I first learned of my cousin’s lynching when I was 10 years old. During the summer, I often spent time at my uncle Johnny’s house, but that summer, my great-grandmother, a wizened old black woman whose face spoke of years of enduring the weight of patriarchy and white supremacy, was often there, too.
Well into her 90s, Millie Elizabeth Morris (née Harris) was given to long stream of consciousness conversations. Even as a child, I had a strained relationship with my father’s side of the family, but my great-grandmother always treated me with warmth and kindness, when she wasn’t scolding me for being too introverted around my cousins. She never used the words, “I love you.” Instead, she asked obsessively if I’d had something to eat. I now know that was her way of communicating love.
I enjoyed our long, philosophical conversations. She had much to say about the history of Oklahoma and what she called “the ways of white folks.” She expressed to me a deep-seated suspicion of white people, even when they seemed to be kind. To this day, I can hear her say, “Stay away from those white girls” whenever I played with the blond little girl down the street. I’d sit with her on the porch and wonder what we would discuss each day. On that day, it was the “ways of white folks.”
“Today makes me think of your cousin Bobby,” she said.
I looked at the calendar; it was May 31.
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“Them crackers killed him. On this day. Long before you was born.”
I looked at her in disbelief. I’d never heard of this before then. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to hear about it now.
“Who is they?” I asked, not wanting to know the answer, yet compelled by this piece of family history that explained why she distrusted white people so much.
“Them crazy-ass white folks in Tulsa. Folks say they lynched him, then burned his body … all I know is no one ever saw him again.”
Late in the afternoon of May 30, 1921, Dick Rowland needed to use the bathroom. A 19-year-old black shoeshine worker, he could only use the restroom at the top of the Drexel Building in downtown Tulsa. To get there, he had to take an elevator operated by Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white teenager.
While there are conflicting reports about what happened in the elevator, what we do know is that on May 30, 1921, a clothing-store clerk on the first floor of the building heard what he thought was a woman screaming. Not long after, the building’s elevator doors opened, and Rowland quickly exited looking flustered. Sarah Page, behind him, appeared to be in a state of distress. Assuming that Page had been sexually assaulted by Rowland, the clerk called the police, thus setting in motion a chain of events that would devastate the black citizens of Tulsa.
An inflammatory report published in the May 31 edition of the white-owned Tulsa Tribune led to a confrontation between crowds of black and white Oklahomans in front of a courthouse where Rowland was detained. After shots were fired, the outnumbered black crowd retreated into the Greenwood District. The white mob followed them, and over the next 14 hours, 35 city blocks in Tulsa’s black neighborhoods were burned, 800 people injured and more than 300 people killed.
Black people in this state never fully recovered from what happened that day. We remain spiritually, emotionally and economically unwhole. Meanwhile, white Oklahomans do not want to deal with the evil of their ancestors. The evil of what their embrace of Southern culture means in the wake of the massacre. When I saw Confederate flags line the path of President Barack Obama’s motorcade when he visited the state in 2015, I was reminded of my great-grandmother. She died in 1994, but she never forgot about what happened in Tulsa. She ensured that I remembered as well.
Growing up in Oklahoma, I’ve often wondered why black people here seem overly willing to forgive incidents like what happened at the University of Oklahoma with Sigma Alpha Epsilon and in Tulsa with Eric Harris and Terence Crutcher; I now understand why. Trauma can be passed down genetically, psychologically and culturally.
My great-grandmother made me uncomfortable when she talked about white people. She would sit on the porch smoking a cigarette while moving back and forth in her rocking chair, pontificating on whiteness in general and, often, white women in particular. I can hear her now:
There is no good reason for a black man to be with a white woman. If she wants you, there is something wrong with her. She thinks less of herself. Shit, why would you want her? You know they don’t season their food worth a damn.
For years I thought her racist, but now I understand the source of her enmity. Born on Dec. 12, 1898, in Boswell, Indian Territory (what would later become the state of Oklahoma), she had seen, to use her words, “the worst of white folks.” She’d survived the Red Summer of 1919. Had seen the Ku Klux Klan come to power in Oklahoma during the 1920s. Remembered segregation and had fought to attain the right to vote.
Unlike bigoted elderly white folks whose racism we are told is a product of being reared in a cultural milieu that taught white supremacy explicitly, my great-grandmother’s white ontology was born of survival. Trusting white folks was a luxury she could not afford. Buying into a “not all white people” worldview could have gotten her killed. And now, for better or for worse, her porch lectures inform how I live my life and how I see the world.
To this day, a large group of white people can give me anxiety. When feeling overwhelmed, I seek out the first black face I can find and give a head nod of solidarity. If they don’t return the gesture, I feel betrayed, suspicious. If they return it, I am visible again, affirmed.
Around white women, I feel ill at ease initially. In my honest moments, I admit to myself that I don’t like to be in a room with a white woman alone. And even when I grow to trust them, I am ever conscious of my body in relation to theirs. I understand that, in a different time, my words and actions could have been used to start a riot.
What happened in Tulsa haunts me. And the fact that I’ve since learned, by talking to my father, that I lost not one but three family members in the massacre shakes my confidence in humanity. No one knows what happened to my cousins. No funeral was held. No headstones mark their graves. I searched public records and talked to family, but no one recalls their full names. I’ve been told they might have been buried in a mass grave with other victims of the massacre, but despite hours of research and multiple visits to the area, I haven’t been able to prove it.
My cousins’ lives were ended too soon by racial violence, and an act of historical violence erased the incident and their lives from the record. It’s almost like no one wants to remember what happened that day in Tulsa—but I remember. Not because I want to but because I’ve inherited their memories. It informs who I befriend, how much I let them know me and even where I go.
In Maya Angelou’s poem “Our Grandmothers,” she writes, “I come as one, but I stand as 10,000.” I’ve found this to be true. Yet we inherit not only the strength of those who came before us—we also inherit their trauma.