As a Black Oklahoma native, the commemoration and recognition of the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial have brought back so many memories. Several articles and recent media coverage have highlighted the events in 1921 and the impact on present-day Tulsa. Not only has this tragedy remained absent from our history books, but also the thriving Black communities that populated the Oklahoma landscape.
Are there Black People in Oklahoma?
I remember it like it was yesterday. In 2015, I attended the Black Engineer of the Year Awards Conference in Baltimore, MD, with my fellow classmates in the Minority Engineering Program (MEP) from the University of Oklahoma. As a college sophomore, it was my first time attending this conference and the furthest East I had ever traveled. I joined a fellow classmate at the career fair, and we ended up visiting a few graduate school booths and met my future husband. He was filling in for a representative from his school, an HBCU, and quite flirtatious.
He asked me where we were from, and with a country accent, I told him that we were from the University of Oklahoma. He was shocked by my accent and responded that he didn't know that there were Black people in Oklahoma. With pride, I shared that there were Black people in Oklahoma, and in fact, it had the most towns founded by Black people in America.
To this day, I still meet people who are shocked to learn that I'm a native Oklahoman. Thinking back to the content taught in my Oklahoma History class, you wouldn't know many Black people existed in Oklahoma and had established thriving communities. We learned a ton about the Oklahoma Land Run, the Five Civilized Tribes, and outlaws. If there was anything discussed in Oklahoma history about Black people, it was only a brief mention.
Learning About Black Wall Street
I recall somehow finding out that Oklahoma had the most towns founded by Black people. Still, I didn't learn about the existence of Black Wall Street in Tulsa until I was in my late teens or an early adult. I was at an event, and there was a booth with an older Black gentleman selling books about Black Wall Street. I recall asking a more senior family member about it, and he confirmed that it did indeed exist. Another thriving Black center in Oklahoma was in Muskogee, OK, where my family has origins.
My parents share fond memories of their upbringing in Muskogee. Like Tulsa, it had a very sizeable and well-established Black community. Established in the Indian Territory, before Oklahoma became a state, there was a great sense of pride in the Black community, including several Black businesses, schools, doctors, and a Black hospital. Many studies have shown that "Black patients treated by Black doctors fare better."
Racial Trauma Drives Stress and Illness
As a young adult survivor of stage 3 inflammatory breast cancer (IBC), I discovered how disparities impact the Black community. That "Your body teaches itself to stay in that fight or flight mode," said Dr. Jennifer Hays-Grudo, "and you see the rates of cancer, heart attacks, strokes" go up. That fight or flight mode is very much in play when constantly faced with microaggression and racism, which takes a toll on our mental health. Having doctors who understand these underlying conditions can help address these underlying conditions that lead to the disparities.
Like Tulsa, many communities of color have a health gap that is driven by stark inequities. The details of the inequities in Tulsa can almost be an exact duplicate of other Black communities in America.
This weekend makes me wonder how different our lives would be if events like the massacre had not occurred or families obtaining reparations for what they had lost. The impact has crossed many generations and communities across Oklahoma, driving the wealth gap and health disparities that we continue to see to this very day.
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