Environment, Education, Energy: Policy to People

Hard Times a Familiar Feeling in Okfuskee County

Joe Wertz / NPR StateImpact

Joan Matthews stands outside the town hall in Boley, where she's been mayor for more than a decade.

Okfuskee County is home to what was once the largest all-black community in the country and legendary Dust Bowl-era folk singer Woody Guthrie. It also has the highest poverty rate in Oklahoma.

Decades after Guthrie recorded his songs about the struggles of the workingman, hard times continue in Okfuskee County.

That’s especially true for tiny Boley, a historic, mostly black town that’s among the poorest in the area.

Like a growing number of other townspeople, Jerry Mitchell moved to Boley after retiring, but his pension just isn’t enough.

“Okfuskee County … I feel it. Don’t you feel it?” Mitchell said. “Yeah, I’m retired, and gotta go back to work.”

His wife, Leonice Banks-Mitchell, better known as Pookie, runs the only restaurant in town.

Joe Wertz / NPR StateImpact

Leonice Banks-Mitchell, better known as Pookie, watches for customers at McCormick's Grill, the only restaurant in town.

“People are struggling, you know. The only reason — because everything that I own is already paid for — I’d be struggling too, which I am kind of a little bit, because business is so slow, and business is not like it used to be,” Banks-Mitchell said. “So, everybody’s struggling. You see people hauling iron and steel, you know, picking up trash here and there and hauling it off and so forth.”

This wasn’t always the case in Boley. During the early 1900s, the Boley area’s population topped out at about 25,000.

It was the site of the first African-American owned banks and electric company in the nation. A century later, Boley’s population stands at about 1,200. That includes the roughly 800 inmates at a nearby prison, which also serves as the town’s biggest employer.

At the Boley Community Center, town elders, including Theola Cudjo-Jones, have lunch and share their thoughts on the problems facing the area they love.

“When our children go to school here and finish school, what do they have? They have to leave to get a job,” Cudjo-Jones said. “When Nate moved out and went to California, and when she moved to Wichita and I moved to Oklahoma City, we had no other way. There was nothing for us here.”

“When our children go to school here and finish school, what do they have? They have to leave to get a job,”

- Boley Resident Theola Cudjo-Jones

The people in Boley wonder if anything can be done to help their small, rural town and others like it across the country. Beth Mattingly is the Director of Research on Vulnerable Families for the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire.

“People are recognizing that there are some key differences between rural poverty and urban poverty in terms of both somewhat how it’s experienced, but also some of the obstacles the families are facing,” Mattingly said. “Some well-known things like transportation and access to services, but also things like stigma — everyone kind of knows your business. If you go on food stamps, everyone is going to know. So, for generations, people have been confronting high poverty, and in such places I’d like to say, ‘Oh yeah, all we need is x, y, or z,’ but it is hard to imagine a quick turn around.”

Logan Layden / NPR StateImpact

Once a thriving, predominately black area with a population around 25,000, Boley, Okla., now has a population of around one thousand.

That leaves Boley Mayor Joan Matthews in a difficult position.

“Yes, but there’s not a whole lot I can do about it other than worry and pray … and I do a lot of that,” Matthews said.

Still, Matthews says with its simple, quiet way of life, and close-knit community, Boley is a great place to live and retire to.

But ongoing hard times mean it’s not the best place to find a job.

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