Tulsa, OK: Reconciliation Way

Fireworks over Woody Guthrie Center. Photo courtesy of Robert M. Watt.
Fireworks over Woody Guthrie Center. Photo courtesy of Robert M. Watt.

Tulsa, Oklahoma sits at a crossroads of American identities. In a special episode of SOTRU, we travel to the middle of Middle America to see what happens when these identities collide. We explore one of the country’s deadliest race riots, an incident that the city spent a long time trying to forget; visit a lovingly-crafted museum dedicated to spreading poetry to rural Oklahoma; and — in two special stories produced by This Land Press — visit two churches, one struggling mightily to integrate and another building a shrine for undocumented immigrants in a state with some of the harshest immigration laws in the nation.

This Land Press logoFor this episode of SOTRU, we joined forces with the Tulsa-based independent media hub, This Land Press, who is committed to telling the story of Oklahoma. To read more incredible stories, watch videos, and subscribe to their podcast, visit thislandpress.com.


Episode Music

Expand Tracklist

Artist Track
Tortoise Four Day Interval
John Fahey America
Bob Wills Take Me Back to Tulsa
Hauschka Radar
Oklahoma City Blue Devils Blue Devil Blues
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey Last Prayer (from the Race Riot Suite)
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey The Burning (from the Race Riot Suite)
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey Third Prayer (from the Race Riot Suite)
J.J. Cale Lies
Bonobo Animals
Do Make Say Think Soul and Onward
Sending Letters to the Sea Shifting Structures
Hauschka Ping
F.S. Blumm Tulpen
Guardant Winter Triangles
Bonobo El Toro
Julianna Barwick The Magic Place
Leon Parker Peaceful Dream
Solista Marconny Mi Llegada a Tulsa “Santo Toribio”
Hauschka Cube
Bonobo Kong
New Dimensions Chorale Total Praise by Richard Smallwood
Adult Choir May Love be Your Guide by Cliff Hardin
New Dimensions Chorale I’ll Trust You by Richard Smallwood
Adult Choir Hymn #119 Precious Lord Take My Hand
New Dimensions Chorale Soul Power by James Brown
New Dimensions Chorale Amazing Grace by John Newton
Woody Guthrie 6 Guitar Blues

Dear Tulsa Letters

  • Rilla Askew

    Dear Tulsa,

    I was a teenaged white girl living north of you. You were Oz, T-Town, the Magic City rising up out of the prairie as we drove south on Highway 75.

    You were sophistication, the gateway, the future. I was hunger and romance, riding that blue-black ribbon toward your music, your shopping, your Christmas parades.

    We had to pass through your shadow to reach you—that suffering and dancing country, James Baldwin called it, where black people lived. We had no printable name for your twin, except North Tulsa. I didn’t know it had ever had another name.

    I sensed a secret at the heart of you, something held back, covered up, like a family shame no one wants to talk about. I never asked questions. I didn’t know any questions to ask.

    In 1969 I rode those dark streets to your Civic Center to interview James Brown, carrying a school notebook, a pencil, my naïve white-girl notions. There, after the music, in a fluorescent-lit dressing room, I told him my opinion: the fix for America’s race problems was for black kids and white kids to go to school together.

    You never told me I was wrong.

    Later, I lived on your riverside and sold hippie jeans and cadged rides to nightclubs where your music was rhythmic and rocking, laidback and homegrown—where a superstar might walk in after midnight smelling of sweet magnolia and cocaine. Leon Russell might be here! we whispered. That top-hatted mad dog troubadour carrying your sound to the world. We knew where it began.

    We’d go to Cain’s Ballroom, built by a Klansman, Tate Brady, in the shadow of your twin.

    “Take Me Back to Tulsa,” white Texas playboys used to sing there. “Let me out at Archer, I’ll walk on down to Greenwood.”

    I listened to The Gap Band’s smooth Tulsa funk, never knowing Gap stood for Greenwood, Archer and Pine. Stood for the gap between their world and mine.

    Greenwood. Your twin’s name. Years later I’d learn about the riot that destroyed it: thousands of whites raging through those streets, burning, looting, shooting, rounding up black folks at gunpoint, in 1921. Your secret. The hidden wound.

    It’s no secret anymore. You claim it now, as you claim the white man who sang “This Land Is Your Land,” and meant it. You celebrate Woody Guthrie on the street named for the Klansman, celebrate Juneteenth, Tulsa Jazz. You’re in revival. Poised, I want to believe, for repentance. Renewal. Reconciliation.

    With affection and hope,

    Rilla Askew

  • Russell Cobb

    Dear Tulsa,

    I’m sorry I underestimated you, maligned you, mistreated you. I accept full responsibility for treating you like your named spelled backwards.

    In 1992, when I broke into your majestic downtown hotel, it was full of pigeon poop. Your city planners wanted to tear it down to create more surface parking.

    So Jeff, Chris, and I broke in to see it before they knocked it down. No one had danced on the marble floors of the ballroom since 1977. We roamed around the suites, telling each other ghost stories until a cop found us and told us we were trespassing in a condemned building.

    Now your 1920s era hotel has had major reconstructive surgery. She looks great, especially her rooftop bar where you can see the new downtown arena designed by Cesar Pelli shining like a diamond Faberge egg where a flophouse used to stand.

    I’m sorry for how I talked about you behind your back when I went to places like California or New York. I said things like, “Tulsa, she’s a one-trick dying pony: an oil town that went bust in the 1980s and is never coming back.” I said nasty things about your televangelists and revealed your deepest, darkest secret—the Race Riot of 1921—to anyone who would listen.

    Now, look at you: you have a new creative class of musicians, cheese experts and t-shirt makers. One of your televangelists preaches something called the Gospel of Inclusion, which welcomes gays, agnostics, and even liberals into its pews.

    And I’m proud of how you sought out therapy for the Race Riot. You’ve still got a long way to go in overcoming the inequality between your black north side and white south side, but you took the first step in admitting you have a problem.

    The Oklahoma governor appointed a truth commission to find out what really happened during America’s worst post-Civil War episode of violence. There’s a new memorial to Tulsa’s Black Wall Street in the shadow of downtown.

    To be totally honest, Tulsa, I’m getting a little jealous of you as I approach middle age. Your name got dropped in an episode of Portlandia as a cool place to be.

    New parks, cafes, and condos are shining up your downtown, which used to be a dusty museum of art deco architecture, empty by 5:00pm every week day.

    Last time I went back to visit my family, I went to a new craft brewery, a delicious taqueria, and a cocktail bar in what used to be a drive-in bank. The set designers of Mad Men could not have created a cooler hang out.

    I have a new hometown now, and we’re totally happy together. She’s not the sexiest place in the world, but my medium-sized city on the Canadian prairie provides me with a comfortable existence and free health care. But sometimes, when winter’s chill turns my breath into ice, I fantasize about leaving her and coming back to you. What would it take, Tulsa, to take me back to you?

    Russell Cobb

  • Joy Harjo

    Dear Tulsa—

    You are my mother town, the place where I took my first breath. When I entered the human story here in the early fifties I took it all in: the skyline of skyscrapers built with oil money, the Arkansas River up which blues and jazz traveled, set up and jammed; the winds coming off the plains and their relatives the wily tornadoes; the swing capitol of Cain’s Ballroom and the honky-tonk down the road where my parents met, not far from the bootleggers, drive-in’s, the thick of sheared green parks, football fields, and so many churches it has inspired visitors to ask if there is a lot of sinning going on here?

    I took my place with all the other Tulsans, most who came here in waves of migrations from the east supplanting the local plains tribes. We were Creek, or Mvskoke Indians and the other four of the Five Civilized Tribes. We were many other tribes moved west by the U.S. government, European settlers who followed behind them carrying whiskey, bibles and fiddles, and the African and African-Americans who came with everyone, enslaved, and often on their own. Tulsa, you are part of the grand experiment of a trickster god to see what will happen with such a mix of humanity.

    I was your difficult child, like one of S.E. Hinton’s “Outsiders” who fought it out in a Tulsa high school at the borders between the socs: the children of families who appeared to have it all, and the greasers: those who had nothing and consequently nothing to lose. When I came of age, I fled you and didn’t look back. I could not reconcile the theft of lands, the largest race riot in the country, the inequities of economics and religious rigidity. I was an angry self-righteous daughter. I left for Indian school, and for higher education. I raised a family and have traveled every continent in the world and visited hundreds of cities, from Paris, France to Townsville, Australia, all far from your arms.

    Eventually, as the story goes, the prodigal child returns. I have come home, Tulsa. I returned to the city of country and country swing, square dance, round dance, stomp dance, gospel, hymn, powwow, rock and roll, blues and jazz and rhythm and blues. Food, laughter, crying, and deep mythic roots accompany every story of music, and each carries the story of humanity. Every city has a story. We humans bump up against each other in the dance of creation and destruction, and though nothing appears to change much at all, it is always changing. We just have to remember to treat each other like beloved family, for no matter what road we travel we will all wind up at the same place.

    I will always hear “Take Me Back To Tulsa” by Bob Wills spinning on the jukebox at Cotton’s Drive In when I consider our Tulsa family story. The way it looks now I most likely will leave my last breath here, Tulsa, in your leafy, Indian town arms.

    c Joy Harjo Glenpool, OK August 16, 2013

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