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Oklahoma Journeys

Kate Barnard Dies

2010-02-20

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Catherine Barnard was born in Nebraska in 1875. Her family moved to Kansas then two years later, tragedy struck. Her mother died. Her father left little Kate with relatives while he headed south to the Oklahoma Territory. She joined her father here in Oklahoma City in 1891. She attended St. Josephs Academy to prepare for a career as a teacher. In 1904 Kate was a hostess at the World's Fair in St. Louis. It was there that she discovered urban poverty and listened to speakers offering possible solutions. Young Kate found her cause.

Kate returned to Oklahoma and in 1906, as the state constitutional convention was being held; she came to believe that women had a place in politics particularly in the area of social justice. At her urging the convention adopted two major reform issues - the prohibition of child labor and the establishment of the office of commissioner of charities and corrections. Following the convention, state Democrats supported her for that office. This was the only position on the state ballot a woman was eligible to run for, and run she did. When the votes were counted, she won a greater plurality than any other candidate on the state ballot.

Her first term in office was remarkable. She was able to get votes in the legislature to make education compulsory, laws regulating child labor, and the establishment of a juvenile justice system.Oklahoma convicts were being held in the state penitentiary in Kansas; that penitentiary was in trouble for poor conditions. She sought funding for the construction of a new state penitentiary in McAlester. She also spent a great deal of time inspecting orphanages and the state's insane asylums.

In 1910, she was reelected again by a wide margin. But her second term in office was marked by turmoil. She supported the protection of property rights for Indian orphans, an unpopular cause at the time. The legislature slashed her budget, reducing the size of her agency. In 1915 she left office. Over the next 15 years she continued to work for Indian property rights and other causes, but she suffered from poor health and from depression. On February 23, 1930, she was found dead in her hotel room in downtown Oklahoma City. She was buried in Oklahoma City, yet her grave wasn't marked until the 1980s. There is now a statue of her in the State Capitol.

You can learn more about Kate Barnard in the research library of the Oklahoma History Center on NE 23rd Street, just east of the state capitol in Oklahoma City.Oklahoma Journeys is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to collecting, preserving and sharing our state's past. I'm Michael Dean.