There are no boogey-men, no reasons for the white citizens of America to run for cover or take on the burdens of what transpired. I’ve written on this before…and not very long ago. CRT is simply history and if we are to know ourselves, we—Black and White, Hispanic, Asian and Native Americans—must know that history. Otherwise we’re living a lie and, worse yet, perpetuating that lie as our culture tries to move forward.
I recently suffered my own wake-up call
I read the other day that the City of Evanston, Illinois had just become the first U.S. city to issue slavery reparations. Experts say it's a noble start. Well, perhaps it is, but I’ve never believed much in giving people money for things that happened before they were born. It fails to both resolve and absolve.
Evanston is my home city. I was born and lived there until I was twenty. My fondest memories are of a small city where a bus or bicycle took you everywhere, you knew your neighbors and had a family doctor. For thirty years that doctor was Wayne Fox, who lived a block away and came to the house when I was down with mumps or measles. He was there to advise my brother and me when our mother was dying.
That sounds old-timey and it is. That’s the Evanston of seventy years ago, home to Northwestern University, the first lakeside suburb above Chicago, whose streets were arched with elm trees before disease killed them all.
It was also the city of my racist self
And the realization stunned me. Here I was, good old Jim, without a racist bone in his body, confronted with my acceptance of the way things were. I’ll get back to that in a minute, but it’s the reason I’m so committed to knowing our history from early on. From my perspective, early on can only occur in the schools.
Evanston was and I suppose still is a liberal city. It always had a black population that lived pretty much by themselves and that was all right with me. Primary and secondary schools were situated in neighborhoods, so they were either black or white and that was all right with me.
Evanston Township High School was integrated and that was all right with me as well, but its swim-team was white and trained at the YMCA and I never paid much attention to that. There were never separate toilets or drinking fountains in Evanston, never a ‘whites only’ sign anywhere—our stores, shops, restaurants open to all and I’d have been outraged if such had been the case. Yep, I was certainly no racist.
But you didn’t see blacks in the restaurants and I never thought about it. At the movie theaters they seemed to like the balcony and I never thought about that either. I never had a black friend. Not a single one. It was not on my mind.
Perhaps you can see where this is going
The Jim who never thought of himself as in any way a racist was complicit. Past my mid-eighties now, I can’t begin to tell you how that troubles my mind. Now I was lucky in a way, because Chicago was my backyard and Chicago has always had a large Black contingent. I was comfortable in that social environment and it seemed natural, but I think of the vast areas of America where never is heard a discouraging word and the nearly equal sized major cities where nothing is heard but discouraging words. I’ve come to realize that the defining adjective is ‘heard.’ For Blacks in America racism is spoken in certain places and unspoken in others, but the inference is always in the air. We don’t say ‘nigger’ anymore. Hurray for us and our mirage of social and racial progress. We said it when I was a youngster in Evanston—not as a pejorative, but as an ordinary expression towards people of color, which is far worse.
Amazingly, racism doesn’t have to be spoken to be perceived
The language of racism is a nuanced language. It can be understood in a glance, the taking of a seat or turning of a back. It can be felt in the invisibility of poverty to the well off, the inherent sneer of better clothing or nonchalance of a high-end car in a low-end neighborhood.
Which versions of our history will we strive to teach?
We don’t need to teach shame in the schools, spread white guilt and hang a kick-me sign on every white citizen. There’s enough of that already. The fear of that approach is a major obstacle to uncovering how we came to be the nation that struggles today with its legacy.
We need to understand that our founders owned slaves and that all men were not created equal at that time, but it was the stated principle upon which the nation-to-be was dedicated. The Civil War was not fought over slavery. It was fought over a state’s right to secede from the Union and the end of slavery was a side issue in a nation where the ownership of slaves was already in decline.
What we do need to teach is that the American government of the time traded blankets laced with smallpox to our native Americans, sent trainloads of sharpshooters to kill off their bison food-source and signed some 368 treaties, honoring not a single one. Effectively, we committed a genocide against our native tribes. It’s one thing for that to be over, but it’s quite another to be forgotten.
We need to teach the immediate abuse of the defeated Southern states by ‘carpetbaggers’ who descended on its struggling recovery. We need to know that because they caused the KKK to ride in the night, the legislatures to enact draconian voting laws and Jim Crow to rule the South for a hundred years. You and I did not lynch Blacks for any perceived crime and then sell postcards of the men and women hanging from trees, but it happened all the way into the 1930s. Ignorance is no excuse for choosing not to know.
The Oklahoma massacre of Black Wall Street happened.
Here’s a taste of what we fail to teach
On the morning of May 30, 1921, a young black man named Dick Rowland was riding in the elevator in the Drexel Building at Third and Main with a white woman named Sarah Page. The details of what followed vary from person to person. Accounts of an incident circulated among the city’s white community during the day and became more exaggerated with each telling.
Tulsa police arrested Rowland the following day and began an investigation. An inflammatory report in the May 31 edition of the Tulsa Tribune spurred a confrontation between black and white armed mobs around the courthouse where the sheriff and his men had barricaded the top floor to protect Rowland. Shots were fired and the outnumbered African Americans began retreating to the Greenwood District.
In the early morning hours of June 1, 1921, Greenwood was looted and burned by white rioters. Governor Robertson declared martial law, and National Guard troops arrived in Tulsa. Guardsmen assisted firemen in putting out fires, took African Americans out of the hands of vigilantes and imprisoned all black Tulsans not already interned. Over 6,000 people were held at the Convention Hall and the Fairgrounds, some for as long as eight days.
Twenty-four hours after the violence erupted, it ceased. In the wake of the violence, 35 city blocks lay in charred ruins, more than 800 people were treated for injuries and contemporary reports of deaths began at 36. Historians now believe as many as 300 people may have died.
In order to understand the Tulsa Race Massacre it is important to understand the complexities of the times. Dick Rowland, Sarah Page and an unknown gunman were the sparks that ignited a long smoldering fire. Jim Crow, jealousy, white supremacy, and land-lust, all played roles in leading up to the destruction and loss of life on May 31 and June 1, 1921. How can we not know that and who are we if we fail to care?
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