Don Ross: A Hero Seventy-Five Years After the Invasion of Black Wall Street

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.

Mama in Black America

Over that past six years, I have written over one-hundred posts on this blog. Some of them have importance only for the time in which they were written, but others have universal appeal and can be repeated for many years. This particular one I decided to post again, because it does have the universal appeal. It is about the love, struggle and endurance of the Black mother who has been the pillar of the culture for centuries, and of all the mothers throughout the nations of the world and over the centuries, none has carried their burden and love for their children as has the Black mother in this country. So once again, I share this writing with you out of the utmost respect for these most beautiful ladies of the world.

“I’ll always love my Mama,
She’s my favorite girl.
I’ll always love my Mama,
She brought me in this world.”


The Intruders probably had no idea when they recorded “I’ll Always Love My Mama” back in 1973, that it would have such a universal outreach over generations and decades. What they were able to express through song, was that “Mama” has been the pillar of the African American family from the first time our ancestors landed on these shores, through slavery, through apartheid and right up to last week when that mother walked on the scene in Baltimore, and chased her son home from the mob. She was doing nothing more than what “Mama” has done for centuries in this country. In fact, there has never been a time or period that the Black mother did not have to worry about her children.

During slavery they worried that their babies would be sold right from under them because, as the slave owners proudly proclaimed, the children were their property and that took precedence over any notion of motherhood. Often these same owners would rape our women and force them to carry to birth, a child conceived through an act of violence. But still these mothers loved their children; a strong indication as to just how special they were as “Mama.”

Post Reconstruction years were also turbulent times for Black mothers. They understood the rules of apartheid; but often, young children did not. Every day and every hour their children went out into the rigid world of white racism, they worried if they would safely return home. Black mothers and, in some instances when fathers were around, assumed an awesome responsibility. They needed, as Ralph Ellison would observe, “to adjust the child to the Southern milieu…to protect him/(her) from those unknown forces within himself/(herself) which might urge (them) to reach out for that social and human equality which the white South says (they) cannot have.” (Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act, New York 1964).

The responsibility that “Mama” assumed during those terrible years was not only for the safety of her children but also to feed and clothe them and put a roof over their head. “Mama” did all kinds of jobs to make that happen. She scrubbed floors, washed and ironed clothes, cleaned homes and cooked meals as domestics so that her children could eat. Often “Mama” would have to bring home leftover food for the children.  Writing about his childhood in New Orleans, Louis Armstrong said of his mother: “When Mayann took up domestic labor, she worked for a white family on Canal Street. That job probably gave her ‘toting’ privileges, allowing her to bring food and perhaps clothing home to her children, a common practice in the South.” (Carol Marks and Diana Edkins, The Power and Pride, Stylemakers and Rulebreakers of the Harlem Renaissance, Crown Publishing, New York, 1999)

The plight of “Mama” today, is not quite as drastic as it was during the turbulent years of apartheid. But the struggle continues for these keepers and protectors of the race. The threat of retaliation for perceived poor behavior from a previously racist oriented society has waned, but the threat that young Black boys face every day from the established law enforcers in their community, still exists. In that light, the struggle continues.

The beautiful Black “Mama” who smacked her son right in front of the entire world that troubled day in Baltimore, expressed generations of frustrations she and her fellow sisters of the race have encountered for much too long. But through it all, one constant remained; “Mama” loves her children. Despite the hardships over the centuries, she stayed steadfast and diligent, dedicated to her family. And for all the pain she has endured; the worry, the fear, and the love, “Mamas” in every part of this country share the same feelings as the great gospel singer Shirley Caesar expressed when she sang, “No Charge.”

“I Remember Mama” by Shirley Caesar