By Ed Boitano
As I stood in downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma, I was amazed by the lushness of its greenery and sense of cosmopolitism. This was my first trip to Oklahoma, and in my naiveté, I had thought the whole state was one big Dust Bowl. Perhaps I had seen John Ford’s film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath too many times, but that image had been branded in my mind. As the late afternoon sun lowered, showering the cityscape in a stunning Oklahoma Technicolor sunset, my preconceived notions had just ended. I couldn’t wait to explore this culturally vibrant yet unfamiliar city.
In a region known as “Green Country,” Tulsa rests on the Arkansas River, between the Osage Hills and the foothills of the Ozark Mountains in northeast Oklahoma. It was first settled in 1828 by the Loachapoka Band of Creek Nation during the disturbing period of the Indian Removal Act. The city boomed during the 20th century as an important center for the U.S oil industry, making Tulsa County the most densely populated area in Oklahoma. Today Tulsa is the cultural and arts center of Oklahoma, showcasing ballet and opera companies, grandiose 20th-century churches and one of the nation’s largest concentrations of Art Deco architecture. Its collection of world-class museums includes the Gilcrease Museum of Art and the Philbrook Museum of Art.
The Woody Guthrie Center is an inspiring tribute to the man best known for composing the song “This Land Is Your Land,” as well as championing social equality to all Americans through music. Woodrow Wilson Guthrie (born July 14, 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma) chronicled the plight of common people, especially during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl era. He headed for California, traveling by freight train, hitchhiking or simply walking westward. He supported himself by singing and playing in taverns, taking odd jobs and visiting hobo camps – giving him an unflinching education of a world where the rich had everything and the poor, nothing. In Los Angeles, he landed a job at a radio station, where his songs gave voice to the struggles of the dispossessed and downtrodden, while still celebrating their indomitable spirit. His activist music later had a tremendous influence on everyone from Bob Dylan and Joan Baez to Rambling Jack Elliott and Phil Ochs.
The Cherokee National Museum is located just outside of Tulsa in Park Hill. The center includes the Adams Corner Rural Village, Cherokee Family Research Center and Cherokee National Archives, which houses the award-winning Trail of Tears interpretive exhibition – an experience that will stir you to the depths of your soul. In 1830, President Andrew Jackson pushed a new piece of legislation through Congress called the “Indian Removal Act.” American-Indian Tribes were to give up their lands east of the Mississippi River in exchange for lands to the west in the Oklahoma Territory. The 22,000 members of the Cherokee Nation, based primarily in northern Georgia, refused to relocate. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall sided with the Cherokee, saying they had a constitutional right to stay in their ancestral homeland. Jackson said, “Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!”
In 1838, the U.S. Government sent in 7,000 troops, who forced the Cherokee into stockades at bayonet point. They were not allowed time to gather their belongings, and, as they departed, their homes were looted by new white settlers before their very eyes. The Cherokee began a thousand-mile march to an area now in present-day Oklahoma, just outside of Tulsa. Over 4,000 out of 16,000 Cherokee people died of cold, hunger, exhaustion and disease, primarily seniors and infants. The Cherokee people call this journey “The Trail Where They Cried” (Anglicized into “The Trail of Tears“) – a journey that saw more people die than perished in the attacks of September 11, 2001. In the years that followed, the Cherokee struggled to reassert themselves in this new, unfamiliar land. Soon they transformed the area, creating a progressive court and education system with a literacy rate higher than the rest of the U.S. Many Euro-American settlers took advantage of their superior schools, paying tuition to have their children attend the Cherokee schools. The state grew up around the nations of the American-Indian Territory, and that influence can be seen today.
Will Rogers Memorial Museum. Many images come to mind at the mention of William Penn Adair “Will” Rogers: a rope-twirling Cherokee-American cowboy, radio personality, humorist, newspaper columnist, social commentator, vaudeville performer and actor who starred in 71 movies. Rogers was born to a prominent Indian Territory family in 1879. His father was a Cherokee senator and a judge who helped write the Oklahoma Constitution.
The Will Rogers Memorial Museum, just a stone’s throw away from Tulsa in Claremore, memorializes him with artifacts, photographs, films and manuscripts pertaining to his remarkable life. I particularly enjoyed a section of the spacious museum, dedicated to his quotations. My favorite: “Everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects.” Rogers’ tomb is located on the museum’s 20-acre grounds overlooking Claremore.
The small Greenwood Cultural Center houses one of the most bleak and secretive tragedies in U.S. history: The Tulsa Race Riot. The Greenwood District was an affluent African-American community, nationally known as the Black Wall Street. During the Jim Crow south of 1921, most of Tulsa’s 10,000 black residents lived in that neighborhood, which included a thriving business district, expensive homes, nationally-known doctors, lawyers, bankers, business owners and even millionaires.
Due to segregation, it was almost like a self-contained city, where citizens conducted all their business in the 300 black-owned businesses. Due to a claim by a white female elevator operator that the black 19-year-old shoeshine man, Dick Rowland, did something to offend her in the elevator, the man was immediately sent to jail. Rumors of what had supposedly happened began to circulate through the city’s white community. That afternoon a front-page story in the Tulsa Tribune enraged the white populace to a boiling point with the report that police had arrested a Negro man for sexually assaulting a white woman.
White mobs assembled outside the courthouse, where Rowland was held for his safety, demanding that he be lynched. When the mob attempted to storm the building, the sheriff and his deputies heroically dispersed the crowd away. In the following early morning hours of June 1, 1921, vigilante mobs of white rioters poured into Greenwood, killing, looting and burning all 35 blocks to the ground. The city government of Tulsa conspired with the mob, arresting more than 6,000 black residents and refusing to provide them with protection or assistance. Law enforcement officials used airplanes to drop firebombs on buildings, homes and fleeing families, stating they were protecting the city against a “Negro uprising.” Over 6,000 African-Americans were imprisoned, and historians believe as many as 300 African-Americans were killed, while thousands were left homeless. News reports were largely squelched. You will hardly find any mention of the worst U.S. incident of racial violence in any public school history books or in private conversations.
The Tulsa Race Riot remains the worst incident of racial violence in U.S. history. Thankfully, the Greenwood Cultural Center keeps this story alive today. Its mission is to preserve African-American heritage and promote positive images of the African-American community by providing educational and cultural experiences promoting intercultural exchange and encouraging cultural tourism.
There was still much to do in Tulsa, a city that receives little national coverage. There were more museums to see, plus I still didn’t get my fill of the Texas-Oklahoma specialty: chicken-fried steak.
For further information about Tulsa, go to visittulsa.com.