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Get the Full Story
Date posted:  October 14, 2021

The significance of history is that it has a unity and continuity to promote the betterment for all mankind.  Though, with history we must reckon with thoughts such as: Why certain topics are chosen for examination and record keeping, why certain topics were avoided, and what’s happening in the world today.  In her book “Riot on Greenwood: The total destruction of Black Wall Street, 1921,” Eddie Faye Gates says, 

There are so many powerful lessons to be learned from the study of history.  Mankind can use the lessons of history to avoid patterns of thought and behavior that do not promote peace, harmony, and prosperity in the world.  People can use and enhance patterns of thought and behavior that do promote peace (pp. 1-2).

History, and the telling of history, is a formidable tool that has the ability to inspire both negatively and positively.  Facing the past, truthfully, is a step toward healing.  As Mrs. Gates says, “You can’t undo history, but what you can do is learn lessons from it so you don’t repeat mistakes of the past” (p. 3).  I see working at Gilcrease with the Eddie Faye Gates Tulsa Race Massacre collection as a way to empower marginalized stories and traumatizing histories, while disempowering controversial topics that have often led to division.

The first step in not repeating the past, though, begins with an accurate representation of the past.  “Self-preservation history,” as Eddie Faye Gates calls it, is a history that protects and promotes the status quo.  It is a mistelling of history that promotes the continuation of the political, economic, and social condition in nations at the time.  100 years ago, on this day exactly, an angry White mob continued destroying 35 square blocks in the Greenwood district--burning countless Black owned businesses, more than 1,000 homes, and murdering hundreds of Black Greenwood residents.  While these devastating events were covered in publications such as the New York Times and the Times of London, and while White Tulsans boasted about the bloodshed selling photographic postcards of the carnage, a culture of silence soon fell over this Tulsa community.  The 18 hour massacre that wreaked havoc on this prominent Black community remained so buried that many Oklahomans had no idea this ugly piece of Oklahoma history existed.  

Just weeks ago, the Oklahoma Legislature, with overwhelming support, passed House Bill 1775. By signing this bill into law, Governor Kevin Stitt (R) has now forbidden the teaching of Critical Race Theory from K-12 schools and Universities.  Critical Race Theory, or CRT for short, examines the way race and racism influence American politics, legal systems and society.  In short, the same motivations undergirding support for this bill are akin to the egregious removal of Tulsa’s massacre from history books and newspapers for decades.  Supporting this bill means supporting the continuation of White supremacy and White privilege, as this bill works toward silencing how White people in America have profited, and continue to profit from a racial and capitalistic hierarchy that deems them superior.  CRT would critically address the deadly influence of race on the drowning of a 17-year-old Black boy named Eugene Williams on July 27, 1919.  When Williams crossed the unofficial barrier between Chicago’s White and Black beaches while swimming in Lake Michigan, a group of White men threw stones at him until he fell unconscious and drowned.  His death catalyzed one of the most dramatic race massacres during one of our country’s most hideous stains, the Red Summer of 1919.  The Red Summer, where angry White mobs mixed with a racially fraught atmosphere led to race massacres in Washington, D.C.; Knoxville, Tennessee; Longview, Texas; Phillips County, Arkansas; Omaha, Nebraska and most markedly, Chicago.  

Critical Race Theory would also examine how race was the leading motivating factor in the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre as well as why the history of Greenwood, Black Wall Street, and Tulsa, Oklahoma have remained one of the least known events for over 9 decades.  Right now, Oklahoma is under attack from those who want to censor the racist history of our past, sanitizing just how integral race has been in informing American ideals and systems of “democracy.”  This is why the Eddie Faye Gates Tulsa Race Massacre collection at Gilcrease Museum is so timely and imperative.  In order to understand the direction in which Oklahoma is moving with the signing of House Bill 1775, we must comprehensively unpack Oklahoma’s history.  Oklahoma’s history is wrought with segregation and racial violence toward Black citizens.  Following the land run of 1889, Black inhabitants in Oklahoma territory were hopeful to escape the harsh discrimination of Jim Crow they experienced in the Old South.  The formation of Black towns in the territorial and early statehood period provided solace to Black Oklahomans, but unfortunately, Oklahoma territory wrapped itself up in the fabric of Jim Crow and in 1907 when Oklahoma approved the state’s constitution, the practice of segregation was upheld.  In the following clip, Fannie Hill talks to Mrs. Gates about segregation in her home state, Georgia, and the segregation she experienced in Oklahoma, specifically, Tulsa.

Contrary to Mrs. Hill’s experience, In 1997, Dr. John Hope Franklin and Dr. Scott Ellsworth produced a report for the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.  In it they begin with a brief historical introduction of the state as Oklahoma prepared to celebrate the centennial of statehood.  They say, 

It isn’t difficult to look upon the history of our state with anything short of awe and wonder.  In ninety-three short years, whole towns and cities have sprouted upon the prairies, great cultural and educational institutions have risen among the blackjacks, and the state’s agricultural and industrial output has far surpassed even the wildest dreams of the Boomers.  In less than a century, Oklahoma has transformed itself from a rawboned territory more at home in the nineteenth century into a shining example of both the promise and the reality of the American dream.  In looking back upon our past, we have much to take pride in.

And for a moment I’d like to look back at some of these proud pieces of Oklahoma history; such as, the first, most successful, and longest sit-in movement led by Clara Luper; Roscoe Dunjee, AJ Smitherman, and the major role Black journalism and media played in Oklahoma’s Civil Rights movement; Oklahoma’s artistic history, which includes several jazz hall of fame musicians and festivals curated by Anita Arnold; the creation of prominent all-Black towns such as Langston, Boley, and Okmulgee, and lastly; the dynamic scholars and artists bred in the state, like Dr. Cornel West, Ralph Ellison, and Alfre Woodard.  There is a great deal we should be proud of as Okies, though it would be remiss of me not to also include the heartache in our state’s history.  The first century of Oklahoma’s statehood also includes dust storms, a Great Depression, political scandals and Jim Crow legislation, tumbling oil prices, truckloads of Oklahomans moving west, and two 20th century tragedies that sadly stand head and shoulders above the others, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and the attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Downtown Oklahoma City by American terrorist Timothy McVeight on April 19, 1995.

In order to avoid repeating the past, as Eddie Faye Gates says, we must be honest.  And with this collection, it is my hope to be as honest about the past as I can be, by learning from those who experienced it firsthand.  In one oral history interview from this collection Mrs. Gates did with Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame musician Alfred Stanley Dennie she said, 

We’re learning from the people themselves what happened.  We don’t have to wait on Harvard professors to tell us what happened during the race riot and the effects it had on people, you’re telling us.  And that’s what the purpose of this type of documenting is.

If Oklahoma’s legislature has taught us anything it is that we should not wait on others to tell our story, if we do, it no longer belongs to us.  Story work is therapy, as there is immense power in storytelling.  Telling your story may be the most potent medicine on earth, and when they go untold they have the ability to negatively manifest physically, leaving some feeling sick, or worse, causing these generational traumas to reproduce and continue living generations later.  When we tell our stories we turn off our body’s stress responses, triggering innate self-repair mechanisms.  Eddie Faye Gates had foresight and a vision for preserving the history of the race massacre, Greenwood’s past, and North Tulsa.  To her, she was steadfast in ensuring this history was informed by those who experienced it directly; relying on our elders, who are living memory bearers, to help shape future generations in learning about this dynamic North Tulsa community.  

This archival collection the Gates’ family gifted Gilcrease is an expansive story of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, North Tulsa’s community, but more subtly, this archive tells a story about Mrs. Gates and her life’s work to preserve such obscure history.  Archives tell stories.  They can also ensure justice.  In short, the Eddie Faye Gates Tulsa Race massacre collection represents a democratic vision Mrs. Gates had.  A vision that included voices that are otherwise left out of dominant narratives.  We’re living during a time where information is distorted and has an acute impact on democracy.  People have the right to understand the society they live in, and public archives, such as the Eddie Faye Gates collection, are an accountability measure to ensure democratic principles are upheld.  It is my hope that through this collection we are all reminded that our decisions have tangible impacts, and we all make better decisions when we are well informed.

One thing that stands out to me as I continue to acquaint myself with this collection is that for Eddie Faye Gates, her work was not about blaming; rather, through her oral history accounts with race massacre survivors and North Tulsans she highlights examples of compassion and community.  She documented not only stories of trauma in this collection but also resiliency, vibrancy, hope, and healing.  Amid the destruction, death, and catastrophe that was the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, there are so many stories from survivors about people helping people.  Imagine this, you’re fleeing from a shower of bullets,  like in an Oklahoma hail storm, and balls of fire are raining from above, with children in tote, yet still reaching out a hand to help carry an injured elder.  This was the story of Juanita McGowan Burnett Arnold, though there are scores of stories from massacre survivors that include examples of helping others escape the massacre, and aid given by some after the massacre to help others rebuild homes and businesses that were destroyed.  Such occurrences are important to consider--people putting others ahead of their own well being.  Even during such a disastrous point in time, the spirit of compassion and community could not, and would not, be destroyed in Greenwood.

As I stand here, I celebrate Eddie Faye Gates and pay homage to her legacy and her labor.  I honor the foremothers whose lives and labor set precedence for us, for me, to survive and thrive!  To the spirited and visionary women like Eddie Faye Gates, Clara Luper, Nancy Randolph Davis, Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, Winona Mondine, Fannie Hodges, and Cheryl Brown, I say thank you.  Thank you for your sacrifices and your selflessness.  Thank you for enduring through life’s circumstances.  The legacy of these women, and women like them, remain in the hearts of those they touched.  Each day we wake it is our daily assignment to magnify these women and merit their living.  This collection made possible by Eddie Faye Gates and the generous gift of her family members is a living time capsule which contains a breadth and depth of knowledge and wisdom.  

Though, it would be irresponsible of me if I did not take a moment to recognize the tireless efforts it took for Mrs. Gates to build this collection.  Before dedicating her career to oral history, archival work, and authoring, Mrs. Gates spent 22 years as a high school teacher in Oklahoma.  As a former teacher myself, I recognize that teaching is a tough job, but it is one where you can make the most impact in another person’s life.  Though Mrs. Gates retired from the classroom, her impact on others’ lives and on history continued to grow.  Rescuing the narratives of more than 200 Tulsa Race Massacre survivors, information from more than 300 of their descendants, and over 100 White accounts of the Tulsa Race Massacre, Eddie Faye Gates committed her life to preserving a history that may otherwise have remained a secret.  But more than that, she built an intimate and trusting relationship with this community of survivors and descendants fully understanding the potential impact these traumatizing stories could have on her.  Long-term she threw herself into such difficult subject matter hoping that her work would greatly benefit the people and communities with whom she worked.

This collection contains more than 700 photos, and as I move through this photographic history I really take the time to see her pictures, really taking in the images represented on each photo.  And as I’m doing that I can’t help but take notice of Eddie Faye Gates’ life before my eyes.  Some of her earlier photos with race massacre survivor Veneice Simms in 1999 through her visit to the White House in 2005, she’s been gathering, documenting, and preserving history for over two decades.  These images are photographic representations of Eddie Faye Gates’ life while piecing together a puzzle that was never meant to be solved.  And, photographically she is cementing faces into history, making visible her motivations for pursuing this decades long uncovering.  This collection, through Eddie Faye Gates’ love of “[constantly] snapping of photographs” (p. 17), is also a tribute to her family--showcasing how pertinent family meant to Mrs. Gates and remembering her family’s legacy.  Again, I would like to extend my deepest gratitude to the Gates’ family for gifting Gilcrease with this collection.  But most importantly, gifting us with her.  Her knowledge, the fruits of her labor, her drive, her passions, her joys.  This collection is immortalizing the lives and stories of race massacre survivors and Greenwood’s past.  Yet, through these stories I am simultaneously watching the life of Eddie Faye Gates evolve, develop, and even age.  And soon, she becomes the story for me.  So this collection, in ways, is a story within a story.  And while I will work with this collection to further tell the story of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and North Tulsa’s past, I am also drawn to telling the story of Eddie Faye Gates.  Such as her motivations for taking on such an important yet laborious task, which she briefly explains in the following clip.  

This portion of the lecture will now feature survivor stories as well as images from the Eddie Faye Gates Tulsa Race Massacre collection we have here at Gilcrease.  The slide show will play Hal Singer’s rendition of a Motherless Child from his album Senior Blues.  Harold (Hal) “Cornbread” Singer was one-years-old at the time of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.  He later left Tulsa to play the new music in Paris, France and never returned.  So without further ado, here is a sneak peak of some of the materials archived in this collection.  

Lastly, a message from Robert Fairchild, who has become one of my favorite individuals in this collection.  Mr. Fairchild sat down with Mrs. Gates at Vernon AME and gifted her with an oral history of his life and upbringing in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

I think this mindset, especially considering such adverse situations, is something we should all take with us tonight.  If this collection teaches us nothing else, it is my hope that it teaches us all that in our living, we have permission to live beyond our circumstances and past our traumas.  Mr. Fairchild, a man who lost his father at 11, grew up an orphan when his mother became unable to care for him and his siblings, was stolen from, dehumanized, and suffered from significant health problems still has the heart to be grateful and appreciate the good in his life that offsets the bad.  I am thankful that through this collection, Eddie Faye Gates juxtaposes the good with the bad, and reminds us that there is purpose in our living.  And lastly, it is my hope that this collection stands as a call to action.  As a professional educator, I’d like to think that the passing of House Bill 1775 would be deeply concerning for Gates; her work began with a search for historical truth.  In order to truly honor her legacy and pay tribute to her labor, we must continue her quest toward a history that is unrestricted.

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, grant CAGML-247978-OMLS-20. The views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.