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
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.”
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.
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).
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
June 1998 and July 1999, I traveled to Tulsa,
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
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
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.
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?”
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:
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)
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)
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
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)
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 —September
21st. (Interview, June 1998)
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)
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.
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:
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)
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:
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,
methodological approach employed, I center narrative discourse in teasing
out the ways in which community is crafted in the Tulsa
To Dig: Methodological Approach
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)
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)
lived-experience of Mrs. Little is what D. Soyini
Madison refers to as “theories of the flesh” in which:
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)
(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:
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)
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
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:
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,
of this is found in Mrs. Verna Cooksey Davis’s account of the community during
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.
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:
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)
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
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
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.”
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
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.
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
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.
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
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)
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)
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
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
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)
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
(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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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
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)
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.
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:
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)
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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)
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.
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
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.
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
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)
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
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:
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)
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.
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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