NewsDescendants Of Oklahoma’s 1st Landholding Black Children Owed Reparations

Descendants Of Oklahoma’s 1st Landholding Black Children Owed Reparations


The headstone of young Herbert and CaStella Sells in Blackjack Cemetery stands as a poignant tribute to the muted pleas for justice, beckoning us to confront history and forge a path toward a more equitable future.

By Stacey Patton

As our conversation unfolded, she divulged a shocking truth about her own home. Fifteen years ago, upon inspecting the title history of her property, she uncovered that the initial owner of her land was a four-year-old Black child.

This had to be a mistake, right?  
As an immediate assumption of error lingered in the air, I leaned in as if I was about to share a clandestine secret about a buried past.  

Image by Dr. Stacey Patton

Postcard of the Glenn Pool oil fields where the Sells children and other Creek Freedman minors owned land allotments.

Immediately following the explosion, the roof fell in and what remained of the house quickly caught fire. The children’s mother, Priscilla Mackey, and their stepfather, Zeb, escaped the flames unscathed. They had been sleeping in another section of the house separated from the children’s room by a thin partition. Herbert was killed instantly in the blast, but his sister was not so fortunate. A neighbor saw the parents, dressed in their nightclothes, hollering for help. As the couple tried digging through the burning shingles to save CaStella, neighbors rushed toward the flames.
CaStella’s legs were caught underneath the collapsed roof. The girl’s stepfather tried to pull her from underneath the hot, heavy timbers while other men worked to lift the roof, but the timbers were wedged so tightly together that the roof could not be moved. When the intense heat forced the men to give up, Priscilla tried to rush into the flames in a desperate attempt to rescue her last living child. A bystander grabbed the distraught mother and held her back from the flames while “neighbors and friends were compelled to stand impotently by and see the unfortunate girl screaming with agony die a horrible death in the flames,” the Muskogee Times-Democrat reported.
By daybreak, a posse of townsmen formed and launched a search for the murderers even though local, state, and federal authorities dispatched to the scene of the crime had no leads about possible perpetrators or a motive for the crime. Meanwhile, William Irvin, one of the conspirators who helped hatch the plot to kill the children, paid $3.26 for a first-class, one-way train ticket out of Taft. The ticket salesman, a porter, and a conductor would later testify that Irvin was the only white man seen boarding the Midland Valley train out of the all-Black town that day. Those witnesses also recalled that Irvin wore a black coat and vest, light shirt, dirty blue overalls, and a black crusher hat and carried a distinct brown leather grip.  

Mug shot of William M. Irvin. December 12, 1911 (Courtesy of The Muskogee Times-Democrat)

Flash forward to Sept. 11, 1911. Six accused men arrived at the Muskogee County District Court shackled together, their chains rattling and reverberating through the halls of the courtroom. Their trial dates were set for mid–September, the men lock-stepped out of the courtroom just as they arrived. Among the indicted were three Black men – Doc Allen, Jim Manuel, an ex-con once convicted of defrauding a Creek Freedman girl of her land, and Stout Ham, who lived less than one mile from the Sells children. In addition to William Irvin, the indictment also included two other well-to-do white men –John Coombs, and F.L. Martin. All five men were charged with “knowingly, willfully, unlawfully, purposely and feloniously, with malice aforethought, and without authority of the law, and with the premeditated design then and there to effect the deal of the said Herbert [and CaStella] Sells,” who suffered “mortal wounds” and “burns” which led to their deaths.
“BIGGEST MURDER CASE COMING UP,” blazed the headline of The Muskogee Times-Democrat the next morning.  
After deliberating for 16 hours, a jury found William Irvin guilty of murder and conspiracy and sentenced him to life and hard labor in the state penitentiary at McAlester. Charges against the wealthy oilman Coombs, Manuel, and Ham, whose roles in the murders were unclear in the surviving press accounts and trial transcripts) were all dropped. Prosecutors cited insufficient evidence and the potential expense to taxpayers if the state proceeded with three more trials that might be lost. Irvin appealed his conviction, but the Oklahoma Criminal Court of Appeals upheld his sentence in March 1915. His prison ledger indicates that he died at McAlester on May 19, 1916, from an unknown cause.  After serving eight years of his life sentence, Doc Allen was paroled in December 1918 and pardoned in October 1926.  

This case was not about protecting the property and civil rights of two wealthy Black children. The trial itself was a spectacle and a political dodge; its function being to legitimize the new state’s power and legal apparatus and to show that it protected the rights of its citizens even as thousands of other land-owning children across the state continued to be exploited with the help of the probate court and unscrupulous leaders and businessmen. While Herbert and CaStella Sells suffered the worst possible fate of children who were unlucky enough to inherit oil-rich lands, Sarah Rector, Luther Manuel, Edith Durant, Dan Tucker, Sallie Hodge and others spent years caught in the middle of court battles between their parents and greedy men vying to be their guardians.

The one-story prairie house in Taft, where Rector lived with her parents and her five siblings. (Courtesy of The American Magazine, 1915)

 A story about Sarah Rector’s wealth published in the Jan. 25, 1914, edition of The Washington Post.
The stories of Dan Tucker, Sallie Hodge, Luther Manuel, Sarah Rector, the twins Edith and Edna Durant, and siblings Herbert and CaStella in The Crisis, reveal how white guardians, attorneys, judges, banks, oil, and gas companies benefited financially from the estates of these children. The stories also demonstrate how local and state governments used the law and guardianships to re-establish Black children’s lives as disposable capital to be governed and exploited by whites. 
Despite increased awareness of the destruction of Black towns, lynching, and land theft along with the investigative work of Black journalists and figures like W.E.B. DuBois into issues of race and class, one of the most extensive fraud schemes in American history remains largely uninvestigated and unreported. However, we have concrete evidence of how systemic racism has long hindered the accumulation and intergenerational transfer of wealth within Black communities. This is exemplified by tragic events like the destruction of Black Wall Street in the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, along with the enduring impact of Jim Crow policies such as underfunded education, discriminatory hiring, and “redlining” practices that denied Black people the opportunity to secure mortgages for home purchases. Such exclusionary measures, intentionally cultivated in some regions, aimed to stifle Black prosperity, and prevent the building of intergenerational wealth.
As the movement for reparations continues to grow, the historical archives offer Oklahoma’s Freedmen descendants an opportunity to explore how legal systems were manipulated to facilitate the theft of land and wealth from Black children. It also invites Black people to discover their family history and gain insight into the lasting impact of past injustices on their present circumstances. Understanding the economic exploitation and manipulation endured by their ancestors is essential for these communities to assert their rights and grasp the historical roots of current economic disparities.

Shown above, are loans executed by Edith Durant’s guardian, R. Lee Hays.  

The headstone of young Herbert and CaStella Sells in Blackjack Cemetery stands as a poignant tribute to the muted pleas for justice, beckoning us to confront history and forge a path toward a more equitable future.

Source: Black Enterprise


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