The historically Black town of Boley is renowned far and wide for its long-running Memorial Day rodeo, which is considered the country's oldest African American community-based rodeo.
But Karen Ekuban wants to spread the word that there is more to her Oklahoma hometown than one event.
"The rodeo is a part of our history, but there's so much more to our history that I want people to know and understand. So, I'm really trying to build events around the rodeo and throughout the year, and not just have people coming to Boley just during the rodeo," said Ekuban, founder of Project 2020, a community initiative to grow and revitalize Boley, which has its downtown business district listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
"It's a lot of work, and we're making strides. I tell people all the time, this is not just Black history, it's not just Oklahoma history, it's American history. I want people to understand the highly important role that Oklahoma plays in African American history."
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This Memorial Day weekend, the Okfuskee County town has more going on than steer wrestling, bull riding and ladies breakaway roping. The Boley Community Center is hosting the Smithsonian Institution's traveling exhibit “Crossroads: Change in Rural America," through June 25, with several special programs planned.
“We want to showcase Black excellence in every aspect, including rodeo, art, music, and featuring impactful speakers,” said state Sen. Kevin Matthews, D-Tulsa, in a statement commending the town of Boley and Project 2020 for their efforts.
“I see this as just the beginning of a larger effort to highlight our Black communities in Oklahoma, and the historic part our state has played in the civil rights movement.”
What is the history of Oklahoma's all-Black towns?
Oklahoma occupies a singular place in American history: Nowhere else in the country did so many African American men and women gather to create their own communities.
Between 1865 and 1920, African Americans developed more than 50 all-Black towns and settlements throughout Indian Territory.
All-Black towns grew in Indian Territory after the Civil War when former slaves of the Five Tribes, known as "freedmen," settled together. When the Land Run of 1889 opened up even more opportunities for settlement, African Americans flocked to Oklahoma to escape discrimination, take advantage of those opportunities and find community.
The largest and best-known of Oklahoma's historically all-Black towns, Boley is one of only 13 still in existence. Boley will celebrate the closing of the Smithsonian exhibit with the 13 Historic Black Towns Festival at 2 p.m. June 25.
What can people expect from the Smithsonian exhibit in Boley?
"Crossroads: Change in Rural America" is the latest traveling exhibit offered as part of the Smithsonian Institution's Museum on Main Street program.
In partnership with the Smithsonian Institution, Oklahoma Humanities selected six rural Oklahoma communities with populations of 20,000 or less to host the exhibit between September 2021 and June 2022.
"We had over 20 communities apply to host this exhibit. It's a big deal: The Smithsonian comes to your rural community. There's usually a lot of capacity building and fundraising and public programming associated with it. The exhibition is in your community for six weeks, and you get a grant from us to help support it all," said Oklahoma Humanities Executive Director Caroline Lowery.
"Crossroads" pays tribute to rural identity, land, community, persistence and managing change while acknowledging that living and working in rural America has never been easy. The exhibit traveled to Tishomingo, Fort Gibson, Nowata, Woodward and Pawnee before opening earlier this month in Boley.
"Not only is it historically an all-Black town, which has a very Oklahoma-specific narrative with it, but also in terms of the word 'Crossroads,' both physically and metaphorically, they are at the crossroads of a lot of different communities. We selected them also because, of course, they have the big rodeo," Lowery said.
"So, they are closing out the Oklahoma tour of the 'Crossroads' exhibit, and they have done an incredible job. ... They have had wildly successful fundraisers to help build community support around the project. They've had incredible public programs. They're knocking it out of the park."
"Quite honestly, as a white, privileged woman, it's really been fascinating to learn just the deep, rich history of the Black communities in the state. ... A friend of mine invited me out to the rodeo, and I was like, 'Good lord, what is this amazing event that's still happening in Oklahoma?'" Ragland said, adding that old photos of Boley also are displayed with the exhibit.
"It's humbling to have truly dug into this history of the state of Oklahoma, as well as American history, as an adult. I think it's our obligation as storytellers to get this history out into the world, and it's really an honor."
Boley to show all-Black version of 'Oklahoma!' with 'Crossroads'
Along with a series of speaking events and the closing festival, Boley's programming for the "Crossroads" exhibit includes free screenings of the filmed version of director Chris Coleman's production of the iconic musical "Oklahoma!" featuring an all-Black cast.
"It's absolutely amazing ... and it has been well-received," said Ekuban, a Boley High School graduate who is now based in Denver. "It took me two years to get permission to show this ... and I'm so grateful."
The filmed version of Coleman's "Oklahoma!" will be shown outdoors at dusk Thursday, Friday and Sunday, May 26, 27 and 29, on Boley's Main Street, with a screening at noon Saturday, May 28, inside the Boley Community Center.
Plus, a Gospel Explosion and Soul Food Sunday is planned for 5 p.m. Sunday, May 29, on Main Street.
"That's about how gospel music — and how music in general — was important to our community. How we thrived and survived through hard times ... was with our spirituality. So, I thought that would be a very important part of this programming around the Smithsonian exhibit," Ekuban said.
"It's a basic exhibit about rural America, and it's our job to infuse our culture, our history into it to make it unique to our town."
Also showing with the Smithsonian's "Crossroads" exhibit is an exclusive video production about the Boley Rodeo by Delphine Diallo, a New York-based French and Senegalese visual artist and photographer.
Boley Rodeo spotlighted in new short documentary
Barring severe weather, the venerable Boley Rodeo will bring its traditional bull-riding, barrel-racing action to Memorial Day weekend again this year. The rodeo began in 1903, the same year the historic town was founded.
"The rodeo is definitely a history that we want to honor, but we want people to come to Boley for other things, as well. ... We want people to know that we're a proud people, and we want them to see why," Ekuban said.
"This is an important history that we all should know and we all should embrace and celebrate as a state and as a nation. If history can repeat itself, why can't we? Why can't we reinvent? ... And we have to start somewhere."
One of the country's oldest African American rodeos, the Boley Rodeo also is spotlighted in a new short documentary titled "Ropes in Brown Hands," produced and released by the Newsy news network.
This year's rodeo is set for Saturday, May 28, with a parade at 3 p.m. and the rodeo action starting at 7:30 p.m. The 2022 rodeo includes eight events — team roping, ladies breakaway roping, calf roping, steer wrestling, ranch bronc riding, ladies steer un-decorating, open barrel racing and bull riding — along with attractions like mutton busting, junior barrel racing and the invitation-only Pony Express racing.
For more information, go to https://www.thetownofboley.org.
Smithsonian in Boley
What: 'Crossroads: Change in Rural America'
When: Through June 25.
Where: Boley Community Center, 11 W Grant, Boley.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays.
This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Smithsonian comes to Oklahoma historically all-Black town of Boley