Story and photo by Rodney Grimes
Often throughout our broader community, the name Okemah comes up. Unless you are associated with Okemah (lived there or had a friend from there), you were more than likely left in the dark.
But you can have a front row seat when the fourth Okemah Community Reunion begins on October 10. The reunion will be held at the Hilton Phoenix Airport Hotel at 2435 S. 47th Street, Phoenix. Activities will start at 2:00 and continue until 9 p.m. Dinner will be served and dancing of course to the oldies but goodies.
Everyone is invited to attend, reminisce and learn from the descendants of these sturdy Okemah pioneers. Be it in education, government, legal, broadcasting, business, sports and much more they made their mark on Arizona.
The dress is casual and for more detailed information about tickets and reservations call Nancy Woodberry-Jones at 602-438-9624 or Doris Lamkin Burt Johnson at 480-838-7017.
To help clear up some of the fog about Okemah, let’s try to start at the beginning.
It is my understanding that Okemah started as a small number of cotton farmers, farm workers and sharecroppers migrating into the greater Phoenix area (Southeastern Maricopa County essentially), primarily from Oklahoma, but also Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana. They came here fleeing the hardships associated with living and working on some white man’s farm, and not receiving the true financial value of what your level of hard work and production should earn. They were seeking a relationship with landowners who would honor “a hard days pay for a hard days work” and looking for that pay to be accurate and on time.
Black migrants were told that the price per pound of cotton was higher here, and there also had a different kind of cotton in Arizona, called “Pima” cotton, which is supposed to be easier to pull from the cotton bowl. The belief was that although the white landowners in Arizona may not be totally honest, and/or totally opposite from their overbearing Southern counterparts; the general feeling was that they could work with these owners, and yes the pay was slightly better.
Another very important element of the migration was optimism. These folk came to Arizona and slowly developed Okemah. There was camaraderie and the feeling of community – a village if you will – that was strategically located in the county (out of the city limits), and reasonably close to the river.
I am not sure who officially named the settlement Okemah, and there is a town in Oklahoma called Okemah. But what I’m told is, there was a powerful Indian Chief named Okemah who was strong and intelligent, and would be the ideal type of person to name the settlement in Arizona – Okemah.
Families started arriving in the 1920’s, more so in the 1930’s and many more in the 1940’s. I was recently told that their were 600 people living between 32nd Street east to 40th Street (Transmission Rd), and from Broadway Rd. north to University Dr. – with some calling the general area simply “Transmission.”
I am looking forward to learning more about the overall strength of the Okemah families that encouraged their children to overachieve in education, overachieve in work, and rise far above a sharecroppers or cotton chopper’s existence. Many of our community’s most prominent residents trace their history in Arizona to Okemah.
Hopefully, over the next few weeks I will be able to share with you some of these individuals who have made a difference in our community, or whatever community they may have moved on to.