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Oklahoma! Where the Black Towns Once Thrived

Illustration for article titled Oklahoma! Where the Black Towns Once Thrived

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. 

As I approach by car, the centerpiece of the park, the 25-foot-high Tower of Reconciliation, stands out. Up close, I can see the depiction of key episodes in the history of black Oklahomans: their migration with Native Americans on the Trail of Tears in the 19th century, their slave experiences in the new Territories, the engagement of black soldiers in the Civil War battle of Honey Creek, near Muskogee.


Nearby stand three 16-foot statutes depicting figures representing different players in the 1921 riots: A white man fully armed for assault captures Hostility; a black man surrendering with his hands held high represents Humiliation; and a white director of the Red Cross holding a baby symbolizes Hope. The tower and the statutes are both the handiwork of Ed Dwight, a nationally known African-American astronaut-turned-sculptor.

Surrounding the enclosed circular park are plaques telling the saga of this historic district of black Tulsa. Starting with the wide-scale migration of blacks to this area in the early 1900s, Greenwood Avenue would become the "Black Wall Street," an avenue lined with churches, black-owned shops, cafés and other businesses. Burned down during the riots, the neighborhood would rise again and thrive in the 1950s and 1960s, only to be flattened finally by urban renewal in the early 1980s.


A small enclave of shops on Greenwood, a short walk from the park, near the corner of Archer, offers a taste of this hood's old flavor. Here is Tee's Barber Shop, still a place for blacks of all generations to get a haircut and to shoot the breeze. 

As I stroll through the park and Greenwood on a sunny afternoon, embracing this effort by the city to come to grips with its darkest chapter, it is hard not to be emotional.


Most of the towns served as trading centers for the nearby farms, but the town of Boley was once an urban hub of about 50,000 residents. It had its own bank, five hotels and several restaurants.

Anxious to see what had become of the Boley of my father's day, one of 13 surviving black towns in the state, I took an hour-long drive past fields of soybean and other crops. As I wander through the town on foot, it's clear that with only 2,000 residents, the place has faded from its heyday. Many of the low-rise brick buildings are now boarded up.


Still, an old-school charm hangs over the place. At McCormick's restaurant, they serve up a wholesome spread of pork chops, mashed potatoes, gravy and sweet potato pie. And the spirited crowd at Faith Covenant Church rattles the room with gospel songs during Sunday worship services.

Visitors who want to explore the state's rich Native American scene have various options. The "Five Civilized Tribes" (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Seminole, Choctaw, Creek), which were forced to migrate to Indian Territory from the eastern part of the U.S. in the early 1800s, all have capitals in different parts of Oklahoma. Each of them has a history of tribesmen with black roots, too. The community of Freedmen — blacks who are affiliated with Indian tribes — is active throughout the state.


The Cherokee Nation, centered in the town of Tahlequah, about an hour by car from Tulsa, is the most accessible of the state's Indian strongholds. During an afternoon visit to this bucolic college town, dominated by Northeastern State University, I start with a walk around Cherokee Capitol Square, a collection of well-kept brick buildings. The stately Cherokee Supreme Court and many of the other buildings carry signs in the Cherokee language, as well as in English. Cherokee tribesmen arrived in these parts on the Trail of Tears in the late 1830s.

For a refresher on the Trail of Tears history, including the hardships suffered and details about the new life the Indians built, often alongside blacks, the Cherokee Heritage Center, located four miles away, is an excellent stop. Owned and managed by the Cherokee Nation, it includes exhibitions about how the early Indians lived, farmed and staked their place in Oklahoma. In the summer, an open-air production of the Trail of Tears, a drama depicting the removal of the tribe from homelands in the southeastern U.S., is staged in an amphitheater.


With the rugged nature of this rural state all around me, I feel the call of the wild. In sparsely populated Oklahoma, opportunities to hike, canoe, kayak or horseback ride on untrammeled turf are never far away. In these parts the allure is the Illinois River, which meanders through the plains, and is the most beloved option.

And so, within an hour I am already in a canoe, paddling gently downsteam. Ashore, for as far as I can see, grass and trees and fields of alfalfa stretch across the distance. Somewhere beyond all that is Greenwood Avenue, with its haunting racial legacy. But for a fleeting minute, all that seems far away.


Gary Lee is a travel writer and former foreign correspondent in Russia and Germany. He lives in Washington, D.C., but also spends a good chunk of his time in Paris and Peru.  

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