Before statehood, Oklahoma was seen nationally as a promised land for black people.
Edward McCabe, who founded the town of Langston and its university, hoped to make Oklahoma an all-black state, and though that never came to be, it drew many black people to migrate here in pursuit of freedom. Because of that, more all-black towns were formed than anywhere else in the nation.
However, much of the history those towns and smaller communities cultivated was swept under the rug and kept out of history books. The Tulsa Race Massacre, for example, is rarely talked about in a meaningful way in the classroom.
Mechelle Brown attended school in north Tulsa, where she said she had black educators and a black history class but never learned about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
“It wasn’t until 1995 when I came to the Greenwood Cultural Center that I learned about the history in its entirety,” she said. “Then I came back a few months later to participate in an on-the-job training program as an office assistant, and I’ve been here ever since.”
Brown is now the center’s program coordinator and tour guide and educates people about Tulsa’s Greenwood District before and after the massacre. Though the event has received recent national attention — a reenactment in HBO’s Watchmen, upcoming movies and a new effort by city leaders to search for the remains of its slaughtered black residents — Brown said a lot of people still don’t know what truly took place.
She recalled her own reaction to first learning about it.
“I was so angry that this had happened here. And the fact that people weren’t talking about it, that no one knew about it, that it had been hidden, and that these people received no reparations. The insurance claims they filed in 1921 totaling more than $2.7 million, every single claim had been denied,” Brown said. “That the City of Tulsa tried everything, it seemed, to prevent the Greenwood District from being rebuilt, that there were so many whites that were willing to descend on this community and kill innocent men, women and children; I was so angry and bitter, and then I felt sadness and resentment.”
Through her position at the cultural center, Brown said she sees people go through similar emotions.
“You go through a series of emotions that I’ve witnessed people go through time and time again when they come visit,” Brown said. “These are often well-educated people, people with college degrees, well-traveled people that are embarrassed they didn’t know anything about this, and they’re also confused and shocked.”
Black Wall StreetConsidered one of the most affluent black communities in the country in the early 1900s, Tulsa’s Greenwood District was a business district flourishing with black-owned shops, restaurants and theaters. The district was so successful, Booker T. Washington dubbed it “Black Wall Street.”
But racial tensions still existed and many say Tulsa was essentially two cities: white Tulsa and black Tulsa.
“There was a lot of tension. There were more than 3,000 registered Ku Klux Klan members. Many of the city officials and leaders, even some of our founders, were registered Ku Klux Klan members,” Brown said. “The railroad tracks were somewhat of a dividing line and continue to be a dividing line. … Many whites were angry and upset. They were jealous that African Americans were so wealthy and prosperous and somewhat independent.”
In 1921, racial animosity reached its peak in Tulsa when Dick Rowland, a young black man, was accused of assaulting Sarah Page, a white woman.
“We know as a community that had it not been that incident, that there would have been some other confrontation,” Brown said. “Something else would have sparked a confrontation between black Tulsans and white Tulsans.”
Rowland was arrested, and a local newspaper stoked the fires with an article, which was later ripped out of archives, saying he had sexually assaulted Page. Soon an angry white mob went to the courthouse where Rowland was held to demand the sheriff turn him over.
Armed black men also went to the courthouse to offer to help guard Rowland. The sheriff declined, but the men came back one more time after there was word of a possibly lynching. This time, the white mob and the black men clashed and the massacre began.
“At that point, it’s no longer about Sarah Page and Dick Rowland. There’s an all-out battle in front of the jailhouse. Blacks retreat to the Greenwood District,” Brown said. “They were able to defend their community for some time, but because they were so outnumbered and outgunned … white rioters broke through and invaded the Greenwood District. They began to kill innocent men and women on sight.”
The National Guard was called in to deal with what was being called a “negro uprising.” Internment sites were set up for black people, which left the district defenseless. In less than 24 hours, the district was reduced to rubble and hundreds of innocent people were killed.
“White rioters could come and take whatever valuables they wanted and then set everything on fire,” Brown said. “The number of lives that were lost was greater than any other massacre that had taken place. We know the entire population of the African American community was 10,000 to 12,000 men, women and children. About 6,000 were held in those internment camps, which left 4,000 to 6,000 unaccounted for.”
However, many black residents escaped before being killed or placed in internment camps, so there is no way to know for certain how many people lost their lives.
In the aftermath of the massacre, no white person was ever held responsible for what happened. Ultimately, it was said the black community brought it on themselves, which allowed for white Tulsans to carry on without talking about it as if nothing had happened. Even black Tulsans went on without talking about the darkest moment in the city’s history.
“Blacks and whites both decided to bury this history and sweep it under the carpet,” Brown said. “When we spoke with our survivors and we asked them why they didn’t share this history with their children, what they said was that to talk about it meant that they had to relive it. And to relive it was simply too painful. They were forced with focusing on surviving because so many of those families returned to absolutely nothing. … They were traumatized and afraid. They were bitter and angry and hurt to think that your neighbors could be violent killers, that they could be so cold-blooded to shoot innocent people.”
The city even passed an ordinance for stricter fire codes that made rebuilding impossible, but Buck Franklin, a black attorney who set up his law office in a tent, fought the ordinance and overturned it, which allowed black people to rebuild.
“We saw Greenwood go through somewhat of a redevelopment but also a renaissance following the massacre,” Brown said. “However, when you come to the Greenwood District today, all we have is a remnant of what once was.”
The end of segregation allowed black people to spend their money in white businesses, and national urban renewal efforts caused property values to decline, leading to closing businesses and a dwindling district.
Visit greenwoodculturalcenter.com to learn more.
In fact, Oklahoma’s first bill was also its first Jim Crow law; Senate Bill One helped establish segregation on railway coaches. Later, Oklahoma would make national history by becoming the first state to segregate public telephone booths.
Despite its Jim Crow laws, black Oklahomans remained in the more than 50 identifiable all-black towns and settlements that had been formed. The Greenwood District was the most successful of these places but only one example of what existed throughout the state.
“We want more than anything for our children and grandchildren to finally know that there’s more to black history than slavery and the civil rights movement,” Brown said. “We were savvy business owners. We were strong and courageous. We were smart and well-educated. We had a love for one another.”
Gradually, those black Oklahomans would challenge racist legislation and break through segregation. Black heroes like Ada Lois Sipuel, who challenged segregation at University of Oklahoma College of Law and won, paved the way for integration.
“We need more individuals telling the stories and then people realizing these are narratives of real-life situations.”
Another black hero was Clara Luper, who led Oklahoma City NAACP Youth Council and began the sit-in movement in 1958. Many consider her contributions to the civil rights movement to be somewhat muted in the national context because of the lack of education or widespread knowledge.
“Nationally, we say that the first sit-ins occurred in North Carolina. They did not. The first sit-ins occurred in Oklahoma City,” said George Henderson, an OU educator and civil rights activist. “Think about this: The people in Oklahoma and Oklahoma City were not proud of those sit-ins. On the other hand, in North Carolina, the press was open enough, and they showed them. All that it would have taken would have been for The Oklahoman or some other newspaper to have just a photo of the sit-ins and let people see it and read about it.”
Sundown NormanHenderson, his wife and seven children moved from Detroit to Norman in 1967, becoming the first ever black family to buy a home in the town. At the time, Norman was still a sundown town, a place where black people were not welcome after dark. Historians estimate there were more than 50 of these towns in the state, with the biggest being Edmond and Norman.
“They are places where white people decide that blacks can come here to shop, you can come here to work for white people, you can do commercial things, but you could not stay here after the sun went down,” he said. “For blacks that overstayed their welcome, bad things did happen — some were beaten, others verbally abused and a few were hung. … But who’s making the decisions? Who owns the newspapers? Who’s purchasing textbooks? Those are the same kind of individuals who just made the Tulsa Race Riot go away in terms of news.”
Henderson moved to Norman after accepting a job at OU, becoming the university’s third full-time black faculty member.
He recalls being warned not to move there and having no intention of taking the job. But after talking with students, who said they would probably not have an opportunity to learn from someone with his experience with the civil rights movement, he was convinced.
“We had no experience in living in a predominantly white neighborhood before we came to Norman, but the people here had no experience of living with a black family either,” he said. “So it was a culture shock for both of us.”
He describes being met with animosity, getting garbage thrown on his yard, getting his car egged and receiving “obscene phone calls.” He also remembers one particular neighbor, who he described as a “one-person welcome wagon” who helped make them feel somewhat accepted.
While he said it was tough to live in Norman and would have been easy for him to take one of the many job offers he had in more accepting places, Henderson said living in Norman was an opportunity to live what they often encouraged others to do: integrate and claim space. He said change happened after that.
“Norman is a very interesting case. We came in ’67. In 1968, the city council decided they would establish a committee to recommend ways of making Norman a more open and inclusive city,” he said. “And in 1972, the city council then voted to establish the Human Rights Commission. … It was the first one in Oklahoma that not only had a commission but also had the authority to fine people if they did not abide. … The irony is the first chairperson of the Human Rights Commission is my wife Barbara Henderson. So now she’s chairing the committee that’s opening up housing and employment. How did this community change? In ways that nobody could anticipate, nor could we.”
The Hendersons were Norman’s entire black community for a number of years. Their house became a kind of hub for black visitors coming to the university. People like Dick Gregory, Bill Russell, Angela Davis and Maya Angelou were their houseguests.
“By having us here and us being an open house for people, not just black people but people in general, it meant our house became the social hub in terms of race relations and community relations,” he said. “To assume that sundown towns are created by the entire community voting on them. They don’t. … On the other hand, the entire community voted to have a Human Rights Commission to make sure that you don’t have people excluding others. We need more individuals telling the stories and then people realizing these are narratives of real life situations.”
Forging aheadNorman City Council recently passed a proclamation formally acknowledging, condemning and apologizing for the city’s former status as a sundown town. Despite its history, Norman was named by the Human Rights Campaign as the most inclusive city in the state.
Additionally, in an attempt to give closure to descendants of the Tulsa Race Massacre victims, archeologists plan to excavate part of Oaklawn Cemetery in Tulsa to see if it holds the remains of those killed in the massacre. Last year, officials found evidence in the soil there and at two other sites of possible mass gravesites. The excavation could lead to the other two sites being further investigated.
But there has been pushback from a small population of people who don’t see any reason for Norman’s apology or for unearthing Tulsa’s dark history. Both Brown and Henderson said acknowledging Oklahoma’s black history, educating newer generations and continuing to work for inclusion and respect is crucial.
Brown said the state is moving the right way in terms of educators deciding they need to teach black history in a robust way beyond just Black History Month but that more needs to be done.
“Unfortunately we don’t write the textbooks, and there’s very little representation from our community in writing those textbooks and deciding what history is taught in the school system,” Brown said. “If parents find that their children are not learning about this history, they have to insist that they are educated. … Sometimes we have to take it upon ourselves to educate our children about the history that’s not included in textbooks.”