The New York Times headline declared “OKLAHOMA SEAL SEIZED,” detailing a wild, early morning drive on June 12, 1910.
W.B. Anthony, the governor’s private secretary, reportedly departed Oklahoma City at 1 a.m. and drove a vehicle to the original capital in Guthrie round-trip within two hours.
“It took but a few minutes to obtain the seal, which was in the secretary of state’s office, and the ride to Oklahoma City was begun,” claimed the front-page article with a “Special to The New York Times” byline. “The seal is said to be now in the rooms of Gov. (Charles) Haskell at the Lee-Huckins Hotel.”
Today, roughly 30 miles to the north, a 1950s-era monument erected by an Oklahoma history class outside the Logan County Courthouse ” the original Capitol building ” still claims the seal was stolen from Guthrie 100 years ago this month.
But is that the real story? This much we know: The 1906 Enabling Act contained a clause to keep the capital in Guthrie until 1913. Oklahoma was declared a state in 1907.
After the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce ” now the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber ” petitioned to relocate the capital to Oklahoma City, a special election was designated for June 14, 1910, according to Michael Dean of the Oklahoma History Center. Gov. Haskell marked out the original date, changing it to Saturday, June 11. The governor was in Tulsa that day, but ordered the seal to be transferred to the newly elected capital in OKC after learning the results.
Bob Blackburn, the Oklahoma Historical Society’s executive director, said the steal was not stolen.
“It was transferred legally based on the U.S. Supreme Court decision, because it finally worked its way through the courts,” Blackburn said. “The question being, did Haskell illegally take the state seal and move the offices of state government to Oklahoma City right after the election?
“As far as how it was transported, I’ve never really gotten excited about that myself. “¦ There’s no proof for or against. So there’s no documentation. Most evidence I’ve seen is secondhand and many years later that it surfaces.”
The seal’s transfer may be considered an irrelevant side note, but a number of individuals have taken credit for the seemingly inconsequential act. (See sidebars below and Page 17.)
On the 100th anniversary of the historic incident, more clues are emerging about a black messenger named Jim Noble and his possible role in the transfer. Decades-old newspaper accounts and a 1980 play told of Noble making the trek at Haskell’s request. Could the discovery of an audio recording of a former governor crediting Noble ” along with a vintage photograph and new accounts from an ex-slave’s relatives ” help confirm an oral history handed down for generations in OKC’s African-American community?
A ‘Noble’ gestureNoble, a former custodian, janitor and general servant at the Oklahoma House of Representatives, was the subject of the Waldo B. Phillips article “Jim Noble: Oklahoma’s Negro ‘Governor,'” published in The Phylon Quarterly, a scholarly journal established by Clark Atlanta University. Noble, unemployed and surviving on a pension and charity from state employees, met Phillips at the current Capitol at 23rd and Lincoln years before the 1959 article was published.
Phillips wrote that Noble, who served as a deacon at a local Baptist Church, was not known in his community for playing an important role in moving the seal.
At age 78, Noble took the young Phillips on a final Capitol tour. Phillips described the elderly Noble as trembling slightly while looking at the seal with reverence.
“This city is mine,” Noble told Phillips. “I am the father. I was the first governor to sit in this building.”
Noble then told Phillips his story of how the state seal came to reside in Oklahoma City. As “a Negro messenger for the state,” Noble was exempt from being searched when entering and leaving the Guthrie building, according to the article. Haskell contacted Anthony and gave him the seal, telling him to rendezvous with him in Oklahoma City.
“Mr. Anthony pleaded that this was dangerous and refused to do it,” Phillips wrote. “At this point, they called Jim.”
Since Noble could freely enter and exit, they asked him to take the seal to Oklahoma City, according to Phillips.
“Don’t ride the bus, train or in cars of your friends,” they told Noble, according to Phillips. “Walk, run, hitchhike or hobo. Remember, Jim, you are governor of the state of Oklahoma, and the future of your state depends on you.”
Guards outside the building joked with Noble about the package he carried, asking if he was bringing whiskey to a festive gathering, Phillips wrote.
“Yes, a real big party,” Noble replied, according to Phillips.
Noble would never wish to repeat walking and riding 45 minutes to Oklahoma City, according to Phillips.
“Each mile was a hazard, for he feared that at any moment he would be discovered and branded a thief,” Phillips wrote. “He knew that the governor would declare his own innocence if Jim were found with the state seal.
“The governor explained to him that he should stand in history among the state’s other great men. But Jim knew and understood that he never would.”
On the wagonWhat other documentation links Noble to the seal? A 1931 Oklahoman article claimed Noble, who “has been bosom confidante to governors, senators, newspaper men and even adroit lobbyists” at the Capitol, “brought the seal down from Guthrie to Gov. Haskell.” Noble, a former messenger to William H. “Alfalfa Bill” Murray, who was president of the Constitutional Convention before becoming the ninth governor, had known every state governor and “carried the state seal from Guthrie to Oklahoma City during the Haskell administration,” the newspaper reported in 1943. According to a 1944 article, “Jim is the Negro who helped move the state Capitol from Guthrie to Oklahoma City “¦ and has been around the state House since.”
A 1942 article said the 77-year-old Noble lost his job due to political differences. According to The Oklahoman article “Statehouse Mourns Death Of Jim Noble, Capitol Negro,” he died from tuberculosis at age 80 in 1945, with services at Calvary Baptist Church. “He was generally credited with carrying the state seal from Guthrie to the (Lee-) Huckins Hotel,” The Oklahoman reported.
Lawrence Jackson, an associate professor at Atlanta’s Emory University, confirmed Noble’s role in his “Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius” biography.
“Oklahoma City courted Haskell and the rest of his Democratic constituents by promoting the disenfranchisement of blacks and the subsequent absence of black elected officials, unlike the Republican stronghold of Guthrie,” wrote Jackson, who described Noble as a “lackey” and “black yes-man” in his 2002 book.
“Noble took the seal to Oklahoma City’s (Lee-)Huckins Hotel. “¦ Regardless of the irony of the affair, Noble’s duty became a source of pride for Oklahoma Negroes.”
Oklahoma Gazette first learned of Noble when interviewing relatives of ex-slave Bert Luster last March. At that time, Oklahoma City resident Frank Luster claimed his grandfather helped Noble transport the seal.
“When they moved the Capitol from Guthrie to OKC, stealing the Capitol, it was the two of them,” said the younger Luster, age 89.
Meanwhile, a photograph of a horse-drawn wagon in the Oklahoma Historical Society’s Juanita Stevens Collection bears the following caption: “Team owned by George Riley Hopkins of OKC ” reputedly used to transport the state seal (from) Guthrie to OKC in 1910.”
“They did it in a wagon because no one would suspect two black men in a wagon,” said Edmond resident Vernita Jones, the 104-year-old granddaughter of the former slave. “Someone opened the cabinet where the seal was. They gave it to them to ride down to OKC. They left in the afternoon at 3 p.m. and arrived in OKC at about 7 p.m.”
Jones said her emancipated grandfather, who worked as a Capitol custodian, told the same account every time.
“He never changed it. I feel it was true. He kept it kind of cool ” low-key,” she said.
But not everyone is convinced. Justin Lenhart, former curator and museum director at the Oklahoma Territorial Museum, said he is not familiar with The Phylon Quarterly article, but he remains skeptical.
“I was told my great uncle played center field for the Cleveland Indians, and he didn’t,” said Lenhart, now museum director for the Jim Thorpe Museum & Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame. “Oral history is very subjective. You’ve got to walk a fine line because people really get tied up in this, especially when you’re talking about African-American history.”
The Noble story inspired Evelyn LaRue Pittman to write a play titled “Oklahoma’s Jim Noble,” according to Rep. Mike Shelton, D-Oklahoma City, great-great-great grandson of Luster. Before Pittman’s death, the 1980 musical drama claimed that accounts from Noble’s contemporaries and corroborative news reports confirmed “Uncle Jim” as the seal saga’s true hero.
State Rep. Anastasia Pittman, D-Oklahoma City, agrees with her great aunt’s research.
“Our statehood and the era that we lived in at that time did not depict African-Americans in a positive light,” Pittman said. “I believe no one wanted to give credit to an African-American bringing the state seal.
“It was actually given to (Noble) because he knew that they could leave out the back and they would not be checked. The seal was properly removed and brought to OKC.”
Sealing the dealAs further proof, Pittman points to recently unearthed evidence. A couple of years ago, Bruce Fisher, the OHS’s administrative program officer, learned of a 1952 audio recording of a lecture by former Gov. Murray at Oklahoma State University describing what happened after the 1910 vote.
“They give the seal to Jim Noble so that the court wouldn’t think about enjoining a Negro,” Murray said in the recording archived in the OHS’s Oral History Collection. “And Jim always boasted that he moved the Capitol.”
Fisher described the Murray recording as “substantial evidence that Jim Noble played a role” in the seal’s relocation.
“According to the stories in the African-American community, he was the one who actually got it out of the building,” said Fisher, the son of Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, the first black student to graduate from the University of Oklahoma’s School of Law.
In the Jim Crow era, Fisher said contradicting the popular version of history would have been majorly risky for Noble with his livelihood and employment at stake.
“It’s controversial,” Fisher said. “When that tape was revealed to me two years ago during the centennial, I thought, ‘This seals the deal. This is concrete evidence. How much better does it get than Alfalfa Bill Murray?’
“I call tell you what some historians have said about it since, because I played it for some people to see. Their reaction was, ‘Well, if you knew Alfalfa Bill, he would tend to embellish those stories, especially in his old age.’ But they didn’t say that about everything else he said. So why would you disregard this particular aspect?”
When the “Jim Noble” production debuted, the playwright alleged racist historians had ignored the janitor’s role. Thirty years later, Rep. Pittman agrees the state seal’s history is distorted.
“It’s only fitting that Oklahoma in the second century does due diligence about the African-American experience here in the state of Oklahoma,” Rep. Pittman said. “There are so many untold stories.” “Rob Collins
Hear the audio recording of former Gov. William H. “Alfalfa Bill” Murray crediting Jim Noble with the seal’s transfer.
See a 1916 road map provided by the Oklahoma Department of Transportation.
Transfer ‘tales’As early as 1932, questions surfaced about the state seal’s transfer. An Oklahoman article from 1938 reported that rumors circulated of a midnight move with Gov. Charles Haskell in which state officials claimed to have accompanied the governor.
Hoping to dispel “fantastic and imaginary tales,” Earl Keyes documented a written account in 1952. Keyes, a former corporation records clerk in the secretary of state’s office, claimed he received a phone call from the seal’s custodian, Secretary of State Bill Cross, telling him that W.B. Anthony, the governor’s private secretary, would be arriving in Guthrie.
Arriving at the Logan County Courthouse, Keyes said he saw a Cadillac touring car driven by owner Bill Light joined by Anthony in the front seat, accompanied by several men in the back.
“While the car left Oklahoma City at 11 o’clock that night, it was daylight when it arrived in Guthrie due to a flat tire which occurred near Seward, on unpaved highways and poor country roads,” Keyes wrote in the account, published in “The Chronicles of Oklahoma.”
Once inside the courthouse, Keyes claimed he opened an iron safe, removed the seal and typed a receipt, which was signed by Anthony.
“I wrapped the seal in a piece of brown Kraft wrapping paper,” Keyes wrote. “Mr. Anthony put it under this arm, and we walked down the hall and out of the building. He got in the car and drove straight to Oklahoma City.”
Justin Lenhart, former curator and museum director at the Oklahoma Territorial Museum, said he believes the Anthony story, with a caveat.
“We don’t have hardcore archival evidence, really, to even back that up,” Lenhart said. “Most of the documentation has been lost. Unfortunately, we can’t pull out the receipt.”
Was the “Capital Brought Here in Dirty Shirt,” as a 1932 Oklahoman article claimed? Anthony “talked his way into the courthouse, and fled out of it, the seal and a couple of volumes of records hidden in the dirty shirt,” according to that account.
However, a second 1938 Oklahoman article claims Keyes entered the building with Paul Nesbitt, Haskell’s executive clerk, telling a guard they needed Anthony’s laundry. That account said Haskell received the seal around 4 a.m.
“They returned, carrying a bundle,” according to the article. “Inside the bundle of laundry was the seal of state. The ride to Oklahoma City was made by Anthony in a car rented by the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce.”
Using an impression with an embossing device, Haskell issued a proclamation declaring OKC the victor from the Lee-Huckins Hotel’s second floor, Keyes wrote in his 1952 letter.
Here comes the ‘Gov’Gov. Charles Haskell was Oklahoma’s first governor, but did a man named “Gov. Price” help move the seal?
In a written account archived at the Oklahoma Historical Society, Paul Nesbitt, Haskell’s executive clerk, tells of “a lovable old character who worked in one of the departments” named Gov. Price waking him up at 4 a.m. after the June 11 election. At Haskell’s request, Gov. Price told him he had come with W.B. Anthony, the governor’s private secretary, to transport the seal.
“Just as we approached the building, (corporation records clerk) Earl Keyes came up from the opposite direction,” Nesbitt wrote. “We went to the governor’s office. … The night watchman kept his gun in my desk. I opened the desk and put the gun in my pocket.”
Keyes opened the vault and brought out the seal, according to Nesbitt:
“We wrapped it in a newspaper, and I put it under my arm.”
Gov. Price is mentioned in another account.
“W.B. Anthony drove up there, and there was an old man ” we don’t know where he got it ” but everyone called him ‘Gov. Price,'” said Mrs. John Abernathy, according to a 1973 recording in the OHS’s Oral History Collection. “He was just a hanger-on around the state Capitol, and he pretended to be drunk and he stumbled into this Logan County Courthouse where Haskell’s office was. And when he came out, he had the state seal under his coat, and they got in this car that W.B. Anthony was riding.”
photo top A black embosser, shown with dies used to impress the state seal, is displayed at the Oklahoma Capitol. Photo/Mark Hancock
photo middle A monument outside the Logan County Courthouse claims the state seal was stolen. Photo/Shannon Cornman
photo bottom In 1952, former Gov. William H. “Alfalfa Bill” Murray claimed a black messenger moved the seal to Oklahoma City.