As a land developer and speculator, a lawyer, an immigration promoter, a newspaper owner, and a politician, E. P. McCabe was an important contributor to the Oklahoma scene. Oklahoma Territory was a late-nineteenth-century place of dreams for hundreds of thousands of Americans and recent immigrants. It was a place of myth and reality, then. For African Americans who were still pursuing the fulfillment of a promise they believed had been made to them during and immediately after the Civil War, Oklahoma had special, perhaps even urgent appeal. Edward (or Edwin) P. (Preston?) McCabe was one of the African Americans who came to the territory in search not only of his dream but the dream of countless others. What made his story special was that he dreamed bigger than the average person, and because he did, the shock of reality probably hurt him more.
McCabe was born in Troy, New York, but spent his most important years in Topeka, Kansas. Trained lawyer, land speculator, town builder, and state auditor, he led black Oklahomans for a flash of time. Like a hand-held sparkler on New Year's eve, he beamed and glowed, commanded attention, then faded, almost without a trace. He came to Oklahoma in 1890, and until he left for good in 1908 he personified the dwindling hopes of African Americans at the hands of a race-conscious America.
McCabe's personal life seems to have escaped detection. He was born into what appears to have been a small, racially mixed family. His complexion was quite light. Like his fellow New Yorker W. E. B. DuBois, this brought him advantages and certainly disadvantages in a racist society. For most of his early years McCabe and his small family continually moved--from New York to Massachusetts, to Rhode Island, and then finally to Chicago during the 1860s. He received an education in law there and migrated to Kansas in the April 1878, just in time to get caught up in the "Exoduster" dream of establishing All-Black towns.
McCabe was closely identified with Nicodemus, Kansas, near which he settled as a farmer and attorney. A Republican activist, he was elected to office as a clerk in Graham County, Kansas, the county seat of Nicodemus. His connections, his charm, and his light skin served him well, at least for a while. He was twice elected a state auditor, until 1886 when racism surfaced to turn him out of office. After working for the state's leading Republicans in the election of 1888, he unsuccessfully sought the position of register of the Kansas treasury in 1889.
After going to Washington to solicit newly elected Pres. Benjamin Harrison to champion African American voting and civil rights, McCabe came to Guthrie in 1890. Kansas Republican Preston Plumb doubtless encouraged him to organize the black community. The Oklahoma Immigration Association in Topeka encouraged territorial black settlement, and the association's president, black newspaperman H. W. Rolfe, and secretary, W. L. Eagleson, persuaded their friend McCabe to go south.
For a while, it appeared that there would be a large contingent of black settlers in Oklahoma and that McCabe would be their leader. The prospect generated hate and fear among white settlers and many American Indians. Even before McCabe arrived, it had been charged that Plumb planned to encourage the creation of a black state. McCabe's connections to Plumb and the Oklahoma Immigration Association seemed to confirm this suspicion. Much nearer to the truth, probably, was that these Kansas Republicans, black and white, hoped to create Republican sympathies in the territory and planned to use black settlers to help achieve it.
McCabe was not an especially effective leader of African American Oklahomans, as he never separated himself enough from his personal ambitions to stay with the black cause or to alleviate white fears. His successes were measured in small increments, except for one, the establishment of Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal College, now Langston University. In 1890 McCabe, in partnership with a white land developer, Charles H. Robbins, helped establish the township of Langston. He had launched the Langston City Herald in October to promote his plans, but he seemed far more interested in promoting further expansion through the Afro-American Colonization Company of Guthrie, in land speculation, and in his own political career.
For a brief while McCabe recaptured the ground he had lost in Kansas. He was appointed Logan County's first treasurer. He then became the secretary of the Territorial Assembly. His modest success led him away from Langston. He sold his City Herald in early 1891 and, many speculated, began to plan his move to make Oklahoma an "all-black state." Eagleson had helped make the claim believable when he said publically that if President Harrison really wanted to show his concern for blacks then he would appoint "Mac" governor.
McCabe's fortunes began to decline rapidly even before the year was over. His political allies left him. Preston Plumb died. In 1892 the Democrats defined racial issues along party lines and began forcing Republicans to rethink their strategies. At the Democrats' convention in Kingfisher, home of Republican Gov. Abraham J. Seay, the party loyals declared that theirs was a party of white supremacy.
Circumstances allowed McCabe to recover and make a major contribution to the lives and future of black Oklahomans. Despite the Republican party's drift to racial discrimination, even against black Republicans, McCabe remained steadfast and still encouraged African Americans to vote Republican. In 1894 the Republican League selected him its secretary. When the Republican-dominated Territorial Assembly met in 1895, they appointed McCabe chief clerk. Two years later, when Republican Cassius M. Barnes became Governor, McCabe was presented with an opportunity for his greatest contribution to black Oklahomans.
On March 12, 1897, the legislature passed a bill to establish the Colored Agricultural and Normal College of the Territory of Oklahoma. McCabe's old allies granted the land on which to locate the school. The 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which established the doctrine of separate but equal facilities, had helped give birth to the territory's and eventually the state's only lasting black university.
Plessy v. Ferguson also gave McCabe his last opportunity to serve Oklahoma blacks. McCabe served as assistant auditor of the territory under governors Barnes, Thompson Ferguson, William Jenkins, and Frank Frantz but lost his position, never to regain it, when the Democrats seized power at 1907 statehood. Black protest against statehood failed, and segregation immediately became state law.
McCabe had already begun to withdraw by then. His name never appears among those who attended social functions at Langston University. He must have been struggling for some identity, however, as in 1908 he carried a case to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that separate cars on railroads violated the 1906 Enabling Act, which stated that "there shall be no distinction on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude. . . ." The Court upheld the Jim Crow law stating, that Oklahoma was admitted to the Union on an equal footing with the original states and could enact laws not in conflict with the Constitution of the United States. The Court also held that it was not an infraction of the Fourteenth Amendment for a state to require separate, but equal, accommodations for the two races.
Sometime after that, certainly by September 1908, McCabe left Oklahoma, perhaps for Chicago. Land records at Guthrie indicate that he sold land holdings and must have transferred ownership to his wife. She remained in Oklahoma, alone. Her name appears on several land records indicating that she had sold mineral rights on lands in her possession for as little as fifty dollars.
McCabe died in Chicago in 1920, and his body was returned to Topeka for burial. Tragically, few people took notice. McCabe had years before drifted into obscurity, much as had black dreams of racial equality.Jere Roberson, Edward P. McCabe (1850 - 1920), in The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, Dianna Everett, et al., eds.(Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society), 908 - 909.