Back

County and Towns - Okemah's Night of Terror

Stories of Early Oklahoma - A collection of interesting facts, biographical sketches and stories relating to the history of Oklahoma, Assembled by Hazel Ruby McMahan (Mrs. James W.), State Historian for Oklahoma Society Daughters of American Revolution, 1945. (Copy at Oklahoma Historical Society Library, call number F/699/S7)

OKEMAH'S NIGHT OF TERROR - June 23, 1911

Early the morning of May 25, 1911, Deputy Sheriff George Loney of Paden attempted to arrest A. Nelson, Negro living northwest of Boley, charged with larceny of cattle. Loney was shot and killed by Laura and L. D. Nelson, wife and son of A. Nelson. The Nelson family was arrested and brought to jail in Okemah. A. Nelson entered a guilty plea to the charge of grand larceny and was sentenced to serve a two year prison term. Laura and L. D. Nelson were held in jail awaiting trial, charged with the murder of Deputy Sheriff Loney.

The following Tuesday, shortly after midnight, a group of men appeared at the county jail, located at 510 West Broadway, demanding that the two Nelsons be unlocked from their cell. The jailer told leaders of the mob that he would not release the prisoners, however, the leader of the mob brandished a six gun, which changed the jailer's mind.

After securing the Nelsons, the jailer was bound with ropes and tied to the inner door of the jail. The jailer released himself after gnawing at a tightly-drawn knot for an hour, however his legs and arms were still tightly bound; and a rope was drawn through his mouth, which prevented him from calling for aid. The jailer hobbled across the street to Moon's restaurant. The proprietor of the restaurant cut the ropes, freeing the jailer, however several minutes passed before he could relate what had happened, as the rope had been drawn tightly in his mouth, which rendered him speechless. A physician was summoned and after administering aid the jailler soon regained his speech.

Searching parties were sent out by Sheriff J. A. Dunnegan, but no tracesof the prisoners or the mob could be found. Soon after daylight the Nelsons were located swinging beneath the steel bridge which spanned the North Canadian River, six miles west of town, on the old Schoolton road. The bodies were cut down and brought to Okemah, however relatives of the Nelsons refused to claim the bodies and they were buried by Okfuskee County in the Jeff Williams family cemetery, on Greenleaf, near Okemah.

A special grand jury was called by District Judge John Carruthers to investigate the lynching of the Nelson negroes. After conducting an exhaustive inquiry the grand jury failed to ascertain who was responsible for the deaths of Laura and her son, L. D. Nelson.

The lawless Negroes of Okfuskee and adjoining counties made revengeful threats against residents of Okemah. Many Negro criminals from other states had taken refuge here prior to statehood and efforts to arrest them were generally futile as they were well armed with high-powered firearms.

Soon after the lynching of the Nelsons 400 negro homeseekers were unloaded at Okemah from a special immigrant train. Local peace officers would not allow the colored homeseekers to stop in Okemah as no negroes had been allowed to live in Okemah since the town was opened, April 22, 1902.

Following the inception of Statehood November 16, 1907, the better element of Negro residents of Okfuskee County, induced Okemah business men to provide a hotel for Negroes, who traded with the local merchants, and as the train service was bad, Negroes. were sometimes forced to stay at Okemah while attending court. The Okemah business men purchased furnishings and obtained a lease on a stone building on lower Broadway and a Negro was placed in charge of a colored hotel. The hotel was soon congested and was a scene of numerous carving encounters and pistol duels between the colored occupants. Loud and profane laungage terminited personal disputes. Such conditions intensified racial feelings in Okemah, which resulted in an old southern method being employed to purify this negro hotel sector. Some persons, who have never been identified, under the cover of darkness placed a heavy charge of dynamite under the front wall of the hotel. The dynamite was discharged, which blew furniture and fixtures to fragments. The building was badly damaged, guests sleeping 120 feet from the scene of the explosion, were blown from their beds. Dishes and window panes rattled in my home one mile from the scene of the explosion. Farmers living eight miles from Okemah were aroused by the terrific blast. This brought about a quick reduction in the Negro population of Okemah.

Following the destruction of the Negro hotel project, white residents of Okemah heard rumors of many threats being made by the colored population of Okfuskee County, to reduce Okemah to ashes. The stabbing of a white conductor on the Ft. Smith & Western railroad by a negro at Boley, almost terminated in a general riot.

At the spring term of District Court in 1911, 19 persons were convicted and sent to prison. They were chained in pairs with a long center chain linking the entire group. They were marched down from the old jail at 510 West Broadway in the center of the street under heavy guard to a train and were taken to the State Prison at McAlister by sheriff J. A. Dunnegan and Deputy Stewart Agnew. This term of the District Court was the beginning of real law enforcement in Okfuskee County.

Prominent Negroes in the county warned Okemahans to watch movements of the lawless fugitives. They considered the racial situation here very grave. Many armed Negroes were observed in all sections of Okfuskee County, who threatened revenge for the lynching of the Nelsons.

Secret meetings were known to have been held by the infuriated lawless Negroes in formulating plans to wreak vengenance on Okemah. After the Negro colonization plans at Okemah had been shattered, by the demolition of the Negro hotel, white residents living near negro settlements watched movements of the lawless negro element and made reports to the law enforcement officers at Okemah. Serious trouble was expected on the basis of these reports.

Late one afternoon in June, 1911 a white "stool pigeon" informed the sheriff of Okfuskee County that the negroes were planning to sack and burn Okemah that night. No mercy was to be shown women and children. This report spread terror and confusion among the residents of Okemah. Soon after nightfall 200 frantic men and boys stormed the sheriff's office demanding that Okemah be protected by an armed guard overnight. Sheriff Dunnegan told excited townsmen that he did not anticipate any immediate trouble, however within a short time a horseman galloped into town and informed the sheriff that there was no doubt the negroes planned to attack the town during the night. His statement convinced the Okemahans that the messenger of Death had arrived. Sheriff Dunnegan summoned several leading Citizens and they decided that Okemah should be defended.

The sheriff's decision to defend the town with firearms spread like wildfire, and citizens came from every section of the town with firearms. Ammunition dealers soon sold their entire stock of firearms and ammunition. An armed cordon of men was placed around Okemah at the edge of town and all approaches were guarded. Strategic locations within the city limits were soon fortified. Mobilization officers ordered all street lights cut off to prevent the enemy from observing the movements of the town's brave defenders. The light plant engineer was to signal the attact by blowing the whistle. It was unanimously agreed that if the whistle blew, all fire arms were to be discharged in hopes of frightening the negro invaders, and thereby preventing bloodshed.

The preparations made by the citizens of Okemah on this occasion to prepare for war will never be forgotten by those who lived here at that time. As both young and old scrambled for safety outside the city limits, mothers and children often became seperated in the mad rush for safety. Hysterical mothers were screaming for their children and pleading for assistance.

The weather was intensly hot and no water was available for the persons who had sought safety behind the armed guard. Small children almost famished before daylight.

Several men spent this night of terror with their wives and children in the fields near the city limits. The explanations given by these "apron string daddies" were not considered by the armed guard in keeping with the conduct of a "brave town defender", when their lives and homes were imperiled.

On this memorable occasion, about 2 a. m. a negro cruising along the trail at the edge of Okemah, riding a bareback mule was observed by the outer guards. The rider protested vigorously his innocence when the guards accused him of being a spy. He was commanded to dismount and would have been courtmartialed and shot if he had not furnished evidence proving his innocence, while on his knees praying for mercy. After the rider had finished his prayer he was ordered to arise and mount his donkey and lose no time in getting out of Okemah. However, he was stopped in the center of town by an armed force, who escorted him to the city limits, where he disappeared into the darkness, never to be seen here again.

When daylight came citizens who had taken refuge in the fields near the city's fortified lines, returned home tired, sleepy, thirsty, and hungry. Several people slept in the fields until the boiling sun aroused them. However, the heat had taken its course, many faces and lips were burned beyond recognition.

While Okemah citizens were preparing for war, their colored foes were at home preparing for a good night's rest, which prevented the loss of blood on both sides.

The scare terminated with the loss of a good night's sleep however, this memorable occasion will linger in our minds forever. *

* I certify that the above information is true and correct because I was living in Okemah on that occasion, in fact I was the jailer on duty when the mob removed the Nelson's from the Okemah jail.

/s/ W. L. Payne, 814 North 4th Okemah, Oklahoma


01-2000