For all the progress Tulsa has made in recent years in terms of reinventing itself, its reluctance to confront its history of racial strife continues to be a drag on the city's future, according to author and historian Scott Ellsworth.
The Tulsa native, now a professor of African American Studies at the University of Michigan, will serve as the keynote speaker at the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation's Dinner of Reconciliation at 6pm Thursday, Oct. 29. The event will be held at the Greenwood Cultural Center, 322 N. Greenwood Ave.
Speaking by phone from his home in Michigan last week, Ellsworth said the title of his speech will be "City at the Crossroads," and he intends to examine the notorious 1921 Tulsa Race Riot and how it has impacted the city throughout the years.
"I think for a long time this city has been in trouble," he said, adding that he believes Tulsa has been living in denial of its racial problems for far too long. "There's a remarkable climate of racial mistrust and segregation. Until we as a city can improve the lines of communication, we're going to stay behind where we need to be. That's why Tulsa continues to get bypassed by other cities that are doing better in this area."
Ellsworth, a former historian at the Smithsonian Institution, said the enormity of the riot is something that has been firmly established in the historical record. That is thanks in large part to Ellsworth's book "Death in a Promised Land," published in 1992 by the Louisiana State University Press, the first comprehensive history of the riot. Ellsworth also served as the lead scholar, along with John Hope Franklin, for the Oklahoma Commission to the Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, the body charged by the state Legislature in 1997 with compiling an official examination of what transpired in Tulsa from May 31-June 1, 1921.
And yet Ellsworth said the story of the riot continues to be downplayed in Tulsa, if not ignored. Ellsworth recalled hearing about an interview done with a prominent local citizen and political figure a few years ago, a man who had grown up in Tulsa in the 1950s and claimed to have never even heard of the race riot.
"That's not uncommon," he said. "It had been suppressed for years and years."
The result of that suppression, he believes, is a city that remains strikingly segregated.
"As John Hope Franklin said, 'In the aftermath of the riot, the city lost its honesty,' " Ellsworth said.
Ellsworth believes Tulsans made some progress toward resolving their racial differences in the half century after the riot, but he said that largely came to an end in the 1970s.
"The lines of communication that had been established between Greenwood and south Tulsa started to fall apart," he said, acknowledging that the separatism and black nationalism movements played a role in that breakdown.
Ellsworth said he doesn't spend as much time in Tulsa as he did in the 1990s, when the commission was doing its work, but he remains close to several people here and visits as often as he can. He recalls being thrilled when he heard the news about the creation of the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation several years ago.
"I thought it was marvelous," he said. "The first thing we need to do in Tulsa is communicate, and I think it's going to be a major step in the right direction. John Hope Franklin is somebody who felt comfortable dealing with people of all races. He's our model."
Ellsworth said he and Franklin, whose sister earlier had put Ellsworth in touch with many race riot survivors when he was researching his book, got to know each other quite well during their work for the commission. Ellsworth was so impressed with Franklin, who died earlier this year, that he wound up naming one of his sons Johnny when he and his wife had twins seven years ago.
He said one of the biggest challenges he faced in his work with the commission was getting people to understand the race riot was a citywide event.
"Somehow, we think it just had to do with the black community," he said. "It would be as if everybody thought the Holocaust didn't have anything to do with anyone but Jews."
Ellsworth points out that events related to the riot took place all over the city, from its origins at 6th Street and Boulder downtown to the intersection of 2nd Street and Lewis Avenue where the white mob met and exchanged ammunition and weapons before advancing on Greenwood. There were also safe houses located on the road to Sand Springs and a number of sites around town where it is rumored victims of the violence were buried.
"The story of the riot is Tulsa's story. The riot commission wanted to have meetings all over town," including the campus of Oral Roberts University, Ellsworth said. "We wanted to go ahead and take testimony from anyone, and we wanted to shoot it at City Hall."
Ultimately, he said, many of those efforts were rebuffed. He also said some of the scholars who worked on the commission's report felt like they had to protect their part of the work so that it wouldn't be spun before its release.
Ellsworth looks to other cities, even those with a history of their own racial problems, as an example of how to mend the wounds of the past. He specifically cited Raleigh-Durham, N.C., and Austin, Texas, for the progress those communities have made.
Ellsworth's next book, in fact, focuses on a secret, illegal 1944 basketball game between the varsity squad at the North Carolina College for Negroes and a wartime squad from Duke University.
"It's sort of the lost story of the Civil Rights Movement," Ellsworth said. "There were people trying to reach across the racial divide, taking chances by trying to establish contact with those on the other side."
Tickets for the Dinner of Reconciliation are $15 for adults and $5 for students. Reservations are required, and no tickets will be sold at the door. For information, visit the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation Web site at HYPERLINK "http://www.jhfcenter.org"www.jhfcenter.org.
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