In Oklahoma’s Black Belt, land ownership and power built Black wealth

Reading Time: 10 minutes

  • Attendees, some wearing cowboy hats, sit in the stands watching the rodeo.
  • Riders on horse travel down the street as residents watch.
  • A group of young men perform with drums in the street as a group of people sit on the sidewalk to watch the performance.

BOLEY, Okla.

The biggest weekend of the year in this tiny town kicks off with an hours-long parade. Cowboys and cowgirls trot their horses along downtown blocks lined with watchful spectators and vendors selling their juiciest barbecue meats.

This story also appeared in Reckon

Inside a squatty stone community center, a vintage photography exhibit documents Boley’s better days, when a pair of banks and dozens of homegrown businesses on those same streets bustled as the town center of a prosperous agricultural region.

The parade kicks off the Boley Rodeo & Barbecue Festival, one of the nation’s more well-known celebrations of Black cowboy culture, taking place as it does in the largest of what once were 50 Black towns in the state.

Only 13 still exist.

The rodeo celebrates a certain Black presence in Oklahoma and the history of the Western frontier, as well as its place in Black farming, past and present.

Nearly half the Black-operated farms in the nation today are beef cattle ranches. In Oklahoma, it’s two of every three. And most of the Black farms are in the eastern part of the state, where Boley is located.

Yet, the Memorial Day weekend festivities also celebrate a place Boley, other Black towns, and the Greenwood section of Tulsa — home to the “Black Wall Street” destroyed in 1921 — occupy in America’s history.

Black folks, “not only farmers, but doctors, lawyers, and craftsmen of all kinds,” came here seeking “greater opportunities and more freedom of action than they [were] able to find in the older communities North or South,” Booker T. Washington, the noted Black educator and civil rights leader, wrote after visiting the town just two years after its official establishment in 1903.

Back then, Black folks by the thousands came west. Land was plentiful, and so were the cattle. The soil was fertile. Cotton, the region’s king crop, was high.

“Boley, like the other negro towns that have sprung up in other parts of the country, represents a dawning race consciousness, a wholesome desire to do something to make the race respected,” Washington wrote, “something which shall demonstrate the right of the negro, not merely as an individual, but as a race, to have a worthy and permanent place in the civilization that the American people are creating.”

Boley town marker. (Boley Facebook page)

The land that made Boley

Without the Trail of Tears, Boley as Booker T. Washington described it would not have been. And the Trail of Tears was a dispute over rich agricultural land.

In 1830, Congress passed and President Andrew Jackson signed into law the Indian Removal Act, which effectively evicted thousands of Native Americans who made up the “Five Civilized Tribes” from their ancestral homelands in the Southeast and the Plains and gave their stolen lands to white settlers.

Thousands of Native Americans were displaced to land that included what is now Oklahoma.

The Muscogee Creek Nation was one of the tribes, along with the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole, rooted in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee and North Carolina. The Muscogee enslaved people and brought those enslaved with them to the area around what now is Boley.

Want more of The Heist?

Get behind-the-scenes info and alerts when new episodes become available.

Use the unsubscribe link in those emails to opt out at any time.

The Muscogee aligned themselves with the Confederacy during the Civil War. Several factors may have influenced the decision, including the tribe’s historic ties to the American South and to white Southern ancestors, religious ties, the defense of separateness and anti-Blackness as an idea and economic reality, according to David Chang, author of “The Color of the Land: Race, Nation, and the Politics of Landownership in Oklahoma, 1832-1929.”

Afterwards, in order to be accepted back into the Union, they agreed to grant Black people freedom as well as full tribal citizenship. Over time, they were forced to give up much of their land to the federal government. They were also pushed to allot land to all tribal citizens.

One of the newly enfranchised Creek Freedmen was James Barnett, and 160 acres of land was allocated to his daughter, Abigail. Boley, about 70 miles southwest of Tulsa, would rise on that land, as would the lives of those who would make it their home, place of business or ticket to success.

“At this time, the U.S. is an agricultural society. So to seek opportunity, to seek economic independence, is often to seek land ownership,” Chang said.

Black cowboys are born

Enslaved people weren’t the only thing the Muscogee brought to the land that later would become Oklahoma and part of its Black Cowboy culture. Cattle had been an essential part of their economic life in the Southeast, and they brought their herds and their know-how, too.

Some tribes in the Indian Territory had already been cattle herding, but struggling to do well. Not the newcomers. With the help of those they had enslaved, they developed a successful cattle industry on the new frontier.

After the Civil War, the Muscogee economy struggled. Next door in Texas, cattle farming was booming, and many of the large herds were driven to railheads and to slaughter on trails that went through the Indian Territory. Black cowboys became a skilled workforce for those drives.

Many had been trained as cowhands on cattle ranches prior to the Civil War, and they operated those ranches when their slaveholders went off in support of the Confederacy.

After the war, the formerly enslaved were able to move around freely, and that gave them the opportunity to work nearly every type of job on the long drives to Kansas and other key markets.

And cowboy work paid more than sharecropping, the other principal way for a Black man to make a living. They often were paid the same amount as the white men who rode beside them, and more than the Mexican vaqueros and the Tejanos whose ancestors had been so critical in the years before.

Generations in the making

Much of the land obtained by Oklahoma’s first-generation Freedmen was great for growing cotton. In other areas, the financial grass was greener on the other side — rich in coal and oil.

Abigail Barnett’s land, as it turned out, was most valuable because of its location. It was smack dab on the path of a developing railroad route west from the transportation hub of Fort Smith, Arkansas, just across the eastern border.

There were no towns in the region, so Boley became its regional business center. It would be an early 20th century town run by Black folks for Black folks, a place where local governments empowered by Black voters would control most of the essential institutions of daily life.

An edition of The Boley Progess newspaper from 1906. According to the official town of Boley website, the weekly newspaper began in 1905. The paper and various advertising campaigns circulated through the South and lured many former slaves to the new town. (Oklahoma Historical Society)

“It might be somebody who can sell the inputs that you need for your farm,” said Chang, a professor of history at the University of Minnesota. “It might be a small bank, and the idea of a small financial institution is very important in this situation because of course, capitalism is about capital and you have to have access to capital. And who has the capital? The banks.”

Boley would have two, including the first nationally chartered bank in the nation owned by Black folks. Eventually, it also would have three cotton gins, its own electrical plant and more than its share of bustling, Black-owned businesses.

Its townsfolk were among Boley’s biggest boosters. They took out ads in newspapers and sent word to family and friends back East, telling them how good the living could be in this place with more promise and prosperity than persecution and punishment.

“It was a project that was generations in the making for these African American people,” Chang said. “This kind of sovereign institution, whether it be a farm or a church, or a growing store or a small bank, is an effort of taking away the fragility of many African Americans at this time.”

A raisin in the sun

As much as Booker T. Washington’s prose described Boley’s beginnings and what it could be, another Black man’s poem, written some four decades later, might well describe the condition of so many Black Americans years later, including those who’d planted their seeds of hope in Boley. “What happens to a dream deferred?” Langston Hughes asked, in his poem “Harlem.” Does it shrivel up, he wondered, “like a raisin in the sun?”

But the dream of Boley was deferred long before the town was established.

The Indian Appropriations Act of 1889 opened up two million acres of forcibly unoccupied land for claim by U.S. citizens, mostly white settlers, including some who rushed in to claim land before the official opening date. Those early rushers are the “Sooners” of Oklahoma lore, those claimants who acted sooner than the others.

The settlers assumed considerable governmental power when Oklahoma became a state in 1907. They used it in the same way that other states, most prominently those of the former Confederacy, did.

Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. has discussed that period and process in American history as Redemption, “when the gains of Reconstruction were systematically erased and the country witnessed the rise of a white supremacist ideology that, we might say, went rogue, an ideology that would long outlast the circumstances of its origin.”

Segregation in schools and public transportation would become law, not just culture. Black voting would be suppressed and Black voters disenfranchised. The promise of a better life that had drawn Black folks to Boley and the rest of the state would seem more and more to be a return to what they had sought to put behind them.

In Oklahoma’s Black Belt, land ownership and power built Black wealth
Boley has changed through the years: Pull the slider up and down to see a historic photo (date unknown) of Boley and a current day photo from 2002 of the town. (Credits: Oklahoma Historical Society, April Simpson / Center for Public Integrity)

Boley’s Black-run local government created somewhat of a protective bubble for its residents. But other problems intruded.

“The population started declining in the ’20s when the boll weevil came along, which is a bug, and it chewed up the cotton,” said Henrietta Hicks, the town historian and Boley native. “Plus the fact, the [federal] government stopped the farmers, especially Black farmers, from growing the amount of cotton that could feed a family.”

The Great Depression hastened the town’s decline, as did the fate of the Fort Smith and Western rail line: Founded in Boley in 1899, it ceased operation in February 1939.

“And then on top of that, there’s the increasing rabidity of white supremacy across the nation, and especially in Eastern Oklahoma,” said Chang, the University of Minnesota history professor.

“The rise of outlaw elements of white supremacy, like the Ku Klux Klan, and very much legal instruments of white supremacy — like much of the government of the state of Oklahoma and all of its counties — made it difficult for these towns to really survive.”

By 1950, Boley’s population — about 4,000 several years after it was incorporated in 1905 — was 646.

Today, Boley is barely an echo of its past.

Most of the businesses are dusty, vacant shells. The schools have all shut down. Machines do much of the work that field hands did before. And the charms of city life seduce the young.

Still, a younger generation of Boley Bears, locals who’ve taken on the name of the old high school’s mascot, want to keep the town alive. Some have returned and some never left.

They know they’re investing in a Boley that isn’t what it was.

But who says it can’t be better?

This story was produced in partnership with the McGraw Center for Business Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York.

The post In Oklahoma’s Black Belt, land ownership and power built Black wealth appeared first on Center for Public Integrity.

Central Valley communities of color lack flood control. Would representation on water boards help?

During three weeks in December and January, storms dumped 32 trillion gallons of rain and snow on California. With it came unwelcome floods for many communities of color.

The winter and spring storms were a rare chance for drought-stricken communities to collect rainwater, rather than have their farms, homes and more overwhelmed by water. Much of the rain that fell instead overflowed in lakes and streams, leading to disaster in low-income Central Valley towns like Allensworth and Planada.

“It’s a long history of disinvestment in disadvantaged communities and communities of color, in drinking infrastructure, water systems and flood control,” said Michael Claiborne, an attorney for the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, an environmental justice organization based in the San Joaquin and East Coachella Valleys.

In the aftermath of the damage, community leaders are reiterating a call to diversify water boards to give marginalized groups more power.

The California State Water Resources Control Board, which oversees the distribution of water in the state, has acknowledged that its workforce does not reflect California’s racial composition. Part of the State Water Board are nine Regional Water Quality Control Boards. These regional boards develop “basin plans” to manage water quality in their area, taking into account their region’s unique environmental factors.

In 2020, 69% of water board management was white, while 31% were Black, Indigenous or other people of color. By comparison, 37% of California’s population is white and 63% are Black, Indigenous or other people of color, according to the 2019 American Community Survey.

“More local representation would ensure that when decisions are made, the needs of the communities impacted aren’t ignored,” Claiborne said.

The communities that flooded don’t have proper infrastructure such as levees and canals, experts said, which divert water to floodplains or groundwater basins that wells can draw from for later use.

Members of the State Water Board were not available to comment on representation by the time of publishing.

The State Water Board adopted a plan this January to improve racial equity and better represent California’s diversity. This resolution also applied to the regional boards, which used the resolution as a guide to develop their own racial equity plans.

“A lot of these board seats go uncontested,” said Allison Harvey Turner, CEO of the Water Foundation. “The same people have been in these decision-making positions for decades.”

Inequality still remains a concern when it comes to California’s water infrastructure, the first defense against floods.

Allensworth, a small farming community of mostly Latinos in the San Joaquin Valley, was ordered evacuated because of flooding from this year’s storms. The town sits at the edge of the Tulare Lake basin, which was the source of much of the flooding. Drained and cultivated decades ago, Tulare Lake was revived by the storms in less than three weeks. But its resurrection submerged miles of valuable Allensworth farmland.

Other cities near Tulare Lake, including Corcoran and Alpaugh, also suffered devastating flood damage. What were once roads, homes and farmland ended up at the bottom of almost 170 square miles of water.

While many agencies manage water, Claiborne said those bodies are dominated by wealthier, “bigger water users.”

“Disadvantaged communities have very little ability to influence local decision-making,” Claiborne said.

The central coast town of Pajaro and Merced County’s Planada are two other low-income, farming communities of color destroyed by floods. In both towns, county officials were blamed for not properly maintaining the levees that failed.

“In places that have gotten a fair amount of tension like Pajaro, levees needed work, but the investments made to shore them up failed and communities flooded,” said Harvey Turner, of the Water Foundation.

Efforts are underway to improve representation on water boards, which would give small landowners and communities of color an avenue to advocate for better water infrastructure. The Water Foundation provides grants to support organizations such as the Leadership Counsel, which helps local advocates learn about their regional water boards and run for those positions.

One current Tulare County Supervisor, Eddie Valero, is an outcome of those programs.

“That can be super powerful – if we are able to shift the faces and communities that are reflected in these water positions,” Harvey Turner said.

Bella Kim is a reporter with JCal, a collaboration between The Asian American Journalists Association and CalMatters to immerse high school students in California’s news industry.

The post Central Valley communities of color lack flood control. Would representation on water boards help? appeared first on Fresnoland.

Why Saving This Stop on the Underground Railroad Is an Act of Climate Justice

On murky nights, when dullness stole the sky and blanketed the North Star, Harriet Tubman used her vast forestry skills to propel forward those escaping slavery.  As a child, she learned moss only grew on the northward side of trees and used that knowledge to help direct dozens of people on the Underground Railroad. To […]

The post Why Saving This Stop on the Underground Railroad Is an Act of Climate Justice appeared first on Capital B.

Biden’s EPA Has Resolved Only One Civil Rights Complaint Brought Since 2021

The Environmental Protection Agency’s recent dismissals of three cases that would fix some of the problems in “Cancer Alley” underscores a difficult complaint process that works against Black communities’ best interests. They fall in line with a history of neglecting marginalized residents and failing to fully realize the legal power of the Civil Rights Act […]

The post Biden’s EPA Has Resolved Only One Civil Rights Complaint Brought Since 2021 appeared first on Capital B.

Oregon’s Greater Idaho movement echoes a long history of racism in the region

The latest movement, Greater Idaho, seeks to slice off almost everything east of the Cascade Mountains and add it to Idaho, uniting the right-leaning portions of the Beaver State with its more conservative neighbor. Nearly two dozen people conceived the idea over pizza and soft drinks in a La Pine, Oregon, restaurant in 2019.

Organizers frame Greater Idaho as a natural byproduct of Oregon’s “urban/rural divide” — shorthand for how populous cities can sway a state’s politics. The idea is far-fetched: In order for eastern Oregon to become Idaho, Oregon’s Democratic-dominated Legislature, Idaho’s Republican-dominated Legislature and the divided United States Congress would all have to agree. Still, the campaign has gained attention, garnering articles in national media outlets; in 2021, The Atlantic called it “Modern America’s Most Successful Secessionist Movement.”

But less attention has been paid to its underlying motives and how they fit into the Northwest’s long history of racially motivated secessionism. Over time, Greater Idaho has slowly revealed itself to be something of a poisoned apple: framed as a gift to discontented rural people, but actually a front for far-right culture war talking points, including racist ones.

The movement’s website and leaders echo Trumpian rhetoric about “illegals” and lambast Oregon for education programs about Black history and public health measures that prioritize communities of color. During the first year of COVID-19 restrictions, in 2020, Mike McCarter, a movement leader, told a regional website that Oregon “protects Antifa arsonists, not normal Oregonians.” He added, “It prioritizes one race above another for vaccines and program money and in the school curriculum, and it prioritizes Willamette Valley” — where Portland is located — “above rural Oregon.”

In 2021, Eric Ward, then-executive director of Western States Center, a Portland-based pro-democracy think tank, accused Greater Idaho of simply reviving what the Oregon Capital Insider described as a “white ethno-state dream.” The center’s advocacy arm later sponsored anti-Greater Idaho TV ads.

Over time, Greater Idaho has slowly revealed itself to be something of a poisoned apple: framed as a gift to discontented rural people, but actually a front for far-right culture war talking points, including racist ones.

McCarter pushed back: “Calling us racist seems to be an attempt to associate a legitimate, grass-roots movement of rural Oregonians with Hollywood’s stereotypes of low-class, ignorant, evil, ugly, dirty Southerners,” he said in a statement posted alongside photographs of Ward and Western States Center’s board — who are all Black — and the center’s staff. “(Ward’s) words mark anyone with a Greater Idaho sign or a Greater Idaho hat as targets for violent antifa members.”

Meanwhile, prominent racists were fired up about the idea. White nationalist leader Jared Taylor touted it on his podcast: “People who live out in the continents of rural sanity, they don’t want to be governed by the people who live on those islands of urban insanity,” he said. The audio was repurposed for a video on the far-right social network Gab — where former Fox News host Tucker Carlson is considered a trusted media source and no one would get banned for posting a swastika. Users buzzed about Greater Idaho.

Articles and clips on the anti-immigrant website VDARE also promoted it. One blog post said that Greater Idaho “would free eastern Oregonians from the anti-white, totalitarian leftists who rule the state.” A video warned that Oregon “won’t protect its residents from thugs, illegal aliens, communist rioters and other undesirables.”

Because Greater Idaho is unlikely to become a reality, “people dismiss it,” said Stephen Piggott, a program director with Western States Center. And that, he believes, is dangerous: “People are not connecting the dots,” he said. “The people who want to create a white homeland are backing it.”

WHEN OREGON WAS ADMITTED to the Union, its Constitution contained a clause banning Black people from moving there — the only state with such a provision. Even before its borders were drawn, people floated the idea of creating a slave-owning haven in what is now southern Oregon and Northern California, branding it the “Territory of Jackson,” after President Andrew Jackson. Confederate sympathizers considered several of the new state’s southernmost counties “the Dixie of Oregon.” Later, in the mid-20th century, the State of Jefferson movement emerged in the same area; it nixed owning slaves, but retained a slave owner as its namesake. Driven by people who felt they were over-taxed by Oregon and California, the movement still has supporters.

The secessionist torch passed from generation to generation. The phrasing changed, but the talking points remained the same.

In 1986, after migrating from California to North Idaho to build a racist refuge for his group the Aryan Nations, white supremacist Richard Butler hosted his annual Aryan World Congress — a national gathering of neo-Nazis, racist skinheads and members of the Ku Klux Klan. They agreed that, in the not-so-distant future, U.S. cities would become so overrun by minority groups that white people would be forced to flee to an “Aryan homeland” they envisioned in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

Butler died in 2004. Eventually, his compound was fully bulldozed and his acolytes scattered, but his ideas remained and evolved. In 2011, survivalist blogger and New York Times best-selling novelist James Wesley, Rawles floated an idea called “The American Redoubt.” (According to the Anti-Defamation League, some individuals add errant punctuation to their names to distinguish their first and middle names from their government-imposed or family names.) He encouraged Christians of any race who felt alienated by urban progressive politics to relocate to the Northwest, writing: “I’m inviting people with the same outlook to move to the Redoubt states.” Recently, the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a right-wing political think tank, echoed this. “Are you a refugee from California, or some other liberal playground?” it asked on its website, welcoming those newcomers as “true” Idahoans.

Starting in 2015, then-Washington state Rep. Matt Shea, R, pushed to sever his state at the Cascades, rebranding the rural eastern half as “The State of Liberty,” which advocated against same-sex marriage, marijuana and environmental regulations. Shea distributed a document calling for Old Testament biblical law to be enacted. On its website, Liberty State organizers suggest that if Liberty becomes a reality, they would be open to merging with Greater Idaho.

Within the last two years, Vincent James Foxx, a white nationalist associated with the Rise Above Movement — a group the Southern Poverty Law Center described as “an overtly racist, violent right-wing fight club”— relocated to Post Falls, Idaho. “A true, actual right-wing takeover is happening right now in the state of Idaho,” Foxx declared.

Greater Idaho is driven by ideas similar to those behind past movements: fleeing cities, lauding traditionalist Christian values, pushing a far-right political agenda. “Ultimately, I think in some ways, Butler’s vision is coming true,” said David Neiwert, an expert on far-right extremism and the author of The Age of Insurrection.

What all these secessionist ideas have in common, Neiwert said, is that they are anti-democracy. Greater Idaho’s organizers “don’t really want to put up with democracy,” he said. “They don’t want to deal with the fact that if you want to have your position win in the political arena, you have to convince a bunch of people. They just want to take their ball and create a new playground.”

Gary Raney, former sheriff of Idaho’s Ada County, where Boise is located, disliked seeing his state “being advertised as an extremist haven.” In response, last year he founded Defend and Protect Idaho, a political action committee that fights political extremism. “Everybody’s entitled to their opinion, and I welcome that discourse and discussion,” he said. “But when people are wanting to overthrow our government or our republic or our democracy … there’s nothing healthy about that.”

What all these secessionist ideas have in common, Neiwert said, is that they are anti-democracy. Greater Idaho’s organizers “don’t really want to put up with democracy,” he said.

In 2023, the Idaho House of Repre-sentatives passed a nonbinding proposal calling for formal talks with the Oregon Legislature about moving the border, though no such talks occurred. Raney sees Greater Idaho as “driving a wedge” in rural communities, using resentment over urban power to recruit people to more extreme causes. “The good people of Oregon who are doing this for the right reasons: Be realistic that it’s never going to happen, and be more influential in the Oregon Legislature,” Raney said. “For the extremists who are simply using this to divide and create their right-wing haven?

“Stay the hell out of Idaho,” he said. “Because we don’t want you.”

BY GREATER IDAHO spokesman Matt McCaw’s telling, the movement is born out of opposites that run as deep as the land itself. “The west side of the state is urban. It’s green, it’s very left-leaning,” he said in an interview with High Country News. “The east side of the state is conservative, it’s rural, it’s very dry. It’s a different climate.

“Give me a topic, and I can tell you that the people in Portland feel one way about it and vote one way, and the people in eastern Oregon or rural Oregon feel one way about it and vote differently,” he said. “Stereotype is a word that maybe gets a bad rap.”

To become Idahoans, McCaw explained, would mean “to have traditional values that focus on faith, freedom, individualism and tradition.” He pointed to Oregon’s liberal voting record on gun control, abortion and drug legalization. “Broadly, the people (in eastern Oregon) are very like-minded, just like broadly the people in the Portland metro area are very like-minded,” he said. “On these issues, Portland has a very distinctly different set of values than rural America.”

Speaking of differences, there are big ones between Idaho and Oregon. In rural Oregon counties, minimum wage is $12.50; in Idaho, it’s $7.25. Marijuana is legal in Oregon; in Idaho, possession can be punishable with jail time. In Idaho, abortion is essentially illegal; earlier this year, Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek announced the state had acquired a three-year stockpile of mifepristone, a drug used for medical abortions. While there are no detailed plans on how Greater Idaho would bridge these gaps, McCaw said that “all of these things can be worked out.”

But is he upset by the white supremacist support for Greater Idaho? “I think that the extremist thing gets overblown,” he said. “In any group, there are going to be extremists that latch on, no matter if you want them or not.”

Nella Mae Parks, an eastern Oregonian, was raised in Union County, Oregon, and runs a farm there. She doesn’t recognize Greater Idaho’s portrayal of her home. “I think it’s a bought-and-paid-for narrative about what it means to be a rural American,” she said.

On the day Parks spoke to High Country News, she and a dozen other eastern Oregonians had just returned home after a 12-hour round-trip drive to Salem, Oregon’s capital, in an effort to get legislators to address nitrate water pollution. In 2022, commissioners in nearby Morrow County declared a state of emergency after high levels of nitrate — which is common in fertilizer and can cause cancer and respiratory issues  — were found in domestic wells.

Parks’ group came home unsure if they had accomplished anything. “The governor won’t meet with us on our issues, some of our own legislators don’t care about our issues,” Parks said. “I can understand why people feel left behind or left out, or in other ways sort of alienated from the more urban centers of power in Oregon. I think a lot of us feel that way, regardless of our politics.

“When we get blown off, that is widening this rural/urban divide,” she said.

But Parks’ solution is not to leave the state; it’s to fix it. And in May, it seemed like the effort had been worth it: Kotek told eastern Oregon leaders that she had asked the state for $6.2 million to address the nitrate issue. “It has taken a while to get here,” she admitted.

Gwen Trice, who grew up in eastern Oregon, is the executive director of the Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center, a museum in Joseph dedicated to the multicultural histories of Oregon’s loggers. She won’t call Greater Idaho a movement, or even an idea. Instead, she calls it “a notion.”

“I can understand why people feel left behind or left out, or in other ways sort of alienated from the more urban centers of power in Oregon. I think a lot of us feel that way, regardless of our politics.”

Trice founded the museum when she realized that the stories of the region’s Black loggers — including her father — had never been told. The logging industry once thrived in Maxville, now a ghost town. The Bowman-Hicks Lumber Company recruited skilled loggers from the South, regardless of race, despite laws that had long excluded Black people from settling in Oregon. “We’ve worked hard to tell, honor and even embrace the messy part of our history,” she said, “and really tell a truthful story.”

Speaking as a historian, Trice said there’s no difference between Greater Idaho and the previous, more explicitly racist movements. “It’s repackaged,” she said. “I don’t think that anything is being hidden, and it’s appealing to a certain group of people only.

“It’s symbolic of dominant culture saying, ‘We know what’s better for you than you do.’”

Pauline Braymen, an 85-year-old retired rancher in Harney County, called Greater Idaho ideological, and impractical — a way of going back in time. “The urban/rural divide is an emotionally based state of mind that distorts reality,” she said. “The changes and steps forward in our quality of life in the 20th century, during my lifetime, were amazing. I just see all of that progress and vision being destroyed.

“If I wanted to live in Idaho,” she added, “I would move there.”

ON A MAP OF THE NORTHWEST, Washington and Oregon nestle together in semi-rectangular sameness. Divided in part by the Columbia River, Washington eases its southern border into the curve of Oregon’s north, like two spoons in a drawer. But next door, Idaho asserts itself like an index finger declaring “Aha!” or a handgun aimed at the sky for a warning shot.

McCaw, the Greater Idaho spokesman, often says that borders are imaginary lines: “a tool that we use to group similarly minded people, like-minded people, culturally similar people.”

“That whole statement is absolute nonsense,” said former Idaho State Historian Keith Petersen, who wrote a book about the borders in question, titled Inventing Idaho: The Gem States Eccentric Shape. The Idaho-Oregon border, he said, simply made the most geographical sense.

In 1857, two years before statehood, delegates from across Oregon Territory gathered to determine the new state’s edges. They decided that Oregon’s border should run from Hells Canyon south into the belly of the Snake and Owyhee rivers, then drop straight down to the 42nd Parallel. Only one delegate championed the Cascade Mountains as the new state’s easternmost edge, fearful that people too far from the capital wouldn’t be effectively represented.

“This grievance that ‘the population is over there, it’s so far to get there, we’ll never have power and influence,’” Petersen said, “hasn’t changed.”

Earlier this year, at a virtual town hall, two of eastern Oregon’s own instruments of power and influence in Salem — elected Republican lawmakers — grumbled that Greater Idaho was actually siphoning authority away from them, making it hard to effectively govern.

“The Greater Idaho people keep saying we need to do this,” said Oregon State Sen. Lynn Findley, who represents people from the Cascades to Idaho. Greater Idaho supporters have proposed ballot measures across Oregon that would force county officials to hold regular discussions about joining Idaho. None of the measures actually call for moving the border. And support hasn’t exactly been overwhelming; the most recent measure, in Wallowa County, passed by just seven votes. Still, by spring 2023, voters in 12 eastern Oregon counties had approved similar measures. “I’m no longer working on gun bills, abortion bills and other infrastructure bills,” Findley said. “It’s taken time away that I think would be better spent working on tax issues, and a whole plethora of other stuff.”

“We understand the intent and we understand the frustration,” agreed Rep. Mark Owens. “But I’m not going to apologize for having not given up on Oregon.”

But by May, it seemed Findley was, in a way, giving up. He was one of a dozen Republican senators and one Independent who walked out of the Statehouse for several weeks to protest bills on abortion access, gender-affirming care and raising the minimum age to purchase semi-automatic rifles.

In the midst of the walkout, just before Memorial Day, as the rhododendrons in Northeast Portland erupted in magenta blooms, McCaw, in a blue suit and crisp white shirt, sat in front of a live audience at the Alberta Rose Theatre. He was participating in a public discussion hosted by Oregon Humanities, which facilitates statewide conversations “across differences of background, experience and belief.” The event was ostensibly about borders, but by the end it was clear that it was really about Greater Idaho. McCaw repeated his talking points: Eastern Oregonians and western Oregonians are fundamentally different; borders create tension.

“We have a permanent political minority on the east side of the state,” he said.

Beside him were two other panelists, who shifted uncomfortably in their seats. One was Alexander Baretich, who designed the Cascadia flag: a blue-, white- and green-striped banner with a Douglas Fir at its center. The flag represents the larger Cascades and Columbia River Basin bioregion, “a living space — a life space,” he explained. “Once you get into that consciousness that you are interconnected with everything around you … those political borders dissolve.”

It’s the antithesis of Greater Idaho: Cascadia unites, Greater Idaho divides. “That flag is to create that consciousness that we are one with the planet,” Baretich said. McCaw furrowed his brow.

The moderator, Adam Davis, interjected: “I actually get viscerally uncomfortable … when I hear, ‘There’s people on the east side are one way, people on the west side are another way.’” Tension, he said, is difficult, but crucial. “That tension holds what our democracy, if it’s going to be an inclusive democracy, kind of requires.”

McCaw said eastern Oregonians, in 2020, didn’t feel like Oregon was being inclusive when it issued statewide indoor mask mandates. It “super-charged our movement,” he said. “The people on the east side of the state did not want those restrictions.”

“To form a movement because other people aren’t feeling like they have a voice in the state, while completely disregarding this reality and how effective it’s been towards Indigenous people? That is the gaslighting part.”

“I’m just going to straight-up disagree,” said the other panelist, Carina Miller, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and chair of the Columbia River Gorge Commission. Miller lives east of the Cascades on the Warm Springs Reservation, which McCaw told High Country News would be excluded from Greater Idaho, along with the city of Bend, because of their liberal politics.

Throughout the night, Miller repeated one phrase — “societal gaslighting.” She described growing up Indigenous in Oregon, where she received an education that normalized racist policies toward tribes, and where a boarding school built to assimilate Native youth still operates.

“To form a movement because other people aren’t feeling like they have a voice in the state, while completely disregarding this reality and how effective it’s been towards Indigenous people? That is the gaslighting part,” she said. Miller asked McCaw a question: “Do you really think that people who are advocating for Greater Idaho are the most disenfranchised people in these communities?”

People clapped before McCaw could respond.

“A strong majority of people in eastern Oregon do want this to move forward,” he said.

“But is the answer yes or no?” Miller pressed. “Are they the most disenfranchised?”

“I have no idea,” McCaw said.

Miller got the last word: She encouraged people to “hold onto each other and work it out.” The room erupted in applause.

McCaw didn’t join in. Instead, he sat perfectly still, his hands clasped tightly in his lap.   

Leah Sottile was a former correspondent for High Country News. She is a freelance journalist, the author of When the Moon Turns to Blood and the host of the podcasts Bundyville, Two Minutes Past Nine and Burn Wild. Subscribe to her newsletter The Truth Does Not Change According to Our Ability to Stomach It.

We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

A Black Man Was Elected Mayor in Rural Alabama, but the White Town Leaders Won’t Let Him Serve

NEWBERN, Ala. — There’s a power struggle in Newbern, Alabama, and the rural town’s first Black mayor is at war with the previous administration who he says locked him out of Town Hall. After years of racist harassment and intimidation, Patrick Braxton is fed up, and in a federal civil rights lawsuit he is accusing […]

The post A Black Man Was Elected Mayor in Rural Alabama, but the White Town Leaders Won’t Let Him Serve appeared first on Capital B.

“We’re Not in the Same Boat”: Flood Impacts Felt Unevenly Across Valley

NORTHAMPTON — Just last week, local farmer Courtney Whitely was staring out over the plot of land off Meadow Street where he grows eggplant and other crops. It was the best crop he has ever had, he said proudly.

But now it’s all gone.

Whitely’s Ras Farm was one of many local farms devastated when the Mill and Connecticut rivers flooded this week. After days of heavy rain across the Connecticut River Valley and in Vermont, the deluge destroyed the crops and livelihoods of farmers across the region. Now, those who work the land are assessing the damages and preparing for an uncertain future. And they’re not alone.

The floods have ravaged not just farms but homes, buildings and public infrastructure. And while the true extent of the damage is still emerging, it is becoming clear that socially vulnerable populations — immigrants, people of color, small-scale farmers, the unhoused — have experienced a heavy burden, mirroring longtime warnings from experts who have said that climate change will disproportionately impact those groups

“It was like someone stabbed me,” Whitely said Wednesday, gesturing to the muddy fields behind him and describing the hard work that the floods had washed away. Originally from Jamaica, he has spent some two decades farming here in the Valley. What might have been salvaged likely is unusable because of the contaminants that the flood waters brought. “If it’s not drought, it’s rain. If it’s not rain, it’s flood.”

Climate change experts say that global warming has resulted in a kind of “weather whiplash.” Years of drought can be followed by massive rain events made possible because warmer air can hold more moisture. From California to India, extreme weather events have become more intense and more frequent, punctuated by dry spells. In Massachusetts, the summer of 2021 was one of the wettest on record followed the next summer by a drought. This month, some places in Vermont were hit with 9 inches of rain in a day, an amount more typical of an entire summer.

“Warming may be leading to hydroclimate whiplash … which means wide swings between wet and dry periods,” said Michael Rawlins, the associate director of the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Climate System Research Center. “This is believed to be an emerging manifestation of climate warming.”

In addition to smaller-scale farmers like Whitely, farm laborers — many of whom are undocumented immigrants — are already losing their livelihoods because of the flooding in the Connecticut River Valley.

“There are people telling me that because of the floods, all of this that’s happening, they are already not working or are working just one or two times a week,” said Claudia Rosales, who heads the Pioneer Valley Workers Center and has herself been a farmworker. “They need that work to live.”

Rosales said that the Workers Center is organizing to find farm workers employment at other farms or elsewhere. The organization also runs a mutual-aid food distribution program and is working to get financial assistance to impacted workers, she said. But for farm workers who do such essential work, finding other jobs is difficult for many because of their immigration status.

“Those immigrants need that work as much as society does,” Rosales said.

People without housing were also hit hard by the flooding. In an interview with MassLive, Manna Community Center’s Jess Tilley said on Wednesday that six unhoused people had been displaced by flooding at their camp site. 

“Many folks have lost all their belongings including tents, sleeping bags and outerwear,” the organization wrote on their Facebook page. Efforts to reach Manna were unsuccessful Thursday.

Much of the focus has been on farms, though, given the heavy damage they suffered.

On Wednesday, state officials and local lawmakers toured farms across the region that had been submerged and had only just become accessible. The first stop was at the 121-acre Grow Food Northampton Community Farm, where farmers can lease low-cost land and more than 400 community members grow organic garden plots, about a third of which are subsidized. Alisa Klein, the organization’s executive director, said that 275 of the 325 plots there had been inundated.

Pat James, the group’s community garden manager, said that walking through the plots was still heartbreaking, pointing to some of the produce Grow Food Northampton gives to food pantries and other meal sites across the region. Bigger, industrial farms might have an easier time rebounding from floods, but small-scale operations will be less likely to survive, James said.

“We’re not in the same boat,” was how James described the difference between agro giants and independent, small-scale farms. “We’re all in the same water right now … But the people with more resources and access have an easier way out of the water.”

Many of the secondary and tertiary consequences of the flooding are still yet undetermined, state Sen. Jo Comerford said as she walked through a parking lot caked with river mud on her way to see some of the affected farmland. Some of those local food pantries will be missing food they had counted on, for example. And it wasn’t clear as of Wednesday whether the financial costs of the disaster would hit the necessary threshold to trigger a bigger federal response, Comerford added.

“The ripples of this are unknowable at this point,” she said.

Puddles of water were still present on the fields Comerford was visiting. There, a group of Somali Bantu refugees work the land as a cooperative: the New Family Community Farming Coop. Acting as an interpreter between the English-speaking officials and the Maay Maay-speaking farmers, Mumat Aweys explained that out of about 20 plots farmed by the coop, a handful had been flooded.

“They put a lot of work into it; they mostly plow by hand,” Aweys said. “All that work … goes to ruins.”

As the planet gets hotter, many experts have called for municipalities, states and the federal government to get more serious about updating infrastructure to become more resilient. Northampton has gone so far as to create a new department, the Climate Action and Project Administration Department, to make sure that city projects meet climate and sustainability goals — something mayoral chief of staff Alan Wolf said has now become “part of the math of municipal government in the 21st century.”

“Reducing our vulnerability to extreme hydrologic events is an important component of adaptation to climate change,” said Rawlins, the UMass Amherst researcher. He said that extreme precipitation events are increasing faster in the Northeast than anywhere in the country.

On the federal level, Congress is currently debating its “Farm Bill,” which lawmakers pass every five years. The massive legislation puts money toward the country’s food systems, and climate-justice advocates are pushing for significant investments in building more resilience and more steps to reduce carbon emissions.

“The evidence and science and everything around us clearly points to one thing: our future is going to be unlike our past and it’s becoming more difficult to predict that future,” said Omanjana Goswami, an interdisciplinary scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “What we need to do is build more resilient agricultural systems that can adapt to changing climatic patterns but also adapt to drought, to floods.”

Goswami said that from an environmental health perspective, the contamination brought by floodwaters needs to be accounted for. She said that the Farm Bill is a critical moment to further the vital work of building an agricultural model that stops harming the soil and instead works to sequester carbon and prepares for nasty weather ahead.

“This is an opportunity for … everybody to advocate for a more climate-focused Farm Bill,” she said.

One of the farmers at Grown Food Northampton was in the process of experimenting with perennial crops to figure out what could best deal with extreme weather. Piyush Labhsetwar is growing wheat and a pawpaw orchard along the banks of the Mill River, which were all five feet underwater after the floods.

“It’s a mixed bag for me,” he said on Wednesday. Nothing had been uprooted, for example. He just didn’t plan to have such an extreme event test that resiliency in his first year of experimenting.

Dusty Christensen is an independent investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @dustyc123.

The Shoestring is committed to bringing you ad-free content. We rely on readers to support our work! You can support independent news for Western Mass by visiting our Donate page.

DOJ: Minneapolis police discriminated against Native Americans

Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Friday that federal investigators found, for the first time ever, a U.S. police department discriminates against not only Black people, but also Native Americans.

The Justice Department also made another first-time finding: the Minneapolis Police Department discriminates against Black and Native people by disproportionately using force during stops.

A two-year federal investigation sparked by George Floyd’s 2020 police murder found MPD routinely uses excessive force and discriminates against people based on race.

Investigators reviewed five years of data — about 187,000 traffic and pedestrian stops from November 2016 to August 2022 — and found MPD searches and uses force on Blacks and Native Americans more frequently than during stops of white people, even when they behave similarly.

“This is the first time we have made a finding that the police department unlawfully discriminates by using force after stops against Black and Native American people,” said Kristen Clarke, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, during a Friday news conference.

Garland launched the investigation into MPD shortly after he took office in the spring of 2021, and found MPD recklessly, routinely uses excessive force, is inadequately trained and rarely held accountable for misconduct.

Mike Forcia, a Native activist who works at a homeless shelter for Native Americans, said the finding “wasn’t shocking in the least.”

“They spent all that money to come up with what we’ve been saying for years,” said Forcia, who is a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

Yohuru Williams, a history professor and founding director of the Racial Justice Initiative at the University of St. Thomas, said, “It was good to see that named. I think it was very important to have those experiences validated for the indigenous community, particularly.”

Police brutality is one of the reasons the American Indian Movement was formed in Minneapolis in 1968.

It’s the reason Arthur Cunningham, head of the NAACP in Minneapolis, accused the MPD in 1975 of declaring war on Blacks and Indians, he said.

And it’s the reason why in the 1980s, Native Americans said they were being targeted by police, who justified it by saying they were drunk and disorderly, Williams said.

In 1975, when the state Department of Human Rights held hearings on police and the Black community, Indigenous people said, “that’s us too,” Williams said.

“It’s a longstanding problem with the department,” he said.

Even though Minneapolis has a large number of Native Americans, their allegations of disparate treatment in traffic stops and excessive force get less attention, he said.

“Indigenous folks are still invisible in our community as a whole, even now,” Williams said. “We just don’t — for a host of reasons, all of which are not flattering to our community — recognize the disproportionate impacts on Indigenous people.”

Before Minneapolis Police Chief Brian O’Hara was hired, Forcia took him to Little Earth, a housing complex that serves mostly Indigenous people, and explained how the American Indian Movement started. O’Hara asked Forcia to speak at his ceremonial oath of office event.

Forcia agreed, and during the event, he talked about how they were planting seeds of trust, transparency and community — but planting is the easy part. The hard part, he said, is cultivating and pulling weeds.

Forcia told O’Hara he knows what it’s like to have the knee of a Minneapolis cop on his neck: He was paid a $125,000 settlement after getting beaten in 1999 by police who thought he stole a car because “I was a Native American with a jean jacket and ponytail running from the scene.”

One of the officers who assaulted him, Brian Sand, was later promoted to be internal affairs commander.

Last year, Forcia worked with Sand for a May Day Parade. Sand apologized.

“I forgave him,” Forcia said.

This article was originally published in the Minnesota Reformer

The post DOJ: Minneapolis police discriminated against Native Americans appeared first on Buffalo’s Fire.

Texas’ College DEI Ban Is the Latest to ‘Turn Back the Clock on Racial Equality’

Texas’ ultimatum that its public colleges and universities either ban diversity, equity, and inclusion — or DEI — efforts or lose state funding has Black educators such as Dwonna Goldstone, the director of the African American studies program at Texas State University, on edge. Though the law goes into effect six months from now, she […]

The post Texas’ College DEI Ban Is the Latest to ‘Turn Back the Clock on Racial Equality’ appeared first on Capital B.