Legislative Black Caucus honors the past, present and future at A.C. Hamlin Banquet on Sept. 28

OKLAHOMA CITY – The 20th biennial A.C. Hamlin Scholarship Banquet – remembering the son of ex-slaves who became the first African American legislator in state history – is scheduled Monday evening (September 28).

The banquet will be held at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, starting with a 6 p.m. reception, and dinner at 7 p.m.

The Legislative Black Caucus will recognize individuals who have made significant contributions to Oklahoma – Gov. Bill Anoatubby of The Chickasaw Nation, the Central States Troopers Coalition Association, and the Oklahoma AFL-CIO.

A.C. Hamlin Award honorees will include state Public Safety Commissioner Mike C. Thompson and Oklahoma Highway Patrol Trooper Lateka Alexander, 

Roosevelt Milton, former executive director of the state Department of Human Services, Margaret M. Love, program director at Love & Associates Wellness Services and an adjunct professor at Langston University, and the late Leroy Thomas, Sr., longtime president and chairman of Tulsa’s American State Bank, for years the state’s only black-owned bank.

The Legislative Black Caucus also will recognize three retired lawmakers: former House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, former Sen. Constance N. Johnson, D-Oklahoma City, and former Sen. Jabar Shumate, D-Oklahoma City.

The banquet honors Albert Comstock Hamlin, born in Topeka, Kan., on Feb. 10, 1882, to parents who were ex-slaves. The family left Kansas in 1890 to homestead a 160-acre farm near Guthrie.

Hamlin was elected in 1908 to represent Logan County in the state House, from 1909-10.

A Republican, Hamlin won the seat with significant black voter support in Logan County. Hamlin had previously served as a school board member and as a trustee of Springvale township, southeast of Guthrie.

Theodore James “Teddy” Hamlin of Dallas has a document bearing a gold-colored House seal, indicating that A.C. Hamlin, his great-grandfather, coordinated installation of Springvale’s telephone service. A total of $227 was collected for the “Springvale Rural Telephone Line Assessment.” Of that, $219 was paid out for development of the phone system, leaving a balance of $8. Nine patrons each furnished 18 telephone poles for the project.

Today, Springvale “is rapidly growing, and it’s neat to think that A.C. Hamlin pioneered the original phone infrastructure,” said Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie, who now holds Hamlin’s seat.

Hamlin lost re-election in 1910 after a “Jim Crow” provision limited black voter participation by imposing a literacy test and an onerous “grandfather clause.”

Exemption from the literacy requirement was authorized if a prospective voter could prove that his grandfather had been a voter or citizen of a foreign nation, or had served as a soldier, prior to 1866. 

As a result, illiterate whites could vote but illiterate blacks could not, because their grandfathers had almost all been slaves, barring were from voting or military service before 1866 (after the Civil War concluded). White registrars administered the subjective literacy tests.

In 1915, in the case of Guinn v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the state grandfather clauses in state constitutions repugnant to the 15th Amendment and null and void.

Ratified in 1870 as one of three Reconstruction Amendments, the 15th Amendment provided that, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

The Court’s decision came too late for Hamlin. He died on his farm on Aug. 29, 1912, from unknown causes, and was buried in Robinson Cemetery in Logan County.

In 2008, the Legislature designated a two-mile section of Interstate 35 in southern Logan County, between Waterloo Road and Charter Oak Road, as the “A.C. Hamlin Parkway.” The Oklahoma Department of Transportation manufactured signs to signify the naming, but inadvertently the signs were lost and never installed.

The oversight was brought to ODOT’s attention earlier this year by state Rep. George E. Young, Sr., D-Oklahoma City. 

When Young began researching state African American history of Oklahoma (particularly in the state House), he found Hamlin had never gotten his due.

ODOT corrected the oversight by installing signs permanently to dedicate the highway, and Young organized a ceremony May 23 at Oklahoma City’s Christ United Methodist Church.

After Hamlin’s departure from the House, “It would be almost 60 years before another African American would sit in either chamber” of the Legislature, Young pointed out. “All African American members of the Oklahoma Legislature who have served since A.C. Hamlin owe him a debt of gratitude. He paved the way. He endured untold hardships and insults. We need to say ‘thank you’ to A.C. Hamlin.”

Several members of Hamlin’s family attended the dedication ceremony, as did state Rep. Murphey, Rep. David Perryman, D-Chickasha, Sen. Anastasia Pittman, D-Oklahoma City; and ODOT Executive Director Mike Patterson.

“The Oklahoma Department of Transportation is pleased to be a part of honoring such an important figure in Oklahoma history,” Patterson said. “The signs … will rename this heavily traveled stretch of roadway after Representative Hamlin so generations can be reminded of his service to the state.” That section of I-35 carries an average of 100,000 vehicles daily, Patterson said.

Murphey, R-Guthrie, observed Hamlin’s persecutors “are lost to history,” while Hamlin’s name appears on signs erected along a major interstate highway. That “will prompt travelers from across the nation and throughout the world to ask, ‘Who was that man and what did he do?’ Thus, A.C. Hamlin will be remembered. How ironic is that?!”

In addition to Sen. Pittman and Rep. Young, other members of the Legislative Black Caucus include Sen. Kevin Matthews of Tulsa, and Reps. Mike Shelton of Oklahoma City and Regina Goodwin of Tulsa.

NOTE: Pat McGuigan contributed to this report. He teaches Oklahoma History at Justice Alma Wilson Seeworth Academy, a public charter alternative school in Oklahoma City.