As we plan to commemorate the 100th year since the ugly hate-filled attack of the Greenwood community of Tulsa, Oklahoma, better known as Black Wall Street, let us also recognize the one man who brought the hidden secret to light, and that is Don Ross. It began when Ross was a high school student at Booker T. Washington in Greenwood (one of the only buildings not destroyed by fire during the invasion). His history teacher was Bill Williams, the son of John and Loula Williams, owners of the Williams Auto Repair Shop, Dreamland Theater, and the Williams Confectionery. He is seen riding in the back of his father’s convertible in that famous picture depicting the success of Black businesses in Greenwood. But their businesses were destroyed by the invasion. As a high school student, young Bill re-loaded his father’s weapons in an attempt to fight off the invaders. Almost forty years later he was still teaching high school.
One day in class, Williams decided to tell the students what happened that fateful day in 1921. Ross immediately challenged the story. There was no way that could have happened in his city because there were no traces of the carnage done. In fact, Greenwood was a thriving community with businesses, restaurants, and some of the best blues and jazz in the country was played there. Ross just did not believe so much damage could be done and so many lives taken without anyone knowing about it, at least no one in his family discussed what happened.
After class, Williams invited Ross to remain after school and showed him a scrapbook of pictures that revealed what actually did happen. Evidently the pictures of dead Black men and women in the streets, bodies loaded into trucks, men and women marching down the middle of Greenwood Avenue with their hands raised high above their heads and whites with shotguns guarding them and all the burning buildings was a complete surprise to the young man. Williams then took him over to the home of a very elderly man, Seymour Williams (no relation to Bill) who in 1921 was the football coach at the high school and probably coached Dick Rowland, who played football for the two years he was at the school.
The two Williams’ men spent the next three hours and many days after that first meeting with Ross, telling him of how successful the Black community had been back then. They undoubtedly mentioned the names of the leaders of the community, J. B. Stradford, Andrew Smitherman, O. W. Gurley and the very successful doctor, A.C. Jackson as well as the brave war veteran, O. B. Mann. They told him how these men stood up to the invading whites that morning of June 1. They bragged about how these men, apart from O. W. Gurley, successfully were fighting off the invaders until the “airplanes came.”
Years later when Don Ross was elected to the Oklahoma State Legislature from the Greenwood community, he never forgot those meetings with the two Williams’ men. It had bothered him all the years that Oklahoma had actually hidden what happened from the world. It was a conspiracy of silence and the man Ross was determined to break that silence and bring to the light what happened to the finest economically, independent Black Community this country has ever known, by a bunch of racists filled with hate and jealousy. He pressured the state legislature to appoint a commission to examine what really happened free from prejudice and lies. As a result of his efforts the Commission to Investigate the Tulsa Riot of 1921 was authorized by the legislature in 1997 and after three years of extensive research reported their findings on February 28,2001.
Because of his untiring work and efforts, fighting against all odds by those in power who did not want the truth be told, we owe a debt of gratitude to this man who displayed the same strength and courage as did his ancestors who, on June 1, 1921, fought valiantly to protect their families and property. As the narrative on Black Wall Street increases and we move toward 2021, let us make sure that Don Ross is considered among the heroes that all Black America will salute and honor on that day.