Saving the Home of Oklahoma’s First Congresswoman
Only two women have represented the state of Oklahoma in Congress over the years: current Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, and more than 80 years before, Alice Robertson. Robertson, who was the first woman elected to Congress after women received the right to vote, was a supporter of Native American rights, soldiers, and the underprivileged.
A pioneering Oklahoman, Robertson’s name isn’t as well known as some of her fellow crusaders. But now a group of preservation enthusiasts and community members are working to preserve and restore the last home Robertson ever lived in, in Muskogee, Oklahoma, to raise awareness about who she was and what she did for the people of the state. “Alice Robertson is Muskogee’s most significant individual as far as what she accomplished in her life. But she also has state and national significance as well,” said Jonita Mullins, a local historian, author, and preservationist who is leading the grassroots effort to restore and preserve the home.
Last year, after learning about grassroots preservation efforts at a conference, Mullins said she called together friends, family and community members and presented the idea to them to restore and save historic homes in the area, starting first with the Robertson home.
The house, which had been sitting empty for a number of years, had deteriorated significantly, Mullins said, and the homeowners just wanted to sell it. Ultimately, the Neighborhood Alliance for Historic Preservation was able to raise $3,000 to purchase the home this past spring from donations ranging from as little as five dollars to as much as $1,000. Mullins, who recently released a novel, used her speaking engagements to ask for donations for the purchase of the home. “I always take a picture of the house, and with permission of my audience, after I’ve talked a little bit about my book, I can present the project,” she said.
Teachers have been especially supportive of the project, Mullins said, because Robertson was an educator. Born in 1854 to two missionaries to the Creek Nation, Robertson taught at Native American schools and founded a Native American boarding school for girls, which became Kendall College and later the University of Tulsa.
Alice Robertson was well into her 60s when she became the second woman elected to Congress, as a Republican in 1920. She was not especially fond of women’s rights, however, and distanced herself from suffrage groups, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society. Robertson spent one term in Congress before she lost out to William W. Hastings, whom she had earlier unseated. Following her defeat, she returned to Oklahoma, where she lived in the two-story Muskogee home until her death in 1931.
Her accomplishments are many, and so far, no markers, monuments, or signs make note of them in Muskogee, Mullins said. Though people within the community tend to know about her legacy, others do not. “A lot of Oklahomans don’t even know she served in Congress, so we have our work cut out for us on getting the word out about how important she was,” Mullins said. “We think having a house there with some significance to it will hopefully help people recognize what she was able to accomplish through her life.”
Since purchasing the home, which was built in 1905, Mullins and other volunteers have cleaned the yard and the first floor. A cleanup of the second floor is the next step. The nonprofit organization Preservation Oklahoma and BancFirst recently provided a grant to the group to create a construction plan for the home, which may eventually be turned into a museum, rented to a nonprofit, or sold to a preservation-minded family.
David Pettyjohn, executive director of Preservation Oklahoma, said the project raises awareness about Robertson and her contributions to communities in the state. “This is a part of Oklahoma’s story. This is a part of Muskogee’s story. This is part of the University of Tulsa’s story,” he said. “And by preserving this structure, that story will continue.”
Kristi Eaton is a journalist based in Oklahoma City who enjoys exploring rural America and quirky roadside attractions. She has written a book about Main Streets in Oklahoma set for release in October. Follow her on Twitter at @KristiEaton.
A portion of Mullins' book sales for her new novel, “Journey to an Untamed Land,” will go toward the restoration of the home. Books can be purchased on amazon.com.