Story. When I was a child, we couldn’t say the word “lie.”
It was a bad word, comparable to cussing. Three letters, it was a big word that was only spoken at a certain age, as an adult and a rite of passage.
Children also couldn’t call an adult a liar or say that an adult had lied. We were not credible witnesses and were not to be believed.
We were seemingly stereotyped, always on flights of fancy. We were thought to be continually making things up – not simply telling stories but telling a lie. Ironically, adults regularly called us liars.
I grew up in the Southern tradition of “children are seen and not heard.” We didn’t involve ourselves in adult conversations but stayed outside and played. We were told to “stay in a child’s place.”
Rules and lines governed our interactions. “Everything has its place and there is a place for everything.” But people were out of place and in places they shouldn’t be, though we were told a different story.
I never heard a child call an adult a liar. Instead, we were permitted to say, “You’re telling a story!” It had to include a big smile and giggles. Our eyes had to beam with respect when we said it.
From tall tale to “little white lie,” whatever that is, we could not hold the adults in our lives accountable for the lies they told us or others. Instead, we said, “You’re telling a story!” But it was a lie.
They lied when the bill collector called and about where they were the night before. I grew up hearing adults lie and get away with it.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. The story of how it all happened and how many people were impacted is being told again.
What a difference a day makes. In 18 hours, to be exact, the thriving African American community known as Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was destroyed and many of its residents murdered by a white mob.
The “Trail of Tears” had forcibly moved the Indigenous tribes from their homeland to “Indian Territory” but that is not the whole story. Those nations indigenous to what is now the United States, namely Osage, Creek (or Muscogee) and Cherokee, had enslaved African Americans who traveled with them too.
Founded in 1906, by O.W. Gurley, a wealthy African American landowner, Greenwood was established on Indigenous land through the Dawes Act.
An African American community that had it all: grocery stores, dentists’ and doctors’ offices, theaters and restaurants, banks and churches. An estimated 10,000 people lived, worked and flourished there.
Segregated but without racialized oppression, its members realized their dreams. The business district was known as “Black Wall Street.” But, May 31 through June 1 would be a nightmare.
It started in an elevator. An African American teenager, Dick Rowland, got into one with Sarah Page, a European American elevator operator at the Drexel Building.
She screamed; he fled but was later arrested for an alleged sexual assault. It was front-page news on the Tulsa Tribune.
European Americans went to the courthouse, demanding Rowland be released into their custody. Armed African Americans arrived to protect him. They were turned away and the European American mob tried unsuccessfully to break into the National Guard Armory nearby.
There was fear that Rowland would be lynched. The two groups gathered again at the courthouse. At 75 to 1,500, the African American Tulsans were greatly outnumbered.
Both groups were carrying weapons; gunfire was exchanged with the African American men returning to Greenwood. The European American men followed soon thereafter.
This group of Tulsans, deputized by city officials who also gave them weapons, committed crimes against the citizens of Greenwood including murder, arson and looting over 35 city blocks.
Rumors circulated of an insurrection, so more European Americans from neighboring towns joined in. Bombs were even dropped during the violence.
The death toll varies from 75 to 300, though official reports say 39 people died that day.
Eighteen hours would turn back the hands of time as this community would have to start over again.
Damages totaled nearly $2 million, which is almost $30 million today, according to a 2001 report. The residents who stayed would rebuild from the rubble – without reparations.
Only three survivors remain: Viola Fletcher, Hughes Van Ellis and Lessie Benningfield Randle, who are still seeking justice.
No one who participated in the massacre was ever arrested or charged for the crimes committed that day. This story is largely suppressed, the voices who tell it paternalized.
It reminds me of why the 1619 Project is so important. Because adults will tell you a story about American history when it is really a lie.
Editor’s note: Thomas and GFM CEO Mitch Randall have been in Tulsa covering various commemorative events and interviewing participants. Interviews can be viewed here.