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Okemah Community descendants work to preserve history

Posted at 7:57 PM, Feb 24, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-24 21:57:54-05

TEMPE, AZ — Every corner of the Valley has a story.

The story of the Okemah Community is one in which those who grew up outside of its boundaries likely don't know. And people who used to live there have made it their mission to make sure that changes.

Established in the 1920s Okemah was a thriving rural community founded by Black migrants from Oklahoma and Texas who were recruited to work farmland south of the Salt River.

It was also one of the few places in the Valley where Black families were able to buy land and build homes.

The community boundaries were 32nd Street to the west, 48th Street to the east, the Salt River to the north, and Broadway to the south.

But the community looks much different today than it did back then. Today it is an industrial-zoned area.

But from its inception, former resident, Cassandra Womack said Okemah was a tight-knit residential community that were more like family.

"It was special because all the adults believed that it took everybody to raise kids," Womack said.

She gave ABC15 a tour of the neighborhood and showed where her parents, grandparents and childhood friends grew food and raised livestock.

"We didn't have to go out of the community. And if they didn't have it, then one of our neighbors did," Womack said.

Dr. Josephine Pete also grew up in Okemah. Her family moved to the area in 1949 and were embraced.

"The community it was nurturing. People were humble. You belong to everybody. Any parent could correct you. You knew that. It may as well be your mother or your father," Pete said.

For its first 40 years, the area was a Maricopa County island but closely associated with the City of Tempe. But in 1960 the City of Phoenix annexed much of South Phoenix including Okemah and zoned it commercial. Soon the decision was made to route I-10 through the center of the community. That was the beginning of the end for Okemah.

"The freeway came, the zoning changed. And so investors started to buy a property and started to build," Pete said.

"Then everything started moving in on them. And of course, they didn't want to be down here-older people like that with all the new businesses move in," Womack said.

By 2000 most everyone had sold and moved.

But they say Okemah was more than just the land, it was the people and the sense of community they fostered.

The impact on their lives was so great, old community members have produced a documentary and a book.

Doris Lamkin Burt-Johnson met her late husband William Burt in Okemah. He began researching the area's history in 1991.

"He was determined to preserve Okemah's history because what he experienced in this community, what he saw-he knew it was history and he knew it was cultural richness," Burt-Johnson said.

He completed his research in 2001 and published his finding in his book Arizona History: The Okemah Community.

That spirit of preservation continues in bi-annual reunions and the establishing of Okemah Community Historic Foundation for descendants of community residents.

"[What] I want people to know about Okemah is to remember that it existed. I want them to know that the people who live here had a vision for the future," Pete said. "We have a legacy. And we want our children to know about that legacy."

So when people pass by the junkyards, warehouses and industrial businesses, they know there was once a vibrant community that many still hold in their hearts.

" I always tell my family if it was enough money and I had it, I would buy it all back just to have a replica so people could see," Womack said.