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Tulsa Then and Now…

June 20, 2020

An article by Astead Herndon in today’s NYTimes describes the current state of race relations in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a description that I found heartwarming, hopeful, and yet tempered in the reality that racism cannot be easily expunged from the collective consciousness without an acknowledgement of the truth.

I attended Robert E. Lee Elementary School in Tulsa from 1956-59 and have fond memories of the school and that period in my life. I do recall learning Oklahoma history during those three years— as I recall it was a part of the 5th grade history curriculum. The history I recall learning was mostly about the Native American tribes who migrated to Oklahoma from the Southeast along the Trail of Tears and the Oklahoma land rush that opened the then Territory to potential landowners eager to start a new life. We NEVER learned about the destruction of Black Wall Street and the slaughter of African Americans that happened 32 years after the Land Rush. We were within walking distance of that event, which was as close in time as the falling of the Berlin Wall is to us today…. and we never heard a word about it.

Looking back on the history I was taught as a child and teenager I can begin to understand why many of my cohort group struggles with race. History was only about Wars we fought and won, never about social issues we struggled with as a nation. We were never taught about Reconstruction and Jim Crow. We were never taught about the explorer’s and our nation’s killing of indigenous people. We were never taught about the killing of workers by corporate leaders that underpinned our nation’s emergence as an economic power. There was no tension in the history we learned… only a relentless march forward thanks to “enlightened” white men who sought freedom. We cannot learn from the past if we do not have a clear picture of what REALLY happened during that time. We cannot overcome our embedded beliefs unless they are brought to the forefront.

I am heartened that Tulsa is undertaking “…a three-step process of “acknowledgment, apology and atonement.” Like Hannibal Johnson, a professor of African-American history and a Tulsa historian, I hope that this process might “…set an example for the rest of the country.” But it will only work if we FIRST acknowledge our history. I am not at all certain that Americans have examined their past and their current practices and policies and acknowledged that they contribute to the racism that plagues us today as surely as it did a century ago.

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