Friday, February 20, 2015

The Kinds of Things You Might Learn in an Oklahoma AP History Course

The results of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921

So the Oklahoma Legislature has voted overwhelmingly to ban an Advanced Placement course on American history because it contains too many of the "negative" aspects of history and is not overwhelmingly "positive." In its place, the lawmakers propose replacing the course with a farrago of blather, half-truths, and right-wing religious propaganda.

One could say, "Only in Oklahoma." But not. Already it's spread to Texas. And look for other state legislatures to take up the torch, so to speak.

But one can easily imagine WHY this began in Oklahoma. After all, there's more than a little "negative" history that the white right-wingers of the state have long ago swept under the carpet there, and they bygawd intend to keep it that way.

Here are some important moments in Oklahoma history that future students in the state will almost certainly not learn about, because they decidedly fall into the "negative" category.

The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921

Like so many of the "deadly ethnic riots" that erupted in America between 1890 and 1930, this one had its beginnings with a young black man offending virtuous white womanhood, bringing a mob of angry white men in vengeful pursuit. In this case, it was 19-year-old black shoeshiner named Dick Rowland who got onto an elevator at the building where he worked that was operated by a young white woman. Upon his arrival at the ninth floor, a nearby clerk heard her shriek and saw Rowland fleeing; upon arriving at the elevator, he found the young woman in a "distraught" state, and assumed she had been assaulted. (In fact, he likely had only stumbled upon leaving the elevator and the woman had shrieked out of concern for him.)

Nonetheless, authorities were summoned and briefly investigated the matter. Rowland was held in jail a few hours and questioned and then released.

But the Tulsa Tribune was on the case. "Nab Negro for Attacking Girl In an Elevator" shouted the front-page headline. Though no copies of this have survived, an editorial warning that Rowland might be lynched, headlined "To Lynch Negro Tonight", reportedly ran on the paper's interior pages.

Soon gangs of angry white men were seen roaming the area around Greenwood, the black commercial area known as the "Negro Wall Street" for its stunning financial success. Dick Rowland lived in a neighborhood there. And soon armed bands of black men had begun gathering too, determined not to permit another young black man to be lynched at the hands of whites for an imagined crime.

One of these groups of black men approached the white sheriff and offered their assistance in maintaining order. Not only did the sheriff refuse the offer, but a white man at the scene demanded one of the black men hand over his gun. When the man refused, shots were exchanged. Soon a full-scale riot erupted.

Rampaging whites brought guns and torches and began destroying everything and everyone in Greenwood. For the remainder of the day, groups of armed blacks and whites were squaring off and firing at each other. The next morning, a siren sounded at daybreak, which seemed to signal a fresh assault by whites on the black neighborhood. Soon they were setting fires and the black residents began fleeing in panic. Mob members entered people's homes and forced them to flee in the streets. A couple of biplanes flew overhead, dropping incendiary bombs on the black neighborhood and shooting at people below.

At the end of the violence, hundreds of people were dead, though the numbers remain in dispute. News reports at the time counted 173 dead, most of them black. The NAACP estimated that between 150 and 200 black people were killed. Some estimates run as high as 300.

The entire commercial section of Greenwood was destroyed, including 191 businesses, a junior high school, several churches and the only black hospital in the district. Some 1,256 houses were burned to the ground.

The surviving black populace, about 6,000 in all, were arrested and herded into several detention centers. These included injured blacks, who were unable to seek medical help because the black hospital had been destroyed, and the local white hospitals would not admit them.

A subsequent grand jury blamed the riots on the negligence of the police chief, and he was fired. That was the extent of any white accountability for the riot.

The Osage Reign of Terror

Rita Smith, left, and her housekeeper,
Nellie Brookshire, both killed by an assassin
The Osage Indian tribe, whose reservation is located in the northeastern part of Oklahoma, are perhaps best known to Americans as the ragtag band of remainders who populated some of the pages of Laura Ingalls Wilder's 'Little Home on the Prairie' books. Wilder wrote disparagingly of the Osages, upon whose lands, in fact, the Ingalls family were actually squatters, and were eventually thrown off their first 'little home on the prairie' for doing so.

What most Americans don't know is that by the 1920s, the Osage Indians were fabulously wealthy, the beneficiaries of having oil under the lands that had been designated their official reservation. The oil was discovered in 1894, and by 1920 it had become a major source of income for the tribal members who retained the mineral rights to the parcels of land each had been given in their original treaties. Some tribal members built mansions, bought fancy cars, hired servants, and sent their children to Harvard.

But by the mid-1920s this great gusher of wealth attracted the usual vultures who come to feast on the greed that permeates when large sums of money are involved. These included a large number of white men who realized that a number of these oil "headrights," as they were called, belonged to women, and would pass to their descendants upon their deaths.

William K. Hale
So these white men would move to Osage County, marry these Osage women (sometimes by plying them with liquor) and then, when the time was right, simply disposed of them. At least, that was the most common scam run by white men circling around these oil rights, but some of them -- notably a character named William King Hale, who called himself "King of the Osage" because he had managed to collect so many of these headrights -- came up with a variety of schemes to obtain them, including murder.

Eventually this faction had complete control of Osage County, including law enforcement, leaving the majority of the tribal population in abject terror that they too might be targeted for death because some white man lusted after his headrights and could get away with killing him. By the time that federal authorities finally moved in and got control of the situation, it's estimated that over 60 Osage tribal members had perished.

One of the most notorious of these involved Hale's assassination of his most vocal critic, a local man named Bill Smith who had been a close friend of a previous Hale victim, and whose wife owned a headright that Hale was scheming after. Hale sent a man to bomb the Smiths' home as they slept, which he did.

These crimes, in fact, constituted the newly-formed Federal Bureau of Investigation with its first big case, and the FBI maintains a fascinating archive of documents related to that investigation. 

What Learning About These Incidents Means

An understanding of Oklahoma history would not be complete without at least some knowledge of these incidents, particularly because they loom so large in the history of race relations in America as a nation.

It also would give young people a clearer and fuller picture of the scope and nature of how history has shaped modern race relations in America. At a bare minimum, it will prevent privileged and sheltered whites from asking ignorantly: "Why haven't blacks done any better since we ended slavery?" or asking: "Why do Native Americans insist on clinging to their reservations?"

This and similar kinds of examinations of the darker chapters of American history actually do a great deal to shed light on our current dilemmas, particularly when it comes to issues of race, ethnicity, and religion, and particularly by white folks. By understanding our own culpability in creating current conditions, and confronting them honestly -- which includes embracing the moral responsibility that comes from being the long-term beneficiaries of this history -- there's at least a glimmer of hope of finding real solutions and creating a future that works for all our children.

Or ... we can just embrace the ignorance and doom ourselves to repeat history.

And believe me, there are a lot of ugly chapters in it.

No comments: