Oklahoma History: April 2010 Archives

Here's an odd little digression to take us into the weekend:

Redd Foxx as Taft, Oklahoma, police chief, Jet magazine, December 19, 1974

The mention of the town of Boley in the 1977 documentary on historic preservation in Oklahoma got me chasing a rabbit in the middle of writing the previous entry.

It brought to mind a time in the '70s when black celebrities adopted some of Oklahoma's historic black towns -- towns founded by Creek freedmen who, as tribal members, received Dawes Commission allotments in Indian Territory or by settlers in the newly opened lands of the Unassigned Lands and the Cherokee Outlet.

I remember newspaper articles and TV stories about well known entertainers like Redd Foxx and Flip Wilson visiting these little towns and offering to help finance civic improvements. "Sanford and Son" and the Flip Wilson Show were two of my favorite TV programs, so the announcements caught my attention.

Thanks to Google's online archive of publications, I have confirmation of my memories. Sometime in the summer of 1974, Taft, Oklahoma, mayor Lelia Foley appointed Redd Foxx police chief of the town. In the Sept. 26, 1974, issue of Jet, Foxx said that this would "not be a token job":

Foxx... said he plans to establish a museum to house the artifacts of outstanding Black leaders and personalities, plug for a new municipal swimming pool and promote a project to improve the appearance of residences and busnesses.

According to a story in the November 13, 1974, Toledo Blade, Foxx heard about the job opening and applied for it: "He was looking for an all-black community to help, so he took the job." He announced plans to finance a swimming pool and a museum for the town and to donate some of his memorabilia for display.

In October he visited and was sworn in. The December 19, 1974, issue of Jet featured Foxx on the cover, in cowboy hat and chief's badge, standing next to a police car.

A story in the December 3, 1974, Miami News, mentions Redd Foxx's adoption of Taft as a bright spot in his life:

The only time Foxx becomes lively is when talking about Taft, a town 104 miles from Oklahoma City. He's honorary sheriff, and wants to build a swimming pool and a black hall of fame there. He adds, "if people get off the highway to see a football hall of fame and snakes, why not get off the highway for a tribute to black accomplishment?"

October 26, 1974, Kentucky New Era
quoted Foxx on his motivation for getting involved in Taft:

"It is my desire to put Taft on the map, to turn the town into a city," Foxx said. "Hopefully other entertainers will adopt towns and together we'll improve the plight of black people all over this country."

Other entertainers followed Foxx's example. A brief item in the March 6, 1975, issue of Jet reports that Sammy Davis Jr. had been named chief of police in Langston after comedian Flip Wilson had been honored with the same title in Boley. "Both Foxx and Wilson pledged to help their newly-adopted cities and Davis is expected to do the same for Langston.

But by April 1975, the relationship began to fall apart. Mayor Foley was impatient for some of the promised assistance to materialize, and she announced her intention to fire Foxx as chief.

From the April 17, 1975 edition of Jet:

She complained that the $10,000 check Foxx presented her in a public swearing-in ceremony in December was not to the town of Taft at all, but to the Redd Foxx Foundation. Since then, the $10,000 check has remained in a bank in nearby Muskogee, unused.

She added that there has been no sign of any Redd Foxx provided police car and that she has not been able to get in touch with Foxx since the swearing in.

Foxx, the red hot star of Sanford and Son, said Mayor Foley, the first Black woman ever elected mayor in the U. S., just does not understand that the deals he promised take time to complete and that he is very busy. He also accused the mayor of "trying to get a whole lot of publicity."...

"As soon as we secure the property," Foxx assured, " we will start work on the swimming pool. I will buy the police car from Chicago, and they are supposed to give me a bus after I do a show to open up a new wing of the Cook County Jail." ...

"If she has the strength to fire me, I will find me another town," declared Foxx. "They can make me the librarian as long as I can help some Blacks."

But instead of firing Foxx, the other two members of the town council voted for one of them to replace Foley as mayor.

An AP story from December 1975 reports that Foxx organized a Christmas party for Taft residents, at which his attorney presented the town with a police car, purchased from the Muskogee police department, 300 turkeys, and a $4,000 check from the producers of "Sanford and Son."

In February 1978, the town council voted to fire Foxx. The $10,000 check in the Redd Foxx Foundation's name couldn't be used, Foxx took back the bus, intended for senior citizens, the police cars (used) had to be repaired, and the turkeys were actually donated by someone else, Taft officials claimed.

The dispute was still in the news in this April 1981 UPI story (jump page here):

Mayor Lela [sic] Foley Davis of Taft, Okla., said Friday the two police cars are junkers that have turned into expensive rat and snake infested eyesores and claimed relations between the community and the comedian soured after officials refused to change the city's name to "Reddfoxxville."

Foxx, who donated a van and two 1975 Plymouth patrol cars emblazoned with his picture, said Mrs. Davis is a lousy mayor and he could do a better job."...

Mrs. Davis called the whole Foxx affair "a bad dream" that the town would just like to forget....

Mrs. Davis said the two 1975 model cars... have been sitting behind city hall since 1978, attracting snakes, rodents and vandals....

Mrs. Davis said over $1,000 has been spent on repairs since Foxx donated the cars and the city can't afford any more.

According to this Jet story from the same month, the cars were sold at auction for $115 to a local garage owner who planned to use the vehicles for spare parts.

A quick look for info on Flip Wilson's involvement with Boley and Sammy Davis, Jr.,'s partnership with Langston suggests that those relationships were much more cordial and productive.

MORE: Celebrity involvement did bring national attention to the remarkable history of Oklahoma's black towns. Here's a 1975 AP feature story on Langston, Taft, and Boley.

STILL MORE: A Muskogee County friend advises me that Lelia Foley Davis is still active in Taft politics and was serving as mayor at least as recently as last December.

A 1977 documentary on historic preservation in Oklahoma has been posted online at the I. M. Pei Project website. The half-hour film, entitled "Born Again: Historic Preservation in Oklahoma," is narrated by Norman architect Arn Henderson.

It opens with a sequence of demolitions of beautiful and historic office blocks in downtown Oklahoma City. Cynthia Emrick of the National Trust for Historic Preservation notes the conflict set up by the Federal Government in 1949, chartering the National Trust to "preserve the nation's heritage as expressed in the built environment" and at the same time green-lighting federal funding for "urban renewal."

Next up is James B. White, head of OKC's Urban Renewal Authority. White expresses the hope that by entering the program at a later date than most cities, OKC will learn some lessons avoid some of the mistakes other cities made. Oops.

White's comments embody the attitude of apathy towards preservation that ruled Oklahoma in the 1970s:

We are a new country. We are a new state. When you're talking about one generation almost from its beginning, I get my self a little lost with the terminology of being historical. I may be right, I may be wrong. I think most of what we have revolves around the terminology of nostalgia. I don't think that we can really call it historical at this particular time in our particular programs in the buildings that we have encountered....

I think our eastern states have more things that are historical. Certainly things like Mt. Vernon, the buildings in our capital that go back a couple of hundred years. But we haven't even reached the century mark in our state yet, so I just don't know what is historical and what is not. I don't put myself up as an authority.

Emrick provides the obvious rebuttal:

If you're going to create something with age and glory, then you have to give it a chance to age.

The film moves next to Oklahoma City's Heritage Hills neighborhood in the late 1960s and the effort to protect it with a historic preservation ordinance. Howard Meredith, State Director of Historic Preservation, argues that a historical survey, a preservation ordinance, and a review commission are essential to effective preservation.

Mr. and Mrs. L. G. Ashley talk about the historic landmark designation of Boley, one of Oklahoma's distinctive black-founded towns, established just before statehood by Creek freedmen.

A segment on Tulsa mentions the preservation of old City Hall at 4th and Cincinnati by private owners and has brief glimpses of three Bruce Goff masterpieces: The Page Warehouse on 13th St (now demolished), the Riverside Studio (Spotlight Theater), and Boston Avenue Methodist Church, whose members invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in restoration and in an addition that harmonizes with the original building's architecture.

The last segment of the program focuses on Guthrie, Oklahoma's, territorial and original State Capital. In 1977, city leaders were only beginning to appreciate the economic benefits of historic preservation:

We have two choices, one is just let it rot, another choice is to tear it down and start building back, and I don't think that's going to happen.... I think we're going to recognize the heritage that we're stewards of here.... We absolutely must have some sort of zoning for this district that will help us preserve the buildings.

The film is itself a type of historic preservation, capturing attitudes, fashions, and hairstyles from the mid '70s.

Here's a direct link to Part 1 of Born Again: Historic Preservation in Oklahoma on YouTube.

The I. M. Pei OKC project is an interesting exercise in preservation itself, devoted to presenting artifacts relating to the master plan that demolished hundreds of historic buildings in downtown Oklahoma City. MIT-trained architect I. M. Pei was commissioned in 1964 by the Urban Action Foundation to develop a plan to modernize downtown. You can see the results in the Myriad Convention Center (Cox Business Center), the Myriad Gardens, Stage Center (Mummers Theater), and numerous parking garages and plazas. A 10' x 12' scale model of downtown as it would look after the plan's completion in 1989 (the city's centennial) was prepared to help inspire citizens to approve the plan. That model has been restored and will be unveiled on Monday at the Cox Business Center.

The website includes maps of the Pei Plan, images of downtown before urban renewal, and video resources, including a film called "A Tale of Two Cities" which was used to promote public acceptance of urban renewal by Oklahoma Citians. There's an excellent synopsis of urban renewal in Oklahoma and how it was used not only in the big cities, but also in places like McAlester, Edmond, and Tahlequah. (It neglects to mention, however, the use of urban renewal to clear most of the Greenwood District.)

A well-written comment on the website by Scott Bryon Williams is worth repeating here:

Unfortunate that even OKC was not spared the utopian, yet disastrous hand of modern city planning of the sixties, robbing countless American cities of their hard-earned history and identity. What a true loss of visual design variety in the built environment.

Urban renewal and the Eisenhower highway program have been the most devastating events to established residential neighborhoods, commercial districts, and urban cores leading to the growth of an unsustainable suburbia and barren, depopulated city streets.

I.M. Pei's OKC urban planning concept model is truly a time capsule demonstrating the short-sighted and ill-conceived visions for America's cities' futures. In the historical photo archive, compare the richness and wealth of the former downtown with the fractured, patchwork of today.

Subsequent generations have and are recognizing the mistake of large scale demolition and investing trillions of dollars to rebuild and recreate vibrant, healthy urban environments. It is unfortunate that America lost so much of its wonderful history within such a short period to euphoric ignorance. Equally unfortunate is that this attitude still exists among most of the public with the irrevocable destruction of historic structures and neighborhoods.

Let the I.M. Pei model be a learning tool of our mistakes of the past.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Oklahoma History category from April 2010.

Oklahoma History: February 2010 is the previous archive.

Oklahoma History: May 2010 is the next archive.

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