The Painful and Lifechanging Education of an Ignorant White Boy

24 Feb

I published a version of this essay a few months ago. Given current events, it bears repeating.

In the year 2000, as part of my research for my book, The Burning: Massacre, Destruction and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, I interviewed an elderly man named Richard Gary, who told me this story.

On a day in early June of 1921, his father, a white Tulsa resident named Hugh Gary, loaded his young sons, Richard and Hubert, into the family Dodge for a drive through what was left of the Tulsa district known as Greenwood.

What had been one of America’s most prosperous African American communities was still smoldering, destroyed in a day by a white Tulsa mob numbering in the thousands. The father then drove his sons to the Tulsa Convention Center, where hundreds of displaced blacks were detained, and finally into the country on a winding dirt road. After a few bumpy miles, Richard Gary remembered, they drove up on a flatbed truck with hard rubber tires that labored back and forth to get close to the edge of a deep gully.

On the bed of the truck, were the bodies of more than twenty African Americans, stacked like cordwood, arms and legs and heads dangling from the sides through two-by-fours stuck in the slats. Two white men unloaded the dead, swinging the bodies from the truck and hurling them into the gully.

“They deserved what they got,” Hugh Gary told his sons before driving off.

There were many other similar stories in the aftermath of our nation’s worst racial atrocity, one that was ignited by an accusation, probably erroneous, that a young black man, Dick Rowland, had assaulted a young white woman named Sarah Page. Part of Tulsa’s grim tableau in those terrible hours was the sight of truck after flatbed truck, loaded with African American bodies, headed out of town to destinations unknown.

There is no question that the official estimate of the Tulsa dead, sixty-eight blacks and nine whites, was scandalously low. The actual number of victims was probably closer to 300, the vast majority of them black. Ten thousand Greenwood residents were left homeless. Then the horror disappeared from history.

That is why recent news from Tulsa is so important. Forensic archeologists announced late last year that ground-penetrating radar suggested the possibility of mass graves at sites in and around that city. Excavation could be the next phase.

That the graves existed was a near certainty to many Tulsans, but until now there was little appetite to search for them. Then last year, after a media report raised unresolved questions about the massacre, Tulsa’s Republican Mayor, G.T. Bynum, launched the probe that led to this week’s findings.

“We will follow the truth where it takes us,” Bynum said. “We will pursue every avenue to look at these sites.”

His resolve is why I believe the symbolism of the recent discoveries could be as significant as the discoveries themselves. My hope is that the investigation in Tulsa is part of a broader willingness, long overdue, to confront our terrible racial past.


It is just these kinds of horrors, in Tulsa and throughout the nation during the Jim Crow era, that so many in white America have had the luxury of avoiding over the decades and centuries. 

As a white person raised in the upper Midwest, I, too, was shamefully uneducated when it came to our race history, at least until a night in 2000 in a Chinese restaurant in Tulsa. I dined then with Oklahoma State Rep. Don Ross, the African American legislator who represented Greenwood at the time and has done more than any other person to restore the massacre to history. Attempting to make conversation, I asked what I thought was an innocent question.

“So Don, what was it like for blacks after the Civil War?”

Ross slammed his fist down on our table in response, and his voice rose to the point that others in the restaurant looked over at us uncomfortably.

“And you’re one of the educated whites,” he said. “If we can’t count on you to understand, who can we count on?”

Beginning that night and for a long time thereafter, Ross referred to me as "ignorant white boy." I was suitably ashamed, determined to become less so.

I went on to learn in research for a newspaper story and later my book, was that Tulsa was completely consistent with what was happening in America at the time, distinguished only by its terrible scope. Lynchings were spectator sports, reported in newspapers like box scores, but racial violence was hardly confined to the south. Atrocities took place in Chicago, Duluth, Minnesota, and St. Louis. That is not to mention the soul killing indignities of Jim Crow.  

My own understanding of these things, belated as it was, changed my life. I finally became curious about the experiences of people different me, and much more aware of the racial chasm and systematic injustice that continued to poison our society.

I understood the outrage after the litany of incidents like Ferguson, Baltimore, and the killing of Trayvon Martin. I understood the passion animating the #BlackLivesMatter movement. I saw in the tiki torch bearing marchers in Charlottesville the kind of hatred that I envisioned in the Tulsa mob nearly a century ago.

And more recently...

A young black jogger, Ahmaud Arbery, shot dead in Georgia. A hysterical white woman in New York's Central Park, calling police to say she was being assaulted by a black man, a birdwatcher, as it turned out. (The woman's language that day, though almost certainly inadvertent, could have been taken from the mouth of Tulsa's Sarah Page.) The obscenely disproportionate toll that Covid-19 has taken on people of color. And finally, the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, and the convulsive reaction to it. 

I am deeply troubled by these events, but not in the least surprised. Such are the fruits of our willful cultual amnesia. Attrocities like Tulsa and Jim Crow were rarely taught in our schools. It was a revelation to most viewers of HBO’s recent hit series, Watchmen, that the opening scene, a depiction of the Tulsa atrocity, was based on historical fact, drawn largely from my book. But we can no longer look away. 

Since 2002, it has been required to teach the Tulsa race massacre in Oklahoma public schools. Just in the last few days comes word from Oklahoma of a new in-depth curriculum and teacher training around the topic. A new version of my Tulsa book for young adults will be published in the next several months.  

And finally, wherever the current investigation in Tulsa eventually leads, the recent courage of that community, its commitment to seek and confront the truth, could show us the way. In any event, that is my prayer. Without facing the horrors of our past as Tulsa is doing, the healing we all crave will probably remain elusive.


To purchase Tim's definitive book, The Burning: Massacre, Destruction and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, click here.

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