The entire world has been hearing about the buried, hidden history of my hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, this week. A century ago, one of the most self-sufficient, prosperous black communities in the United States was attacked by a white mob numbering perhaps a thousand, enabled and abetted by the police and the National Guard.
The pretext of the attack was the alleged assault of a white woman by a black man. Even though the authorities had doubts about the story from the beginning, the young man was arrested and held in jail. When word came that a white mob was coming to seize and lynch him, armed African Americans showed up, many of them veterans of World War II. A white member of the mob tried to seize a veteran’s gun, a shot rang out, and the rampage began. Machine gun fire raked the streets. Private biplanes dropped molotov cocktails on businesses and churches. The black-owned bank was looted. The black-owned Dreamland theatre was destroyed. Bodies were dumped into mass unmarked graves—or into the Arkansas River.
Many of those who survived were rounded up by the National Guard and held for days afterward, allowing whatever was of value to be pilfered. Afterward, insurance companies refused to honor claims, and the leaders of Tulsa rapidly rezoned Greenwood from residential to industrial, decreeing that all buildings must be made of brick.
You might think all of this would have destroyed the community, but just four years later, Greenwood was back. Buildings were rebuilt in the dead of night to evade the preposterous zoning requirements. Money was pooled and neighbors pitched-in. Greenwood became prosperous again, despite attempts to prevent its rebuilding.
Forty years after the Race Massacre had been scrubbed from the official histories, the push for gentrification and creation of the interstate highway system finally accomplished what rampaging mobs could not, and Greenwood – like so many minority communities around the United States—was taken by eminent domain as an interstate was routed around the white neighborhood and through Greenwood.
Greenwood lingered as a shadow of its former self when I first visited it as a young teenager.
My younger siblings had been blessed to have an amazing woman as their first-grade teacher at our elementary school in east Tulsa. Mrs. Ava Gibson was a slender, regal woman, a firm believer in the power of education to transform lives—one of the first African American teachers to be transferred into what was then a mostly white working-class neighborhood.
Our family adored her. Even though I didn’t get to have her as my teacher, she was available for any child at school. I remember one time I was having difficulty with some situation in my life and was sitting morosely, probably sniffling, on the curb outside the school by the parking lot, and she walked past me, patted me on the shoulder, and said, “Don’t ever lose heart, now.” Those words stuck with me.
When Mrs. Gibson retired, she invited us to her home church, as we all celebrated her career and the impact she had on so many families on both sides of segregated Tulsa. Vernon Chapel AME Church was the only edifice left standing after the Massacre and destruction of 1921. And yet when we walked in, we were welcomed as if we had been attending this church our entire lives. The choir and band made the most joyful noise to the Lord I had ever heard in a place of worship. The pastor that day spoke of the incredible perseverance, dedication, and strength of will of Mrs. Gibson and her fellow congregants—and I am sure they all knew exactly what that meant in ways it would take us decades to discover. The Holy Spirit didn’t just visit that congregation on that warm late summer day—it practically busted out the windows and then dragged us all into the fellowship hall for a Sunday supper that could not be beat.
This Sunday’s epistle brought all those memories flooding back.
“Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.”
I suddenly remembered that reminder not to lose heart, even as the odds seemed great that I might do just that. I pictured Mrs. Gibson leading her charges single file through the halls at school—and never thinking about how far she had to travel to get to work each day, and how difficult and exhausting that had to be. I thought of her gorgeous brick church standing literally in the shadows of two highways, of the love of God that shone from her when she was teaching six-year-olds to love the liberating power of learning—and about how much we still have to fight to keep the full history of events like those in Slocum, Tulsa, East St. Louis, Chicago, Ocoee, Rosewood from being swept away or dismissed as “something that has nothing to do with today.”
Mrs. Gibson embodied grace, generosity, and endurance. She had to. And so did so many of the people who refused to be driven out of Greenwood, either in the 1920s or the 1970s. Her faith, her grace, and her dignity helped us all to aspire for lives that would lift us up and widen her horizons. May we all be so inspired, so led by the spirit, to likewise persevere in faith, and dedicate ourselves to repairing the breaches that still threaten us and our pursuit of liberty and justice for all, and the honoring of the dignity of all people. And never lose heart.
The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire is a writer, musician, and a priest in the Diocese of Missouri. She is rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO. She posts daily prayers, meditations, and sermons at her blog Abiding In Hope, and collects spiritual writings and images at Poems, Psalms, and Prayers.