Tulsa and Tullahassee: Is This a Ghost Story?
First morning in Tulsa, we passed officially into the South: at a local diner, we were asked, “you want grits with that?” Yes, we had entered the Grits Zone. (They were, to be sure, gritty).
Three years ago, when my writing partner Kristen and I drove to Oklahoma for the first time, I remember crossing into both the “y’all” zone and the “hon” zone right after we crossed the border into the Panhandle. I liked being “y’all” all by myself, and being “hon” to all the females.
But things got serious. I had joined Kristen to cover the 15 year commemoration of the Oklahoma City terror bombing in 1995, along on my own a simple quest: to find out if Oklahoma was really in the South—as opposed to West or Midwest. I quickly found that most Oklahomans I spoke to jumped to self-identify as Southerners. When I learned about segregation in the 1950’s from Kristen’s aunt, I thought I had made some ah-hah discovery—even though OK was never in the Confederacy, it endured all the same conflicts and changes as the Deep South did during the Civil Rights era.
Now I realize how naïve I was. There was never any mystery or controversy about Oklahoma’s Southern status. When it became a state in 1907, Oklahoma’s first law was to create legal racial segregation—Jim Crow.
Yesterday, looking over the ruins of Tulsa’s Greenwood district, where the empty streets, the steps and driveways to nowhere still evoke the 1921 Greenwood Race War as if it happened yesterday. To my travel partner George, it was like a Civil War battlefield without grave markers or monuments—or explanations, a ghostly blank. In fact, many of the black victims of the white mobs were buried in unmarked graves.
Greenwood cements Oklahoma’s tragic place in the South’s racial nightmare. The Confederate Flag, which had no connection to the state’s true history (having become a state more than forty years after the end of the Civil War) flew over the state capitol until the 1970’s—the same era when the taboo to discuss the Race War on Greenwood by both whites and blacks began to lift.
Prosperous, well-educated, African-American Greenwood neighborhood was destroyed by raging white mobs—thousands of houses burned to the ground or strafed from the air (by Sinclair Oil -provided planes), hundreds killed or injured, and a whole community driven from their homes. Many took refuge in the surrounding woods, only to be confronted by white strangers bearing guns.
Greenwood prospered again after the 1921 attacks, the former residents rebuilding without access to loans or insurance compensation. ( Julius Pegues of the Franklin Hope Center told us many of the residents were skilled builders.) But the neighborhood revived only to be destroyed again by 1960’s “urban renewal” and is now just a small remnant of itself, squeezed under a freeway overhead and a minor league ballpark on its flank.
Even though a brilliant new monument (by Denver sculptor Ed Dwight) and a cultural center stand today to educate and commemorate the vanished community, and many studies and books are devoted to Greenwood’s history, it remains unknown to many Americans, and even most Oklahomans. It’s as if the “largest civil disturbance in our country,” that attack on Americans by Americans in America, is still a secret history for most of us.
The completely emptied Greenwood streets we wandered are explained away by some locals as victims of the freeway construction and decline of black household fortunes in the 1960’s. Footsteps from Greenwood dead zone, though, a whiter neighborhood named Brady Heights is reviving and gentrifying with Tulsa’s official blessing, even though it’s bisected by two freeways.
Brady Heights is named for Tate Brady, a Ku Klux Klan member who participated in the white mob that destroyed Greenwood.
We left Tulsa to search for two of Oklahoma’s once thriving “All-Black Towns,” where Southern blacks fleeing sharecropping penury and prejudice hoped to stake claims in Oklahoma’s 1880s land run. They succeeded until racist officials decided all-Black communities posed a political threat and imposed Jim Crow even before statehood. Today many of the towns are ghosts. (Is this a ghost story?)
We found Red Bird, a dispersed crossroads today, and Tullahassee, the oldest town, where collapsing buildings indicate past grandeur, stone churches and even a college. Seven stray kittens greeted us on an abandoned main street, and cast-off sofas decorated a side street.
Lee, the picture of the broken steps seems to capture well the area above the restored one-block commercial section of Greenwood and the multiple destructions visited upon that neighborhood. Looking south toward downtown Tulsa, we viewed a green hillside on which streets created a grid-like pattern on what otherwise appeared to be a city park. Nicely mown swaths of land were interrupted by irregular groupings of mature trees. Closer inspection revealed that many of the larger trees were old and diseased. Overgrown shrubs seemed to demarcate property boundaries of residential city lots. Remnants of cinderblock and masonry retaining walls held back soil – sentinels to elevated lawns fronting what I imagined were once grand houses. Sidewalks sinking into grass reminded me of mossy tombstones in older cemeteries.
My first thought was that this eerily beautiful view was a result of the 1921 Tulsa riots. It reminded me of civil war battlefields we’d visited except no plaques recounted stories of valor, ineffective generals, military units hailing from north and south of the Mason-Dixon, nor indoor exhibits built to describe aspects of antebellum politics, foods, economies, agriculture, industry, or geography in an attempt to illuminate factors leading up to the Civil War. I thought of the artifacts that might be uncovered if a team were to begin an archeological dig: kids’ toys, rakes, broken clay pots, silverware, rusted cans, pairs of glasses – the accumulations of everyday life. But, no one else seemed to think the hillside was worth noting. In fact, you and I were the only ones that were walking those streets in almost total silence besides the cars heard speeding in the distance along I-244.
I thought, “What the hell is going on here? Why isn’t someone commemorating this hillside?” I knew that many Oklahomans were still unaware of the Tulsa riots but the veil had been lifted since at least the 1990s. Survivor stories had recounted the carnage that followed rumors that a black man had violated the sanctity of a defenseless white woman leading to calls for retribution in order to keep blacks in their place.
Well, I was wrong. A conversation with a staff person at the Greenwood Cultural Center revealed that the area we had viewed was actually a former African American neighborhood built on the ruins of the 1921 devastation – an in-your-face response to the looting and killing directed at Greenwood’s black residents. This second destruction reflected the aftermath not of a pitched battle between white men seeking revenge and the futile attempt of a number of WWI vets to prevent a lynching and protect their families and homes. This neighborhood cleaning was the result of urban renewal.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. Visit Dayton, Ohio and you can see how formerly vibrant African American neighborhoods on the city’s Westside have been leveled. Similar to Greenwood, a highway now cuts through an area once the center of Dayton’s African American life. I recall my mother telling me how she’d sneak down to Five Points theaters to view a movie using money that had been set aside to pay for her piano lessons or later frequent to hear jazz greats touring the city. Back then, segregated housing practices meant that many African Americans of all socioeconomic levels, many of whom had recently migrated from the South, lived closely together on the Westside. While my grandmother cleaned large Victorian houses owned by wealthy whites (she called them “work houses”), a few doors away her neighbor was a prominent African American doctor. Less than a quarter mile from my mother’s childhood home was that of Paul Lawrence Dunbar.
Dayton’s Westside was plagued by economic downturns and riots following instances of police brutality, a response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, and a sense of hopelessness in light of bleak employment opportunities. Churches, grocery, furniture, and clothing stores, banks, barbershops and hair salons have vanished on the Westside. My high school and that of my mother have both been destroyed.
Perhaps the disappearance of neighborhoods like those in Greenwood and Dayton in the sixties and seventies were inevitable. Certainly, their disappearance is not as dramatic as the destruction associated with the boiling over of racial animus that characterized the 1921 Tulsa riot. How then should their passings be noted? After all, the citizens of Greenwood in 1921 and Dayton and Greenwood in the eras of urban renewal were all attempting to carve out a life where they could feel free to prosper and safely raise their families.
This essay and the photo of the steps going nowhere are evocative, thought-provoking. (What an expression: you’ve provoked me, dammit! into thinking!)
The steps are also oddly beautiful, as all ruins are, an image of nature taking back, a reminder of the fact that for all their seeming permanence, our grandest stone houses aren’t any more a defense against time than the Bedouin’s tent.
But beyond the sensory and more immediate than the metaphysical, is the horror.
Strafing an American neighborhood? In the heartland?
It all leaves me wondering if much of the racists’ fears are born of knowing, rather than ignorance. Knowing what they’ve done to African-Americans, and the fear that if they would do that (good Christianist people that they are), surely African-Americans would do the same to them, if they had the power. Is that what’s behind the attacks on voting rights? Is that what’s behind the visceral hatred and fear of our president?
“The steps are also oddly beautiful, as all ruins are, an image of nature taking back, a reminder of the fact that for all their seeming permanence, our grandest stone houses aren’t any more a defense against time than the Bedouin’s tent.”
“OZYMANDIAS” comes to mind: “…Nothing beside remains….”