A Personal Essay by Julia A. Wilson
When I left my mother’s home, and ventured out on my own at age 16, I thought I was all grown up. I may not have known exactly what I would do next, but I knew that I had to leave Tulsa, Okla.
In the 1960s, Tulsa was segregated. Blacks lived on the north side of town, across the railroad tracks. I was among the first blacks to integrate Central High School. That school was belatedly integrated in compliance with the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court Decision Brown vs. Board of Education, more than a decade after the law was passed.
One moment in high school stands out as illustrating that integration hardly meant that old prejudices were subsiding. We had been assigned verbal book reports in my English class, and I decided to give mine on “Soul on Ice,” by Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver. I stood up in front of the class and shortly after I began, my teacher yelled, “Stop that! Stop!” I looked up at her and said, “I’m giving my book report.” Pointing at the classroom door, she replied: “Not on that book you aren’t! You’re going to the principal’s office.” She was obviously very upset. So, I closed my book, and walked out the door and headed down the long hallway to the principal’s office. I was unceremoniously expelled for sharing “improper materials” with my classmates and teacher.
I was really angry. I believed that Cleaver’s book was just as appropriate as any other book my white classmates were reading. I also felt that it was unfair and wrong for me to be expelled for choosing to report about a controversial book, especially because school is supposedly all about education and broadening our horizons, right?
I went home and relayed my school-day drama to my mother, a single mom raising six children. She was mild-mannered when it came to racial issues. I later understood that her civil rights’ timidity was driven by an ingrained fear. And, that fear emanated and lingered from the historic 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. In that riot, white supremacists led by the Ku Klux Klan, destroyed thriving black businesses, which were then known nationally as America’s “Black Wall Street.” During my early days in Tulsa, I had no knowledge of the prestigious black businesses or that riot, because black history, particularly that detailing positive stories about African Americans who might be viewed as role models, or injustices, weren’t taught in Tulsa schools, or noted in the local news.
So, of course, my mom was hesitant to stand up for anything that might cause racial friction. She told me to sit down, and “let it go;” chiding me for selecting the book in the first place. But I couldn’t let it go. Instead, I decided to call the news media and hold a press conference on the steps of the school. As a young, burgeoning civil rights activist, I followed my conscience and instincts. I started making phone calls. And, I received a big response.
For the press conference, I wore a leopard Dashiki and a big Angela Davis Afro wig, in protest. As I was standing on the front steps of Central High School with microphones in my face, the school administrators came outside and gave their reason for my dismissal. Then justice was done! I was re-admitted into school right away.
After high school, but still a teenager, I left Tulsa with $135 in my pocket. I bought a one-way ticket to Portland, Ore. I was driven to leave Tulsa in hopes of finding a better, safer place. Was I scared? Yes. But I had moved ahead, knowing deep inside, that I had to be strong. Every day, I told myself that everything would be okay. I reassured myself that I would survive and make something meaningful of my life. That was the beginning of my journey into becoming a journalist and then a global social entrepreneur.
This weekend, memories of the numerous racial wounds my family’s ancestors, neighbors and friends experienced in Tulsa are resurfacing. Tulsa is in the news, because the President of the United States is going there during another unjust time in America’s history – when African Americans are still being killed by white police officers – and some are still being lynched; at a time when thousands of Americans of all races are peacefully marching in the streets, demanding police reform and social justice – during the historic COVID-19 pandemic and a suffering economy.
Oddly, Trump’s visit coincides not only with the anniversary of Tulsa’s painful historic riot, but will align with the anniversary of Juneteenth – when African Americans in Texas first learned that they had been freed, years earlier. Trump surely did not plan it this way, but his visit ironically has served to educate many Americans – especially whites – about a shameful moment in U.S. history when Tulsa’s prominent black businesses were burned to the ground, reportedly by KKK members. When more than 350 black businesspeople were killed and thousands of African American families were forever uprooted and dealt severe economic and – no doubt in many cases – psychological blows.
That riot should have been part of a prominent chapter in U.S. history classes about America’s rocky and often violent road toward trying to live up to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Emancipation Proclamation. A chapter about the Jim Crow laws that dominated the South for decades, about the less direct but no less prevalent discrimination in the North. A chapter covering all of the intimidation tactics used to ensure African Americans “stayed in their place,” and kept subservient to whites.
That chapter wasn’t taught in the Tulsa where I was raised. Nor in virtually any high school classroom in America.
I’m hoping that a new day has come. We will no longer be held back. It’s a new day for all of us, since many young whites have gone to school with African Americans and now know and value them as friends, and some as family. Most of us understand that within the next decade, whites will be the minority in America. And, that peace, understanding and racial equality are essential in holding our great country together.
I haven’t revisited Tulsa often since I left it, but in talking with my relatives who still live there, it seems to have evolved. The majority of its residents are well-meaning and want fairness for all Americans. But then there’s still that unrepentant minority, many of whom I suspect will be out in droves for Trump’s rally and to support another agenda. An agenda that divides, instead of unifies. One that thrives on untruths. One that each of us can only hope and pray will not succeed so that we can move forward as one United States of America.
Julia Wilson is the CEO and Founder of Wilson Global Communications USA, a strategic international public affairs and marketing communications consultancy in Washington, D.C. She specializes in cross-cultural communications and relationship-building in education, business and civic affairs.