Higher Education

Oklahoma college removes Land Run monument

February 3, 2021

Mike Brake

​A concrete depiction of the 1889 Oklahoma Land Run that stood for decades outside Oklahoma City Community College in south Oklahoma City is no more—fallen as many such monuments have to protesters who claim such historical artifacts wound their sensibilities.

​A college administrator said the “decision to remove the monument was a top priority of the executive leadership. … It was a no-brainer. If our goal is to create a community that is inclusive and welcoming to everyone, a monument that depicts cruelty and oppression can’t be on display here.”

​School officials said the monument had been the target of protests and angry letters in the student newspaper, which, ironically, is named The Pioneer. OCCC spokesman Erick Worrell indicated that the decision to remove the monument appears to have satisfied those who lobbied for the action and that such campus institutions as The Pioneer student newspaper could remain unchanged.

Worrell said no one on campus today knows when the monument was installed or who paid for it. ​“We know it was here in 1987, so sometime in the 15 years between the founding of the school in 1972 and then,” he said.

​Worrell defended the decision to remove the monument because it is important on a campus with widely diverse enrollment “how we portray history.” He admitted there had been some calls from citizens objecting to the removal decision, and said college officials had tried to assure them “that we aren’t trying to erase anybody’s history.”

​Instead, he said, college officials wanted to portray “a more complete picture” after noting “who is not in the picture,” meaning Native Americans. Worrell said an existing statue on campus that portrays a pioneer herding cattle across a river may be upgraded to show a Native American greeting him on the other side.

​Historian John Dwyer, author of The Oklahomans: The Story of Oklahoma and Its People, said in fact “we owe a great debt to Oklahoma’s numerous land runs … and the rugged pioneers who rode in them. They settled and built an American state—an advanced, Christian-oriented civilization—in a vast land, sparsely populated and poorly developed, while millions of immigrants crowded in shacks and tenements elsewhere in the United States.”

“All participants in the building of America, the greatest lighthouse of freedom and opportunity in human history, committed misdeeds, as have all people everywhere.” —Oklahoma historian John Dwyer

​Dwyer said Oklahoma’s population after the Civil War totaled only about one or two people per square mile, with much of what became modern eastern Oklahoma dominated by outlaws. In addition, he said, plains tribes clashed with the Five Civilized Tribes in frequent conflict. ​As to those who see the land run as displacing or “oppressing” native Americans, Dwyer said that “(a)ll participants in the building of America, the greatest lighthouse of freedom and opportunity in human history, committed misdeeds, as have all people everywhere.”

He noted that “those who walked the Trail of Tears, and their ancestors who lost the domains promised their forefathers, deserve their statues and attention, and have been receiving them for some time now.”

A leader of the 1889er Society, made up of descendants of Land Run participants, said she is saddened by OCCC’s action. She asked that she not be identified by name because of the potential of threats and hostile calls or contacts, but her status was verified by the Oklahoma Historical Society.

​“I have mixed feelings about it,” she said. “Were there wrongs done to our friends in the Indian tribes? Absolutely. But it is sad when a part of our history is erased like this.”

​She noted that “to blame the people who came into this land simply wanting to better themselves is less than generous.”

​The Land Run descendant recalled that on the day that statehood was announced in 1907, the ceremony in Guthrie included a mock wedding between costumed characters representing the twin Oklahoma and Indian Territories that were being merged into the new state of Oklahoma. That is a more fitting way to view our history, she suggested.

​“We are unique in all the world,” she said. “Nowhere else was there a horse race for new land as there was here. It is sad when you start forgetting part of your history.”

​She said she would welcome additions to Land Run memorials and monuments that add the Native American perspective, as Dwyer also suggested.

​“That seems like a more equitable way to deal with it,” she said.

​Ironically, a much larger memorial to the same land run sits in a city park just a few miles from OCCC and even adorns the front page of the website of the Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Bureau, where the slogan is “The Modern Frontier.”

​The Centennial Land Run memorial in east Bricktown includes 45 large bronze sculptures and stretches for 365 feet in a city park. The original cost, shared by city, state, and federal funds, was some $6 million, according to city communications chief Kristy Yager.

​“It’s not going anywhere,” Yager said of the massive monument, noting that despite some protests from Native American activists, the city remains committed to preserving both the history of the Land Run and the state’s Native American heritage through its involvement in the nearly completed First Americans Museum east of the land run sculptures. Oklahoma City and its tribal partners assumed responsibility for completing that project after state officials declined to continue their financial support.

​Yager also noted that the creator of the Land Run sculptures, renowned artist Paul Moore, is himself Native American. Moore’s online biographical information describes him as a member of the Creek tribe. Moore has expressed an interest in creating a similar work to commemorate the Trail of Tears removal of the Five Civilized Tribes in the 19th century.

​Lindsay Vidrine, from the Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Bureau, said she understands that city officials are considering adding to, rather than destroying, the massive land run monument.

​“The City of Oklahoma City office of arts and cultural affairs has created a call to indigenous scholars and knowledge keepers for a Land Run Monument interpretation project,” she quoted a city newsletter as saying. That project would likely take the form of signage noting the impact of the run on Native Americans, which would match the proposal made by the Land Run descendant.

​“It is my understanding that the monument will be added to for a more complete telling of our history, not taken down,” Vidrine said in an email.

​Yager did note that the fate of the Centennial Land Run sculptures would ultimately be in the hands of future Oklahoma City Councils, where a majority of members committed to identity politics could demand its removal.

[Editor’s note: In related news, the University of Oklahoma is warning its students that the words “Boomer Sooner,” which trace to the Land Run of 1889, could be hurtful to some students. For more stories about higher education in Oklahoma, visit AimHigherOK.com.]