By Marsha Wilson Rappaport
By sheer accident of birth, my DNA has ties to both Juneteenth and the Tulsa Race Massacre. My maternal mixed-race family settled before 1865 on Galveston Island. My African American paternal family lived 50 miles from Tulsa, in Reeves Edition, the Black section of Muskogee, Oklahoma at the time of the Tulsa Race Massacre. I was blessed to know both of my grandmothers for decades. And yet, I did not hear the word “Juneteenth” until the mid-1980’s. Moreover, I learned about the Tulsa Massacre on HBO’s Watchman at the age of 68.
I come from an extraordinary family of well-educated women who received that education during a time when it was tough to come by as a person of color. My maternal grandmother, born in 1900, would tell me about ‘Freedom Day” in Galveston when everyone had watermelon and red soda. But she also told me that her grandmother Capiana’s husband, Abraham was an escaped slave from Richmond, Texas. He was a Merchant Seaman, and although he brought his wife Capiana back from Mexico, he stayed at sea until “Freedom Day”, less he be returned to slavery.
I met the late State Representative Al Edwards, in the mid-1980s. When he told me about Juneteenth, my initial reaction was horror. I was shocked that the people here were slaves two years longer than they should have been after the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed. It was not until this year when the Juneteenth Legacy Project started that I realized “Freedom Day” was actually “Juneteenth”.
No one in my family ever mentioned the Tulsa Race Massacre to me. My grandmother, like my father, did explain that the Klu Klux Klan was present in Muskogee. My father endlessly explained that his motivation to get out of Oklahoma and go to Howard University was tied to Klan Lynchings. But the elder I spent the most time with, my father’s sister Aunt Pocahantas never mentioned it.
My Aunt Pocahantas was so accomplished that she has a cultural center at the Tulsa Public Library named after her. She also lived 3 miles from the site of the Tulsa Massacre on one side and 3 miles from the purported mass burial site on the other.
When we would visit her, no one in my family would sleep in her guest room. It was a small room, featuring a beautiful peach quilted bed with a wall-to-wall Mahoney dresser dominating one wall. When I was about eight or nine, I asked why I could not sleep in the guest room. She simply said, “a lot of people died here.” Of course, because I was literally one of the most precocious children on the planet, the challenge of sleeping in a haunted room was one I would accept. Throughout my life, until my last visit to see her in Tulsa just prior to her death, the “haunted room” was “my room”.
My reaction to the HBO series was intense. The movie featured planes firing on the fleeing, screaming Black residents. I put the episode on record and turned off the television. In tears, I could only see that this depiction would indicate that an “American Guernica” took place well before the Nazis helped kill the Spanish. I begin googling the Tulsa massacre, sat stunned, and started to cry. I could almost see my Aunt Pokies face when she told me “A LOT OF PEOPLE DIED HERE.” I suddenly had the stark realization that it turned out to be the understatement of the century.
Why the Silence?
During the past few months, while watching the documentaries about Juneteenth and the Tulsa Race Massacre I have tried to ascertain the reason for the gaps in history and the silence about those events.
In my late maternal grandmother’s case, she may not have been exposed to the concept of Juneteenth because her family was mixed race. Her mother was dead, and she was raised by her grandmother from Mexico. Abraham, her grandmothers’ husband, knew enough to keep himself safe, but by all accounts, after the 1900 Storm became mentally unstable. My grandmother left the Island with her grandmother and moved to Chicago in 1915.
However, the silence of my paternal grandmother, my father, and my aunt remain a mystery. My paternal grandmother was a very religious woman, very soft-spoken. When I was around her, she would tell me stories or let me play with the chickens. She was not a “bad news” kind of person. My father was a baby when the massacre happened. By the time he could read, the news was probably buried.
My Aunt Pokie, however, was 11 years old at the time of the massacre. Like my father, and like me she could read at an early age and tended to be a voracious reader. The Black communities in Tulsa and Muskogee had a lot of interaction. There is every chance she knew about the massacre as a child. By the time she was an adult and had risen to become a Senior School Administrator in the Tulsa School System, there was no chance she did not know. In any case, hiding it from me, the most inquisitive child in the universe must have been tough on all of them.
Racism affects each generation differently. I had grown up in a time of hope. I had watched Martin Luther King, Jr. march on television. Fortunately, I was born to middle-class parents in Northwest Indiana. Moreover, because I was born in the right town, at the right time. Myself and my friends were all “woke” before “woke was a trending topic”. I attended Benjamin Banneker Elementary School, named after a famous Black author and surveyor. Our principal had served as a Tuskegee Airman. Our teachers were all Black, superbly educated, and dedicated to making us the best of the best. Our books and our surroundings reflected the achievements of people of color in America. What is now being called “critical race theory” was called “history”. We knew the basics: the Native Americans were slaughtered, most of us were descendants of slaves who were in bondage for hundreds of years and Black, Brown and Yellow people had to fight to move forward in America.
We all knew about the Klan. At one point, Indiana had elected a Governor who was openly a Klansman. However, we lived on a block, in a northern city, where no Klansman would dare ride down the street populated by Black Doctors, Dentists, Teachers, and other professionals.
The USA was a tough gig that you had to survive. We were considered the lucky ones and it was our job to “represent”. And as we grew older and had to go out into the real world, that’s when it hit. Our first wake-up call happened when our friend, the Valedictorian of the prestigious big African-American High School, committed suicide after his freshman year at Harvard. He was academically solid and didn’t have financial problems because he got a full ride. At his funeral, one of us finally whispered our fears: “Maybe something bad happened to him at Harvard because he was Black”.
My own reaction to having to “represent the Black race” was different. I tested into Howard as a Sophomore. But, by mid-semester, I realized that I was tired, and I didn’t want to be a mixture of Mary McLeod Bethune and Shirley Chisholm. I was a published poet already. I wanted to become a combination of “Gidget” and Phyllis Wheatley. I was “woke”, but I desperately wanted to go back to sleep.
My paternal grandmother, my father, and my aunt, grew up in a decade where the Tulsa Race Massacre had occurred and had somehow been pushed out of memory. The fear generated by an act of that level of savagery in the modern world had to have become burned into the souls of all the Black people in Oklahoma. It was an action so ugly, that it had to be the mother of all generational traumas.
I can only hope that all three of my elders did not want me to know because they didn’t want to pass on that fear. They wanted me to be fearless. Perhaps their instincts were right because I never stopped being that little girl who dared to sleep in a haunted room.