As you may know, I am an amateur genealogist. I like digging around in history, particularly the history that affects me.
Along with my Ancestry.com subscription comes a Newspapers.com subscription that allows me to look at old newspapers from all over the place. I can search by keyword or name, and it’s been a really cool and useful tool for finding ancestors who made the news for good or bad reasons.
You may also know that I am from Northeast Oklahoma, growing up in Bartlesville and getting my Bachelor’s in Nursing from the University of Tulsa during which time I lived in Tulsa for 4 years. I lived on campus 3 of those years and attended church on North Denver street. The journey from school to church several times a week took me through some “bad parts of town.” I locked my doors and made sure my cell phone was working. I never had any problems, but I must confess to being nervous quite often. There were many vacant lots and run-down buildings and boarded up windows in this area. It never occurred to me to think there might be history there.
You see, though I attended public high school in Bartlesville, and though my mother’s family lived about 50 miles from Tulsa from before statehood in 1907, and though Oklahoma history was a requirement to graduate, and though I had been visiting this church since birth, and though I had driven through this area countless times even before I moved to Tulsa, I had never heard anything of the massacre that had happened there. I learned of the Trail of Tears and outlaws hiding in Indian Territory and the Oklahoma Land Run, but I never heard a word in all my of schooling or other life about the Tulsa Race Massacre.
I do remember one time, while driving a Tulsa-born friend around during my college years, she mentioned something about some kind of firebombing or something that happened in North Tulsa. I can’t even remember which friend it was, and that’s the only time in the first 23 years of my life I heard of it.
I got married and moved to the state of Delaware, and sometime in those first few years I heard about The Tulsa Race Riots, as they were called then. I was surprised, shocked, incredulous. But Google was my friend and I started to realize what had happened and where it was and how it had been wallpapered over.
If you want to learn more about the Tulsa Race Massacre, a simple google search will give you plenty of reading, but in case that’s overwhelming, one place to start is this information from The History Channel.
Today marks the 100 year anniversary of the beginning of those horrid events, and since I just happen to have access to all these Newspapers through my subscription, I decided to do some digging and clipping.
I must confess that I have not read word for word each of these clippings, these primary (written-at-the-time) sources. I have certainly not taken the next step of comparing those primary sources to all that has been written in secondary sources (written-after-the-fact) about the events between now and then. That would fill libraries, and probably will in the future.
That is for you to do if you are interested.
However, even with cursory skimming I can see themes that apply very poignantly to things happening today.
One of the purposes of studying history is to prevent history from repeating itself. The burying of this information, the ignoring and wallpapering over the crimes, has indeed allowed them to keep happening over and over and over again.
If we want to heal, if we want to improve, if we want to prevent death and killing and hatred and division that tears us apart, we must call wrong wrong and right right. We must look history in the face.
If you have a few minutes, read some of the attached articles. There is an undertone that it must have been the victims’ fault, that they have to get over it, and no substantial help will be given to them. Their property insurance won’t even pay.
The story changes as time goes along. Within a week of the event, the narrative changes from a white mob destroying things and shooting people to the idea that the mob of white men gathered outside the courthouse where Dick Rowland, accused of assaulting a white 17 year old elevator worker, was being held (he was never prosecuted and managed to escape out of town) was generally peaceful, just gathered around the courthouse to see what would happen.
The black “refugees” were housed in some tents and at the fairgrounds and were required to wear a green patch on their clothes. They were not allowed into the “white” parts of town. Those who leave town do so with only what they can carry if they have anything left to carry.
The grand jury is instructed to follow up and investigate “the persistent report that certain negro organizations existed for the purpose of aggression against the white race and had stored large supplies of ammunition for the purpose of rebellion against organized government” (June 9, page 2, under “The Principal Points”).
Anything sound familiar yet?
I know these events are not pleasant to think about. As a white woman, I feel ashamed of what people who looked like me did to people who had darker skin than me. But I MUST think about them, so I don’t do the same kinds of things and I use any influence I have to keep those around me from doing the same kinds of things. THAT is important enough that any shame I feel doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter except that it might motivate me to change things.
So read some of these articles. Look for biases, inequities, and what is said without being said.
And know that we can never undo it, but we can at least do more than we are doing.
When we drive through a “bad part of town” we can wonder how it got that way. We can try to look into ourselves and see if our actions are feeding into keeping people down.
We can check our attitudes and assumptions and biases. When we say something stupid or ignorant, we can apologize. We can love, not just in words, but in actions.
We can read and we can listen. We can shut up and listen. And maybe we can even learn something.