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James Robertson: Oklahoma Governors 1919-1923

The first governor hailing from the old Oklahoma Territory, this Iowa native, born in 1871, settled in Chandler following the 1891 Land Run that opened the Sac and Fox country to settlement. By the time of statehood, Robertson’s talent and intellect as a young school teacher, county attorney, Democratic Party activist, and one of the Twin Territories’ top trial lawyers had caught Governor Haskell’s attention. In 1908, he appointed Robertson as 10th District Court judge in the new state.

Then began a cavalcade of election runs that helped put the lie to the notion of a “career in politics” as some sort of modern innovation. Four times Robertson ran for governor, winning in 1918, and he ran unsuccessfully for Congress, Senate, and the State Supreme Court. He proved a tenacious adversary, though, narrowly losing to the popular State Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Williams in 1914, despite suffering his wife Olive’s death during the campaign.

A vigorous chief executive as governor, Robertson led Oklahoma’s support of both the 18th (prohibition of alcoholic beverages) and 19th (granting women the right to vote) Amendments. In championing the cause of public education, he—unlike some others since—marshaled accurate data and resources to illumine how particularly to improve school performance and wisely apply the taxpayers’ hard-earned money. He also crafted a college scholarship program for worthy but needy students that notably included twenty-five such opportunities each year for African-American young people to Langston College.

Robertson occupied the governor’s mansion during a rough-and-tumble era in public life. This encompassed a series of violent employee strikes, which included Drumright telephone workers, Sapulpa streetcar workers, and southeastern Oklahoma coal miners, all in 1919, as well as Shawnee railway shop men in 1922. It also included great contention between the governor and state legislature (Chapter 2).

Robertson’s authority grew more precarious with the 1920 national Republican election sweep that stunningly delivered a GOP majority to the State House. This aggressive group contested him publically over numerous issues, most seriously his handling of pardons and paroles, and they stalled budgetary approval of his initiatives. Not unlike the experience of other state executive leaders of the era, Robertson avoided impeachment by just one vote.

One of Robertson’s greatest challenges lay in the dangerous race relations of the day between African-Americans and whites, as the former sought fair rights from the latter, who were far in the majority in population, wealth, and power. As chronicled by historian Larry O’Dell, Robertson responded to a series of lynchings by appointing a commission comprised of both black and white leaders, including Black Dispatch newspaper publisher Roscoe Dunjee.

Hampering Robertson’s post-gubernatorial ambitions were his indictment, along with thirty other people, for bribery relating to the failed Okmulgee Bank of Commerce. Robertson won acquittal, but not until near the end of Walton’s term. He never again held elective office.


The above article is a bonus to the fascinating historical content found within our book

Oklahomans Vol 2 :

Statehood - 2020s

which can be purchased HERE.

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