Old Zulu : Martha Fleming

Artist rendering of Martha Fleming
by Marilyn A. Hudson, 2015.
She stood 6 feet tall; had a low and strong voice;
was a leader in the early
African American community
as business woman,
community activist and colorful character.

Her name was Martha Fleming, but every one called her "Old Zulu", and she ran the prostitution in African-American Oklahoma City until about 1909. Born in Virginia, there is little known about this woman other than the sometimes slanted accounts reported in local news articles and court records. She is profiled, again with a biased brush, in McGill's early, agenda-driven, account of the rough and rowdy early days of Oklahoma City.  She apparently was the dominant figure who kept the girls on "Alabaster Row" (believed to be the local brothels catering to African American men located on California Street) in line, operated in her own establishment or area outside of the city limits, east of the railroad tracks on Grand Ave. (Now Sheridan).

"Zulu" or "Zoo",as she was sometimes called, seems to emerge in the early days of the town.  She was believed to be a either a pawn or a collaborator of a much reviled Madame "Big Anne" (Anne Wynn Bailey). Thus she is seen as either a link to the African American vice and the money that could be made there or as mirror professional who functioned in the segregated reality of the times. Whichever was the truth, together, they managed a sizeable portion of the action to be found in Oklahoma City's "Hell's Half Acre." Her regular domain, the area of east Grand, just past the Santa Fe Depot may have been used by a variety of individuals for multiple purposes. The area, just after the run and for a long time later, was outside of town limits and thus beyond the sometimes inept or political motivated city police force.

The south side of "Hell" was called "Alabaster Row" and it generally assumed this was a line of establishments with African-American or non-white women. This may be true in full or in part.  Not enough objective evidence has been seen by this writer yet to define it strictly along those lines.  It is known, from establishments and writings from other locations (Leadville and San Francisco, etc.) that 'alabaster' was sometimes a term used to describe these women of the night. They were sometimes likened to marble statues of loveliness and perfection. There could have been a little of both involved here. It does seem strange that such a line of houses would exist on California to the south and most identify "Old Zulu's" domain as the E. Grand Ave. area across the tracks. It may be there were two groups catering to altogether different clienteles.  Many of the gambling, drinking, or carousing dens in "Hell" were a broad spectrum selection. Low dives rubbed shoulders with fine Belgian carpets and cheap 'rot-gut' was just across the street from full bodied wines of the finest label. The outside of town places may have catered to individuals who could not afford to come into town, for economic, comfort,  or recognition reasons.
Most newspaper and early descriptions seem to agree that Martha was a tall woman of tremendous strength.  She stood approximately 6 feet. She always carried a pistol on her and usually down her dress.  She sometimes wore a jacket and work boots.    She appeared to be many things from petty thief, to drunk, to drug user, political activist, and con artist. What ever she might have become, her Achille's heel was clearly an addiction. She was known to get a little energetic while under the influence of liqueur or heroin/cocaine. One instance, it took several full grown police officers to get her to the tank to sleep off her over indulgence and she tore up the jail and wounded another prisoner before she finally came down from the high of the stimulant.

Descriptions of these women can prove as fascinating and insightful as a photograph.  "Big Annie" was drawn in local papers as a fleshy, mean-faced, man-like woman used to pushing her weight around to keep control in Oklahoma City.  Social attitudes are apparent in the artistic renderings of her during a famous legal contest in 1908.  Likewise, social attitudes are prevelant in the label given Martha, she was tall, powerful, and wild.  Unrest in Africa at the time provided a new vocabulary as the Zulu army battled European armies for dominance.   She was then the archetypal savage black woman, "Old Zulu."  In both instances, part of the problem was they were women operating out of the acceptable boundaries of society, women acting indepently and  having some level of success. Lessor issues had to do with race and addictive behaviors aligned with preceptions of social status. In both women society had outcasts due to the work they did and so less focus was on the race of either woman.

Early Baptism in Canadian River
Both woman were apparently successful (if gauged by length of time they worked in Oklahoma City) in their line of work.  Both women apparently had connections within their social spheres and some degree of influence (although it is unknown if this influence was always legal ; blackmail could have been a tool used by both women).  This, however, was the life society allowed these women who operated outside the law but whose presence was often accepted as a social necessity.  

She was a regular visitor to the city lockup and had one of the longer arrest records in city history.  At one point, she was sent to jail (1895 and to Lansing in Kansas in 1906). Local law may have just grown tired of the swinging door of her pattern of misconduct.  

In 1907,  she was converted in a service conducted by the mission  housed where the notorious old "Blue Front Saloon" had operated. This was no doubt the holiness-pentecostal mission led by Harry Lott that became one of the first Pentecostal churches west of the Mississippi.

Like "Big Annie", "Old Zulu", is a rare and unique piece of the puzzle that is Oklahoma City history. Without all the history - the warts and the tiaras - the story is just not complete. The reality of addiction (sex, liquer, and drugs) is often overlooked when examining behavior of people in certain historic eras. In the middle of the Victorian-Edwardian period such behaviors were viewed as moral weaknesses of the lower classes. No  leeway  was given for addiction problems, life stresses, or social dynamics. 

Who was this early business woman of Oklahoma City? Where did she come from, what struggles did she have, and what happened to her after this brief window of time?  

The women like Annie and Zulu could be marginalized, scorned, jailed, and preached about - but they could not be ignored. People might not have liked the businesses they conducted but they were definitely some of the earliest women in any business in the early days of "Hell's Half Acre." 

--Marilyn A. Hudson (c)
NOTE: If you are a descendent of this woman, I would love to hear from you and share her story in more detail. Contact me at marilynahudsonATyahoo.com

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