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Oklahoma county worried about fallout from racist recording

IDABEL, Okla. (AP) — So many residents of northern Texas cross the border into McCurtain County in far southeast Oklahoma each week that the area has earned the nickname of the “Dallas-Fort Worth Hamptons.”

With its clean rivers and lakes, these forested foothills of the Ouchita Mountains have become dotted with luxury cabins, and a tourism boom over the last two decades has fueled a renaissance in the region. Jobs are no longer limited to the timber industry or the chicken processing plant, and parents are more optimistic that their children won’t have to leave the community to find work.

But the growing optimism about the county’s future took a gut punch last week when the local newspaper identified several county officials, including the sheriff and a county commissioner, who were caught on tape discussing killing journalists and lynching Black people. One commissioner has already resigned, and elected officials, including the mayor of Idabel and the governor, have called for the others to step down.

“Just hearing it on audio and coming from our elected officials’ mouths in a meeting, it made my stomach turn,” said Lonnie Watson, a lifelong county resident and 7th grade teacher and coach who is Black. “It was shocking. It was sad. It was hurtful. Just to hear the hate … was just gut-wrenching.”

For its part, the sheriff’s office has only released one formal statement since the McCurtain Gazette-News broke the story last weekend in which the sheriff’s office didn’t address the remarks, but claimed the recording was illegally obtained.

“Unfortunately, all of our attorneys are telling us we are supposed to stay quiet,” Undersheriff Mike Manning told The Associated Press on Thursday, declining further comment. “I’d love for everybody to hear both sides of the story.”

While many county residents say the racist remarks are a throwback to a bygone era, they still worry about the negative repercussions the incident will have on the community’s reputation.

“We have concerns. We do. Anyone in their right mind would,” said Tommy “Blue” McDaniel, who owns and operates the county’s first legal distillery, Hochatown Distilling, in the heart of the county’s tourism region. “But that stuff down there is a few individuals. It’s not what McCurtain County is, and it’s definitely not what Hochatown is.

“It’s a diverse community, a welcoming community.”

McDaniel’s assessment was echoed by many in the county. With a population of about 31,000 and bordering both Arkansas and Texas, the county is a part of the state known as “Little Dixie” because of the influence in the area from white Southerners who migrated there after the Civil War. Although about 60% of the county is white, there are significant numbers of Native American (18%), Black (8%) and Hispanic (7%) people.

Like many communities across the country, particularly in the South, the towns in McCurtain County were historically segregated, but have become more integrated since the 1960s. Idabel, the county seat, was the site of racial violence in 1980 when a riot erupted after a local Black teenager was fatally shot outside an all-white club. Tensions grew so high that martial law was declared and the governor called in the National Guard, said Kenny Sivard, a local historian.

“What didn’t help was the grand imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan came down to the Idabel courthouse and made his appearance,” Sivard said. “That didn’t help matters at all, as you can imagine.”

The county also has a long history of lawlessness dating back to days before statehood in 1907, when Oklahoma was Indian Territory and bandits would take refuge in the mountainous region, said Bob Burke, a McCurtain County native who has written more than 100 nonfiction books about Oklahoma and its people.

With its clean rivers and remote locations, the area also became a haven for moonshiners who set up stills in the heavily forested hills. That reputation for operating outside the law continued into the later part of the 20th century when the methamphetamine epidemic swept through the area. Even today, although Oklahoma became the last state to ban cockfighting in 2002, animal rights activists say the blood sport still takes place in the region and that local law enforcement sometimes turns a blind eye. One state lawmaker from nearby Atoka County is still working to reduce the penalties for cockfighting.

Still, McCurtain County has worked hard to shed its reputation for lawlessness and racial strife, aided in large part by the construction of Broken Bow Lake in the heart of the county in the late 1960s. Fed by the Mountain Fork River, the clear lake surrounded by forested hills has been a huge tourism draw that continues to this day.

The Choctaw Nation’s historic reservation encompasses the entire county and most of southern Oklahoma, and the tribe has broken ground on a $165 million, 200,000-square-foot (18,580-square-meter) resort hotel and casino near the lake and Beavers Bend State Park that is scheduled to open later this year.

It’s projects like these and the growing tourism industry that residents like McDaniel, the distillery operator, hope McCurtain County will come to be known for.

“I see a bright future,” McDaniel said. “We’ve got some problems we’re going to have to work through, but those problems, those are some dying vestiges. Those are some dying cries of people here who want to preserve the old ways, but we’re moving forward, and forward doesn’t include what’s going on down there.”

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Follow Sean Murphy on Twitter: @apseanmurphy

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