Recently, our local city council considered a motion to change the name of a street downtown, which honored a city founder who was also a Klan member and involved in various acts of violence against political opponents. Depressingly, the Council found a compromise that allowed them to pretend to rename the street while actually preserving the same surname on it. It resolved none of the lingering racial issues in our city (in fact, it probably exacerbated them) but incurred financial costs just the same (thankfully, donations save the taxpayers from added insult to their pocketbooks to go with the injury to their civic sensibilities). In any case, there was a lot of talk about the role of history in relation to this incident. I will confess that it was sometimes painful to listen to laypersons pontificate on the same without any substantive understanding — but it was a good reminder that Everyman is his/her own historian. I spoke at the council meeting where it was opened to public comments, and I post here what I said then:
Like so many other Tulsans, I want to weigh in on the matter of renaming Brady Street. I support the change and ask you to vote in favor of it.
I have taught history for some time, and it always strikes me how little people understand its power. Every semester, to illustrate that, I tell my students this story:
When I was an undergrad, I had an instructor whose son was in an accident and developed amnesia (true story, by the way). She told our class that when she was taking her son home from the hospital, they stopped to eat. As they were looking over their menus, he grew increasingly agitated. When she asked him what was wrong, he said: ”I don’t even know what to order. I know what all the words mean, but I don’t remember eating them before. Do I like hamburgers?”
I tell this story because it demonstrates how important memory is to making us who we are. We simply can’t make choices or function well without it. Who we are is shaped by what we’ve experienced. History is our collective memory and makes us who we are as a group. The memory of what has happened to us as a community shapes the choices we make together — whether we know it or not. Today, we face an important challenge because what we are really doing is trying to come to terms with our history and make choices based on that for our future. This is a momentous thing. Very rarely do we come to such obvious crossroads in life. There is a wealth of opportunity here. We can continue to dismiss the past and try futilely to forget it, or we can do the ugly work of wrestling with the difficulty of making a new response. I say after almost 100 years, it’s time we do the latter.
This dilemma has, unfortunately, been characterized as a black v. white issue — south Tulsa v. north Tulsa. In looking at it that way, we fall into the same pattern we have since the riot happened. Black versus white is the legacy of that riot. We have to find a way to get past that, and it’s high time we did so. Truthfully, the issue here is really white Tulsans deciding how we are going to embrace the blame for that event (which we have failed to do so far). We have benefited from the riot — you cannot look at the booming district that now sits on the site of those old burned out houses and not know that. The owners are no longer the people who once lived there or their offspring. And, white Tulsa did not have to spend money on rebuilding after the disorder; it had sound homes and businesses upon which to continue to build. That was not the case for north Tulsa. Most importantly, white Tulsans did not have to live in fear that the more powerful members of their society — including leaders like Tate Brady — would do them great physical harm. Black Tulsans, however, did have to grow up under that cloud. It shapes who you are. It shapes the choices you make. It impacted the way the civil rights movement played out (and stalled) here so many years later. For example, in 1968, the federal government barred discrimination in housing. Our state law did not match that until the mid-80’s, and we still struggle with housing discrimination in our city today. It is undeniable that the riot and the race relations that developed after it still affect us. White Tulsans must come to terms with this legacy. We cannot say “well, that wasn’t me.” As Abraham Lincoln noted in his 2nd Inaugural Address, there is a woe that is due. It has now come to this generation to decide what it will do with this mantle.
I would love if the City of Tulsa — instead of being what people point to as an example of intolerance and backwardness — chose to demonstrate how to handle such things a better way, and with dignity and grace. I believe we can do this. I look at the Murrah Bombing Memorial and know that the people here know how to set the standard for handling our history with decency and maturity. It is time that we do so with the riot. This will be a harder task because it means owning up to a great failure and harm. We are not alone in this, and I think it might be helpful to look at how other places with similar histories have dealt with theirs as inspirations for what — or what not — to do. This dilemma is solvable — and even better, it offers us a bridge to a more positive future. The way we choose to treat our past today will affect our potential for the future. I ask you to choose the option that leads us closer to reconciliation and hope. To do so, it is necessary that we make this change as a sign that we repudiate that past and, in breaking away from the legacy left to us by Brady and his peers, set a unified path forward.