J. Coody Johnson – The Black Panther of Wewoka (1864-1927)
This giant of territorial and statehood Oklahoma lived one of the most unique and accomplished lives in the history of the Sooner State. He rose to high prominence among Creeks, Seminoles, African-Americans, and Oklahoma itself while living in a time of raging racial prejudice against blacks.
Well known Oklahoma educator, civic leader, and Johnson biographer John R. Hargrave ably set the framework for Johnson’s life: “The grandson of a slave belonging to William McIntosh, the great Coweta chief of the Creek Nation, Johnson was esteemed by Creek and Seminole as ‘the Black Panther.’ He was intimately familiar with the language, laws, and customs of the Creek and Seminole.”
Born at Fort Gibson in 1864, where his mother had refuged during the brutal Indian Territory campaigns of the War Between the States, he attended the Presbyterian mission school north of Wewoka. His African Creek father Robert served as language interpreter for the Seminole nation, a foreshadowing of Coody Johnson’s lifelong involvement with both tribes, who had begun as one. The Seminoles then sponsored his education at Lincoln University in Chester, Pennsylvania. After graduating, he returned to the southwest and cowboyed, as did thousands of other African-Americans in that era.
In 1886, Judge Isaac Parker, the legendary Fort Smith, Arkansas-based “Hanging Judge,” whose federal district included Indian Territory and its many thousands of Creeks and Seminoles, hired him as his interpreter. Parleying innate talent, intelligence, and drive with opportunity as he would do throughout his life, Johnson studied law under Parker, earned admittance to practice in federal courts, and gained the rare distinction as a freedman of dual Creek and Seminole citizenship. His skills as a multi-lingual interpreter fueled his rise into both the exalted office of Secretary of the Creeks and a position in the tribe’s elite Creek House of Warriors, as well as official interpreter for the Seminole nation and private secretary (chief of staff in modern terms) to their Principal Chief, Halputta Micco.
Success and Scandal
Johnson left a legacy to all Oklahomans of shrewdness, tenacity, and imagination in business, especially considering that the scales of late 1800s-early 1900s American capitalism were weighted against him. Still, it is noteworthy that, whatever the hindrances, that system and the state and nation practicing it did allow his historic rise, even in that time of racism against African-Americans.
Based in the Seminole tribal capital of Wewoka, he prospered in energy (Black Panther Oil and Gas Co.), law, and hoteliery. He had the only black-owned establishment in the community’s early twentieth century downtown. His Johnson Building, at Wewoka Avenue and Cedar Street, now abides in the National Register of Historic Places.
Like many other Oklahoma leaders, the morass of Indian allotment cast a shadow over the Black Panther’s reputation. According to Hargrave, Johnson and other attorneys, both white and African-American, faced disbarment in 1918 amid accusations that they had taken unfair economic advantage of an uneducated black Creek freedwoman upon her reaching legal status as an adult. She stood to inherit a sizable estate. Whether or not Johnson was guilty, such “grafting” schemes against tribal heirs ran rampant following statehood, according to Oklahoma pioneer and historian Angie Debo’s landmark book And Still the Waters Run (Vol. 1, Chapter 11), though she never mentions Johnson by name.
All too common, too, as recounted by Debo, the recent blockbuster Killers of the Flower Moon: the Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, and other works, were the “mysterious” deaths of numerous tribal victims before or after they received large inheritances. In this case, the young Creek freedwoman died “mysteriously,” which triggered a number of events, including the dismissal of complaints against Johnson and others.
Standing for Others
When blacks had realized in the mid-1900s that the proposed state constitution featured the strong foundation for a Jim Crow society that would socially, economically, and politically force them to the back of the streetcar, protest organizations such as the Afro-American League and the Negro Protective League—which Johnson helped found—sent him, McCabe, A. G. W. Sango, and other African-American leaders to Washington, D.C. to urge their fellow Republican, President Theodore Roosevelt, to reject the constitution if the people of Oklahoma approved it. They failed in that quest, but the passage of time has bequeathed upon them a legacy superior to that of their victorious opponents—having fought against great odds, with no small risk to themselves, in a noble cause.
Never did Johnson’s courage and willingness to exercise his influence for the good of others shine brighter than after Oklahoma entered the Union in 1907. As Jim Crow laws, social segregation, the Grandfather (Voting) Clause, and other state statutes indeed erected a cordon of regulation and oppression around the lives of African-Americans, Johnson toiled on behalf of full constitutional rights for them, served as President of the Negro Protective League, and continued to build businesses with no government subsidy that generated both jobs and financial capital within the black community of Wewoka and beyond.
He and other black attorneys fought the Grandfather Clause—by which Democrats disqualified many African-American Republicans from voting through a statewide vote—in the courts for five years. According to historian Jimmie Franklin, Johnson and the others “tried to make their case by forcing registration officials to deny them a place on the rolls.” In the end, they won in the United States Supreme Court, though full black voting rights would take another generation to secure.
J. Coody Johnson’s later accomplishments included his continued business success, pioneering the Negro Independent State Fair in Muskogee, and devoting a portion of his significant land holdings upon his death for the founding of a school for “Negro boys and girls.” This Kentucky-born pioneer came to Ardmore in 1891, nearly 20 years before statehood, at the age of twenty-eight. He worked his way up to a bank presidency, as well as a city alderman (councilman). Parleying these experiences and the influence garnered from them, he sought election as the new state of Oklahoma’s first governor, but lost to Charles Haskell. Four years later, however, Cruce ran again. This time, he won a blockbuster victory over Constitutional Convention titan and Speaker of the State House William H. Murray.
Though not possessing such influence over the legislature as his legendary predecessor Haskell, Cruce accomplished much as governor and attempted more. He initiated the historic construction of the State Capitol building. He undertook numerous state budget-tightening measures. With Oklahomans owning several thousand automobiles during his term, he ramrodded through legislation establishing the State Highway Commission, which secured Oklahoma’s part in what became an early cross-country interstate highway, U.S. Highway 77. The forerunner to Interstate 35, it ran from Canada all the way to the Gulf Ocean.
Cruce left his greatest mark, however, as the sort of moral champion for which Americans before and since have clamored, but rarely desire should they actually receive it. He struck hard with the force of the law vested in him against a storm of social ills he saw wrecking lives all around him. Racetrack betting—he unleashed famed Oklahoma lawman Frank Canton and the Oklahoma National Guard on this practice in Tulsa. Gambling—he ramrodded legislation making it a felony. Prizefighting—five times, Cruce sent the Guard to quash this activity, which was particularly brutal in that era. Prohibition—he strengthened Haskell’s strictures against consumption of alcoholic beverages. Blue Laws—he championed legislation prohibiting many commercial activities that occurred on, and—he believed—distracted people from, the beneficial spiritual observance of and worship on the Lord’s Day.
Like nearly every other major white political figure of early Oklahoma, Cruce supported Jim Crow, but unlike most of them, he opposed the taking of life in capital punishment. He commuted twenty death sentences, including those of African-Americans. Murderous mobs lynched fifteen others whom he might have spared.
When fellow Democrats tried to railroad the boundary-drawing process for three new Congressional seats in fast-growing 1910s Oklahoma, Cruce stood up for the rights of the minority Republicans. He vetoed the plan, telling his colleagues they wouldn’t appreciate the Republicans attempting such a scheme. This led to the first in an infamous series of legislative impeachment efforts against the state’s governors. Cruce escaped the action by a single vote.
He later gained wealth upon the discovery of oil on his Ardmore property. He died in 1933 while visiting his only child, daughter Lorena, who like thousands of other Oklahomans, had emigrated to Los Angeles.