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Novelist Rilla Askew Sheds Light On Tulsa Race Riot, And Today’s Racial Unrest

Feb 1, 2016

One of the country’s worst acts of violence against a minority community happened in Oklahoma. The 1921 Tulsa Race Riot led to the destruction of Greenwood, a wealthy all-black area due north of downtown known as “Black Wall Street.”

For years, history books glossed over accounts of the event. In 1996, state lawmakers commissioned an official historical account of what happened. Seven years earlier, award-winning novelist Rilla Askew began researching the Tulsa Race Riot for a book after realizing she had never heard of the historic event.

“I was reading a biography of the great African-American novelist Richard Wright, and in that book, in the first few pages, there was mention of a riot that happened in Tulsa, and I was devastated,” Askew said. “I thought, a race riot that happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma? I never heard of this thing. I grew up 50 miles from there. How could that be?”

It took over a decade to finish Fire in Beulah, and during this episode of Race Matters host Merelyn Bell and Rilla Askew discuss the connections between the Tulsa Race Riot and the Black Live Matter movement of today. They also consider how things have things changed and continued racial violence in America.

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Interview Highlights

On Researching Fire In Beulah

I went to Tulsa and I started trying to research it and I went to the library and the first thing I did was go to look for the archives for the newspapers of the Tulsa World and the Tulsa Tribune from May of 1921, it happened May 31 to June 1st, they were gone. So, the archives went right up to the beginning of May, they started again in September, but you could not find the Tulsa World or the Tulsa Tribune, the articles that talked about the riot. So, I went to the librarians and then said, “Do you know where this is?” and she said, “Oh, I know what you want to talk about.” She directed me to Crisis Magazine the New York Times, all kinds of other places that they didn’t think to purge, and so I found out about it by looking at national and looking at the black newspapers, that is the other thing, I went to the Ralph Ellison Library in Oklahoma City, where they have wonderful archives, I read all of the articles in the Black Dispatch, which was edited by Rusco Dungee in a really powerful way of looking at it, and I looked at other newspaper articles that gave me that language of that era.

On Continued Racial Violence In America

The problems of race and culture are not a binary between black and white, these same issues affect us, they affect Indian people, they affect Hispanic people, they affect Asian people, this goes across the board...we just happened to be talking, as it happens to be, about the black/white conflict and history. But, the first thing that we have to do is educate ourselves and this is true for all of us and, I think, for those of us in the dominant culture, we cannot excuse ourselves by what we don’t know any more than the Germans could excuse themselves about what they didn’t know about [the concentration] camps. You know, we are responsible for the truth of our history and there is no one alive today who has been paying attention in the least bit to the news for the past year from Ferguson back before that Treyvon Martin, through Ferguson, through Baltimore, through Charleston, through all of these events...who does not understand that we have a terrible, terrible situation that continues to exist, and I know that people from the dominant culture, especially if they themselves don’t have over biases, think that it is all over.

On How American Youth Bring Hope For Future Race Relations

I see tremendous willingness on the part of young people to put all of that bad history, not behind us, not knowing about it, but just saying, "We are not going to be like that. That is not the America that we are going to build, that is not the American that we are going to live in." So I have great hope in that sense. I think our politics are really a mess and it is really sad that, I think, on the state level and on the national level and, I think, that they don’t contribute to making any of this better but, therefore, I am hoping that a lot of these same young people who care about these issues will go into politics, will go into making changes in all of the ways that we can. But, one of the areas... we needed an education, but we also need leadership, we need political will, and that is going to take time.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

MERELYN BELL, HOST: So, I want to get started by talking about your description of Oklahoma and of the country at large as a wounded place. What did you mean by that?

RILLA ASKEW: Well, we're wounded in a lot of ways, but that particular title comes from Wendell Berry’s book a Hidden Wound, where...it's a book that was published in 1989.  He is a Kentucky writer a great American thinker and farmer and philosopher, and he speaks of racism and the conditions of race as being America’s hidden wound, and what he means by that is that it is not especially hidden in any overt way, it is certainly not hidden from people of color, but it is the wound that white people hide from themselves, and it goes back to our legacy of slavery and genocide of indigenous people. And so, Oklahoma, because it’s unique history and its unique culture, is an especially wounded place because of how our history came together. So, this was a place that was the Promised Land for African Americans. They came here in the years in the post-reconstruction years, those years of, really, American terrorism in the American south, they came to Indian territory to build their own lands their own country.  There are more incorporated black towns in Oklahoma to this day than any other place in the nation. So, it was that kind of promise land for African American people, it was the place where indigenous people were force-marched on the largest bureaucratically administered ethnic cleansing program in this nation’s history, what we call now the Trail of Tears, the removals of indigenous tribal people from their homelands in the American south and brought out here.  It was a place where the white culture that came in brought the kinds of racism and race history that they lived through in the American south into this place. So, there is a writer named Scott Malcomson, who wrote a wonderful book called One Drop of a Blood, and it is about it is a study of race in America and he keeps returning to Oklahoma. He calls it the great experiment of race that happened in this place.  So there was this coming together of these three, what have been called, the founding races of the nation that we call now United States, African American, Native American, and European American, right here in this place, and then it erupted finally into the great cataclysm of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.  What we call now the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.

BELL: Right. So, you have been intentional in your work as a writer in addressing all of the issues that you have just sort of started bringing up to us and I wonder if you could tell us a bit about why and how you chose to do that?

ASKEW: I left Oklahoma in the late 1980’s, I moved to New York and left here completely ignorant of the truth of our history. I knew the story of the Trail of Tears. I knew it in a sense a sort of sentimental way. I had no idea of the incredible devastation, or even that it affected all kinds of other tribes besides the Cherokees, which is, I had this sort of image of, you know, people walking along the trail with the wind blowing their hair and wrapped in ragged blankets but I had no idea that the Cherokees lost a quarter of their people. So, with all of the other five...what we call now the "Five Civilized Tribes", I have to put quotations around all of these things because this is the language of the dominant culture, this is the language of the story that we tell ourselves about who we are and how we came to be here. So...but I knew nothing about African American history in Oklahoma. I had no idea of the strength of the black community in Oklahoma through all of the years leading up to the riot of 1921, and I certainly had no idea about that riot.

BELL: Well, when did you first learn about that and can you tell us in your own words and sort of give us a description of that event in 1921 of the Tulsa Race Riot.

ASKEW: Well, the last verse...I'll tell as much as I can compress it, because, in fact, it is a huge complicated story and you have to know all of the components that went into to create the climate that made this the largest, most devastating assault by white Americans on black Americans in America history, that happened in Tulsa, OK, and then was just covered up. So, the basic outline of what happened is that there was an accusation of assault against a black man and threat that he was going to be lynched. His name was Dick Roland. He worked as a boot-black in downtown Tulsa. He was going upstairs in the Drexel Building in an elevator. The elevator operator was a young white woman. Something happened in the elevator, nobody knows what, and possibly there was a lurch.  It stopped suddenly he fell against her. He stepped on her foot. There are many stories of what happened. In any case, she screamed, he ran, he went back to North Tulsa. You have to know about the segregation, incredible segregation, that existed at that time, so, he moved, he went back across the tracks to North Tulsa to an area called Greenwood, the very wealthy and secure black district in Tulsa. Later, he was arrested, there was a lot of yellow journalism involved. You know, the newspapers were saying...they released an editorial saying to, "Lynch Negro Tonight." The white mobs began to gather and a number of African American men armed themselves, came downtown to prevent that lynching from happening. And, you have to know the history of lynching in this state and in this nation to understand how certain it was that he was going to be lynched. When that happened there was an outbreak of gunfire and then, what happened was essentially a race war took place in downtown Tulsa. Eventually the African American contingent, who were outnumbered, outgunned, fell back across the tracks into Greenwood, and all through the night the whites armed themselves. The word went out all through Oklahoma, all through the oil fields that there was a quote unquote negro uprising in Tulsa. By dawn, there was some 10,000 armed whites who lined up at the railroad tracks and went into North Tulsa, into Greenwood, burned it to the ground. We don’t to this day know how many died, the best estimate is that it was probably around 300. Some one thousand homes and businesses were destroyed, this entire downtown district, with its movie theater and it’s, you know, newspapers and churches, all burned to the ground, and then, in a very short period of time, it was completely covered up. So, when we think about American history, and come to understand that not only did white Oklahomans not know about this, the rest of America didn’t know about this, later, our generation, the generation prior, just before me, only the ones who were alive in 1921 knew about it and they knew because it was the biggest news in the nation. It was news that went out all over the world. So, you think about that. How could that be collectively forgotten about?

BELL: What do you think the reason for that is?  I mean, I know that a lot of people from Oklahoma, people in the black community, this is not news to them, but for even, I would imagine, a number of people that are here in the room with us right now your retelling of that story may be a new story to them. So where did that cover up begin?  Where does that disconnect come from and why is it still happening now?

ASKEW: The cover-up began with the dominant culture. It began in the, you know...people sent money from all over the nation to try to help the black community in Tulsa rebuild and the city fathers in Tulsa turned that money back and said, "No, we will take care of it. We will take care of it." They started right away minimizing, blaming, the only people who were ever arrested and charged with rioting were not the white rioters but the African American people who were arrested following that event. So, there are some who call it a culture of silence, that is was about shame, it was about embarrassment, that we didn’t want to acknowledge this about ourselves and that is no doubt part of it, but it is also, I believe, it was also very much a conspiracy of silence. And, I think that there was a strong effort on the part of the city fathers and the government, the dominant culture, to suppress that news and... You know. Who wants to move to a place where this thing happens? You know, there are rumors. People who are wanting people, you know, the people who want people to come to Oklahoma and invest here and bring their money and their trade and so, if this is the kind of place it is, well, that is not going to happen. So, a lot of it I think was for that reason. And then also the additional reasons of shame and also this additional thing that we in the dominant culture have which is a complete unwillingness to see ourselves as the bad guys, we just can’t do it. And so, it makes a sort of a... like a...whether it is lacuna, whether it is a place that we sort of lose in our memory or whether it is an actual act of denial, who can say? But, I think that is a big part of it, and it is one of the reasons, you know, when we talk about Race Matters and we say, "our most uncomfortable subject," Amen to that. And I know that people, and white people, will talk about race among white people, and African American people will talk about it among themselves, and people from Latino culture and all, and Indian culture, all of those cultures, but it is hard to talk across the divide and that is what we have got to do. Did I answer your question?

BELL: Yes you did.

BELL: This is Race Matters. I am Merelyn Bell. If you are just joining us, we are listening to a conversation with award winning novelist Rilla Askew, recorded in front of a live audience at the University of Oklahoma. We now return to our discussion about her most famous book, Fire in Beulah, which discusses the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921.

BELL: When did you start that research and how did you go about finding out the truth of this event in order to write about it?

ASKEW: I started the research in 1989; I finished the book in the spring of 2000. It took 11 years to research it and write. And, my first...I found out about it, I was reading a biography of the great African American novelist Richard Wright, and in that book, in the first few pages, there was mention of a riot that happened in Tulsa, and I was devastated. I thought, a race riot that happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma? I never heard of this thing. I grew up 50 miles from there.  How could that be? And then I called my sister, who lived in Tulsa, I said, "Ruth, did you know that there was a race riot in Tulsa a long time ago?" And she said, "Yea, I knew that," and I said "How did you know it and I didn’t know it?" and she said, "Vashta told me." Vashta was her then husband’s grandmother, who had been a young girl, 13-year-old girl white girl growing up at the edge of the Greenwood district, and her father came and got her and took her downtown the day after the riot, showed her the bodies, showed her... You know, they talk about the bodies of African American people being stacked up like cord wood. Vashta witnessed it, and she told her granddaughter in law about it in the 1970’s. But Ruth never thought to tell me, see that is my sister, that is a strange thing to me that she never said, "Hey did you know this?"  So, I went to Tulsa and I started trying to research it and I went to the library and the first thing I did was go to look for the archives for the newspapers of the Tulsa World and the Tulsa Tribune from May of 1921, it happened May 31 to June 1st, they were gone. So, the archives went right up to the beginning of May, they started again in September, but you could not find the Tulsa World or the Tulsa Tribune, the articles that talked about the riot. So, I went to the librarians and then said, “Do you know where this is?” and she said, “Oh, I know what you want to talk about.” She directed me to Crisis Magazine the New York Times, all kinds of other places that they didn’t think to purge, and so I found out about it by looking at national and looking at the black newspapers, that is the other thing, I went to the Ralph Ellison Library in Oklahoma City, where they have wonderful archives, I read all of the articles in the Black Dispatch, which was edited by Rusco Dungee in a really powerful way of looking at it, and I looked at other newspaper articles that gave me that language of that era. It's hard to imagine, I mean, I grew up in the 1960’s, I grew up in civil rights era, we had a different kind of language, we had a polite language and a not so polite language just as we do today, but if you go back and look at the newspapers and the language of the era and of the time it is so overt of the dominant culture. It is so overtly racist you shudder to read it, you know, but if you got to find out what happened you go to read it so, that is how I researched and it took that long to write it because I had to try to find a way not only to tell the story of the riot but of the conditions that led to the riot. So, it took a lot of extraneous research and not just about the event itself.

BELL: Now that you have written this book and you are more aware of these issues, your...I guess you are sort of prepared more, I would imagine, to have these uncomfortable conversations. You know, even with your sister and how she didn’t tell you, but, I was struck by the fact that you said that, even within your own family these things weren’t shared, and I wonder how we can, you know, progress together, not just as Oklahomans but as Americans, in these conversations without all of the pertinent information that you know have.

ASKEW: Pertinent information – that is the key.

BELL: Right. How do we move forward in this wounded place?  Like, there is a wound there but a lot of people don’t even know that it's there, so how do we move forward together to a better place, with a healing, you know, with a healed wound there, if we don’t even have that pertinent information?

ASKEW: Well, we are looking for reconciliation, I think, there is a wonderful John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation in Tulsa where people from, and let me just make a quick aside here because the problems of race and culture are not a binary between black and white, these same issues affect us, they affect Indian people, they affect Hispanic people, they affect Asian people, this goes across the board...we just happened to be talking, as it happens to be, about the black/white conflict and history. But, the first thing that we have to do is educate ourselves and this is true for all of us and, I think, for those of us in the dominant culture, we cannot excuse ourselves by what we don’t know any more than the Germans could excuse themselves about what they didn’t know about those camps. You know, we are responsible for the truth of our history and there is no one alive today who has been paying attention in the least bit to the news for the past year from Ferguson back before that Treyvon Martin, through Ferguson, through Baltimore, through Charleston, through all of these events...who does not understand that we have a terrible, terrible situation that continues to exist, and I know that people from the dominant culture, especially if they themselves don’t have over biases, think that it is all over. We had a great Hallelujah when we had a bi-racial president elected, we are living in a "post-racial" America, and then these videos start coming out and we come to understand that we are nowhere near post-racial. And that...so, we have to know the truth, and for people who come from the dominant culture, who can drive down the street without being worried about being racially profiled, who can walk wherever they choose to walk, who can go through walk through a store without having, you know, employees follow them as if they are going to steal something...we need to know what it is like to not be able to do that, we need to know what it is like to have to walk through the world with an entire system and a culture that is stacked against you; that is just the truth. And so, a sort of ignorance of it is not going to help anything about healing the wounds. The wounds are not just from the past they are in the conditions that we live in today, and my comfort about talking about these things is because my family, my adopted family, my God children, are all black. They live in Brooklyn, they are west Indian, they are Jamaican, they have suffered. I have watched my God son, he's 25 now, he has been in my life since he was a tiny babe in my arms. I have watched what it means to be a young black man growing up in this country. I have watched what has happened with him in his schools. I have watched what has happened with him being racially profiled.  His father being beaten terribly by the police in Brooklyn. So, the things that we...the things that I know personally, that the things that happened in the news are not rare. They are not unique, it is what people face every day. American Indians are killed at the highest rate by law enforcement of any other culture in this country. We have got a lot to deal with, but, because this family is my family we talk about this all the time. I talk about race all of the time, across that quote unquote "divide", because it is not a divide, because we are just family. So, that is one thing. So, it is going to happen, we have to educate ourselves, but it is also going to happen within friendship, it's also going to happen within families, it is going to happen within education, it's going to happen on all kinds of personal levels as well as educational levels, and it is going to happen with white people raising our own consciousness to come to understand the truth not only of our past but of our conditions as they are now. So that we can say that this is an American problem. It is not their problem out there this is our problem. 

BELL: You mentioned talking about these issues with your own family and your own friends, the people in your life, but, I know you are familiar with the work of filmmaker and activist Jose Antonio Vargas, he made a film for a documentary for MTV titled White People, and one of the things I learned in that documentary was that a majority of young white people are not talking about these issues. So, I wonder, being familiar with the work, if you feel like that the type of activism, and relating to young white people in particular that he is doing, is useful in elevating the conversations and elevating the level of consciousness among young people.

ASKEW: I think it is absolutely useful.  The young people that I know, once they sort of become alert to these things or aware of them, have a willingness to understand. It doesn’t mean that it is comfortable. You know, I used to, in the multi-cultural 1990’s I was living in Brooklyn teaching in Brooklyn, and so Brooklyn is the world, and so my Korean-American students when we had you know assignments to talk about in their culture, all of my students of color could absolutely talk about their culture. The white kids were like, "I don’t know. I am American," you know? They didn’t have any sense of being separate, being our own identity, and those are the privileges, and what I call the presumptions, of whiteness, and that is an acute thing. It takes an entire lifetime of education. I still find presumptions all of the time that I didn’t know that I had just because I come from a dominant culture, it takes a great will. But I think that the things that we have seen in the news can make a huge difference for young people who really care, you know, I think education, I think teachers who challenge us, can make a big difference. I haven’t, so far, personally seen an unwillingness I have seen just a lack of knowledge, a lack of awareness, a lack of...you know people are naturally solipsistic, we all just basically care about, you know, we look around the circle, we look at ourselves, we don’t really look outside of that. But that is the place for the university. It is a place for us to all work as best we can to raise the consciousness of everyone about what it means to be an American.

BELL: From what you have told us today it seems to me like you feel—and I don’t want to put words in your mouth, I want you to actually answer this—feel not only a responsibility to know about these issues but a responsibility because of your privilege to advocate for others. Do you think that there is a responsibility that comes with privilege?

ASKEW: Absolutely. Absolutely, I think you worded extremely well. And sometimes we use the word "ally", and it is absolutely true that immigrants need allies, that people of color need allies, that people who are facing a prejudiced and violent and not just judicial system, need allies from the dominant culture. So, yea. I think there is the old adage to whom much is given much is expected, or, however that phrase goes, it is the same kind of thing. If all the more reason for us to educate ourselves and say, "I am going to be on the right side of this," and "I am going to find out what it is that you are living through, what it is that we are all living through together." "I am going to find out about this past. And, what can I do to change it?" And there are a hundred thousand ways, you know, there are ways that have to do with activism and also ways that have to do simply with how we behave with one another and how we talk to one another and how we reach across the room.

BELL: What is next for you in your writing and your professional life?

ASKEW: I am working on a series of essays that deal very much...it's essays about race and place. It is called Most American and it identifies, that is my thesis, that Oklahoma is one of the most American places in the country that we are a microcosm, and that our history and our present condition is a microcosm of the United States of America for multiple reasons, some of which I have talked about now. So, I have...it takes a lot of varieties of forms, these different essays, but there are personal essays following that.

BELL: What is your hope for Oklahoma as a state and for the country as a whole in terms of race relations and our progress?

ASKEW: I have great hope because of the younger generation, and I see tremendous willingness on the part of young people to put all of that bad history, not behind us, not knowing about it, but just saying, "We are not going to be like that. That is not the America that we are going to build, that is not the American that we are going to live in." So I have great hope in that sense. I think our politics are really a mess and it is really sad that, I think, on the state level and on the national level and, I think, that they don’t contribute to making any of this better but, therefore, I am hoping that a lot of these same young people who care about these issues will go into politics, will go into making changes in all of the ways that we can. But, one of the areas... we needed an education, but we also need leadership, we need political will, and that is going to take time.

BELL: But, there are a lot of other things that people can do. You were talking about those 100,000 different ways, and I think a lot of people think well, if I, you know, I can’t run for office then, you know, if I don’t have it in me to run for office then what can I really do? You know? What are some specific things that you think people can really do every day?

ASKEW: I think one thing is to never stand by silently when you hear racist remarks or you hear, you know, ageist remarks, or you hear ablest remarks or any other kind of remark that disparages any potentially marginalized group, but I think there is a way that we have to learn to not come back with combativeness, but come back with barring witness. Come back with knowledge and knowledge of  the truth of how things are so that we are not just condemning the person who is speaking out of, usually, of ignorance and sometimes out of ill will, but more often truly out of ignorance, that is the thing that I see. I really see it on Facebook, you know? All of these friends that I knew from high school and I am going, "Oh, you thought like that? I never knew."  So, I think that is one thing, just not holding silence. Educating ourselves, raising our consciousness, not holding silence, and then seeing where, in terms of where our lives are leading us, where we can make a difference. 

BELL: Well thank you for making a difference with us here today and thank you for being on Race Matters.

ASKEW: Thank you.