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Randolph: Arizona’s Oldest Historically Black Community

NNPA NEWSWIRE — Often called “freedmen’s towns,” “freedom towns,” or “all-black towns,” African American municipalities were established throughout the United States by or for a largely African American population, many of whom were freed slaves or descendants of slaves. Although a handful of African American towns and communities were established before the American Civil War, it was not until Emancipation that freed Blacks were able to settle in large enough numbers to establish their own communities.

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Historical image of the Nicodemus African Methodist Episcopal Church; a vernacular form similar to those seen in Randolph. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, 1933. Photo number HABS KANS, 33-NICO, I-1.
Historical image of the Nicodemus African Methodist Episcopal Church; a vernacular form similar to those seen in Randolph. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, 1933. Photo number HABS KANS, 33-NICO, I-1.

(Part 1 of a series)

Prepared by Jennifer Levstik, WestLand Resources, Inc. and Dianne Post, lawyer for Randolph United Council | Arizona Informant

Established in 1925, the community of Randolph was touted as the newest townsite to rival Phoenix. By the 1930s, however, the community was still a small, rural townsite largely populated by white farmers and ranchers and a handful of African American, Mexican American, and Native American farm laborers. By the next decade, local demographics and settlement patterns had shifted, and the community was largely African American and subdivided along racial lines.

Whites settled to the west of Highway 87 and Blacks to the east of the highway. Over the next several decades, Randolph became a multi-generational African American community—a community that persists to the present day, while many other similar historically Black communities in Arizona have not survived.

The persistence of Randolph and its residents is evidenced in its setting, agrarian qualities, and long-standing cultural history. Even today, community members who have moved away regularly return for holidays, events, family gatherings, funerals, and proudly identify themselves as Randolphians.

Throughout its development, Randolph has continued to retain its racial heritage, expressed both through its population and its built environment, and today it remains the oldest extant historically Black community in Arizona associated with the Great Migration of the early to mid-20th century.

In 2022, the community of Randolph began the process of seeking designation as a Historic District in the National Register of Historic Places. It is expected that the designation will be announced at the end of this year. The following segments are excerpted from the nomination that was prepared for the community on their behalf.

Randolph Historic District (1925–2023)

Randolph, Arizona, is a small agricultural community located approximately 4 miles south of Coolidge and 14 miles equidistant from Florence to the northeast and Casa Grande to the west. The portion of the community that encompasses the proposed historic district is located on the east side of Highway 87, which denotes the highest collection of parcels, buildings, and archaeological sites associated with the persistence of memory of what the community landscape was and still represents to its members.

Randolph has retained its African American identity since its formal establishment in the mid- 1920s through the modern era and derives its significance as the oldest remaining historically Black community in Arizona associated with the Great Migration of the early to mid-20th century.

African American Settlements in the United States

Often called “freedmen’s towns,” “freedom towns,” or “all-black towns,” African American municipalities were established throughout the United States by or for a largely African American population, many of whom were freed slaves or descendants of slaves. Although a handful of African American towns and communities were established before the American Civil War, it was not until Emancipation that freed Blacks were able to settle in large enough numbers to establish their own communities.

It is estimated that between 1865 and 1915, at least 60 Black communities were created across the United States, with close to 20 in Oklahoma alone. The peak of Black settlement was in the 1920s, but in the western states—particularly Arizona and New Mexico—the trend continued into the 1940s. The exact number of these communities and towns is unknown, and estimates vary widely depending on the source.

The earliest freedom settlement established in what would later become part of the United States was Fort Mose. Fort Mose was founded in 1738 near present-day St. Augustine, Florida, a former Spanish colony. The community was populated by about 100 people escaping slavery, primarily from Georgia and the Carolinas.

They fled to Florida following a Spanish Edict of 1693 that stated that any enslaved male on an English plantation who escaped to Spanish-held Florida would be granted freedom if they converted to Catholicism or joined the Spanish militia. Many of the Black men that came to form this early settlement were blacksmiths, carpenters, farmers, boatmen, and cattlemen. Eventually women and children also joined the settlement.

Two years after its founding, during the War of Jenkin’s Ear, the British attacked the Spanish city of St. Augustine, targeting Fort Mose in an effort to return the former slaves to English-held plantations. After a hard-fought battle, the Spanish and Fort Mose settlers successfully expelled the British forces, and for the next 80 years of Spanish control of Florida, Fort Mose remained a haven for fugitive slaves. When Florida became part of the United States, the residents of Fort Mose fled to Cuba.

The number of Black settlements in the United States remained relatively low until Post-Civil War Reconstruction. In 1877, the first great wave of Black migration began when many newly freed slaves feared that the removal of federal troops from the American South would lead to unrest and retaliation. In response, many chose to move west.

The first Black community to be established west of the Mississippi River was Nicodemus, Kansas. It was widely advertised to prospective settlers as the “Largest Colored Colony in America,” with promises that land could be purchased for as little as a one-dollar deposit. In 1878, a year after Nicodemus was established, a large group of 380 African Americans from Kentucky made the arduous wagon trip to Kansas.

Upon their arrival, they discovered that Nicodemus was a flat, desolate town populated with sod dugouts. Many of the original settlers arriving from Kentucky took one look and turned around, but for those who stayed, the town eventually grew from sod to frame homes and had a baseball team, a post office, churches, schools, social clubs, an ice cream parlor, and two newspapers.

Upwards of 800 people at one time resided in the town during its peak. When word came that a rail station was proposed for the town, its population exploded, as did its influence in state politics. Nicodemus grew large enough that town leaders were able to push forward the election of the state’s first Black politicians to represent their interests.

This prosperity was short-lived, however, as the town was bypassed by the railroad, forcing many residents to leave. By 1910, only 400 people remained.

In the early 1900s, Oklahoma became a popular choice for resettlement by African Americans. One of the most successful communities, Boley, escaped the troubles of Nicodemus by having both railroad access and arable land for farming. By 1907, it boasted 1,000 residents in town, with many others who owned farms on the town’s edges.

Boley was so successful that prominent African American leader Booker T. Washington pointed to Boley as an example of a community success story, and it influenced the creation of the Black town of Mound Bayou in Mississippi. When Oklahoma gained statehood in 1907, however, Boley faced new discrimination as the Democratic party gained control of the state legislature. Newly enacted Jim Crow laws led to disenfranchisement and the slow dismantling of a once thriving town.

Although Oklahoma and Texas had the largest numbers of Black towns in the United States, at least nine similar towns were established in other western states, including Nebraska, California, New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona. The towns of Allensworth in California, DeWitty in Nebraska, and Deerfield in Colorado had all been established by 1910.

Black communities in Arizona and New Mexico were established in the 1920s and 1930s, with thriving Black populations well into the 1950s. The five known Black migrant communities established in Arizona were Allenville, Mobile, McNary, Randolph, and Rillito. Because many of these communities were never incorporated and records were not kept of their existence, the probability remains that other such communities were established in Arizona.

Black settlements were often created for the same reasons all towns are created—to provide opportunities for economic advancement and money for speculators and to exploit natural resources. They differed, however, in that they not only sought economic and social freedom but also racial uplift. The communities were a haven from discrimination, lynching, and marginalization—a place where individuals and families could thrive without fear.

One of the strongest proponents of Black settlements was Booker T. Washington, a former slave who, among his many accomplishments, founded the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

During his career as an educator, author, orator, and presidential advisor, Washington played a role in helping establish and promote the idea of all-Black towns, including Mound Bayou in Mississippi, Gambling in Louisiana, Hobson City in Alabama, and Eatonville in Florida.

He encouraged Blacks to create their own communities in the face of segregationist policies, viewing these communities as one of the few ways for African Americans to have some autonomy in a country that did not see them as equal. And, for a short time, Washington was right.

Soon, however, the states that once offered a safe haven introduced policies that made establishment of such communities either more difficult or nearly impossible to maintain. Interestingly, through the mid-twentieth century, southwestern states became more appealing as a destination for African Americans until they, too, began to impede Blacks seeking economic and social advancement.

As a result of the lawsuit against SRP, Randolph is re-organizing, growing, and developing. They have formed a 501(c)3 organization Randolph United Council. If you can contribute to the community, please send donations to: Randolph United Council, P.O. Box 1869, Coolidge, Az 85128

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