Oklahoma! Where the Black Towns Once Thrived

First stop on The Root's Black Bucket List of must-see places: Oklahoma, rich with bison, broncos and black history.


Greenwood Avenue, a wide residential street in Tulsa, Okla., has a bucolic calm to it these days. But stroll it slowly, past the handsome, ranch-style homes, toward downtown, and black history hangs heavy over the place.

And no wonder. It's along this street in late May 1921 that a ragtag mob, bearing shotguns, pistols and other firearms, pushed its way, gunning down bystanders randomly, setting homes and stores aflame. Two days later, when the National Guard finally quelled the rampage, the street was in cinders, and by most accounts, more than 300 lay dead, most of them African American.

The Tulsa race riot -- after nearly nine decades, still the bloodiest racial massacre to occur on American soil -- makes this city and the surrounding state of Oklahoma a place that every black traveler should visit. Just by itself, the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, a poignant, open-air monument recently established to memorialize the tragedy of the massacre, is easily worth the trip.

For the adventurous black explorer, however, there's far more to Oklahoma. A tour of the historic black towns dotted across the state brings visitors to one of the few places this side of the Caribbean where African Americans once owned and ran everything from the bank to the mortuary. A late-spring or summer trip could include a day at the annual Boley Black Rodeo, where visitors flock to watch black cowboys show their skills at calf roping, steer wrestling, bronco riding and other events. I have been a frequent spectator over the years; it never disappoints.

In this multicultural era, when so many African Americans are connecting with their Indian heritage, a side trip to Talequah, the seat of the Cherokee Nation, is a must. A visit to see bison wandering in the Tallgrass Prairie Reserve near the city of Pawhuska, or a canoe trip down the Illinois or another of the state's rivers, would give a reminder that not too long ago, this was one vast sweep of flat plains where wild creatures roamed free.

Today Oklahoma is a flat, agricultural state sprawling across the south-central plains of the U.S. The population of 3.75 million is mostly concentrated in two major cities: Oklahoma City and Tulsa. According to the 2010 census, African Americans, with 8.3 percent of the population, are the third-largest ethnic group, after Latinos and Native Americans.

I am a fourth-generation Oklahoman who traces his roots in the state to the Trail of Tears migration of Creek Indians and blacks in the 1830s. My adolescence was divided between my parents' home in Tulsa and summers at my grandparents' sprawling cotton, peanut and soybean farm near Okmulgee.

In the 1960s, I went to schools in then-segregated north Tulsa named after poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, opera singer Marian Anderson and other iconic black figures. And on Sundays I strutted out in a freshly pressed suit and polished shoes to church, sometimes followed by a pork chop-and-biscuit lunch at Betty's Chat 'n' Chew, and finally, horror movies at the black-owned Rex Theater, a Greenwood Avenue landmark.

With its heavy accent on education and achievement, black Oklahoma has produced far more than its share of prominent black Americans, including renowned historian John Hope Franklin, writer Ralph Ellison and my aunt, Anita Hill, my mother's youngest sister.

I have close family still living in the northeastern corner of the state, and so I am a frequent visitor. A recent trip to Tulsa gives me a chance to visit the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, inaugurated late last year just off Greenwood Avenue.