Watching the images from Baltimore and remembering, and certainly not for the first time in these troubled last few years, a spring night in Tulsa, Okla., more than a decade ago, when Oklahoma State Rep. Don Ross and I shared dinner at a quiet Chinese restaurant.
I was in Tulsa to research a newspaper story about the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 and earlier in the day had interviewed Ross at his office. He was the African-American legislator most responsible for restoring that horrible event (300 blacks slaughtered by a white mob, an entire black community burned to the ground) to its place in history, in Oklahoma at least. Most everywhere else the atrocity remains unknown.
But at dinner, I thought my work was done for the day. Don and I were making small talk when I asked what I thought was an innocent question.
“So what was it like for blacks after the Civil War?”
Ross was stunned. He slammed the table so loudly 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 ashamed. I had been raised in small town in the Upper Midwest, and for the first 20 years of my life, the only black people I ever really saw were on television. I didn’t watch “Roots.” Race was pretty much irrelevant to me, even after I moved to Texas and started living and working among people of color. But then came the terrible secret of Tulsa and that night with Ross.
I managed to rectify my ignorance in the years to come, research that resulted in my book on the massacre, “The Burning,” which was published in 2001. What I learned was that Tulsa was perfectly consistent with horrors of racism in our nation at the time.
For the first time, I learned of the true horrors of slavery and the century after emancipation that for blacks was nearly as awful. In the 1920s, theKlu Klux Klan was as popular in Chicago as it was in Tennessee. President Woodrow Wilson and the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court endorsed the movie “Birth of a Nation,” the epic that celebrated the Klan and invoked the most odious stereotypes to portray blacks.
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 not far from Ferguson in East St. Louis, Chicago and Duluth, Minn.
After my education, I was never able to look at a black person the same way again, knowing that each bore the scars of the past to one degree or another. I started to come to terms with the racism within myself.
In 1996, I spent four days living in a nursing home to research a story. Part of my daily ritual was to go from room to room to say good morning to my fellow residents. On the third day, I realized I had been bypassing the room of two elderly African-American women. Why? I was afraid of them. They were different.
When I caught myself, and stopped by their room, their faces glowed from the attention, just like white folks in rooms to either side.
I began to understand the profound chasm separating the races when O.J. Simpson was acquitted. I understood the outrage when Trayvon Martin was killed. And I understand what happened in Ferguson and now in Baltimore.
The looters and those who perpetrate the violence in Baltimore are a fraction of their community. But don’t be deluded into thinking that they aren’t in some way reflective of the deep wounds and frustrations that endure in a land that has not come to terms with its past.
What has happened in America these last few years is a symptom of something much deeper. As such, problems with race in America can only be addressed with real soul-searching.
Years ago, I had a conversation about this with James Cash, who in the 1960s was the first black basketball player at Texas Christian University. He went on to become a revered professor at Harvard Business School. Cash told me of the times at Fenway Park when white women clutched their handbags more tightly when he approached. He also told me of a visit to South Africa after apartheid.
In that country, there was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where blanket amnesty was granted, and people thus forced to come forward to tell the truth. History was unveiled, unflinchingly.
I keep waiting for something similar to happen here. How many of these episodes must we endure? Who will lead our version of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission? Fred Rogers said that it was impossible not to love someone if you knew their story. It’s time we learned the story of our neighbors, no matter how painful that might be.