By Laura Wilson
STILLWATER, Okla. —
Stillwater residents are coming together to learn more about Angie Debo and read her book, “Prairie City: The Story of an American Community.”
The historian and book are the focus of “One Book, One Community” in Stillwater. The Sheerar Museum has opened an exhibit about Debo, and Adelia Hanson, who created the exhibit, answered questions about the historian and author.
Debo’s favorite motto was, “Discover the truth and publish it,” Hanson said. And Debo did that, even when it wasn’t popular. She finished her most famous book, “And Still the Waters Run: The Betrayal of the Five Civilized Tribes,” in 1936, Hanson said, but it wasn’t published until 1940 by Princeton University Press.
It “exposed fraud and criminal acts among high society in Oklahoma” in dealings with Indians, Hanson said, and some at the University of Oklahoma Press didn’t want to offend donors by publishing it. When the OU Press editor, Joseph Brandt, moved to Princeton, he took the book with him and eventually published it there.
Debo went through some hard years during the depression and World War II, Hanson said, but was hired at the end of the war by Oklahoma State University, which needed professors. “That’s what saved her,” Hanson said. She taught at OSU, but turned down a tenured position to become curator of the maps collection in the library so she could have time to write, Hanson said. Edmon Low invited Debo to take the position, and Henry Bennett gave her paid summers off to write also, Hanson said.
Debo published “Prairie City: The Story of an American Community,” the book featured in “One Book, One Community” in Stillwater, in 1944. It is her only fictional work, but Hanson described it as “a work of history.” The names are fictional, she said, but Debo researched the book so carefully — including finding out the correct price of wheat for the time — that it is “basically Marshall history.”
Debo grew up in Marshall, where Hanson’s great-grandfather owned a store. Hanson said her great-grandfather is called J.Q. Walker in the book. Debo interviewed Hanson’s great-grandfather, R.J. Castor, in 1941. “I know because she loaned me the notes,” Hanson said.
Debo didn’t go to high school until she was 20 because “the town didn’t have a high school before then,” Hanson said. She had already taught school, having passed her teacher’s exam at 16. She taught again after high school, then earned a bachelor’s degree at OU before teaching in Enid. She went on to earn both a master’s degree and a doctorate and went on to publish 10 books. The bibliography lists nine, Hanson said, but she considers it should be 10 because Debo isn’t credited for her thesis “because her thesis adviser stuck his name on it.”
Debo often faced difficulty advancing in her career because men who were heads of the departments at universities where she worked did not want to hire or promote her, Hanson said. Most had published fewer works than her and didn’t want to face competition from a woman, Hanson said.
Nevertheless, Debo was the first woman to have her portrait hung in the Oklahoma Capitol Building and is the subject of a documentary, “Indians, Outlaws and Angie Debo.” She was supposed to see it the day she went into the hospital, Hanson said, but she died the next day.