I first heard of Juneteenth when my family moved to Tulsa in 1997. Back then, Juneteenth was a time for the former site of Black Wall Street to play stage to what black families love doing most: celebrating life, no matter how much we have had to fight for it. I remember walking around with people who look like me while we watched Tulsa’s black music legends like Wayman Tisdale, Eldredge Jackson, and Charlie Redd and the Full Flava Kings. And if we were especially lucky, like we were at the city’s Juneteenth celebration in 2001, Uncle Charlie from the Gap Band would perform. And at some point, I was bound to hear the black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” bellow forth as a unified pronouncement that we might not be where we ideally wanted to be, but we were happy to have made it as far as we had.
So, as you can imagine, I was particularly disappointed to hear that President Donald Trump—who has been criminalizing black people since his earliest days as a New York real estate developer—would be holding a rally in my hometown this Juneteenth, in the wake of a national uprising against police brutality and systemic racism in policing following the murder of George Floyd.
By the time Trump arrives on June 19, black Tulsans especially will still be wrestling with another jarring, more personal anniversary. Lingering in the back of every black Tulsan’s mind during every Juneteenth is the May 31–June 1 anniversary of the Tulsa massacre, which forever transfigured black life in Tulsa.
On May 30, 1921, a simple accident between a black shoeshine worker and a white female elevator operator was intentionally misconstrued in a local paper as assault. White Tulsans took this as just cause to set Black Wall Street aflame. Police arrested more than 5,000 black residents. The angry mob killed approximately 300 black people and injured even more. The fires that were lit consumed 1,256 homes, 191 commercial sites, some churches, and even schools, a hospital, and a library. Prior to this massacre, W.E.B. DuBois said of Black Wall Street, “I have never seen a colored community so highly organized as that of Tulsa. The colored people of Tulsa have accumulated property, have established stores and business organizations, and have made money in oil.” In an instant, it was all gone.
Now? The average life expectancy in one of former Black Wall Street’s ZIP codes is approximately nine years lower than the average life expectancy for the county.
From the perspective of positive intent, it is quite possible that Donald Trump and his advance team did not know this history when they announced a rally in Tulsa three weeks after we, as a city, mourned for the 99th time the devastation of the massacre. It has not always been a commonly known piece of history in this country. (In fact, as I have written elsewhere, though I lived in Tulsa growing up, I did not learn fully of the history of the massacre until I was much older.)
What’s more likely is that Trump and his team felt welcomed—even in this moment—by our mayor, G.T. Bynum, who has used his platform to consistently diminish the cause of the Black Lives Matter protesters. Just this past Sunday, Bynum appeared on CBS Sunday Morning to explain away the acquittal of a cop who killed an unarmed black man during a traffic stop in Tulsa four years ago. In memory of the Tulsa massacre, CBS did an in-depth special in which the network reflected not just on the massacre but on how police brutality against black people in Tulsa echoes injustice nearly 100 years later. On Sept. 16, 2016, Terence Crutcher, a 40-year-old black Tulsan, whose great-grandmother owned a barbecue joint in Black Wall Street, was stopped in his car by officer Betty Shelby and killed. Shelby was tried but then ultimately acquitted on manslaughter charges.
On CBS Sunday Morning, New Yorker writer Kelefa Sanneh asked Bynum directly: “A lot of people saw what happened to Terence Crutcher and they said, ‘This wouldn’t have happened if [Terence Crutcher] was white.’ Do you think that’s true?” With all the steely, wrongheaded, history-ignoring confidence he could muster, Bynum replied: “No, I don’t.” And as if ignoring the pain and heartbreak of racism’s toll on black people in this country wasn’t enough, he used his appearance to tarnish Crutcher’s name and to signal an implicit support for the all-too-common notion from the war on drugs that black people are somehow the cause of their own ills. Bynum suggested that the drugs found in Crutcher’s system made him less able to follow directions, stating, that the case was “more about the really insidious nature of drug utilization than it is about race, in my opinion.”
In making it clear that Tulsa’s leaders will ignore the city’s own history—distant and recent—of racial terror, perhaps a signal was sent to Trump as well. On a day when we should be celebrating black liberation in America, my city will welcome a rally for a president who declared that “stop and frisk works,” implored law enforcement to “please don’t be too nice,” echoed segregationists in threatening violence against protesters, and has continued to say he was right to call for the death penalty of the exonerated Central Park Five.
Juneteenth has always been a difficult celebration for black people on two dimensions. We celebrate that we are no longer enslaved in this country, while realizing that this country has been morally bankrupt for devaluing and enslaving us in the first place. But in Tulsa on May 31 and June 1, on the way to celebrating freedom on June 19, we also mourn every year a massacre that decimated lives and also decimated an important expression of living abundantly in a country that never wanted us. This year, G.T. Bynum and Donald Trump have chosen to make our community’s bittersweet festivities a bit more painful. They might be made for each other.
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