Telling Our Story Our Way

Out of all the writings I have done over the years, my greatest joy and feeling of accomplishment came when I wrote the novel, The Fires of Greenwood: Tulsa Riot of 1921.

For many a year I have bemoaned the fact that our history was being written, either as fiction or non-fiction, by writers of another race. I finally decided that complaining did no good at all. So, I set out to undertake the task of doing a thorough research of the major events that led up to the Tulsa Massacre of 1921 and the destruction of Black Wall Street.  I spent time in Tulsa and talked with Ms. Eddie Faye Gates, a member of the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. I read the Commission’s final report as well as non-fiction historical accounts of what happened those fateful two days in the Greenwood Section of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

After conducting a thorough research of the event, but more important the great Black men and women who had lived during that time, I decided to bring them back to life in the pages of a novel. Some of those heroes included Dr. Andrew C. Jackson, one of the very best surgeons of any color in the country; Andrew Smitherman, publisher of the Tulsa Star, the radical Black newspaper with the motto, “You Push Me and I’ll Push You;” Mabel Little, owner of the Little Rose Beauty Parlor, where the ladies gathered especially on Thursday to get their hair done for the festivities on Thursday Night, better known as “Maid’s Night Out;” O. B. Mann, owner of Mann Grocery Store and the World War I Veteran who told White Tulsans that as long as he and the other veterans were living, there would be no lynching in Tulsa, and O. W. Gurley, owner of the Gurley Hotel and one of the richest Black men on Black Wall Street.

The most outstanding of all the heroes I researched was John B. Stradford, the richest Black man on Black Wall Street and owner of the famous Stradford hotel, a hotel so elegant it could match any in the state of Oklahoma. Stradford was not only a very astute and successful businessman, but also a no nonsense man who refused to be treated in a demeaning or subservient manner. He once beat a white man because he dared call him out of his name. When the riot broke out, Stradford stood in the doorway of his hotel with gun drawn, ready to shoot any intruder who would attempt to put a torch to his property.

Stradford became my most enjoyable black hero to re-create in the novel. You can imagine my joy when his great-great granddaughter, Laurel Stradford, and I had the opportunity to communicate by email. My joy increased when I was able to invite her to San Antonio to participate on a panel, discussing the successes of Black men and women in Tulsa in 1921. The panel discussion was sponsored by D. L. Grant, Branch Manager of the Carver Public Library in San Antonio.

I also had the pleasure of interviewing Ms. Stradford on “Discussions with the Writer Fred” on Black Video News, and that interview is included at the end of this essay.

Presently, there are a number of producers in Hollywood planning on making a movie of the Tulsa Massacre. I am concerned that these producers may not capture the essential importance of what happened back in 1921. The massacre should not outshine the re-creation of our heroes like John B. Stradford and others. Hopefully, Laurel Stradford, who has her great-great grandfather’s memoirs, will have some input into the way the story is told in a movie. If not, then it will be just another case of Black Americans failing to tell their story their way.

 

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Bigots in the Barbershop

On this past Friday afternoon, I made my usual bi-weekly trip to my barber to get my little bit of hair I have left trimmed, my beard straightened out and spend a little time talking with my barber. I was lucky because when I strolled into the shop, he was busy eating a fish sandwich from Mama T’s Restaurant from down the street. I knew I was next and the three men sitting around talking were waiting for the other barber in the shop.

The Barbershop is a contemporary edifice of my culture; a place where Black men have for decades found their way inside, all over this country on weekends in order to talk their talk, free of the influence or intimidation of white folks. I sometimes thought that if someone could just record the conversations that take place in those shops, it would become a best seller. Every topic possible is discussed in the barbershop. In fact, some folks just show up on Fridays and Saturdays to participate in the bantering back and forth.

Once my barber finished his fish sandwich, he waved me over to his chair and just as I settled in, a man strolled into the shop and began a conversation on homosexuality. Evidently, he was a minister and felt compelled to explain to all of us in the shop that homosexuality is “an abomination against God.” He stressed that it is not just a sin but an abomination. A number of “Amens” resonated throughout the shop. One other man, who had been sitting quietly reading what I believe was a Bible, jumped to his feet and echoed the first man’s assertion. Another man, who claimed to be a minister, remained seated but joined in the conversation. He informed us that God created “Adam and Eve and not Adam and Steve.”

After this kind of attack went on for about five minutes with everyone in there agreeing with the ministers, my barber leaned down and said, “Brother Williams you awfully quiet. You don’t agree with the minister’s condemnation of homosexuality?” I should have told him, “no I don’t agree with this very bigoted condemnation of one’s preferred choice of how they live their life.”

Because, in order to condemn homosexuality, I would also have to condemn some of the greatest and brightest minds throughout the years within the Black community. Men and women who have offered their best in the service of the race. I would have to condemn Wallace Thurman, one of the brightest and most progressive explorers of the literary genius of Black writers during the Harlem Renaissance. Mae Gwendolyn Henderson, Thurman’s biographer wrote that, “It was perhaps his ‘erotic, bohemian’ lifestyle as much as his literary creation that made him one of the most fascinating and seductive of the Renaissance itself.” Arna Bontempts, one of the historians of the period, described him in the following manner, “He was like a flame which burned so intensely, it could not last for long, but quickly consumed itself.” Undoubtedly, without Thurman that Renaissance Period would have lost some of its vigor and glamor.

Because, in order to condemn homosexuality, I would have to condemn the literary spokesman for the Civil Rights Movement, James Baldwin. As a novelist, essayist, and social critic, he became a leading voice of the 20th Century Civil Rights Movement. Initially, as a young man he moved from Harlem, New York to Paris, France, in order to escape American racism and the stigma he faced as a gay man in his own community (much like the bigots in the barbershop). He wrote the definitive explanation for the movement with his outstanding book of essays, Fires Next time. Fires was published in 1963 just as Eugene Bull Connors, the Police Commissioner in Birmingham, Alabama, was turning the dogs loose on Black people and where four little girls were killed after an explosion at the Sixteenth Baptist Church from dynamite planted by the Ku Klux Klan. He took racist to task with his famous quote from the old Negro Spiritual, “Mary Don’t You Weep,” “God gave Noah the rainbow sign. No more water, the fire next time.”

Because, in order to condemn lesbianism, I would have to condemn one of this country’s finest playwrights, Lorraine Hansberry. Her famous play, Raisin in the Sun, was the first written by a Black and performed on Broadway. At age 29, she won the New York’s Drama Critic’s Circle Award making her the first Black playwright, the fifth woman and the youngest to do so. She was truly a credit to the race. However, throughout her life, she was involved in a personal search for her sexual freedom as she dated women and was an active member of the country’s initial lesbian political organization, Daughters of Bilitis. In a letter to the editor of the Lesbian publication, Ladder, she wrote, “I think it is about time that women began to take on some of the ethical questions which a male dominated culture has produced. There may be women to emerge who will be able to formulate a new and possible concept that homosexuality persecution and condemnation has at its roots not only in social ignorance, but a philosophically active anti-feminist dogma.”

Because, in order to condemn lesbianism, I would have to condemn the first Southern Black woman elected to the Texas Senate after Reconstruction and to the United States House of Representatives, Barbara Jordan. There have been very few members of that distinguished body that had the impact that she did, in such a short period of time she served. On July 25, 1974, she delivered a fifteen-minute televised speech in front of the members of the United States House Judiciary Committee supporting the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. She became the first Black woman to deliver a Keynote Address at the Democratic National Convention in 1976 and again in 1992. In 1994, President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Finally, in order to condemn homosexuality, I would have to condemn the organizational genius, the Guru of the non-violent civil rights movement, Bayard Rustin, the man who was the mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  There is no one person that dedicated their entire life to the improvement of the condition of Blacks in this country more than Rustin. He went to Montgomery, Alabama in February 1956, right after the bus boycott was under way, and taught King and the followers the Gandhian tactic of non-violent social protest. After the success of the boycott, he laid out the organizational structure for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was the person King wanted to be its director, but bigoted ministers blocked that appointment. They did so after he spent months developing the concept for implementation. Finally, he organized the two major marches on Washington, D. C. the Prayer Pilgrimage March in 1957, that brought King out of the South and made him the recognized leader of the Civil Rights Movement. It was at that pilgrimage that King developed his first nationally recognized speech, “Give Us the Vote.” Finally, Rustin was the one person who did more to organize the famous “1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” than any other individual. King’s name is associated with the success of that march because of his “I have a dream” speech, but the real credit belongs to Rustin.

Because of the work that these men and women did to improve the condition of Black people over the decades, I could not join in the attack on homosexuals and lesbians, the bigots in the barbershop conducted. And even if these great people hadn’t provided me with a reason to reject bigotry, I still would not have joined in the condemnation because I take to heart Dr. King’s famous assertion that an individual should be judged by the “content of their character.” Certainly, Black America has been honored with some very great men and women with excellent credentials and are not “abominations.” That term best fits those bigots who viciously attacked them in the barbershop, and any place in this country that homophobia exists.

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“When Great Trees Fall:” Dick Gregory

At the very moment I heard the announcement that Dick Gregory had died, I immediately conjured in my mind a poem, “When Great Trees Fall,” by Maya Angelou. Specifically, I thought of the lines that read,

And when great souls die after a period peace blooms slowly and always irregularly. Spaces fill with a kind of soothing electric vibration. Our senses, restored, never to be the same, whisper to us. They existed. They existed. We can be, Be one. Be better. For they existed.

Because Richard Claxton Gregory existed, we all are better for what he taught us over his long historic career as a civil rights icon, social theorist and Socratic Gadfly, who challenged people and events when others dared not to do so.

I had the extreme pleasure of meeting Dick Gregory as a young man in Pasadena, California involved in the social revolution of the 1960’s. He came to the city to address the NAACP and I was one of the host for his stay. I recall that instead of going out to a fancy restaurant, Mr. Gregory wanted a home cook meal that included a pot of chitterlings (that was before he had made the conversion in his eating habits). I remember he advised us young activists that we must make a commitment and once that was done, let nothing stand in our way to achieve our goal. He insisted that our goal should in some way benefit our people, as we struggled to fight off the awful system of bigotry and segregation that was choking the life right out of us.

This great hero of the Black race lived by his beliefs. He gave up a very potentially lucrative career as a comedian, in order to get involved in the protest movement in the South. Over the years, as I observed Bill Cosby’s career catapult to the top with I Spy and The Bill Cosby Show, I thought of Mr. Gregory’s sacrifice for the cause, and he rightfully could have taken that same route, but refused to play the role in order to satisfy the guilty conscience of white America. He chose to prick that conscience whenever the occasion arose, instead of pacifying the men who ran the system that oppressed his people.

I recall that while teaching a Black Social Movements Course at the Monterey Peninsula College in Monterey, California while attending the Monterey Institute of Foreign Studies and Black Politics at Indiana University while working on my Doctorate Degree, there was one recording I always played for my classes. It was a recorded tape of a speech that Mr. Gregory made to students right after the Kent States shooting in 1970. He was extremely critical of the Vietnam War and explained to the white students, that because they dared to challenge the power of the national government they were the new targets for abuse. According to Mr. Gregory they had become the new n___rs. He also talked of the arrogance of a race of people, who claim that they discovered a country that was already occupied. And just like their assumption of ownership over the land, they made the erroneous claim over the bodies of more than four million African Americans.

I again had the opportunity to communicate with Mr. Gregory in August 1978, when on Women’s Equality Day, he marched with one-hundred thousand women campaigning for a ratification deadline extension for the Equal Rights Amendment. Senator Birch Bayh (D. Indiana) was one of the primary sponsors of the amendment and as his Legislative Aide, I was involved. Along with Gloria Steinem and other leading proponents of the amendment, Mr. Gregory met with the Senator to discuss strategy. Ultimately the amendment failed to get ratified in the states. But Dick Gregory remained a strong proponent of equal rights for all people.

Dick Gregory used the analogy of a turtle as a comparison of the kind of individual he was and felt all others should emulate. He explained that a turtle was soft on the inside, hard on the outside and willing to stick its neck out. That is precisely how this great man lived his life and as a result of his 84 years we are all better off because he existed.

 

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