During a recent visit to Oklahoma with my wife, among whose missions included finding her family roots and reunion, and researching the history of Taft, where she was born and spent her early years, the legacy and impact of Edwin McCabe popped up in several documents. This was inevitable since Taft is one of the state’s all-Black towns and McCabe’s claim to fame is centered on such historic sites.
It is rather ironic that someone who was born in Troy, N.Y., would be among the principal African-American pioneers in staking a claim in what had long been considered Indian Territory. Born on Oct. 10, 1850, nearly a month after the notorious Fugitive Slave Act was passed, McCabe had only minimal formal education, having to leave school to assist his family after his father’s death. He was fortunate to find work on Wall Street where he was a clerk. At the age of 22, he secured a job as a clerk in Chicago, beginning his venture west.
After two years in Chicago he traveled even farther west to Nicodemus, Kansas, a growing Black community. Immediately upon arrival in Nicodemus, McCabe established himself as a lawyer and a land speculator or agent. In 1880, after Graham County was established, he was appointed temporary clerk. The following year he was elected county clerk. A year later, he was the successful Republican state auditor, a position that made him one of the most significant office holders outside the South.
But his good fortune and Nicodemus soon began to deteriorate, and McCabe, like so many of the county’s residents, sought other locations. McCabe went first to Washington, D.C. before moving on to Oklahoma. He arrived in Oklahoma just as the land rush began, opening the door to non-Indian settlement in the territory. This loomed as a potentially lucrative prospect for McCabe and he promptly purchased 320 acres that was the beginning of Langston City, which was named after the recently elected Representative John Mercer Langston. With the deed in hand and a dream to have a haven free of the racism and bigotry so prevalent at the time, McCabe, the exoduster extraordinate, issued calls for others to join him in the newly founded city.
Part of his appeal was motivated by his need to have agents working for his company to travel to the South and induce others to join him. In effect, McCabe combined his personal gratification with the overall concern for self-determination for his people, controversially at the service of Republican advocates using Black Americans for their ulterior purposes of statehood. Even so, McCabe forged ahead, stating at one point, “I expect to have a Negro population of over one hundred thousand within two years, and we will not only have made substantial advancement for my people, but we will by that time secure control of political affairs. At present we are Republicans, but the time will soon come when we will be able to dictate the policy of this territory or state, and when that time comes we will have a Negro state governed by Negroes. We do not wish to antagonize the whites. They are necessary in the development of a new country, but they owe my race homes, and my race owes to itself a governmental control of those homes.”
Evident in this statement, and certainly clear to his adversaries, was McCabe’s gubernatorial aspirations should Oklahoma gain statehood. Accusations were flung far and wide that he was fleecing Black settlers, though he was never directly charged or convicted of wrongdoing. But what was unmistakably certain, he had no friends among white Republicans. A turning point occurred in 1892 when McCabe sought to make a speech at the Republican county convention advocating the secession of African-Americans from the party. When his request was rejected, McCabe, along with a number of African-American supporters, leaped on the stage and continued to harangue the white Republicans. This precipitated a melee that didn’t end until the sheriff and his deputies arrived, attacking Blacks with clubs and other weapons.
Six months later, African-Americans bolting from the party appeared to be complete. Having been manipulated by the white Republicans for their political purposes without granting Blacks full citizenship in the region, many of them began to relocate. McCabe departed for Washington, D.C. and in 1894 accepted an appointment as register of deeds for the District of Columbia. Three years later he returned to Oklahoma and became the deputy auditor of Oklahoma Territory, a post he would hold until statehood arrived in 1907.
By this time, with Blacks having lost their fight against statehood and with segregation the state law, McCabe had practically completed his withdrawal from public life. According to several sources, he was not mentioned in various functions conducted at Langston University, which seems odd since it was he who had set aside the 40 acres in 1897 for the land grant college that became Langston University by 1941. He acquired some notice in 1908 when he fought against the enactment of laws that in effect assured the continuance of Jim Crow statutes in the state.
The fight against segregation had a devastating impact on McCabe, both politically and financially since he had mortgaged his home to pay the legal fees, only to have segregation upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1914. Later, there would be a number of preeminent lawsuits filed by Black Oklahomans to strike down the invidious illegalities.
Of course, McCabe would not live to see any of these victories. He died in Chicago in 1920 and is buried in Topeka, Kansas.