Sunday, March 2, 2014

A Valiant Legacy

The other day, my friend Mark Darrah showed me a piece he'd written for Tortoise Tracts, an occasional publication dedicated to discovering the extraordinary in the ordinary. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

As a side note, like Mark, I took Oklahoma History, graduated from high school in Moore, OK, and attended eight years of college at Oklahoma State University. The first time I heard about the race riot was during the reconciliation meetings in Tulsa a few years ago.



In June, 1921, Tulsa's Greenwood District was burned to the ground by an angry white mob. The caption on the photo says it all:

Mt. Zion Baptist Church engulfed in flames:

Mt. Zion Baptist Church, aftermath: 

Tortoise Tracts
Vol. 10, Issue 1 February, 2014 © Mark S. Darrah

A Valiant Legacy

The year is 1966. May. The place: Taft Junior High School in Oklahoma City. The seventh grade social studies teacher has spent the first two-thirds of the hour talking about Communists. Then, she says, "And we have Communists right here in Oklahoma City..."And she lambasts as Communists a group of ministers who have signed and presented a petition to the local school board demanding respect for the U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibiting children from being forced to say government required prayers in public schools. 

The filing of the petition made the headlines of the front page of The Daily Oklahoman. The Court's ruling had already been demonized by its shorthand summarization as "prohibiting prayer in school." In this Cold War time, when billboards read "Impeach Earl Warren," this act of courage by this small group of ministers constituted for many --the social studies teacher included --not only apostasy but also treason.

At the end of the hour, a seventh grade boy walked to the front of the room, looked the teacher in the eye, and said, "My father signed that petition and he's not a Communist." He turned and left.

The boy's father was reprimanded. He lost his church. His family was uprooted from their home. This father was by no means a radical. He had voted for Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election. He worked hard, paid his bills, tried to be a good citizen. He simply believed that compulsory prayer is no prayer at all, that prayers required by the government profane the sacred.

Later in his new residence as his family mourned the loss of familiar surroundings and friends, that father sat in the dark and wondered whether he had done the right thing.

"The building had just been completed the month before," my friend Dean says. He and I stand on the bottom floor of the Mount Zion Baptist Church in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma. "The church had taken out a loan to build it and then it all went up in flames except this basement. Let me show you something.” Dean leads me into a recessed area and he points to black scars on cement walls. "You can still see where the fires burned. The insurances wouldn't pay because they said it was caused by a riot and they didn't have to. The church members met in this basement for years until they were able to pay off the debt and build another building."

Like other public school students of my generation, I had to take Oklahoma history in eighth grade. My textbook had been silent about this. The most devastating racial violence in American history had taken place within walking distance of where my junior high school teacher taught a saccharine version of my state's past.

That official story also left out the chapter on the Ku Klux Klan's domination of my state in the 1920's. During this decade, the KKK was strong not only in South, but also in the Midwest where it had the largest number of members. It was vigorously anti-Catholic, anti-African American, anti-Semitic, and anti-immigrant. According to its literature of the day, this secret society of self-proclaimed knights was committed to protecting the "purity of white womanhood" and to organizing "the patriotic sentiment of native-born white, Protestant Americans for the defense of distinctively American institutions."

The Klan recruited heavily from white Protestant churches and fraternal orders such as the Freemasons and the Knights of Pythias. Over thirty-five thousand people attended a Klan induction in Oklahoma City in 1922. One year in the 1920's, all five candidates for Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives were members of the KKK. Church ladies formed auxiliaries to restore and preserve "traditional values and morality" and to support their husbands' nocturnal commissions.

Klan members, disguised in white robes and hoods as the ghosts of the Confederate dead, abducted and physically punished those whom they believed engaged in public indecency, drug use, immoral behavior, wife beating, bootlegging, and other assorted sins. In Oklahoma, martial law was declared to stop the Klan's vigilante beatings, whippings, and castrations.

In the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, thirty-five square blocks of the African-American community were destroyed, over 100 people were killed, and an estimated 10,000 were left homeless, the result of white mob violence. The governor who declared martial law was immediately impeached.


When I wrote a family history for a college class in the 1970's, I asked my living grandmothers and grandfather this question: What was the most significant event of your lifetime?

Each answered: World War I.

Each thought this war had forever corrupted the morals of the country.

These days, my sister, brother, and I go through family heirlooms accumulated by my parents and their parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Many were Masons and members of Eastern Star. All were devout white Protestant Oklahoma Christians.

I wonder how close I got to touching the robes of the Ku Klux Klan.


I remember a discussion I had with my grandfather during the latter years of his life. He had come of age in the Oklahoma of the 1920's and had political ambitions like his father before him. By the time of our talk, Grandpa had had a stroke. He didn't get animated much anymore, but when I asked him whether he had any dealings with the KKK, he lurched forward and said, "They were all a bunch of cowards. They tried to get me to join. I told them I wouldn't have anything to do with them."

The wonderful thing about learning is that you deprive no one else by taking what you learn. The wonderful thing about teaching is that you don't lose what you give away. Teaching is also the only gift you can give that lives into eternity. Something you teach becomes another's who teaches it to another and to another, and on and on and on.

You see, my grandfather had a son who signed a petition demanding that the Oklahoma City School Board respect the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court prohibiting government-mandated prayer in school. And that son was a minister, who was reprimanded, who lost his church, whose family was uprooted, who later sat in the dark and wondered whether he had done the right thing. But let me ask you today, would my brother --that seventh grade boy who told his teacher that his father was not a Communist --have had the courage to do so had he not been taught by example?

From The State Sentinel (Stigler, Ok), Oct. 5, 1922

Keota, Okla. Oct. 5 – 
Last Tuesday night The Keota Knights of the Ku Klux Klan held a meeting west of Keota and a class of twenty-one were initiated. Out of these twenty-one, eighteen were farmers and the other three laboring men. There is some propaganda going over the county that nobody but "high-collared" men can belong to the organization. This is absolutely false.

Tortoise Tracts
Tulsa, Oklahoma 74114

Keep your eyes open for the publication of Mark Darrah's upcoming collection of personal commentaries A Catalogue of Common People.