ESSAYS | SUMMER ’21
WHY TUSLA CAN’T FAIL
POST-PANDEMIC REFLECTIONS ON THE ANNIVERSARY OF BLACK WALL STREET, JUNETEENTH 2019
WORDS and PHOTOS by KHARY SEPTH
On a flight to Tulsa this past Summer, I decided to binge the caricatured Killer Mike’s Netflix series, Trigger Warning, in which he performs a rather crude, doomed-to-fail experiment. For 48 hours, he buys Black for his most basic needs: food, shelter, transportation, and weed, thus illustrating for all the fools watching that there is no way to make America work for Black folk until it gives us our economic independence. For the non-fools who know and live the shit—not only do we know something ain’t right; at the core, we know we are owed.
In one commonly cited statistic, which a Howard University fact-checking project debunked in 2017, “A dollar spent in the Black community stays there for only six hours” versus days, if not weeks, for White, Browns, Reds, and Yellows. In a recent series of The New York Times articles highlighting “The Gaps Between White and Black Americans,” the disparities in all material living standards (housing, employment, and even intergenerational wealth transfers) reveal a cruel and cruddy truth: of all the cons of being Black in America—from the overlapping crisis’ of poverty and police brutality, it’s the economic injustice that is the worst of them all.
Consider, for example, the story of Tulsa—Black Wall Street—where in the early 20th century on the old Indian and Oklahoma Territories, Black folk who’d migrated from the Deep South and beyond to the Bible belt boomtown, set up shop on top the biggest known oil field in the world at the time. Just two generations out of slavery, they built an extraordinary amount of wealth: “two Black schools, 13 churches, 2 Black movie theaters, a Black public library, Black-owned shops, Black-owned hotels, a Black-owned newspaper.”
I arrived on a crisp Saturday morning and strolled along the legendary Black Wall Street to see it for myself. A crowd of Black Tulsans were setting up for the annual Juneteenth Celebration. Music was going, press conferences were being held, and a Black queer brother, Nehemiah Frank, whose people walked to Tulsa from Tennessee way back when, joined me to introduce the story—not the myth—of his ancestors. “My family was the third wealthiest Black family during that era,” he shared as we sat to chat in the sanctuary of the Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church (the only structure still standing from the Historic Black Wall Street era). “Fur coats, pearls, they had it all. We had it all. We had the best schools which produced the doctors and the lawyers and the pilots…the minds that would go to Tuskegee and learn to become Red Tails…We had 50 black towns, and we had it together. If I wasn’t in church, I would say we had it the fu*k together.”
Today, Nehemiah publishes the Black Wall Street Times. He tells me how he found his way to publishing after years of teaching and eventually becoming a principal of a school in North Tulsa. It was the case of Betty Shelby—a white police officer who shot and killed an unarmed Black man named Terence Crutcher back in 2016—that drove Nehemiah to leave teaching and start a local newspaper. Similarly, I found my way to print through a crisis of faith in the world. “It was like Terence Crutcher was the one that was on trial,” he said, “and it was at that point, I [understood] how much power there was in the media.” Since 2017, he has been reporting on the city’s political and race-related troubles.
As a descendant of the souls who perished in the Tulsa 1921 Race Massacre, on this Juneteenth almost one hundred years later, Nehemiah told me about how the town’s troubles go back to the very beginning. At the start of the twentieth century, the profits of America’s early Industrial Age turned Tulsa into a town where a robust Black culture and economy had emerged, which became a crisis in the mind of white Tulsans. They were fine saying prayers for our souls over a dinner table built from slavery and set with Jim Crow, but suddenly their daughters were dancing the house down at local jook joints, mesmerized by a new sound called jazz. As Blacks began to thrive with the money they made serving them, no less, becoming self-sufficient in their own individual and community needs—it became a powder keg. Soon after, The Tulsa Tribune’s front-page headline read “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator,” and from within the house, we were torn from peace and exploded.
Armed crowds gathered at the Tulsa County Courthouse where the “nabbed” said “negro” Dick Rowland was being held. Back on Greenwood Avenue, not only were white police officers seen setting fires to homes and businesses, but the Police Commissioner handed out badges like candy to white Tulsans ready to kill Black ones. By nightfall, “bodies were loaded up on trains, being sent out to the countryside,” Nehemiah recalled from stories he’d been told growing up, and for visual reference, he pointed to three-gallon glass jars with names on them. Each one, I’m told, is filled with blood-saturated dirt that was collected from under the victims’ bodies. “There are stories that people were walking out to the river and seeing red water because there were so many bodies that were dropped into the river,” he said. “There was one man who owned planes and he would make money chartering white business owners from the oil fields to different cities. Not even he was worth sparing.”
In all the recent talk about the terror of white supremacy, what is never discussed, quite frankly, is why? Nehemiah had the same question. “I’ve read [Ibram X. Kendi’s] Stamped from beginning to end and I love his theories, but at the end of the day, it’s like, ‘Is it just the devil?’” he asked. “Because where does this come from—when a police officer will shoot a man in the back and then stand on top of his body as two minutes go by? What is it in these people that would say, ‘We’re not doing enough damage; let’s go get airplanes and drop bombs on 36 square blocks of Black economic progress. Let’s make sure that they don’t have a chance.’”
And that’s full tea. From the bombing of Black Wall Street, to Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 bombing of a Federal Building just 100 miles west in Oklahoma City, to George H.W. dropping the “mother of all bombs” on Afghanistan, it all starts to sound the same and point to a much deeper defect. Perhaps it’s white boys built to behave badly, and then with their egos, writing the story the way they’d like the world to forget it. It’s a library well-stocked with books, but their spines are all facing the wall, so that you can’t make out their genre. All horror, crime, and fantasy novels. Sure, they’d like us to think of them in all that Greek and Roman shit, but standing here on a shrunken, damn-near-nothing block of Black Wall Street with Nehemiah I obtain narrative clarity.
The great lawn in the heart of Greenwood, Oklahoma is filled with Black folk who arrive to mark June 19, 1865, when the enslaved Blacks of Texas belatedly learned they’d finally been set free. The last slaves in Oklahoma’s Indian territory, you should know, weren’t freed until 1866. The sun shined directly overhead, and for starters, the cool kids weren’t insufferable like they are at AfroPunk, where the consciousness of cameras and potential press stifles the air. It was a sigh of relief that no one seemed to be thinking much about President Trump’s rally of hate happening across town the next day.
I headed across the lawn toward the food trucks to grab some barbeque and meet Greg Robinson, a local hero and one of Tulsa’s two Black mayoral candidates (update: as of early July 2020, the second candidate I spoke with, Ricco Wright, has dropped out of the race due to sexual assault allegations). I asked Robinson about how the LGBTQ community fits into Tulsa’s plans for the future and he said, “One person’s quest for justice has to be everybody’s quest for justice. For too long Black LGBTQ people have been invisible, but I see you, because I know what it feels like not to be seen. Someone has to have the moral courage to have this conversation and to bring it to the light.”
Suffering horribly from my sobriety, I was relieved when a sister named Marissa Fraser invited me to smoke a joint and chat. Her family emigrated to Tulsa from Jamaica, and she runs a cannabis-collective called Danky Pharms that brings together Tulsa’s good-green entrepreneurs of color. “I distribute,” she said, “and when I was getting started, Black men helped me build my clientele with finding the flower and really putting my name out there.” She teared up as she talked about the lack of opportunities “specifically for the Black men here.” She described the struggle and said that “they’ve gotten the least [from the industry],” but as is the sheer brilliance of Black women, they know what is best, which is to organize. “We all know the big businesses are going to come in. We have to have loyalty to one another. We cannot sell out,” she said as I hugged her goodbye.
On my way back to the hotel, a friend from New York told me to swing by Motherland Dispensary to meet his cousin Folami Dottcom. Folami travels the world as a vocalist in Nile Rogers’ Chic, but since COVID, she’s been grounded in Tulsa as the owner of a new marijuana dispensary filled with iconic knickknacks of Black culture she’s collected on her travels. Outside in the front parking lot, there was a neighborhood picnic, and I could sense the end of a day filled with pride, of family and friends. Overcome with joy and enjoying the vibe, I asked Folami about how race plays out in Tulsa’s burgeoning cannabis space. “You can’t really make it a race thing when you’re talking about a dispensary. Being a Black-owned business does not mean that we only serve Black people—we want to serve the people at large,” she said. I mentioned that in all the social justice initiatives set up in big northern states like New York and Massachusetts, restitution to those who suffered in the War on Drugs seems to be very much the trend in small talk (albeit, cheap) with white liberals. Give the felons jobs! they say, to which Folami replied, “When I’m hiring someone, I want someone who’s going to do the job that I need done. If that person is willing to be that and achieve our goals, then I’m interested. What I’m not interested in is behavior that keeps us below our standard.”
The Black Standard. In stark contrast to the Black Landmark, which these days, seems to happen every day. The first Black person to win something extraordinary that is usually reserved for whites. The first Black person to climb a mountain that has already been scaled. See, Tulsa has already been done, so the question for them is: What’s next? The people here know it’s highly unlikely Black Wall Street will ever reach the levels it once did, but to know the past means to know the pedigree of the people, otherwise, there would be no future.
On the way back to my hotel on the day of Trump’s rally, amidst a crowd of MAGA-types and meandering BLM protesters, I spot yet another symbol of Tulsa-style Black capitalism—a lone Black street vendor named Eric selling TRUMP merch to a riot of rednecks in red hats. Deep within the recesses of my mind, the only thought was, what will I do when I hear a chant to kill all the niggers?
Eric seemed to not be bothered in the least, so I winked at him and made the ask: Given all this hoopla, how does one reconcile their Blackness with selling what some might consider the messaging and iconography of 45? I tell him that where I’m from, a certain orthodoxy has emerged: Distance yourself completely, or dare to be canceled.
He sees the faux-moralists as silly. “If I’m not doing it, someone else will be doing it, and I’m not being biased or anything but it’s just the reality that must be faced,” he says with little emotion. “I plan on doing a few more [rallys], because like it or not—this is history in the making, and this product is memorabilia. Black people spend a lot of money in this country and they get rich off of us, so why can’t we get rich off of them? I’ll gladly take their money with a smile on my face.”
In my own show of support for the Brother, l pull 30 bucks out of my pocket for one of his MAGA hats, and to be honest, even today as it sits under my desk back home, I feel proud to own it. I even put it on sometimes when I want to think deeply about the irreconcilable contradictions of American capitalism; how, in a world with overcomplicated language masquerading as a new woke ideology, it is the actions, not the words or the objects, that speak the real truth. Does a MAGA hat purchased from another Black man strengthen my community, or even better, suggest plural ownership of what is in the NBA or NFL, the most profitable part of the game? The licensed product. Why do I feel “pride” when popping open a new Apple MacBook at my local coffee shop owned by white hipsters, knowing that I’m just a victim of a few corrupt monopolies with the whole entire world’s blood on their hands?
In many ways, Black culture these days has created worshippers of the same machine that serves white folks. However, in Tulsa, capitalism at least has a “buyer beware” sticker that speaks to a much deeper knowledge. They know that as white America loosens its grip on the people, and as the New Great Depression has entered the chat, the methods they used on these dusty old plains just one hundred years ago will become better options for them to maintain control.
On my last day in Tulsa, I joined Nehemiah once again at a press conference in the shadow of the Black Wall Street Memorial; He’s there in his Sunday’s best—blue blazer, white shirt, polished shoes. I can’t help but think how this memorial is such a sliver of a monument compared to—say, the Lynching Memorial in Alabama where Hank Willis Thomas‘s sculpture of Black heads and arms raised in surrender emerge from a concrete block. The terrified faces of just-captured Africans are set into transatlantic motion on a slave block by the hands of Ghanaian artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo. No, The Black Wall Street Memorial is not particularly awe-inspiring, but just over 300 souls were lost here, while more than 4,000 Blacks were lynched by white Americans under Jim Crow, and now more than 40 million of us are finally free to demand to matter. So maybe it’s about scale. Nonetheless, this block of carved black marble whispers to me in a way that is satisfying because it is sincere. The same way that the freshly painted yellow letters on Greenwood Avenue don’t seem to neglect to admit that any government or its policies do not have the capacity to care that we “matter.”
Says Nehemiah: “I did a panel about the [HBO] show Watchmen, and a little white lady stood up and asked, ‘What do you think is going to happen after this centennial?’ I think she was expecting for me to give her some sort of hope, but I said I don’t think that there’s going to be any hope afterward. I think that they will continue to suppress Black people in this state. A legislator back in the 70s I’d once read said: ‘You don’t have to worry about Negroes in Oklahoma having political power because there’s not enough of them.’”
As legend in Tulsa has it, it was quite simply a few Negroes who had grand pianos that drove white folks mad with jealousy and rage. And now, you know what happened next.
Yes, legends do serve a point, because they are very, very grand. The legend of Black Wall Street before I arrived was larger than life, but now I understand it as much simpler. More than a legend, Tulsa is a collection of short stories—of Blacks who at one point exemplified the best possible outcomes of American dreaming, and of ownership, and of pride, but then of cruelty, national shame, the power of unmarked graves to haunt cities like Tulsa that are “redeveloping” for the 21st century, and all the other things that go into making a great American story. In many ways, I had to meet it and not just read it in order to really believe it. Now I do.