Memories after what I hope will be a turning point week for our country.
The first from 1996, when I moved into a Fort Worth, Texas, nursing home to write about the lives of the people there. As part of my daily ritual, I went from room to room, saying good morning to my new neighbors. With two exceptions.
It was on the third morning that I realized I had been skipping the room of two elderly African-American ladies. They were black and I was white, and they had thus inspired in me a primal and ridiculous fear. Two old ladies. When I stopped by their room on my last two days, they bloomed with the attention, just like their white neighbors.
Another memory from a night in 1999 — and dinner at a quiet Chinese restaurant in Tulsa with an African-American state legislator named Don Ross. Earlier in the day, he and I had talked about the so-called Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, which Ross, more than anyone, had helped restore to history. Hardly a riot, hundreds of black Tulsans were slaughtered by a white mob, and a uniquely prosperous African American community was burned to the ground.
That night, our formal interview done, Ross and I were making small talk over egg rolls when I asked what I thought was an innocent question.
“So, what was it like for blacks after the Civil War?”
Ross slammed the table hard enough that others in the restaurant turned to look.
“And you’re one of the educated whites,” he said that night. “If we can’t count on you to know our story, who can we count on?” From then on he called me “ignorant white boy.”
I was appropriately ashamed. Raised in a small town in the Upper Midwest, for the first 20 years of my life the only black people I ever really saw were on television. I didn’t watch the television series, “Roots.” Race was pretty much irrelevant to me, even after I moved to Texas and started living and working among people of color. Then came that night with Ross.
I tried to rectify my ignorance by researching a book on the Tulsa massacre — and the Jim Crow era of American history in which it occurred.
For the first time, I learned of the true horrors of slavery and the century after emancipation, that for blacks was nearly as awful. I learned that in the 1920s, the Klu Klux Klan was as popular in Chicago as it was in Tennessee. President Wilson and the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court endorsed the movie “Birth of a Nation,” the blockbuster that celebrated the Klan and portrayed blacks with the most odious stereotypes.
Back of the bus. Separate water fountains, schools, restaurants. Lynchings reported in U.S. newspapers like box scores. Tulsa was hardly an aberration, in fact. Around that same time, blacks were slaughtered in East St. Louis, Chicago, and Duluth, Minn.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that my education was life-changing. I could never look at a person of color the same way again. I started to come to terms with the racism within myself. Seeds of greater empathy and compassion took root. Fred Rogers said that you can learn to love anyone if you know their story. I’m another example, I think.
The third memory. Thursday night in downtown Dallas, a few hours after the horror and not far from where the slaughter occurred. I saw a cordon of about 30 officers — black, white and brown, men and women — standing side by side, sadly but with great poise and professionalism, outside a convenience story as they were taunted by angry young black men. And now so many stories from that night of selflessness and heroism of officers protecting … African-Americans.
In 35 years as a journalist, the people I’ve admired most were cops, — Curt, Cheryl, Joe, Paul and so many more. They were brave, dedicated and smart — men and women who epitomize public service. After a week that I hope will bring real change, they have been much on my heart.