On a Civil Rights Trail, Essential Sites and Indelible Detours

Sitting in an empty theater at Oklahoma State University, playwright Tara Brooke Watkins swirled in her seat and pointed west, far out toward the rim of the valley that envelops the university. Watkins is a white woman who, for the past couple of years, has immersed herself in black history — or more specifically, the massacre of an entire northeast-side black community in Tulsa, her hometown.

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On a Civil Rights Trail, Essential Sites and Indelible Detours
Ron Stodghill
, New York Times

Sitting in an empty theater at Oklahoma State University, playwright Tara Brooke Watkins swirled in her seat and pointed west, far out toward the rim of the valley that envelops the university. Watkins is a white woman who, for the past couple of years, has immersed herself in black history — or more specifically, the massacre of an entire northeast-side black community in Tulsa, her hometown.

While awaiting the arrival of the all-black cast of her original production “Tulsa ’21: Black Wall Street” for a final rehearsal, Watkins waxed nostalgic about Tulsa’s promise at the turn of the century, inviting me to step back in time and imagine the gentrified neighborhood that now surrounds us on the morning of June 1, 1921. Back then, Greenwood, Oklahoma, which the famous black scholar Booker T. Washington renamed the Negro Wall Street, was booming with more than 600 black-owned enterprises, including hotels, theaters and restaurants.

“And then, on that hill, around sunrise,” Watkins said, her finger tracing a horizontal line in the air, “men gathered with machine guns and they started killing people from up there. White women and children gathered up there and took pictures, like a spectacle.” The killing spree, one of the bloodiest episodes of racial violence in American history, ended with, according to various historical accounts, as many as 300 black Tulsans dead and Greenwood, the wealthiest black community in the country, reduced to rubble.

Admittedly, investigating a nearly 100-year-old mass murder was a detour from my intended journey.

Earlier, I had set out on a nicely scripted jaunt to several sites listed on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, a driving tour recently coordinated by state tourism agencies. The tour wends its way across 15 states and a succession of churches, courthouses, schools, museums and other landmarks where activists challenged segregation in the 1950s and ‘60s, largely in the South. Initially, if the idea of landmark-hopping through a couple of states seemed an efficient way to gain insight into major events of the civil rights era, my compulsion to go rogue and wander off the map often got the better of me. Ultimately, I designed and followed a kind of hybrid trail, cobbling together sites designated by the tourism departments with decidedly Middle America places whose histories I believed were either too important or intriguing to pass by.

To be sure, it’s only natural that a civil rights tour would find its heart in the South, in the well-chronicled battles for equal access to public education, public transportation and voting rights. In Greensboro, North Carolina, you can visit the Woolworth’s lunch counter where black college students staged sit-ins; in Selma, Alabama, walk the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where a bloody march led Congress to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act; or in Memphis, Tennessee, visit the church where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, and the Lorraine Motel, the site of his assassination, now expanded into the popular National Civil Rights Museum.

Yet some of black America’s most important and compelling history is tucked away, often unceremoniously, in what some dismiss as “flyover country” — in Plains states like Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri. (I relocated to the last of these a year ago, from Charlotte, North Carolina, to work as a journalism professor at University of Missouri, my alma mater.)

In a sense, my U.S. Civil Rights tour became a convenient excuse for me to explore black history in the heartland. Indeed, Missouri and Kansas lay claim to at least two landmark civil rights cases — Dred Scott v. Sandford, in St. Louis, and Brown v. the Topeka, Kansas, Board of Education.

For my travels, I plotted a simple route: I would drive counterclockwise from central Missouri into Kansas, and then head into Oklahoma, and lastly north into southwest corner of Missouri, stopping along the way at selected trail sites and a few others. Setting out on a hot weekday morning, I drove hours along peaceful highways, the mostly flat and infinitely green, serene farmland punctuated by rolling pastures sloping toward streams and lakes rushing past me.

Starting in the early 1700s, Missouri began trading slaves to work in an economy fueled by farms rather than the large cotton or rice plantations in the South. In general, most Missouri masters held only one or two slaves, according to historical records. In 1860, for example, enslaved people accounted for some 10 percent of the state’s population, compared with, say, South Carolina’s 57 percent.

Missouri’s slaves were deployed for a variety of tasks, such as minding livestock, laying brick and blacksmithing, often laboring jointly with their masters and family. Still, they were viewed as property rather than human beings and their treatment was as brutal as in the South. Ultimately, as Diane Mutti Burke, an associate professor of history at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, writes: “The many contradictions and tensions inherent in the small-scale system of slavery practiced in Missouri resulted in the institution’s rapid collapse during the violent years of the Civil War.”

My first stop, Independence, Missouri, home of the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum, quickly proved me a wayward trailee. Less drawn to Truman’s 1948 signing an executive order to desegregate the armed forces, I found myself bypassing the museum, a major attraction on the trail, to explore an unlikely pre-Civil War alliance: William Quantrill, the notoriously savage Confederate guerrilla leader, and John Noland, a free slave who served as his primary scout and spy. Historians speculate that Noland teamed up with Quantrill’s raiders as a kind of revenge against Jayhawkers — often-violent gangs of abolitionist Kansans — who had abused Noland’s family.

Quantrill is infamous for his murderous 1863 raid 50 miles southwest in Lawrence, Kansas, a pro-Union army town and home of the anti-slavery Sen. James Lane. Lane escaped capture, but Quantrill’s forces left 183 residents dead, in some cases reportedly dragging men and boys into the street and killing them before their loved ones. After perusing 181-year-old Woodlawn Cemetery where Noland is buried, I spent some time at the 160-year-old Jackson County Marshal’s House and Jail Museum and did some hard time (about five minutes) in the cell where Quantrill and Frank James, the older brother of the outlaw Jesse James, were once locked up. John Noland, one might conclude, died on the wrong side of history. Far more inspiring is the story of Hiram Young, a freed slave who became a wealthy manufacturer of freight wagons in Independence in the mid-1800s. Historians are uncertain about the circumstances that led to Young’s freedom; what’s clear is that, after purchasing his wife’s freedom and upon his arrival in Missouri from Tennessee, Hiram Young & Co. made a small fortune building and selling thousands of high-quality wagons and yokes to westward-bound 49ers. By 1860, Young’s 50 to 60 employees, both hired hands and slave labor (many slaves purchased their freedom and continued working for him), were cranking out thousands of yokes and some 900 wagons a year. Young was so exalted throughout Independence that when he died in 1882, he was buried in the white section of Woodlawn Cemetery.

Traveling a few miles south from Independence, I watched the landscape change from suburban sprawl to gritty urban streets as I arrived in Kansas City, where I met up with Erik Keith Stafford, a local history expert and tour guide. Kansas City, a trail suggestion for those visiting Independence, tells a familiar history of urban riots following King’s 1968 assassination, when citizens were gunned down by the police, local businesses burned and National Guard troops swept in.

Stafford and I talked about the city’s history of racial unrest as we hung out around 18th and Vine, the renowned mecca of black politics and entertainment in the city. We sat in the dimly lit Musicians Local 627 — the Colored Musicians Union and social hub — surrounded by photos of such jazz greats as Count Basie, Duke Ellington and, of course, Charlie Parker, the saxophonist and Kansas City native known as Bird. Stafford riffed on how, back in the 1920s, the city earned its nickname, Paris of the Plains. During Prohibition, Stafford explained, the city’s political boss, Tom Pendergast, turned a blind eye to the sale of booze, which gave rise to hundreds of nightclubs and bars that attracted the country’s best jazz musicians. “New Orleans may have created jazz, but Kansas City is where it was perfected,” he said. As we strolled the neighborhood, past a colorful mural of the founders of the Kansas City-born Negro Leagues — the African-American baseball teams that played from the 1920s until the ‘50s — I took note of the rich history packed into a few city blocks, pausing at The Call building, headquarters of the famous black newspaper founded in 1919 and still operating. Its newsroom was home to one of my heroes, Lucile Bluford, who worked as a reporter and editor covering civil rights issues.

Bluford won national attention in the 1930s when she was accepted into the University of Missouri’s journalism program but upon her arrival was rejected by university officials who cited “separate but equal” Jim Crow laws. Officials recommended she apply to Lincoln University, an all-black institution that did not offer a graduate journalism program. Over the next few years, the persistent Bluford was denied Missouri admission 11 times. She triumphed in 1941 when the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that Mizzou must open its doors to Bluford if Lincoln didn’t establish comparable journalism studies. But by then, the university had shut down all of its graduate programs because of financial pressures caused by World War II, and ultimately Bluford was never able to attend Mizzou. In 1989, a half-century after Bluford’s first rejection, the university granted her an honorary doctoral degree in humanities.

The U.S. Civil Rights Trail is heavy with tales of blacks struggling to gain access to an adequate education, but the theme crescendos in Topeka, Kansas, a designated trail site, where Oliver Brown, the father of a black schoolgirl, challenged the nation’s “separate but equal” doctrine and changed the course of history.

Monroe Elementary School, one of the city’s four segregated schools for blacks, is now converted to the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site. Reading exhibits in its well-preserved hallways, I took in riveting details of how Brown’s third-grade daughter Linda’s desire to attend the elementary school close to her home, but which was all-white, would lead to the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision that helped dismantle racial segregation in the United States.

The story is bittersweet, in hindsight: As Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree Jr. writes in his best-selling memoir, “All Deliberate Speed,” which explores Brown v. Board of Education: “The more subtle forms of resistance, such as white flight, denial of funding for equalization and rejection of Brownprinciples by a conservative Supreme Court, have been the most effective in limiting the promise of Brown.

The most natural next step in my journey, I suppose, would have been to visit Little Rock, Arkansas, where nine black students, known as the Little Rock Nine, enrolled at Central High School under National Guard protection, in a momentous test of Brown v. Board.

The story, though, felt familiar to me. I found myself instead on a four-hour trek south across long barren stretches of highway until I reached Tulsa, where for years I had heard vague and conflicting stories about the massacre of affluent blacks around the turn of the century. No wonder: Even as blacks rebounded to successfully rebuild Greenwood, remarkably becoming even more prosperous, then-mayor T.D. Evans discouraged Tulsans from talking publicly about the episode, according to a Tulsa Race Riot Commission Report, published in 2001.

In her play, Tara Brooke Watkins takes on the white community’s response to the massacre, which she said amounted to sweeping it under the rug. “The fact that a city official, the mayor, encourages the entire city not to talk about what happened is key to understanding the trauma in Tulsa because that moment represents a worldview that silence is the way to move forward.” Some two hours north, off a two-lane gravel road in Diamond, Missouri — and off the designated trail — I encountered a far more prominent black success story at the George Washington Carver National Monument, established in 1943 by the National Park Service as the first installation dedicated to an African-American. Carver, born around 1865 into slavery, rose to become one of the world’s most renowned chemists, his inventions, agricultural research and teaching praised around the world. In his day, Carver was a kind of nerd celebrity: In 1921, when the peanut industry was seeking tariff protection, Carver appeared before the House Ways and Means Committee as the industry’s expert witness. He was also modest. As Carver, who died in 1943, once said of his legacy: “The primary idea in all of my work was to help the farmer and fill the poor man’s empty dinner pail.”

At the end of my journey, glittering in the sunny distance along the Mississippi River, was the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, and beneath its long shadow the majestic Old Courthouse, a site on the trail. Hundreds of legal cases for various freedoms, including Virginia Minor’s case for a women’s right to vote, have played out in the 150-year-old courthouse.

But the most famous occurred in 1847 when Dred Scott, with his wife, Harriet, sued for and were granted their freedom, only to have it revoked again. There were numerous appeals, but ultimately the Supreme Court ruled that the Scotts, who had resided in such free territories as Illinois and Wisconsin, were nonetheless slaves and therefore property with no right to sue — a decision, many historians say, that seeded the start of the Civil War. As Chief Justice Roger B. Taney wrote in the 1857 decision, the framers of the Constitution believed that blacks “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

Off the trail, with the sun fading — and a year-old NAACP travel advisory warning black drivers about the risks of driving through Missouri still in effect — I headed home exhausted, Taney’s words echoing across darkening highways and the nation’s “original sin” lurking always close in my rear view.

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