Thursday, September 19, 2013

Rufus Adolphus Givens, Black Watchmaker of Muskogee

R. A. Givens, Jeweler and Watchmaker, Muskogee, Indian Territory
Source: The Muskogee Cimeter, 1905

I am continually amazed at the remarkable gems that one finds in old newspapers! One such gem literally jumped off the page from the Muskogee Cimeter.

An interesting ad in the commercial section of the newspaper reflected the works of a man who had his own small and successful business in Muskogee. R. A. Givens was a watchmaker who ran his business off of Elgin Street for several years in Muskogee.  I saw an ad and a photo of the watchmaker himself in his shop.

I could not help but be curious. Black watchmakers are not common, and this man worked on what was part of the western frontier.

So who was this businessman who had a unique career?
When did he start his business?
Where was he from?

A search for R.A.Givens was a bit challenging at first. No matter how the name was put into a search on Ancestry, no such name arose. Perhaps a military record for an R.A. Givens would appear. Again, no such luck.  I realized that most likely, I needed to know a first name. Simply typing in the last name of Givens, and Muskogee Oklahoma, did not for some reason prove useful. But, on a whim, I decided to see if someone possibly related to this man, may have started a family tree on Ancestry. Bingo! I saw a name---Rufus A. Givens, appeared and the man lived in Muskogee Oklahoma. I now had a name to go with the ads that I had found. Rufus Givens. According to one of the family trees (I found more than one) Rufus A. Givens was born in Arkansas, but died in Oklahoma. Having a first name, I went back to Ancestry and sure enough, I found Rufus A. Givens living in Oklahoma with his wife Matilda and children.

Sure enough, in the 1910 Federal Census in Muskogee Oklahoma, there was Rufus with his 4 children at the time. His son Rufus Jr. was born the year before, in 1909.

1910 Federal Census, Muskogee County, Muskogee Oklahoma


Rufus was born in Arkansas, and his wife Matilda was born in Kentucky. His occupation was listed as a Jeweler, and it said that he "own's shop."

I became curious. Was there any article about him, or were there any details about Rufus the jeweler that I could find? I searched multiple ways on various sites, but no articles appeared about Rufus Givens.

So, I decided to study what I had, and I began to examine the small ads that appeared in the local black newspapers, and I learned a bit more about Rufus Givens.

Givens had set up his business in downtown Muskogee about 1904. In September of that year, he placed an advertisement that appeared on the front page of the Muskogee Cimeter. He was announcing the opening of his new jewelry shop directly across the street of the courthouse.

Source:  Muskogee Cimeter, September 1904 Page 1

As his business grew, Givens was a regular advertiser in the local paper. In 1905, he ran an ad that provided a small amount of history about his jewelry business. In that ad, he pointed out that he had been in the jewelry and watchmaking business for 15 years, and that he had the recommendations of many persons of respect in the community.

Source: Muskogee Cimeter, August 3,  1905 Page 4

Over the years, the business of Rufus Givens thrived and the business continued. The family business had grown and Rufus and wife Mathilda had also expanded, and opened up a hotel in the same area of downtown Muskogee. By 1917 the Givens had begun putting ads in the Tulsa Star, a black newspaper in the larger city of Tulsa. The hotel was known as Hotel Givens, and their ads addressed the promised comfort and safety for all visitors to Muskogee. Mrs. Givens was noted in the ad as also having a part in the family business. And as one can tell, the jewelers business still thrived.

Tulsa Star Ad for Hotel Givens, 1917

During the time of the World War I Draft, Rufus Givens registered, as required by law.  His Draft card reflects his status as a business man. And Rufus Givens was a literate man, who clearly signed his full name--Rufus Adolphus Givens.

World War I Draft Card of Rufus Givens
Registration State: Oklahoma; Registration County: Muskogee; Roll: 1851890; Draft Board: 2
(Image Obtained from Search on Ancestry.)


In 1920, the Givens family business continued. The Givens business still included the jewelers shop, but it had also expanded to include small loans that were available to patrons. In addition, there was an opportunity also to obtain real estate through the Givens business as well.

July 17, 1920 Tulsa Star p. 6

I wondered if there are any places where Rufus Givens once worked might still be around. I decided to use Google Street View to see what I could learn. One of his addresses was 228 North Second Street, in Muskogee.  Typing in that address in a Google Search pointed to the site. And thanks to Google's technology, getting down on the street was easy, I was able to take a close look at what is there now. I hoped to see an old building, but what appeared was a parking lot.

A parking lot now occupies what was a business section of Muskogee, 
and where the Givens business once stood.

The only piece of the original structure that remains is the brick wall on the very edge of the parking lot. One cannot help but stare at those bricks that were witnesses to another era, and time, and people who worked in a different place.

On one of the census records I viewed, I notice that the Givens household lived on Elgin street in Muskogee. Again, I used the the Google search feature and typed in that address, hoping to find an old house or structure. A grassy lot, now empty appeared.

A grassy lot holds the history of the Givens family, but nothing remains on the site today.


It is not known how long Rufus Givens continued to work as a watchmaker and jeweler in the city of Muskogee Oklahoma. In 1930, Rufus Givens was living with his now larger family with several children now grown.
Rufus Givens and family in 1930

The elder Rufus Givens was the proprietor of a jeweler's shop, and the son Rufus was working as the owner of his own shoe repair business as well.

Rufus Givens family with occupations listed in 1930 census.

The family continued to reside in Muskogee, as the son Rufus Givens Jr. was found in the 1940 census. There was no longer any mention of the watchmaking business of the elder Rufus Givens, and quite possibly the years of the Depression may have brought the business to a close. The legacy of Rufus Givens the watchmaker had come to an end, however, there is most likely so much more to tell.

My hope is that at some time, those who research the history of Muskogee Oklahoma and its unique and rich Black history, the name of Rufus Givens will surface as one of those gems, not to be lost in the soil of vacant lots of forgotten history.

Rufus Adolphus Givens has a family of descendants somewhere, and hopefully they will be able to provide more fabric to the wonderful story of the Black watchmaker of Muskogee.

May his work, and his memory not be lost, nor forgotten.

* * * * *


3 comments:

Ms Vicky said...

Nice research my friend and a very good read. This is a very nice 'need to know' article.

Anonymous said...

I am a decendant of RA Givens, my grandmother was his daughter. I am also the family historian and I located that same article about a year ago...please contact me at work 918-577-3858 today if you can or you can call me this evening on my cell!

Thelma Simmons-Owens and my mother is the first grandchild and she is still alive!!!

T Neal said...

Great post Angela! I have ancestors that relocated from Texas to Oklahoma in this area. Reading this has made me want to go back and research this line and Muskogee a little further.