. A decade later, "Pretty Boy" Charles Floyd laid low in Tatums for a while, too.

Though the town is still incorporated, Tatums has lost a considerable amount of its population due to economic downturns, and it didn't help that the town also never saw a railroad pass through, either. Today, Tatums is just a little way-side stop along OK 7.

Family portrait
Mary and Lee Tatum, the founders of their namesake town (

School and pupils
In the 1920s, the citizens of Tatums built two study school buildings using funds from the county and the Rosenwald Foundation, as well as volunteer labor (OHS).

School ruin
Tatums' Rosenwald school became a Headstart Center but it fell into ruins a few years back and is now gone. This building sat at the site of the Rosenwald School and may have been erected with bricks from the older building.

White church building
The Bethel Missionary Baptist Church , erected in 1919, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is still very busy on Sundays.

Wooden house
Lovely old home, slightly the worse for wear, in Tatums.

House next to Rosenwald school.
Teacherage at the school in Tatums, where teachers could live. Part of their compensation was room and board.

A wonderful tribute to the parents of Tatums, Oklahoma.

Tatums was founded in the northwestern section of Carter County behind the Arbukle Mountains.

Wooden ruin.
A remanant of the boarding house owned by sisters Mary Manning and Viola Springer, where Pretty Boy Floyd once overnighted. The "wayside" hotel housed both black and whites and also sold meals. According to locals, it was a cozy and inviting place.

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