From The Daily: Juneteenth, Black Wall Street and why ignorance is not bliss

Saturday, June 20, 2020 - 12:53am

Detroit BLM protest, Dominick Sokotoff

Detroit BLM protest, Dominick Sokotoff Buy this photo
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As we continue into the first days of summer surrounded by nationwide protests for intersectional Black liberation, many were understandably appalled when President Donald Trump announced he was planning to hold a rally in Tulsa, Okla., on June 19. This decision to hold his first rally in three months on Juneteenth, a holiday that commemorates the ending of slavery in the U.S., and in Tulsa, where this month marks the 99th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre, was deemed racially insensitive by many. After resolving that President Trump was unfamiliar with the significance of both June 19 and Tulsa, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., — the only Black Republican in the Senate — stated, “I’m thankful that he moved it … once he was informed on what Juneteenth was, that was a good decision on his part.” After this incident, many have moved to recognize Juneteenth as a holiday for employees, including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and companies including Best Buy, Nike and Postmates, among others. This has also been the first year we’ve witnessed widespread media coverage of Juneteenth, which has undeniably uncovered the fact that millions of Americans are unaware of the histories of our country. 

The demand is simple: Juneteenth needs to be a federal holiday, one that recognizes the humanity and deserved independence of all American citizens, not only those who sought independence to then enslave others. We live in a nation whose schooling system is designed to indoctrinate a false history of America. The White House and the Trump administration — who were admittedly ignorant to the day on which the last enslaved people were officially emancipated, the significance of Tulsa and Black Wall Street and the Tulsa race massacre, which is known to be the worst incident of racial violence in American history — symbolize this complicit American ignorance and lack of education. We must do better. We must celebrate Black history, not in the month of February or when Black bodies are hanging, but as a way of life and as American history.   

Trump and his campaign aides failed to grasp the significance of holding a political rally on Juneteenth, nor did they realize that Tulsa’s history compounded the racial insensitivity of already wanting to hold a rally amid a deeply painful time for the country. When asked if the coincidental scheduling was intentional, Trump responded, “Think about it as a celebration. My rally is a celebration.” However, the president’s rallies never seem to celebrate anything other than white supremacy and further division of the country. In a Politico Playbook audio briefing, they said Trump is “torn between the impulse to speak and cater to his base, and the demands of governing a multiracial country in the throes of unprecedented turmoil and upheaval. He seems generally uncertain of his place in the moment, and in the broader history of our country.” It is not surprising to many, especially after learning of his inability to grasp the fundamental history of Pearl Harbor. A former senior White House adviser said: “He was at times dangerously uninformed.” 

This seems to be a recurring embarrassment for the president, but to think that all of those who advise Trump are not sophisticated enough to understand the significance of holding a rally so close to Juneteenth in Tulsa would also be a dangerous underestimation. This leads many to believe that Stephen Miller — a white nationalist, one of the president’s closest aides and his “xenophobic homunculus” — understood the direct message they were sending with the rally: deeper division of the country along humanitarian and racial lines. 

We are often taught that Abraham Lincoln was the white savior of the slavery narrative, that he courageously abolished slavery and the inhumanities that had transpired in America’s past. This narrative, along with so many other examples of whitewashed American history, has been undeniably contorted when one examines actual perspectives of the former president. From Lincoln’s Sept. 18, 1858 debate with Judge Douglas, he states: “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the black and white races -- that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making VOTERS or jurors of negroes, NOR OF QUALIFYING THEM HOLD OFFICE, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” 

Simply put, Lincoln was never anti-racist. However, one can say that Lincoln had morally and politically detested the system of slavery throughout his life. His opinion was that the method of unfree labor was opposed to the basic postulates of republican freedom and believed they would morally undermine the nation. Lincoln saw great promise for the country and “rejected the popular notion that society needed a permanent class of low-wage workers to provide the foundation for economic progress—an idea that in its most extreme form was the rationale for slavery.” Depicted most prominently in his “House Divided” speech from June 1858, Lincoln believed, “‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.” America could not have sustained itself as a half free and half slave nation, and thus the concept of “free labor” was reimagined, making it opportune for economic progress in the North to stop reliance on slavery. He finally reached a compromise with the radical opponents of slavery at the time, and they decided that containment of slavery — to let slavery exist where it was granted by the Constitution, but prevent further expansion — would suffice. 

Rewinding to the start of the 19th century, the economy of America was predominantly agricultural and scattered throughout rural communities. However, as industries and technologies began to weave themselves into American society, the rise of railway construction and factory-based mass production led to an economic boom. Americans that were once used to working in small, local shops or for themselves took up jobs in the growing number of factories. This industrial promise of upward mobility was essential for both the nation’s social stability and economic prosperity. However, it was a different story for many antebellum Americans that remained advocates for slavery and, therefore, resented the economic developments that paralleled abolition. Unlike the northern states who were boasting industrialized factories and modern technological developments, the South still relied heavily on agricultural economics and consequentially, the enslavement of Black people. Even after the Emancipation Proclamation declared the abolishment of slavery on Jan. 1, 1863, many states waited until the 13th Amendment was ratified by Congress, which was passed by a narrow margin on Jan. 31, 1865. 

Regardless, many Confederate states refused to follow the order even after rejoining the Union and so the official process of liberation did not occur unless an enslaved person escaped and reached Union zones or until their enslaver had been confronted by federal Union troops with an executive order to release their enslaved people. The last body of enslaved people to be reached with the news of abolishment was in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865 — two and a half years after the implementation of the Emancipation Proclamation — marking the official liberation of all chattel enslaved Black people in America. Noliwe Rooks, director of American studies and professor of Africana studies at Cornell University, stated, “The idea that people in that part of Texas had no idea that the war was over is farcical, quite frankly. There were wire services, there were newspapers … The larger plantation owners were very wealthy and wealthy people have access to information. They were brutal people but they were the ruling class in the United States. They were elite, many were wealthy, they were not illiterate or backwards. They were brutal and inhuman, but not ignorant.” The prolonged, painfully drawn-out end to slavery was fueled by selfishness, apathy and greed. For this reason, and many others, June 19 is an important holiday and is recognized as the true American Independence day among the Black community. It is officially recognized in 47 states. 

After the Civil War, the Confederate flag became a heroic symbol for nostalgic racists and was sustained as a white supremacist logo to be rekindled amongst civil rights progressions in the nation. An indoctrinated misconception is that slavery was exclusive to the South, but the reality is that slavery was incredibly present in the North, especially in New Jersey. In fact, the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the Confederate states, failed to acknowledge the persistence of slavery in northern states such as New Jersey which did not officially liberate their slaves until 1866. It didn’t stop there. 

More than 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, into the 1960s, there were still Black families in the Deep South who had no idea they were categorically free. From being cyclically and continuously indebted to plantation owners to ancestors signing documents they couldn’t read, 20th century slaves were not allowed to leave the plantation property. There was no way for the families to know that how they were living was any different from anyone else in the country — “the land down [there] goes on forever. These plantations are a country unto themselves.” Antoinette Harrell, who researched and interviewed Black families who came forward with their experiences, said, “Slavery will continue to redefine itself for African Americans for years to come. The school to prison pipeline and private penitentiaries are just a few of the new ways to guarantee that black people provide free labor for the system at large. However, I also believe there are still African families who are tied to Southern farms in the most antebellum sense of speaking. If we don’t investigate and bring to light how slavery quietly continued, it could happen again.” Slavery has been maintained in numerous mediums including the amendment itself which excludes criminal and incarcerated individuals from the abolition of enslavement. 

Nearly three weeks ago, on June 1, America marked the sixth day of still ongoing protests over police brutality and racial injustices, and also marked the 99th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. In the 1920s, the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Okla., was often called Black Wall Street. The district flourished with more than 300 Black-owned businesses and was home to Black millionaires, physicians, pharmacists and even a pilot with his own airplane. Not everyone was immensely wealthy in the district, but it was a renowned place of opportunity and the welcoming atmosphere fostered success within the Black community, something that was not vastly accepted in 1920s America. 

Black success in Greenwood was already a rampant source of friction that kindled hatred within the neighboring white community. Mechelle Brown, the director of programs at the Greenwood Cultural Center, said, “Some type of confrontation between blacks and whites was inevitable because of the racial climate at the time, because of the presences of the Ku Klux Klan in almost every aspect of our society.” She continued that success within the Black community “caused some envy and anger among white people who commented, ‘How dare those negroes have a grand piano in their house, and I don't have a piano in my house.’” Racially-motivated hatred and tensions reached a breaking point when there was an encounter between a Black man and a white woman in an elevator — a pattern we’ve seen expand across history. Sarah Page worked as an elevator operator and Dick Rowland had been granted permission to go into the building; the two saw each other nearly every other day. 

Some say that Rowland tripped leaving the elevator and grabbed Page’s arm, who then screamed as an onlooker went to the authorities. Others claim there was an assault within the elevator. Either way, Page never pressed charges, but the authorities did. Inaccurate reflections and reports of the incident further compounded racist aggressions and, by the end of the day, large crowds of white residents demanded Rowland be lynched. 

The Black community did not believe Rowland would do such a thing and Brown stated, “They were willing to risk their lives, they knew that they would be risking their lives to help defend (him).” It is estimated that 10,000 people stormed the railroad tracks that divided Black north Tulsa and white south Tulsa. The Black community was severely outnumbered and some of the survivors didn’t just remember the fighting in the streets but also raining down upon their homes. Brown said, “Many of our survivors have commented that they remember seeing planes dropping bombs. Dropping nitroglycerin bombs. We know that at least one company allowed white rioters to use their planes to drop bombs.” While many were able to flee the town that night, there is no way to know exactly how many lives perished that night. The historical account details that at least 300 Black lives were taken. From the CNN article, a 2001 state commission report stated, “Tulsa was likely the first city in the (United States) to be bombed from the air.” Black Wall Street and its residents never received any justice for all the lives lost, and all insurance claims for the 35 blocks that were bombed and burnt to the ground were denied. Still, Black Wall Street was rebuilt. 

The ignorance of the president’s organizing is about more than just Black Wall Street and Juneteenth. The Supreme Court has spent the past two years — with no decision in sight — debating the case of Sharp v. Murphy, which will subsequently decide once and for all whether or not the majority of eastern Oklahoma — Tulsa included — belongs to the Creek Nation tribe under the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. A decision for the Creek Nation would monumentally change the politics of the area and shift legal control of the land to the federal government. The Trump campaign seems to not care. Brad Parscale, Trump’s campaign manager, apparently chose Tulsa for the campaign’s first return rally because he believed it would be an uncontroversial spot, with Oklahoma voting for Trump by 36 percentage points in 2016 and Tulsa having a Republican mayor. But the initial rally date on Juneteenth, the history of the Tulsa race massacre and the precarious status of Eastern Oklahoma, reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of non-white history by the Trump campaign. What is most concerning about this layered and allegedly malicious plan is President Trump and his entire administration seemingly knew nothing about these histories. If this does not concern you in regards to our governing state, it should at least create concern about our educational system. If the president and his team can publicly broadcast ignorance with regard to some of the most significant moments and territories in American history while their most moral explanation is to claim unawareness, we must deeply examine our educational systems and priorities. What is imminently necessary includes complete reconstruction of the academic structure and curriculum without the complete whitewashing of history that disturbs and erases societal progress. 

With that in mind, even though the Trump campaign did move to reschedule the rally to June 20 instead of on Juneteenth, many officials are still pleading with him to cancel it or hold it outdoors. The campaign responded with claims they would have hand sanitizer stocked and masks would be adorned on each attendee, with temperatures taken at the door. However, campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh did state, “Masks will be optional but each attendee will receive one.” In an enclosed space that seats over 19,000 where respiratory droplets are able to disperse freely, not mandating mask-wearing is a dangerous mistake, but is also one that the president has never enforced himself. Many are worried this rally could become a “super spreader” event for COVID-19, as new cases in Oklahoma are up approximately 110 percent compared to last week and over 100,000 people are expected to show up to the event. As the nation is still continuing to reopen and a handful of states have had record numbers of cases reported as of late, a mass gathering of individuals who view wearing masks as a political statement instead of to protect themselves and others is not ideal, to say the least. 

July 4 reigns as the historical mark of American independence and is celebrated nationally as such. This celebration in and of itself fails to acknowledge the existence of Black Americans or their official day of liberation which occurred nearly one hundred years after July 4, 1776 — on June 19, 1865. Now, in 2020, the Black liberation movement continues as Black Americans’ existence continues to go unacknowledged or respected. However, companies are beginning to pursue reparative actions such as recognizing Juneteenth as a paid holiday; Virginia, once the capital of the Confederacy, is now committing to legislation that recognizes Juneteenth as an official holiday. Until all of America works to recognize the ugly, violent, racist and oppressive history of our nation, it will not be able to fully heal. Jamaal Bowman writes, “Only by acknowledging its ugly past can a nation begin to heal itself. Our government has never gone through the Truth and Reconciliation process that Germany, South Africa, and Rwanda undertook after genocide and state-sanctioned violence in those countries. We have never apologized for slavery and Jim Crow, nor enacted policies to undo the harm. We whitewash the brutality of slavery in our national dialogue, and most egregiously in our school curriculum. There are still history textbooks in schools across this country that portray slavery in idyllic terms.” 

America will not be able to progress toward a proper process of reconciliation until the persistence of the slave institution is acknowledged. The adamant declaration of progression as a transitional attempt from past oppression disturbs the possibility of actual progress because it refuses to recognize that the oppression is not a historical one but rather an inherent or systemic aspect of American society and structure. However, this systemic oppression has not only impacted Black America, it affects the middle-class working white and non-Black community who also fall victim to the economic system. If we saw a restructuring of the educational system and a committed investment into community and youth development, it would uplift a large majority of the national population who is subconsciously oppressed. No revolution or reconstruction can occur successfully without an academic agenda. It is essential that we begin at the root — which is the mental revolution and therefore we must invest in a school system that is diverse in representation and perspective. This calls for an inclusive curriculum that centers Black and Native American voices as narrators of American history allowing for a proper interpretation of American history that is not the product of a whitewashed agenda perpetuating the patriotic image of the white American that is the monolithic portraiture of society. 

Culturally representative education and educators could correct these structures of oppression and indoctrinated ignorance about essential historic events such as Juneteenth and the Tulsa race massacre. An inability to recall our own history is an inability to correct it — whereas the contrary is an ability to transform with the wisdom that is provided from our past. When the colonized become aware of the immobile state and the oppressor is similarly educated on their role in maintaining the slave institution, we will see unity and the rebirth of a nation properly liberated. However, if we continue to indoctrinate our children with false histories that erase the majority of our population and alienate them into inhumane spaces within society, we all stay dormant. Amongst a global pandemic and a global uprising, we have the opportunity to inspire the largest civil rights and Black liberation movement in history. It is essential we know what we are fighting for.