Free of fake history, but decked out in early 19th Century native Indian costumes, Travis and Jennifer spoke with straight-ahead 21st Century bluntness. In the hallway of Oklahoma’s only antebellum plantation, we had a hurried, intense conversation before a troop of giddy schoolkids arrived on a field trip. I was glad the kids would have these two student interns as guides.
When asked about Southern identity, Travis told us he was Cherokee first, Oklahoman second, and “not really much Southern at all.” From the eastern border with Arkansas, he seemed surprised that anybody would assume otherwise. His fellow docent at the Murrell Plantation, Jennifer, felt Choctaw first, but strongly Southern, too. She’d grown up close to Texas in far south Oklahoma and felt the pull of the heritage.
George and I met them in the rural, 1840’s mansion set in the rolling green pasture and woodland south of Tahlequah. Rumored to be haunted, it sure felt Southern, oozing gracious living with spacious interiors, period furnishings, and rough shacks just outside. This excellent restoration of Oklahoma’s only remaining antebellum plantation told the tale of rich European-American fortunes wed to Indian tragedy, just after the Trail of Tears exiled Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws and other tribes from Carolina and Tennessee. The plantation filled us with questions about the ownership of slaves and their role in the family’s success; Murrell himself had ties to the Confederacy.
Travis and Jennifer both felt their history educations steered them away from such Oklahoma atrocities as the 1921 Tulsa riots (not mentioned at all in their schooling). In their texts, the Trail of Tears “got a paragraph” Travis said, squeezing his thumb and forefinger. We talked about the pressure not to discuss painful episodes from history. The two young Indians felt their elders did not want to disturb the current peace under those old storm clouds.
The wood shacks turned out be early settler cabins moved to the grounds. When George and I walked a short distance into a natural area, a local man warned us about nearby “wild dogs.”
We learned about European-American wild dogs at the nearby Cherokee Heritage Museum. Exhibits told the Trail of Tears narrative, complete with 1830’s documents and re-created sound effects of the terrible conditions, the whiplash of cruelty. Not only did the whites steal the lands of the Southeastern tribes, but a staggering number of Indians died on the long forced march into Oklahoma.
This history is tough to face, but the museum presents it with dramatic clarity and elegance. A grace note is that upon leaving the Trail of Tears rooms, the exit takes the visitor through a gallery of native success stories in contemporary Oklahoma.
We had to hit the road, still freaked out by the cruelty of the Trail of Tears narrative. We were bound for a place that wasn’t necessarily going to make us feel any better: a town in Arkansas bedeviled by a rogue Klansman and notorious for having expelled its entire African-American population.
George, who is black, was not necessarily happy about my plan to stay there after sundown.
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.
We’ll drive from Denver to Tulsa starting Sunday, Oct. 20. in my ancient Honda Civic. (If the gov’mit is still closed, we’ll sneak onto Interstate 70 and act like the federal highways are open. Closed govt= no speed limit? Probably not, and my Civic can’t go very fast anyway.)
This leg of our long journey across the South starts with an end point. Even though we’ve been traveling across Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, and Texas,
and even though we have a lot more terrain to cover, the Tulsa trip will represent the “official” ending of the book—because we like the symmetry of beginning in Oklahoma (in April, 2010, our first road trip there) and ending in Oklahoma, full circle.
The Trail of Tears, forced Indian relocations in the early 1800’s, tragic expulsions from ancestral homes in the Southeast into Oklahoma, ended near Tulsa. We’ll be exploring another chapter in America’s history of ethnic cleansing, the race riots in Tulsa’s African-American Greenwood district in 1921. White mobs attacked the whole community, destroying a neighborhood so prosperous it was nicknamed the “Wall Street of the West.” There was even aerial bombardment of homes and businesses, perhaps the first (and only?) attack from the air of Americans by Americans in America.
We’ll be visiting with scholars and citizens to get a sense of Tulsa’s attempts to commemorate the event. We’ll also meet with Denver sculptor (and astronaut) Ed Dwight, who designed the Greenwood memorial.