L’Ouverture High School: Race, Place, and Memory in Oklahoma

By Erica Johnson Edwards

Growing up white in rural Oklahoma, I only had a few Black schoolmates, did not have any Black teachers, and did not learn about the Haitian Revolution. In fact, I only first learned about this world historical event during my graduate coursework at the University of Texas at Arlington. I have not stopped studying it since then. Recently, when scrolling through the Instagram account of a good friend from college,[1] I was shocked and excited to learn about L’Ouverture High School in McAlester, Oklahoma. After some Googling, I learned of two additional schools named L’Ouverture in Slick and Meridian, Oklahoma. Through its revolution, Haiti became the first nation of abolish slavery, the first independent Black nation, the first independent Latin American nation, and the second independent nation in the Western Hemisphere. In the twentieth century, Black Oklahomans who embraced both the Haitian Revolution in their curriculum and L’Ouverture in the naming of their schools found strength in their shared Black Atlantic history.

Map of Oklahoma highlighting Indian Territories in 1892.
Map of Oklahoma and Indian Territories, 1892

On the surface, Oklahoma appears to have no historical relationship with the Haitian Revolution. The United States obtained what became the state of Oklahoma through the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, and Oklahoma got its statehood in 1907. Yet, the state’s complex racial history reveals a deep connection to the African diaspora. Known by whites in the area as the Five Tribes, the Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole Indians had adopted the practice of enslaving peoples of African descent in the U.S. South before removal and continued it in Indian Territory.[2] In the 1830s, the United States government forcefully removed the Five Tribes, along with the people they enslaved, to Indian Territory in what would become Oklahoma.[3] After the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, African Americans in Indian Territory established all-Black towns, at least fifty between 1865 and 1920. Black Southerners also migrated to Oklahoma Territory with the Land Run of 1889. Some Black leaders came to envision an all-Black state, like the Black Republic in the Caribbean, but the Jim Crow laws established after statehood soon dashed any such hopes.[4]

Map of Oklahoma showing incorporated towns and towns without government or inhabited.
All-Black Towns of Oklahoma
(Created by the Oklahoma Historical Society, OHS).

Following the “separate but equal” decision passed down in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), Oklahoma’s first state constitution required segregated schools for black and white children; not only the buildings but also the curriculum remained segregated. Unlike their white counterparts, Black children learned about the Haitian Revolution in school and at home. Despite efforts to promote white supremacy through textbooks authored, published, and taught by mostly white educators, Black Americans sustained a public memory of the Haitian Revolution and Black transatlantic identity through print and oral cultures.[5] The curriculum in Black schools, like L’Ouverture, emphasizing historical moments like the Haitian Revolution was a form of resistance to the idea propagated by whites that Black students were incapable of benefiting from a white supremacist education. For instance, only days before the state legislature voted on the constitution, an editorial appeared in The Daily Oklahoman newspaper. The author wrote, “Give the negro a chance, by teaching him that he is a negro. He is not as intelligent as a white man. He will never be as intelligent as a white man and why not let him understand as much NOW.”[6]The next year, the legislature passed a law that included fines for teachers violating the law segregating schools and white students who attended Black schools.[7]  

Newspaper page highlighting article entitled "Gives Just to Both the Races"
The Daily Oklahoman, September 13, 1907.

When McAlester erected an all-Black school in 1908, a Black teacher, Sayde L. Davis, who had recently moved to Oklahoma from Missouri, chose to name the school after Toussaint Louverture.[8]  L’Ouverture translates to “the opening.” The naming of the school was part of a Black Atlantic revolutionary tradition started in colonial Haiti, carried through the American Civil War, and continued in defiance and resistance to twentieth-century racial discrimination. Black Americans knew about the Haitian Revolution, including those in Oklahoma in the early 1900s. They saw Louverture and Haiti as powerful symbols.[9] Even Davis’s home state of Missouri, has a town named Hayti, incorporated in 1895. During the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration added an art deco style gymnasium/auditorium to the L’Ouverture school in McAlester, a significant project, “because construction of it provided work opportunities for black unskilled and unemployed laborers who had long been without work and because it provided space for school and community activities that promoted a sense of identity and pride not widely known the black ward.”[10] The school closed in 1968 with integration, but two members of the class of 1965, Class Valedictorian Herbert Keith and Class President Primus Moore purchased the property in 2014 to preserve it and repurpose it for the community.[11]

L'Ouverture Historical Center
Photograph of L’Ouverture Historical Center taken by Stephanie Giacomo, 2020.

The name of the school still holds symbolic power. Primus Moore, one of the alumni from 1965, explained to me that the school had weekly assemblies for students, often discussing Black history, including the school’s namesake.[12] He compared the name of the school to others named after Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. He also noted how alumni correct those who pronounce the name of the school as “L – Overture” instead of the French Louverture.[13] In a time when people in the United States and Europe are grappling with monuments and building names, this case is particularly illustrative.[14] It offers a counterpoint to representations of Christopher Columbus in the United States. Although neither Columbus nor Louverture set foot in what became the United States, they both became the faces of moments in world history. Yet, their legacies could not be more different. Columbus initiated a genocide of indigenous peoples and the enslavement of African peoples in the Americas. His likeness has no place in the United States.[15] Louverture, on the other hand, turned the world on its head as a Black leader of a revolution that overthrew slavery in what was France’s most profitable sugar colony.[16] He symbolizes the fight so many Black Americans continue against racial violence and systemic inequalities – including those in education.[17] The link between a landlocked state with an often-overlooked history of enslavement and racial discrimination demonstrates the lasting significance and geographic reach of the Haitian Revolution.


Erica Johnson Edwards is Assistant Professor of History at Francis Marion University. She is the author of Philanthropy and Race in the Haitian Revolution, part of the Cambridge Imperial and Post-Colonial Studies Series (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).

Title image: Photograph of L’Ouverture High School Auditorium taken by Stephanie Giacomo, 2020.

Suggested Readings:

Clavin, Matthew J. Toussaint Louverture and the American Civil WarThe Promise and Peril of a Second Haitian Revolution. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.

Franklin, Jimmie L. “Black Oklahomans and Sense of Place.”  In “An Oklahoma I Had Never Seen Before:” Alternative Views of Oklahoma History, edited by Davis D. Joyce, 265-279. Norman:  University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.

Geggus, David P. The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002.

Popkin, Jeremy. A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Scott, Julius C. The Common Wind:  Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution. New York: Verso, 2020.

Jackson, Maurice and Jacqueline Bacon, eds. African Americans and the Haitian Revolution:  Selected Essays and Historical Documents. New York:  Routledge, 2010.

Endnotes:

[1] Stephanie Giacomo earned a BA and MA in History from the University of Central Oklahoma. She previously curated for the Oklahoma Historical Society, worked as Executive Director of Pride in McAlester, served as a program scholar of an outreach program for the Oklahoma Humanities Council, and taught courses at Eastern Oklahoma State College. She is currently a Grant Writer/Administrator and Public Information Officer for the City of McAlester.

[2] See for example, Barbara Krauthamer, Black Slaves, Indian Masters:  Slavery, Emancipation, and Citizenship in the Native American South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013) and Ryan P. Smith, “How Native American Slaveholders Complicate the Trail of Tears Narrative,” Smithsonian Magazine, March 6, 2018.

[3] For a basic introduction to this topic, visit https://history.state.gov/milestones/1830-1860/indian-treaties.

[4] See Larry O’Dell, “All-Black Towns,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture.

[5] For more on these textbooks, see for example, Lawrence D. Reddick, “Racial Attitudes in American History Books of the South,” The Journal of Negro History, vol. XIX, no. 3 (July 1934, 225-265; Ronald E. Butchart, “Normalizing Subordination: White Fantasies of Black Identity in Textbooks Intended for Freed Slaves in the American South, 1863-1870,” In (Re)Constructing Memory:  Textbooks, Identity, Nation, and State, edited by James H. Williams and Wendy D. Bokhorst-Heng (Rotterdam, Amsterdam: Sense, 2016): 73-91; and AnneMarie Brosnan, “Representations of Race and Racism in the Textbooks Used in Southern Black Schools during the American Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1861-1876,” Paedagogica Historica, vol. 52, no. 6 (2016):  718-733. For more on public memory and transatlantic identity, see Matthew J. Clavin, Toussaint Louverture and the American Civil War:  The Promise and Peril of a Second Haitian Revolution (Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010).

[6] Ray E. Stafford, “Negro Must be Made to Know His Place – Should Have Equal Privileges but Entirely Separate,” The Daily Oklahoman, September 13, 1907, 1.

[7]Jim Crow Laws in Oklahoma,” NewsOK, February 13, 2005. 

[8] Lessie Lois Folwer LeSure, Willa A. Strong:  An Historical Study of Black Education in Southeastern Oklahoma (University of Oklahoma, Ed.D., 1982), 41.  For more on Toussaint Louverture, see for example Philippe Girard, Toussaint Louverture:  A Revolutionary Life (New York:  Basic Books, 2016); Charles Forsdick and Christian Hosbjerg, Toussaint Louverture:  A Black Jacobin in the Age of the Revolutions (London:  Pluto Press, 2017); and Sudhir Hazareesingh, Black Spartacus:  The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture (New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020).

[9] Clavin, Toussaint Louverture and the American Civil War.

[10] Oklahoma Landmarks Inventory Nomination for L’Ouverture School Gymnasium/Auditorium

[11] James Beaty, “Preserving a Piece of McAlester History,” McAlester News-Capital, February 25, 2017 and “L’Ouverture Moving Forward,” McAlester News-Capital, April 7, 2015.

[12] Primus Moore is a retired School Administrator from McAlester Public Schools. After graduating from L’Ouverture, he earned degrees at Langston University, Indiana University Northwest, and East Central University.

[13] Primus Moore, telephone conversation with author, August 12, 2020.

[14] Associated Press, “Statues around the World in Question Amid Re-examination of Racial Injustices,” MarketWatch,June 12, 2020; Jemina McEvoy, “Here’s How Statues across the World Look after a Week of Reckoning,” Forbes, June 15, 2020; “How Statues are Falling around the World,” New York Times, June 24, 2020; Sara Weissman, “What’s in a Name?  After Years of Student Activism, Universities Rename Campus Buildings,” Diverse Issues in Higher Education, July 16, 2020; andGuiliana Viglione and Nidhi Subbaraman, “Universities Scrub Names of Racist Leaders – Students Say It’s a First Step,” Nature, August 13, 2020.

[15] For more on how and why the United States came to celebrate Columbus through statues and a holiday, see Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past:  Power and the Production of History (Boston:  Beacon, 1995), 108-140; Sam Hitchmough, “Columbus Statues are Coming down – Why He is so Offensive to Native Americans,” The Conversation, July 9, 2020.

[16] One activist, Glenn Cantave has even suggested replacing a Columbus statue with one of Toussaint Louverture.  See “NY Activist: Columbus Statue Should Be Replaced with Toussaint L’Ouverture,” AfroPunk, December 5, 2017. 

[17] As Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall’s recent post showed, NBA players recently began using their jerseys to protest, some chose the phrase “Education Reform.” Kyle Lowry of the Toronto Raptors explained that he chose the phrase partly because schools he attended did not teach African American history. See Andrew Ujifusa, “How ‘Education Reform’ Ended up on NBA Jerseys,” EdWeek, August 3, 2020.

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