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30 June 2002
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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 13 Numbers 2 and 3, 2003






Olga Idriss Davis

Arizona State University


Abstract. The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 has recently garnered much public awareness of the historical significance of the African American community at the turn of the 20th century. Engendering themes of economic empowerment, privilege and oppression, struggle and resistance, a look at the stories of survivors of one of the most heinous riots in American history illuminates the role of community as a performance of survival. The 1921 Tulsa Race Riot informs how survivors socially construct community in ways that resist a dominant discourse determined to obfuscate their identity. In addition, riot research poses new questions of philosophical, ethical, and cultural responsibility situating the researcher-scholar at the center of a historical continuum.

This essay critically explores how narrative discourse of Race Riot survivors informs a performance of community and offers future directions for African American communication scholarship. Framed within this context, African American communication experience offers a twofold query: “How does a performance of community illuminate the relationship between human communication and survival?” An additional query asks, “How does a narrative of struggle and resistance inform scholars of African American communication what work lies ahead in the 21st century?” To snoop, dig, and resurrect suggests that the study of discourse from the tradition of African American communication is a study of the legacy of survival.

I became intrigued with the North Tulsa business community known as “Greenwood,” or “Negro Wall Street,” and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 at a time in my life when I was searching for answers to my heritage, my family background, and my cultural history to pass on to my children. For years, I had wondered what my paternal grandfather, a prominent physician, was like; who he was, and why family members and relatives eluded my questions about him. As a child growing up, I was told, “Don’t ever ask your father about your grandfather.” “What’s this?” I said. “A hidden story? Wonder why they tell me not to question?” Being the precocious child I was, that was the very question I wanted to ask and was determined to one day snoop, dig, and resurrect the stories surrounding his life.

During the completion of my doctoral degree, I had to decide on a topic for my dissertation research. I pondered for a long time and then settled on the study of African American rhetoric and the role of narrative as an emancipatory and liberating form of resistance. However, during my indecision, I decided to mention my dilemma to my father. He remarked, “Why don’t you write about Tulsa? There’s a lot of history there and history about our family that you don’t know about.” I thought, “Here’s my opportunity to ask the unaskable, the unthinkable, the forbidden subject of my youth!” I intrepidly began my query, “Um, Daddy, what was Grandfather like?” He became silent, then responded, “Your grandfather was a fine man, a dapper, one of the first Black physicians in Tulsa, Oklahoma and a social activist. He spoke out against Jim Crow segregation and organized people when he was supposed to be silent. He was taken away to prison and we lost him to lynching.” He then paused for what seemed like a lifetime, and then said, “You know, I’m seventy years old and I still miss my father.”

Somewhere between the pain of that statement and the unheard tears of my father as he quickly hung up the phone, only later to mask his pain under the guise of a “bad phone connection,” I knew I had to locate Tulsa within me. The search for identity is an ongoing search for myself within the shadows of a people who have struggled, resisted, and survived the racial, economic, and social intolerance of Black life in America. My research has guided me–not as a canine sniffs out a bone, but as a motherless child searches for an unknown parent; or as an orphan given up to adoption searches relentlessly to discover what comprises her personality and health history; or as a veteran returning from war looks for that which will make him or her whole—the inclusivity of community.

When the Tulsa Race Riot is mentioned now, it is spoken as something of the past. In the Tulsa World of February 2001, a Tulsan complained, “The Tulsa race riot is history you read about it, you learn from it, then move on.” But, is it as simple as that? What does it mean to move on? Does the past inform our present? How do past decisions affect our present political situations? What of the stories of survivors and how they have overcome the haunting memories of burning homes, bombed businesses, and charred corpses lying in the streets of the once-booming Black business community? The survivors of the Race Riot are not thought of one by one, but as a group—a sorrowful, pitiful group, dead, buried, and forgotten. Yet their accounts told by some who are still living, about 127 at last count, are narrative discourses—stories—that reveal lives of courage and love, struggle and resistance, pain and despair, and transcendence and hope for future generations of the Tulsa community and of African American communities at-large. Mrs. Mabel Little, a 103-year-old community member states:

We have lost our memory as a people, so that we have no clear vision of our future. We have lost our sense of direction, if not our sense of purpose. We’re going to have to return to the past to see where we have been so we can know where we are going; not to get bogged down in the past, but to use the past as a springboard to a new and as yet unimagined future. We must take the best of the past and leave the rest alone. We must regain our memory as a people so that we will never again forget to make our future. We must “turn to the future for wine and bread and bid the past adieu.” But the past must live in our memories. (1990, p. 90).

Acknowledging Mrs. Little’s admonition, this essay charges scholars of African American communication in the 21st century to snoop, dig, and resurrect the narratives of African American lived-experience to illuminate the continuum of struggle and resistance of African American life in the United States. Noting this charge, the essay critically explores the ways in which community is performed as a collective memory of survival to explicate the rich tradition of African American communication experiences. In addition, this essay explores how narratives of survivors inform future directions for African American communication scholarship. A twofold query guides the exploration, “How does the performance of community illuminate the relationship between communication and survival?” An additional query asks, “How does a narrative of struggle and resistance inform scholars of African American communication what work lies ahead in the 21st century?” First, to snoop provides a history of the project and introduces the survivors interviewed. Second, to dig offers a methodological approach, which reveals discursive formations of power and how an oppressed community responds to exigency. In addition, this section offers a historical background of the Greenwood business district, which frames the collective experience of community and survival. Finally, to resurrect stories of Riot survivors framed with Turner’s theory of social drama suggests implications and future directions for scholars of African American communication.

To Snoop: Project History

In June 1998 and July 1999, I traveled to Tulsa, Oklahoma—first, to gather archival materials from the state and local historical societies and later, to interview elderly members of the North Tulsa community. The respondents ranged from eighty-four to one hundred three years of age and included both women and men. Each was willing to speak with me concerning North Tulsa at the turn of the century and offered insightful and descriptive accounts of the community they remembered. In addition, I had the opportunity of contacting survivors and gaining entrance into the community through a well-respected journalist whose family had begun the first African American newspaper in Tulsa. As a result of his credibility with the North Tulsa community, I was immediately seen as non-threatening and was invited to enter homes and convalescent centers to conduct my research. My guide offered verification of factual information and expanded my network of oral histories.

The participants interviewed include Mr. George Monroe, an 84-year-old native of Tulsa; Mrs. Jobie Holderness, a 97-year-old educator; Mr. John R. Moses, a 96-year-old resident of Tulsa and Pullman porter by trade; and Mrs. Mabel Little, a 103-year-old businesswoman of North Tulsa. My initial questions to each survivor during our interview were, “What was Greenwood like? What do you most remember about it?” And, “Do you view yourself as a victim or as a survivor of the race riot?”

Mr. Monroe was five years old when the riot occurred and continues to embrace the economic values and ethics instilled by his grandfather and other Greenwood business community members. He owned and managed The Pink Lady, a nightclub in North Tulsa:

I sure did love Greenwood Avenue in those days. Of course living so close to Greenwood and absorbing all that wonderful music that floated from down there I couldn’t help but develop a love of music. While I was still in high school in Tulsa I formed my own band. When I went away to Wiley College in Texas, I formed a band there called The Rhythm Aces. We played all over the Dallas area. . . .  From 1962–1982, I operated my own nightclub [in Tulsa], The Pink Lady. I had my own band there and I played drums in the band. I sure did enjoy that club and that music. (Interview, 24 July 1999)

Mrs. Jobie Holderness moved to Tulsa from the state of Texas in 1923. While she was not present for the race riot of 1921, her major contribution to the study of the Greenwood business district is in her narrative of the importance of education and economic sufficiency in the Black community of North Tulsa. As one of a handful of African American women teachers, Mrs. Holderness is known as a master teacher at the once-segregated Booker T. Washington High School in North Tulsa. In addition, she and her husband owned and operated a grocery store on Greenwood Avenue during the Reconstruction period subsequent to the race riot:

That store was more than just a store—it was a place where Black people in the community knew they could come to for help. It was sort of a community social service agency. Of course, first of all it was a store, an old-fashioned country store that had a little bit of everything in it—all kinds of food items, underclothes, socks, stockings, gloves, dresses, pants, shirts, hats, all kinds of notions that people needed. . . .  Some people didn’t come in to buy anything. They just came to visit or to get the correct time from our big, round Coca Cola clock on the wall. Others came for specific help—help in filling out forms and paperwork of all kinds, or help in getting sick people to the doctor or to the hospital, whichever was needed. (Interview, 26 July 1999)

Mr. John R. Moses, a former railroad porter and native of North Tulsa, informed me of his growing up in Muskogee, Oklahoma and being the neighbor to Dick Rowland, the Black man alleged to have ignited the race riot of 1921 as a result of an alleged assault on a White woman. Mr. Moses remembers North Tulsa’s Greenwood business district in its heyday—its stores and professional businesspersons thriving and its economic prowess expanding. Note his opinion on the demise of the Black community of Tulsa:

People were in business here. They were progressive. They were really progressive. . . .  I’ll tell you one thing that happened then. I think the main thing was segregation. You couldn’t go to buy nothing in the stores in town. You couldn’t buy everything you wanted. . . .  Most of our customers were all Black; south part was all White. Afterward, after the . . .  after this thing happened, people got to the place where they could go further—beyond. Before they couldn’t. They couldn’t because they were grouped over here, and they were very successful. (Moses Interview, 26 July 1999)

Mrs. Mabel Little, a 103-year-old businesswoman on Greenwood Avenue is a beautician by trade, a social activist, sage, author, and a self-appointed spokesperson for Tulsa’s African American community. She recalls North Tulsa when she arrived from Texas:

When I first was there, there was no street . . . there was no paved street there; didn’t have any paved streets there. See there wasn’t any pavement at all out here—it was no highway, when I came to Tulsa in 19 and 13 [1913]—September 21st. (Interview, June 1998)

The narrative of Mrs. Little points to the role of Black women in the 1900s not only as beauticians but also as businesswomen and their importance to the image creation of the African American community. Mrs. Little informed me of her devout interest and determination to continue assisting African American youth of the Tulsa community by imploring them to know their history:

They used to have a parade every Friday, you know, from watching the high school. And they don’t do that anymore, but every Friday, that was another part of the community coming together. They marched a mile and a half, every Friday, from school to the football stadium. That was a tradition, and they did that for years. And, when segregation came, they stopped doing all of this. . . . [On Greenwood] It was different then. Black folks supported each other. They had cafes and had drug stores and hotels and everything like that. I mean that’s our history. That was how it was back then. They had everything. (Interview, 25 July 1999)

Finally, Mr. Edward Goodwin, a 65-year-old native of Tulsa, Oklahoma and my guide while in Tulsa, embellished the interview process with historical references, illuminating definitions, and explanations of generational and regional euphemisms. Mr. Goodwin is the progeny of a family of lawyers and journalists, and is the grandson of the founder of the Oklahoma Eagle, the first Black newspaper in Tulsa, Oklahoma. These excerpts and additional oral histories frame the narrative context from which I snoop, dig, and resurrect the Black community of Greenwood.

Central to this study is the historical specificity, which comprises a performance of community. From this perspective, narrative is situated within history and tradition rounding out the social and political contexts of the times. For bell hooks, community is defined by the continuity of history. To know one’s history is a means of keeping the community alive. Hooks reminds us:

[What] we need to reconstruct is the sharing of stories that taught history, family genealogy, and facts about the African-American past. . . .  Memory need not be a passive reflection, a nostalgic longing for things to be as they once were; it can function as a way of knowing and learning from the past. . . .  It can serve as a catalyst for self-recovery. We are talking about collective [B]lack self-recovery. We need to keep alive the memory of our struggles against racism so that we can concretely chart how far we have come and where we want to go, recalling those places, those times, those people that gave a sense of direction. If we fall prey to the contemporary a historical mood, we will forget that we have not stayed in one place, which we have journeyed far from home, away from our roots, that we have lived dry, long so and learned to make a new history. We have not gone the distance, but we can never turn back. We need to sing again the old songs, those spirituals that renewed spirits and made the journey sweet, hear again the old testimony urging us to keep the faith, to go forward in love. (1990, p. 40)

“Community” then is not simply a geographical space in which people live and work together, but rather, community is grounded in the notion of a shared standpoint emerging from a shared history. The story of survivorship of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 includes both the creation of community and the loss of community, the latter of which several survivors view as the demise of segregation. As Linell Cady observes, community is reflected in a return to the past; it’s rooted in the shared standpoint of love, relational love, the care towards one another:

Love is a mode of relating that seeks to establish bonds between the self and the other, creating a unity out of formerly detached individuals. It is a process of integration where the isolation of individuals is overcome through the forging of connections between persons. These connections constitute the emergence of a wider life including yet transcending the separate individuals. This wider life that emerges through the loving relationship between selves does not swallow up individuals, blurring their identities and concerns. On the contrary, the wider life created by love constitutes a community of persons. In a community, persons retain their identity, and they also share a commitment to the continued well-being of the relational life uniting them. (1987, p. 135)

Through the methodological approach employed, I center narrative discourse in teasing out the ways in which community is crafted in the Tulsa experience.

To Dig: Methodological Approach

I employ a cultural critical approach to the digging up of stories of riot survivors in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I quite like the notion of digging as it suggests excavating, finding, revealing, and naming that which has been found. Moreover, it lies at the basis of Black artistic and intellectual traditions. Bell kooks reminds that:

Cultural criticism has historically functioned in [B]lack life as a force promoting critical resistance, one that enabled [B]lack folks to cultivate in everyday life a practice of critique and analysis that would disrupt and even deconstruct those cultural productions that were designed to promote and reinforce domination. (1990, p. 3)

Naming becomes an important tenet in African American feminist and womanist studies, noting that Black women’s journey toward self-identity is to find one’s voice and to name our own experience as both African Americans and women (Houston & Davis, 2002). The ability for survivors of the race riot to talk about, make sense of, and (re)name their lived experiences in their own terms is an empowering act of discourse. As a process of self-healing and recovery, personal narrative methodology serves as critical praxis which constructs “theories of the flesh.” That is to say, personal narrative provides the breadth and depth to interrogate the space of otherness through the lens of survival. The teller’s story is illuminated as an advocacy discourse for social change and affirmation. For example, Mabel Little, in my 1998 interview remarks of her memory as a means to heal the youth from a lack of knowledge concerning their history:

I’m not smart, but God has given me plans that the work that I am doing may be of use to him that he can give me to give later. And, you use what God gives you. . . . I enjoy telling about Tulsa because some people get understanding. God gives them that. Now here I am a hundred-and-one-years old and I know everything that happened from when I was three years until I can remember yesterday. (Interview, June 1998)

The lived-experience of Mrs. Little is what D. Soyini Madison refers to as “theories of the flesh” in which:

the cultural, geopolitical, and economic circumstances of our lives engender particular experiences and epistemologies that provide philosophies about reality different from those available to other groups. (1993, p. 213)

Rubin (1996) notes that autobiographical memory is conscious recall that is accompanied by a sense of reliving the past, a sense that the remembered event actually occurred in the moment of space, place and time. For instance, memory as a legacy of survival is seen in the narrative of Mr. Robert Fairchild in which he recounts the early beginnings of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. The story indelibly marks his memory as his ability to survive, and with his memory is the survival of the history of the community. The complexity of power relations and cultural effects are weaved together to create not only the story, but to offer a clear picture of the hegemonic forces of the time:

I lived through one of the worst experiences of my life—The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. The riot got started over a false accusation against Dick Rowland, a nineteen-year-old bootblack who worked in downtown Tulsa. I knew Dick when he was a star football player at Booker T. Washington High School. He had the reputation of being “a good-looking ladies’ man.” I worked downtown as a shoeshine boy so I was very familiar with that building where the elevator incident happened. The restroom on the fourth floor of the Drexel Building was the only one in downtown Tulsa that Negroes could use. That elevator often stopped uneven. I believe that is what happened the day that Dick stumbled into the seventeen-year-old elevator operator Sarah Page who I heard was a business college student. But after the rumors spread that Dick had assaulted the girl, things got ugly in Tulsa. That Tulsa Tribune article [May 31, 1921] talking about lynching a Nigger stirred up things even more. (Gates, 1997, 71–72)

Personal narrative methodology is gradually finding acceptance among social and human scientists as well as communication scholars who have taken a “narrative turn” to conceptualize, interpret, and critique diverse storytelling phenomena (Davis, Martinez, & Nakayama, 2001; Langellier, 1989; Mishler, 1986). As an epistemological framework, personal narrative is carved out of experience—experience that is inflected by particular cultural geopolitical and material circumstances. The study of personal narrative calls into question the status of experience and identity (Hantzis, 1995). It affords a context for new conceptions of identity that acknowledges the place of history, language and culture in the construction of subjectivity and identity.

Hynes (1999) suggests that personal narratives help to personalize historical periods by providing voice and meaning to an otherwise faceless history (pp. 205–206). Moreover, Lambek and Antze argue that the presentation of individual narratives not only helps to construct individual and community identities (1996, p. xx) but that memory is a mental process that is fundamental to the creation of cultural and social accountability (p. xxv). Narrative highlights the continued shift of community—the bonding, the tearing apart, the need to survive and reclaim a safe space—and, most importantly, the memory of the experience simply to be known and defined as an “American.” Brewer describes the role of recollective memory in remembering the past:

Recollective memory is memory for a specific episode from an individual’s past. It typically appears to be a “reliving” of the individual’s phenomenal experience during the earlier moment. Thus these memories typically contain information about place, actions, persons, objects, thoughts, and affect. . . . The information in this form of memory is expressed as a mental image … accompanied by a belief that the remembered episode was personally experienced. . . . Recollective memories give rise to high confidence in the accuracy of their content. (1996, pp. 60–61)

An example of this is found in Mrs. Verna Cooksey Davis’s account of the community during the riot:

Many of my friends in the Greenwood area had their homes burned to the ground. Before their homes were burned, some of the people were taken out of their beds. They went to detention centers in their pajamas and housecoats because the police wouldn’t give them time to dress. I was so disturbed. I didn’t know where my friends had been taken. Later I found out that most of them had been taken to the Convention Center. Five or six days after the riot, [B]lacks could get passes from the militia to go down into the Greenwood area to try to find friends and relatives. That riot was a tragic thing, and it has stayed on my mind all these years. (Gates, 1997, p. 174)

Personal narrative also provides a context for remembering the creation of community. Narrative methodology also helps uncover how survivors experience the loss of community, the memory of it, and how they are able to come to terms with a historical past. It is a methodology of discovery, situating discourse in the context of power relations during the Jim Crow era. Through the stories they told, Tulsa survivors recall their community of the past, but also provide suggestions for the present and future survival of the North Tulsa community. For example, Mrs. Verna Cooksey Davis notes the value of elderly as wise griots of African culture and existence. In an earlier article (1998), I state that, “‘Griot’ symbolizes in African oral tradition the ethical responsibility one has as a ‘keeper of the culture’” (p. 80). While offering a process for self-healing and recovery, the narrative also provides a space to interrogate the past to extend hope for the future. Survivors of the Tulsa Race Riot speak of hope in the future by celebrating the community of youth in African American culture. In many of the Tulsa survivor narratives, the recurring theme of family/community coalition arose in a variety of manifestations. Mrs. Davis reflects:

I have seen a lot of changes in my lifetime. One thing that I wish is that people would listen more to what elderly people tell them. These people have lived longer, they have seen so much, and they can give so much good advice if only people would listen to them! Many of them are good, wise, intelligent people who just may not have had the opportunity to get a formal education. We could learn a lot from them if only we would learn to listen…. They are often viewed as just a burden on society. That need not be the case. I’d like to tell people, especially young people, to get back to being more loving, caring people. . . . Families were more together then and they reached out and helped others in the community. We cared about each other. We were raised to treat others, as we would want others to treat us, barring none. We were taught to work for the betterment of all people, barring none! (Govenar, 2000, p. 175)

Uncovering African American narratives of experience then is an act of digging to discover how African Americans made sense of the social and political world at the turn of the twentieth century and throughout a continuum of struggle.

Historical Background of Tulsa’s Negro Wall Street

One might ask, “What is significant about the Black community of Tulsa, Oklahoma?” The answer lies in the story of Black migration to the West. North Tulsa’s business section, known as Greenwood, “Negro Wall Street,” or “Little Africa,” was a burgeoning community of Black businesswomen and men committed to developing a community rich in human resources and economic solvency.

Tulsa was a burgeoning place of opportunity for Black pioneers in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The post-reconstruction period in America found African Americans grappling to make sense of life after emancipation and trying to craft an existence of freedom in the face of White Southern anger over the loss of the Civil War. When federal troops pulled out of the South in 1877, Reconstruction officially ended. It was during this period that many Black pioneers of Tulsa embarked on “The Promised Land.”

Among these sojourners included professional and educated African Americans who would later be referenced among W.E.B. DuBois’ “talented tenth,” including Ph.D.s, physicians, attorneys, funeral directors, educators, and bankers. They were the “seed corn” of the Black middle class. The journey from the South was symbolic of African Americans’ search for national identity—a search to answer the elusive question, “What does it mean to be Black and to have freedom in America?” Tulsa, they thought, would have the answer.

With a population of approximately 15,000 persons, Greenwood maintained over six hundred businesses with a thirty-six-block radius. The dollar circulated within Greenwood thirty-six to one hundred times, taking as long as one year for currency to leave the community. African Americans were crafting an infrastructure for what they had hoped would be successful economic empowerment in a country that celebrated capitalism. Tulsa was a place of promise for Black sojourners coming from southern states with hopes of locating a homestead, a place, for new beginnings.

The state of Oklahoma touted a grand reputation for oil production by the year of statehood in 1907. Oklahoma led the nation by producing one-quarter of all the oil produced in the nation, and by 1915, the state produced up to 300,000 barrels of oil per day (Ellsworth, 1982, p. 10). African Americans located a place to flourish in communal, social, and cultural ways. They created a site to resist Jim Crow segregation, which was achieved by developing and maintaining the section of the city they called Greenwood.

Greenwood, situated in the north section of Tulsa, was where the African American community was relegated as a result of Jim Crow laws. Jim Crow was a way of life in America until as late at the 1950s. Laws were enacted in the United States at the turn of the century (1900s) and codified into American law the notion of “separate but equal.” This notion of separate was indeed realized, as Blacks and Whites lived separate lives, in separate worlds, separate communities, but those worlds and communities were anything but equal. Jim Crowism was the established order of the day in America – separate and indeed unequal.

African Americans were allowed to work as domestics and buy in the White communities of Tulsa, but by sunset, they had to return to their side of town, or else face fierce retribution and even death to themselves and members of their community. As a response to this treatment they began building their community whose members brought money from the South with a vision to build economic sufficiency and independence in Tulsa. By 1916, North Tulsa’s community had built a library, grocery stores, a newspaper organization, churches, a hospital, movie theatres, juke joints, barbershops and beauty parlors, hospitals, schools, funeral homes, and a cemetery. Greenwood was a progressive, booming, civilized city bound to be the first Black community in the nation with Black citizens as organizers of a financially, culturally, and economically solvent community. This is a very significant point in the development and demise of Tulsa. If Tulsa proved the prototype of Black economic and intellectual success, then it would be replicated in other towns and communities, thus causing a threat to the dominant structures of power, both socially and economically. To some, it was believed that North Tulsa had to learn its lesson—its success had to be squelched. A dialectical opposition to Jim Crowism, I contend, is what led to the demise of the Greenwood business district. For example, in an excerpt of the narrative of Mr. John R. Moses, success in the Black community despite Jim Crowism is discussed:

People were in business here. They were progressive. There were really progressive. His Dad had the newspaper and exercised a progressive business and in this society. . . . They were progressive businesses. They were doing good. Hotels, restaurants, you know, lots of others. (Interview, July 1999)

Moreover, Mrs. Mabel Little recounts:

Yes, in the beauty shop, we were teaching people. I’m the only Black operator that ever had four operators working there. [On Greenwood] we had two little theaters. That crowd would wait and the theater would have two shows. . . . Black folks used to have everything—I don’t know what happened. They came in and they took over. We used to have a Chamber of Commerce. (Interview, June 1998)

Survival for African American communities in the early 20th century was a performance of navigating between life and death in social, political, and economic spheres. Their survival masked the hidden stories of the loss of land, family, home, future, freedom–a period of unmatched atrocities destined to remain unvoiced until only recently. As Tulsa began developing and the migration of African Americans from the South occurred, Tulsa became the golden door of opportunity for the Black community during the early 1900s. Still, others journeyed to Oklahoma to flee the threat of lynching. For example, as a result of lynching practices in Memphis, Tennessee, which took the lives of three prominent Black businessmen, Black families held a mass exodus out of Memphis en route to Oklahoma. Noted journalist and editor of the Free Speech, Ida B. Wells speaks of this exodus:

The city of Memphis has demonstrated that neither character nor standing avails the Negro if he dares to protect himself against the White man or become his rival. There is nothing we can do about the lynching now, as we are out-numbered and without arms. . . There is only one thing we can do; save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by White persons. . . .  Every time word came of people leaving Memphis, we who were left behind rejoiced. Oklahoma was about to be opened up, and scores sold or gave away property, shook Memphis dust off their feet, and went out West as Tom Moss [one of the lynched Black businessmen] had said for us to do. (1970, 53–55)

Black men and women with their children sought freedom in a place that would provide new visions of what it meant to be a free American, what it meant to own land, and how to better themselves with hopes of justice and a new beginning framed within the American Dream. Oklahoma seemed to be that place. How these pioneers crafted and performed community ripe with promise foregrounds the conceptual framework of social drama.

To Resurrect: Navigating the Social Drama of Survival

Victor Turner’s (1986) theory of social drama illuminated by narrative experience reveals a vital aspect in the search for meaning. The self, or the communicating self, is a life-experiencing subject. How the voiceless self is realized within a world of language reveals how narrative discourse provides a lens for viewing the ways in which humans negotiate discursive structures of power on one hand and cultural practices of resistance on the other. Performing survival, then, is through stories that reveal the layered structures of domination and inform a discourse of resistance. These stories reveal what happens when a counter-narrative of resistance, voice, and empowerment confronts a master narrative of superiority, separation, and hate. They inform how the Black self is realized within the larger political-cultural context of racism and oppression.

By employing the four main phases of social drama, the crafting of public action is illuminated. The four phases include: breach, crisis, redressive action, and reintegration. The breach phase refers to a breach of regular norm-governed social relations. Crisis stresses the dialectical tensions between inner conflict and sociocultural crises that are revealed through the symbolic act of language. Redressive Action serves to limit the spread of crisis. It is an act of adjustment or redress brought into operation by members of the disturbed social system. This phase attempts to resolve the historical crises between identity and sociopolitical practices of domination and power. And reintegration, the phase that signifies either a reintegration of the disturbed social group or the social recognition and legitimization of irreparable schism between the contesting parties. Through this process of social drama, the Tulsa narratives of domination and control on one hand, and resistance and empowerment on the other, reveal undercurrents of racial disharmony throughout America in the 20th century and beyond.


The breach phase of Tulsa’s social drama has two distinct progressions. One was gradual, the other immediate exigency. On the one hand, African Americans had breached the socially recognized, norm-governed social relations that positioned Whites in dominating, powerful, privileged, and exclusive spaces of lived experience while Blacks were socially constructed as inferior in status, culture, citizenship, and economic wealth.

The success of the Greenwood business district made a drastic shift in the dynamics of the social order and the system of social relations between Blacks and Whites. While Black people maintained domestic and blue-collar jobs in the White communities of Tulsa, they brought their paychecks back to their community—buying from and selling to one another. Teachers were highly esteemed in the Black community of Greenwood. Mrs. Jobie Holderness, an educator aged 99 years at the time of my interview, told of the struggles and resistance to segregation in her narrative:

All my life I have loved children. It’s no wonder that I chose teaching as a career. Actually, I didn’t choose teaching; it chose me. It was a calling. I taught high school math at a Port Arthur, Texas high school for a short time before I moved to Tulsa. But it was in Tulsa that I found my true calling—to spend my life teaching history and literature to lively, squirming, little elementary school boys and girls! That’s what I did for 42 years at Dunbar Elementary School in North Tulsa. It was a struggle teaching in all-Black, segregated schools, which had such limited supplies in those days. Parents had to struggle to get the paper, notebooks, pencils, pens, and textbooks that their children needed. Oh, how some of them struggled! They would sacrifice anything so their children could get an education. You see in those days education was highly valued. It was viewed as the main way out of poverty and racism; it was seen as the avenue for upward mobility in American society. It was the main path to “The American Dream.” (1998)

Despite Mrs. Holderness’ belief in the American Dream of inclusion, Jim Crow laws relegated African Americans to the other side of the tracks. Rather than sitting idly by and accepting the social position of inferiority, these Black pioneers of “Negro Wall Street” crafted a discourse of empowerment that rivaled the social order of United States racism and segregation. In addition, White and Black men were returning from World War I to a difficult and poor existence in America. Seeing the affluence of the Black community of Greenwood caused jealousy and hatred to rise. This breach in the “master” narrative of superiority/inferiority was not to be taken lightly by Whites. The continual progress and self-sufficiency demonstrated by the success of Greenwood caused bitter jealousy and contempt from White communities in Tulsa and in neighboring towns.

The second layer of the breach phase is one of more immediate exigency. As noted previously, the Tulsa Race Riot began and ignited the city into a mass riot and noted as one of the worst riots in United States history. Tulsa survivor, Robert Fairchild recalls:

The night the riot started my Booker Washington classmates and I were rehearsing at the Dixie Theater on Greenwood Avenue for our high school graduation. Someone came and told the instructor to let us go because there was going to be trouble on Greenwood. So he dismissed us about 8:30 p.m. I came out onto Greenwood and it was packed with people. They kept talking about what they were gonna do. So they went on downtown to the courthouse about 9:00 p.m. There were lots of White people there. They were mostly unarmed. A White man, about sixty-five or seventy years old, tried to take a gun from a Negro. He said, “Nigger, what are you doing with that gun?” The Negro man replied, “I’m gonna use it if I have to!” In the struggle, a shot was fired and the riot was on. (Gates, 1997, 71–72)

These two strands of the breach phase of Turner’s theory of social drama reveal how discontinuities in social relations and race relations constructed a space for hatred and demise that would culminate in three days of intense rioting.


The crisis phase is evident in the relationship between Black families and the paramilitary organization the Ku Klux Klan. The Ku Klux Klan was comprised of many of the founding fathers and prominent White men in Tulsa. They were determined to bring down the success of Greenwood, and its demise was a continual point of crisis. The breach of racial disharmony seemed not to be able to be contained and the crisis emerged into the Tulsa Race Riot. In my interview with Tulsa survivor, Mr. George Monroe he states:

We would remember Greenwood because it is and was the main thoroughfare through the Black section – sections of Tulsa. It was the nucleus of the families that lived on either side of Greenwood. This was a street that ran straight through the northern part of the city, and you look at Greenwood. Greenwood is an area – IN Greenwood, not ON Greenwood. When they divided this city, they looked at the railroad tracks and said, “The Black people are supposed to be living on the other side of the tracks. That’s the way it is in most cities. You look at Black people and you put that railroad between them that separates the Whites from the Blacks.” They separated like that, but one thing they weren’t thinking about—the location they were throwing at them. Right now, I can stand on top of my house and I can look downtown and see people building everything down there—all those big tall buildings and everything else. They gave us the best place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to live—by mistake! By mistake! And we live over here. The land is flat. You go over on the south side of town; it is all you can do—up the hill and down the hill; in the valley—all crazy like. You can’t even go on the south side and drive! Tornadoes go out there and all sorts of those things…. As for damage over here, there haven’t been storms that did that much damage over here—not on this side of town—not that I can remember. They gave us the wrong side of town!!! And we got it, and they wanted it back! [emphasis original]. (Interview, July 1999)

Mr. George Monroe’s narrative is insightful of the crisis phase of the social drama. Not only does it underscore the issues of segregation, but it also pokes folly at the ways in which the White community also suffered from their own Jim Crow laws. Moreover, the realization of better land, oil found on Black owner’s properties, and the prime central location of the Black community of North Tulsa caused even greater friction and crisis in the social drama.

Redressive Action

The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 caused a peculiar response to the redressive phase of the social drama. In theory, the redressive phase is to limit the spread of the crisis. However, the three days of intense rioting, pillaging and looting by Whites in the Greenwood district, and the killing and dumping of Black bodies into the Arkansas River shaped the master narrative of the Riot into a normative dynamic of superiority and inferiority. That is, there was no formal redressive action taken by the African American community, because there was no court of law to which they could plead their case. They were scrambling to exist—to make homes out of tents because their houses and business property had been burned to the ground. To take care of their families, oftentimes the burden was on widowed women who had lost husbands and fathers of their children in the Riot.

This intense undercurrent of hatred for the success of the African American community as well as the attempts to reconstruct Greenwood has continued to maintain deep fissures of separation and cavernous relations between Whites and Blacks in Tulsa even today. It is only recently, now after 80 years since the Race Riot, that the redressive action phase of the social drama has come to fruition.

In 1997, the Tulsa Race Riot Commission was formed to determine what happened during the Riot and to begin a conversation about reparations. Former President Clinton appointed Commission members to review the issues surrounding the 1921 race riot and to interview victims of the African American community, to report and present a position on whether or not reparations are in order. This redressive phase includes a variety of survivors making their stories known for the first time, what occurred in 1921. It is discourse as a counternarrative that re-tells and re-lives the story of atrocious experiences and that resists the master narrative of silence and dismissiveness. Joe Burns, a commission member who survived the Riot as a 5-year old, told of his family hiding in a railroad ditch before being taken into custody by National Guardsmen. According to Burns, “We were told not to talk about it for years.”

The notion of narrative as discourse of survival points the power of narrative as a redefining moment in historical discourse. In addition, survivor narratives of the Tulsa Race Riot reveal that “story” is a way to rewrite history, craft a discourse that engages the notion of community empowerment and resilient spirit, and provide a means for redressing public action within a Black public sphere of discourse.


The reintegration phase is most apparent in a ritualized performance of social recognition of the Riot. The reintegration phase is characterized by an interval of several years, with the dominant group sponsoring a major ritual to which members of the other social group are invited, thus registering reconciliation at a different level of political integration. I witnessed this phase of the social drama in 1998 at an interracial repentance event that marked the 77th anniversary of the Tulsa Riot. Hundreds of people, both Black and White, attended an emotional “assembly of repentance” in a bare lot where the Greenwood Black business district once stood. Everyone was very careful in eye contact with members of the other race, many of whom were watching from a distance, some seemed cautious and appeared suspect of the performance. While few White police officers were present, I observed their role was to act as traffic organizers rather than peace officers. They seemed relaxed; some offered a respectful tip of the head, a partial smile. At the ceremony, White ministers led Whites in seeking forgiveness for the actions of their forefathers, and Black ministers led a small crowd of Blacks in pardoning them. I was approached by young White Tulsans who offered a unity candle to me and asked me to join with them and Black Tulsans in a circle of lighted candles and prayer. The spirit of the ceremony was codified in a pamphlet given to each participant. It read:

We have gathered here as Christians before God, on this historic day of June 1, 1998, and 77th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, in order to call a solemn assembly of repentance. We have gathered here recognizing that while Christians of this generation may have had nothing to do with the past atrocity, we believe it is appropriate to humbly proclaim through repentance that the acts of the Tulsa Race Riot were grievous, shameful, and hurtful to God and to the African American community. We identify with our race and mourn the loss of lives and property. We gather here representing the unforgiven that need to be forgiven, and as the offended who needs to forgive. Our audience is God and our purpose is reconciliation in order to bring a long awaited closure to this awful memory. We recognize the blood of the innocent that was spilled on these grounds cries out to the heart of God. Therefore, we have come to ask for mercy and forgiveness. We call for a change in our congregations as members of Christ’s Church and pray for a divine intervention that will break the powers of racism, deliver us from the sins of hate, and bring hearts to forgiveness. This is the purpose of our gathering. (Ceremonial Pamphlet, 1998)

Mrs. Mabel Little, at 101 years of age, stated that, “Seeing the races shoulder to shoulder was a blessing.” She said, “I’m the happiest person in the world, today.” Subsequent ceremonies have occurred in the past few years among the Black community of Tulsa; however, this public act of the social drama has yet to be integrated into the fabric of Tulsa’s social ritualization on an annual basis.


This essay attempts to shed light on one of the most heinous and little-known events in American history, the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. From the perspective of survivor narratives, discourse is central to the understanding of a performance of community and a legacy of struggle through survival. In keeping with the historical continuum, which is the tradition of Black struggle and progress, I shall now offer implications and future directions for African American communication scholarship regarding the legacy of survival.

Implications and Directions of the Legacy of Survival in African American Communication Scholarship

Resurrect implies being brought back to life, to restore, to revive. This seems an appropriate metaphor for future directions in African American communication and for centering scholarship in the legacy of survival. I am referring to the legacy of surviving, transcending, and transforming oppressive systems of domination that is found in an African American historical continuum of experience. More inclusively, however, is what the study of survival offers in general–a critical interrogation of the social, political, and cultural nuances of American and western societies. A legacy of survival also serves as a basis for the rhetorical and intellectual tradition of African American women. Building scholarship upon the legacy provides a center to our work that reveals how both African American women and men construct and perform homeplace in our communities. According to hooks, homeplace is a site of resistance (1990, p. 41). As such, it is an interpretive space invented to locate what is meant to be human, to resist, and to live life (Madison, 1993, p. 219). Homeplace is based on inventional wisdom, which carves out a space to voice the teller’s experience as a way to advocate discourse for social change or to create new epistemologies and liberating descriptions of experience. Scholars are encouraged to embrace narrative discourse and a legacy of struggle, resistance, and survival as immutable tenets of African American culture and communication offering a myriad of dimensions to the creation of community.

A second direction for future scholarship is the critical study of reparations debate. It seems to me that in studying the debate as a social movement offers new ways of engaging the Black public sphere within an historical discourse of struggle. Current debates over reparations for Tulsa survivors inform how African American survivor narratives craft a unique space for public discourse. Of reparations, Eddie Faye Gates a Tulsa historian writes:

the ancestors of the Tulsa [B]lack pioneers . . . with the unfulfilled promises of Reconstruction ringing in their ears, [they] buckled down for the long haul to freedom and a better way of life. They felt the tremendous loss of the coveted forty acres and a mule – promised, but never delivered. That is why there is a movement in the United States today for [B]lack reparation payments similar to the payments that the U.S. government made to Native Americans and to the Japanese for injustices committed against them. (1997, p. 22)

Third, future scholarship is encouraged to recognize the significance of memory in analyzing narratives. Memory serves as a central tenet in the crafting of identity and of community and informs the relationship between communication and psychoanalytic theories of ways human beings cope with life atrocities. Furthermore, I suggest that African American scholars explore narrative discourse as a process of healing and recovering community. In a former article, I discuss the narratives of pilgrimage of African Americans returning to West Africa as a reclaiming of self in the slave castles of Goree Island in Senegal (Davis, 1997). Their stories revealed a need for healing and recovery for both self and community. Our challenge is to open new vistas of research so as to continue uncovering the many dimensions of African American communication experiences of survival, struggle, and resistance. New vistas of research offer ways to understand self within cultural and ethnic communities while providing a unique perspective on discourse and community coalition-building.

Finally, once new vistas are traversed, it too is important that we consider our current and future directions in ethnicity and methodology in human communication research (Davis, Nakayama, & Martin, 2000). My colleagues and I claim that:

story provides a way of learning—not simply how to read—but rather how to read the world. The story enables the researcher/critic more than merely interpreting the world—but changing the world. (pp. 532–533)

We suggest that the story as a methodological tool can illuminate the intersections of ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality, and class situated within history while (de)privileging the methodological tools of our field which oftentimes fail to get at the rich textual content of multiple realities. Furthermore, the story allows for intercultural discourse—a space to engage with others in transforming cultural relations, citizenship, and the meaning of a human community.

Creating new stories and (re)defining past stories that transcend the master narrative cause a transformation of the social, cultural, and political landscape. The transformation in Tulsa is seen in “new” stories that are emerging: the narrative of Survival, the narrative of Community, the narrative of Reparations, and the narrative of Reconciliation all of which point to the process of meaning-making in the African American community of Tulsa and in the human community at-large. Narrative discourse of neglected populations in our scholarship on African American experience can provide a look at the past by giving voice to the silenced, a connection to the present, and an informed discourse for what is needed in our contemporary times


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