Nobody mentioned the hundreds of innocent people murdered by angry mobs. No one spoke of the 35 blocks burned to the ground within 24 hours or of the fleeing of tens of thousands left homeless. Oklahomans didn’t know their history.
I was a 17 when I traveled to Tulsa. A group of Omahans charged with developing a school desegregation plan went to see how they’d integrated theirs. It was 1973. White flight, years of redlining, and a freeway that sliced our Black community through its center had severely segregated our schools—some 20 years after the Supreme Court declared doing so was unconstitutional.
They’d chosen a naïve white girl as the sole student rep on the committee to work on desegregation.
On our Tulsa tour we learned nothing of the massacre of Black Wall Street of 1921 when the prosperous Greenwood neighborhood was decimated by whites. It started after an undetermined incident involving two teens in an elevator– Sara the seventeen-year-old white elevator operator and Dick the 19-year-old Black shoe shiner. Some say she screamed, and he ran, but we don’t really know.
What we do know is that for decades the city of Tulsa was silent about the white pilots in planes who had dropped dynamite and about the financial futures of the generations lost. History books said nothing of it, and few who grew up in Tulsa even knew of the horrors.
We were silent in my hometown, too.
When local police killed Vivian Brown by a shot in her back, not a word was spoken of it. I was her age when it happened: 14.
Not in one class of twelve years was it mentioned that Will Brown’s body was drug through the streets after he was lynched by a white mob in front of our county courthouse.
At the family supper table, neither mom nor dad explained the rage behind the riots roaring on the six o’clock news that played in black and white on each of the three channels.
This week they are digging in Tulsa, searching for yet more bodies that were dumped into mass graves now a hundred years ago. I have Tulsa on my mind as I leave for a summer road trip, again to the south.
This time the civil rights museum in Memphis is sure to teach me more of what I haven’t known and wish I didn’t need to. In Birmingham will be site of the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church where Addie, Cynthia, Carole and Denise were killed by the KKK with dynamite just 11 days after a federal court order of school integration.
May I be a better student than I was then. I’m not 17 anymore. It’s time I learn the truth and tell it.
How has your understanding of the truth changed over time?
Is there a longstanding truth you have not admitted?
How might you be a better student of the truth?