The personal and the political in Tulsa.
1921: Nearly a century ago, in Tulsa, the city where I grew up, a Black man allegedly assaulted a White woman in an elevator downtown. In the following days, White rioters reacted by burning and destroying city blocks of black-owned businesses in the Greenwood District on the north side of Tulsa.1 Countless African-American residents were senselessly injured and killed.2 Their homes and businesses along what was known as “Black Wall Street” were destroyed.3
1954: After the U.S. Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, formerly racially segregated schools across the country became integrated.4 Tulsa Public Schools bused African-American students over from Tulsa’s north side to attend classes at more centrally located schools, including my elementary school, Patrick Henry, and my junior high and high school, Thomas A. Edison.
1985: In high school, I knew some Black students from class and cross country and track. But, except for the time we spent in classes during the school day, we did not interact much outside of class and after-school workouts. The distance and railroad tracks between the “north side” and “south side” of town still presented a geographic hurdle.
At the end of the school year, Edison’s track team had an out-of-town meet. Everyone on the team took a bus ride to and from the meet. My White teammates and I shared one motel room. While my Black teammates had their own room next door. Voluntary segregation persisted.
I got back to my room late that evening after visiting a senior with her own room who invited me over to meet some boys. Like much of my youth, I did not know what I was getting into. When I returned to our shared room, my knock knock knocks went unanswered. My White teammates would not let me back in. But my Black teammates next door heard me knocking and opened their door. In that moment, they did not judge me. They just knew I needed sleep.
The next morning, I ran a heavy eight laps around the track for the longest, slowest race of the day, the two-miler. In my memory, the track was right next to our motel, although it was probably another bus ride away. I did not perform up to my potential that day. The talented African American girls swiftly sprinted shorter distances. All these years later, their kindness has stuck with me. Going to an integrated public school allowed me to meet African American and other students of color. We were all classmates, runners and friends. Some kinder and more forgiving than others.
2020: Tulsa’s Northside, the Greenwood District, is now revitalized. New restaurants, art galleries and other businesses stand on Black Wall Street’s ashes. Many people now identify themselves as more than just one race. In 100 years, Tulsa’s racial divide has diminished. Small acts of kindness like the one I experienced are behind that subtle shift. However, there is still stark economic disparity among Tulsans and others in this county.
On the Southside of Tulsa, at the Southern Hills’ Country Club, there is a dessert buffet like no other. But just across Lewis Street, at CVS, a “no handbaskets” rule to prevent shoplifting echoes that in a land of plenty some people do not have everything they need. My racially diverse high school class of 1986 stays in touch on Facebook because not everyone lives in Tulsa anymore. There is still work to be done.
Jeannie Ricketts is a Staff Attorney for the Texas Department of Insurance in Austin, Texas. She takes classes and writes in her spare time.