Tulsa Area Shows Little Sign of Once All-Black Community
In the expansive housing additions and suburban shopping centers that dot the hills of south Tulsa, a small white wood-frame church stands.
The building's occupants have changed over the years, but the structure -- conspicuous only for its modesty in the affluent surroundings -- is one of the few physical reminders of an earlier era in the city's history, when a black community called Rentie Grove occupied a narrow tract of land in southern Tulsa County.
The small farming community grew up around the freedmen allotments of Stephen and Luthis Rentie, freed Creek slaves and relatives of the founders of Rentiesville, near Checotah. In the early 1900s, the Renties and other freedmen were each allotted 40 acres near what is now 91st Street and Harvard Avenue.
Rentie Grove was never incorporated, although it had a post office from 1904 to 1909, according to newspaper reports. A school, two churches and a gasoline station made up the rest of the community.
Other than the church, remnants of Rentie Grove are few.
A cemetery, tended by the Renties' grandson, holds the remains of many of the original land owners and their descendants.
A few stones from the foundation of the schoolhouse are now kept in a display case at Jenks East Middle School.
The rest of the settlement that was bounded by 81st and 91st streets, Harvard Avenue and Sheridan Road exists only in the memories of a few black Tulsans.
The Tulsa World posted this bit of Oklahoma's Freedman history. Read their complete story, at TulsaWorld.com
At right: Former residents of Rentie Grove visit the old cemetary. Pictured from left to right are Frisco Norton, Etoria Norton, Clovynne Norton Jackson and Arnold Williams. The gravestone is that of Williams' grandfather.
World staff photo by Emmanuel Lozano
At left: A small white wood-frame church stands as a reminder to the community of Rentie Grove.
World staff photo by John David Heckel
Traveling to Rentie Grove was once "a common habit of ours," Arnold Williams, the grandson of Stephen and Luthis Rentie, recalled.
Today, his trips are less frequent and marked with sadness.
Now 73, he makes the journey from his north Tulsa home to the Rentie Grove Community Cemetery, just south of 91st on Harvard, about once a month to care for the graves of his ancestors.
"Very few people" know about the community that once existed there, though he is nostalgic about the area and the people who lived there, Williams said.
Rentie Grove was one of a number of all-black communities and towns that sprang up across the state around the turn of the century.
Oklahoma had more all-black communities than any other state because a treaty required Indian tribes to free their slaves and allot them land, Langston University historian Currie Ballard said.
The typical allotment was 40 acres per person, but blacks often pooled their resources and formed communities on their allotted lands. Those communities then attracted other freed slaves.
"Culturally, people gravitate toward their own, especially if they have been oppressed," Ballard said. "That's where they seek safety, refuge and commonality."
Though he grew up in Tulsa, Williams spent weekends and summers in Rentie Grove. Memories of going barefoot on hot sandy roads and playing in the fields that surrounded his aunts' homes there still filter through his mind.
As chief caretaker of the cemetery, Williams keeps a tattered notebook listing the relatives of the people buried in the cemetery. One yellowed page contains "a crude attempt" to map out the graves, which turned into an impossible task, Williams said.
"We don't know what all is out there," Williams said, explaining that many of the headstones have been eroded and buried through the years.
Today the graveyard is protected by a high fence and a locked gate that is opened on Memorial Day so family members, like Dorothy Thompson, can visit graves.
Almost everybody in the 84- year-old woman's family is buried in the Rentie Grove Cemetery, she said. Her family rented and farmed land there until the 1950s.
"Everybody that lived out there knew each other," said Thompson, a retired domestic worker. "Oh, Lord, was it pretty! Everybody took care of their homes, and it was real nice."
Thompson was married in the Rentie Grove Baptist Church, which still stands near 83rd and Harvard. When Willie Rowland became pastor there in 1975, the church had just five members.
But the 57-year-old Rowland, who grew up in Rentie Grove, remembers a time when Sunday services drew a crowd.
Eventually, Rentie Grove Baptist Church followed much of its congregation to north Tulsa. Today, it is located on North Lansing Avenue. Just two of the 150 or so who now attend the church were members of the South Harvard congregation, Rowland said.
One of them is Rowland's father, 87-year-old Tucker Rowland. The elder Rowland was a sharecropper in Rentie Grove, which he remembers as a "nice little community."
Because he had taken a job in Tulsa, he and his family moved to the city in 1960, but they continued to attend the South Harvard church.
The elder Rowland still has occasion to go out to the area where Rentie Grove once existed, but the land shows little signs of what used to exist there.
"Ain't nobody out there anymore. They all sold out and moved to town," he said.
The community's other church was Methodist and stood on the southeast corner of 81st and Harvard, just across the street from the schoolhouse.
According to "The Tune of the Hickory Stick: 75 Years in the Jenks Public Schools" by Joyce Elliott Nichols, Rentie Grove School closed in 1955, the year after the Supreme Court ruled that separate schools for blacks and whites were unconstitutional....... Read the rest, here.