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I love my home state of Oklahoma. It is home to wonderful people; family, friends, excellent schools, a terrific and diverse culture, and some remarkable history.
Attending public schools during my formative years, from kindergarten in Guymon to college in Chickasha, I took my share of Oklahoma history classes and remember much of it today. In college, my Oklahoma history class taught me about President Andrew Jackson’s forced relocation of Indian tribes from the southeast to Oklahoma Indian Territory — the “Trail of Tears.” Thousands died.
My high school classes at Washington High School (McClain County) and US Grant High School in Oklahoma City taught us about post-Civil War land runs of the late 19th century, including one that attracted my ancestors from Missouri. Little was taught about Indian territory’s role during the Civil War (most Indian tribes employed slaves and fought for the Confederacy). Oklahoma’s path to statehood in 1906 was something I learned about in third grade. And our very colorful politics and politicians – one never stops learning about them since they’re constantly making their presence known. Oklahoma was one of the last states to ban cockfighting (2002) and legalize “liquor by the drink” (1984).
Oklahoma was a predominantly Democratic state until they elected their first GOP Governor, Henry Bellmon, in 1962. Its politics have always had a populist flair. But I digress.
Little, if anything, was taught about the Tulsa race massacre of 1921, exactly 100 years ago this week, that destroyed the predominantly black community anchored by the intersection of Greenwood and Archer Streets. Nor did I ever, as a news reporter and editor in Oklahoma after college graduation, ever write about it. The black community there was vibrant, even prosperous, and home to what was then called “Black Wall Street.” Then, on May 30th and June 1st, a racially motivated white mob torched and destroyed; much of it went up in smoke as hundreds of homes and businesses lied in ruins. Several hundred died. And they’re still finding mass gravesites.
But I’m incredibly embarrassed that it has taken this long for many of us to catch up to this horrible violent racism. The Ku Klux Klan, then the terrorist wing of the Democratic Party, was riding high during the height of the horrific “Jim Crow” era. Systemic racism was real then and out in the open for all to see then, not just in Tulsa. After all, we’d just completed eight years of, arguably, our nation’s most racist President, Woodrow Wilson, a eugenicist who segregated the US military (Harry Truman would reverse that a quarter-century later), and more.
The Daily Oklahoman and Tulsa World have done yeoman’s work to tell the whole story, in context belatedly. And there are finally some terrific books on the 1921 tragedy, including “The Burning” by Tim Madigan.
While many media now publish stories about the race massacre, some seem polluted more by modern narratives than straight, honest, and even brutal if belated historical reporting. I am grateful to my home state’s two leading newspapers for helping us all make up for the lost time.
I continue to fear that politically motivated charlatans will use this occasion to drive harmful narratives and justify terrible policy proposals. Thus are the times. However, it is always valuable to honestly investigate and learn from these painful, horrible episodes so that they never happen again. It is better than removing monuments and trying to erase history.Published in