Just who was Micco T. Harjo?

By PATRICIA SANDERS

Advertising Card of Indian Territory, Arbuckle Bros. publisher, 1889
Source: New York Public Library Digital Collection

History may be biography, but it’s not just the stories of great women and men. It’s also the stories of each of us who shape a collective story. 

Since I am interested in the story of Montavilla, how could I not be interested in the stories of Montavilla’s second largest population in 1920. Montavilla, was then, as in 2017, predominantly white, but around 60 Blacks were counted in the 1920 United States Census. 

Around this time, newspapers reported on Micco Harjo’s activities as an advocate for civil rights. (See my previous article). Curious about why he became engaged in this early, heightened struggle, I wanted to know more about his life.

We find Harjo (1882 / 1885 – 1947), his wife Eddie Oneida Derrick (1894 / 1895 – 1961), and their two children Wayne Percy (1912 – 1934) and Juanita (1916 – 1937), listed in the 1920 census. They then resided in Montavilla at 205 E. 79th Street (now 845 NE 79th Avenue), a 1914 Montavilla house that still exists. All were born in Oklahoma except three-year-old Juanita, who was born in Oregon. 

Micco, Eddie, and Wayne arrived in Portland around 1913. Before that, they lived in Oklahoma where Micco and Oneida married on November 9, 1911 in Nowata County, which is now part of the Cherokee Nation.

Source: Screenshot Cherokee Nation website

What, I wondered, caused them to leave their Oklahoma community and move to Portland

Was it the pull of opportunities, like more, better paying jobs and other social benefits of a city larger than Nowata? Was it the push of unpleasant or dangerous conditions that was sending large numbers of Blacks out of the southern United States to hopefully safer, more amenable havens? Portland saw its share of these cultural refugees in the 1910s.

While I found no direct evidence, such as family diaries or letters, to explain the move, there is plenty of information describing the radically and rapidly changing conditions of a culturally-diverse Oklahoma.

Probably the most radical changes were those affecting Oklahoma’s 39 Native American tribes. Although the 1920 census listed the Harjos as Mulatto and the 1930 census as Negro, numerous records for Eddie Oneida Derrick clearly indicate she was of mixed Black and Cherokee blood. 

I did not find such definitive records for Micco T. (Thopolocco) Harjo, but there are several that suggest a Native American connection. His signature with his full name implies a Muscogee (Creek) or Seminole connection. His 1943 draft registration gives his race as Spanish and Indian, his birthplace as Hickory Ground, Oklahoma, referencing a political and spiritual center of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

In Indian Territory, Black Native Americans were not unusual. All the tribes had owned Black slaves before the Civil War. In 1866, when enslaved persons were emancipated, freed Blacks continued to be involved with and connected to tribal life. 

So the huge changes in Indian Territory in the late 19th and early 20th Century must have affected the Harjos profoundly, even though Blacks had experienced discrimination by Native Americans.

Responding to non-Native pressures to use land in Indian Territory, the US government allowed railroad companies to lay track. The Iron Mountain Railway built in Indian Territory reached the city of Nowata in 1889. 

In the 1890s, the US government began breaking up tribal lands to make more property available to outsiders. Land previously held in common was sectioned into allotments and assigned to tribal members, including freed Blacks. 

Unfamiliar with private property transactions and now newly burdened taxes on the land they used, many were swindled and many, including Eddie Derrick, had to sell properties to pay those taxes.

Some, like Eddie’s mother, Josie Derrick, applied for and received allotments. Others opposed efforts to erase tribal culture and sovereignty by refusing allotments. 

Among the resisters were the Snake Band Muscogee, who participated in uprisings at Hickory Ground in 1901 and 1909. The fiercest leader of the Snakes was Chitto Harjo aka Crazy Snake (1846 – 1912). Among their numbers were Blacks as well as pure-blood Natives.

Crazy Snake Rebels in custody, 1909
Source: Wikipedia

Now you might wonder if Micco Harjo was related to Chitto, as I did. However, I found no conclusive evidence of this. 

But I did find a Mico or Micco Harjo mentioned in newspaper articles of 1912 and early 1913 who claimed to be his grandson. Whether he is “our” Micco Harjo is unclear, although they do have several things in common. They lived in the city of Nowata at the same time, they both worked as chefs, and they both said their fathers were from Mexico. Whether they were one and the same, I could not say; but in any event I found no evidence of any Micco Harjo-Chitto Harjo relationship.

In 1906, the US declared an end to Indian government. This cleared the way for Indian Territory to be merged with Oklahoma Territory in order to become the 46th American state in 1907. The first business of the new Oklahoma legislature, Bill No. 1, in fact, was to pass a segregation law. Voter suppression laws soon followed as did an uptick in violence towards Blacks.

Jim Crow had arrived in Oklahoma. Not that Blacks had not been subject to mistreatment earlier. But with statehood it got worse.

A panorama of the Hoy oil field on Black Bear Creek near Enid [Garfield County], Oklahoma, 1917
Source: Library of Congress Photographs

In these early years of the last century, Oklahoma was not only unsettled by testy Native American and Jim Crow policies. It was also the beginning of a huge oil rush, which inevitably made property issues more contested. 

Old and new populations hoped to get rich quick. Think wildcatter J. Paul Getty who, in 1915, at age 23 was already a millionaire. Nowata became a boom town after petroleum and gas discoveries in 1904. 

There’s a possible Micco Harjo connection to this phase of Oklahoma history. In several articles from July 1913 to July 1918, a Micco T. Harjo is mentioned as the guardian of Nancy Atkins of Nowata. Miss Atkins was one of several claiming to own a phenomenal Cushing oil play. As claimants and issues multiplied, the famous Tommy Atkins litigation stretched out from 1913 to 1922, when the Oklahoma Supreme Court decided in favor of Nancy’s sister Minnie.

While this may or may not be “our” Micco T. Harjo, he certainly knew the George Claggett family. The parents and the children of this Black Cherokee family all became rich from their oil properties. Harjo apparently proposed or planned to propose to George’s 18-year-old daughter, Millie J. Claggett. In March of 1911, he applied for a license to marry her, but apparently changed his mind (or she did), for he married Eddie Derrick instead nine months later.

So what do we have, in the way of possible motivations besides purely personal ones, for moving to Portland?

Let’s see:

Loss of tribal sovereignty. 

Unfair distribution of tribal lands and the new burden of taxes. 

Fraudsters who preyed on Native landowners.

Oil boom madness, rewarding some and leaving others with just dirt.

Jim Crow laws. 

Increased violence against Blacks. 

All these could be reasons for the Micco Harjo family to move to Portland in 1913.

Of course, Portland was not the promised land. Racist exclusionary laws were still ensconced, if not enforced, in Oregon’s constitution. They were only overturned by voters in 1925 and 1926. And there was de facto discrimination in the use of facilities such as hotels and restaurants and in housing. Hence, the need for new, equalizing laws, such as House Bill 344, described in the preceding article.

However, in Oregon Micco Harjo could register to vote. And he did in 1914, identifying as a Republican (historically the party of Lincoln and then the affiliation of most Black voters). 

In Portland he could get a mortgage and buy a house as long as it was not in an exclusively white neighborhood.

In Portland, Micco and Eddie Harjo joined fraternal organizations, so important to the social, economic and political wellbeing of the Black community. He was elected a trustee of the Rose City Lodge of the Black Elks (Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World) in 1924, and she was active in the Dahlia Temple of the sister organization (Daughters of IBPOE of the World). On a business trip to Mexico in 1925, Micco organized the first Mexican Black Elks lodge in Tijuana

Was he seeking a new promised land in Mexico, where Seminoles and Muscegee had been welcomed in the 19th Century and where some members of the Snake Band were planning to relocate in the early 20th Century to escape US government domination? 

If so, in 1926 he chose Oakland, California instead. There he lived and worked for the remainder of his life as a railroad chef. No further civil rights activities came to light in my research.

If all history is biography, it is, of course, shaped not just by the rich and famous, but also by the Micco Harjos of the world. Of the thousands who have lived in Montavilla at one time are another, I’m sure there are thousands of stories as interesting as his. 

But Micco Harjo did live through extraordinary times and no doubt brought to Portland some extraordinary perspectives.

***

Historical story ideas? Questions about Montavilla’s past? Also share a love for neighborhood history? 

Comment on the article at the link in the heading. Or you can reach out to Pat Sanders at pat.montavilla.history@gmail.com.

Read all of the “Montavilla Memories” articles by Pat Sanders here.

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