As many seek knowledge of what happened in Tulsa during its formative years, I am in search of the history of my family’s role in the Sooner State.
I live and work in the historic Greenwood District, the epicenter of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. Forty blocks of Tulsa’s African-American community were burned to the ground, and as many as 300 people were killed. The destruction of Black Wall Street was the worst act of domestic terrorism in US history.
Thousands of Greenwood’s residents were displaced and forced into internment camps around the city. The lives of the survivors and their descendants would be forever affected by the actions of a white mob. In addition to the lives lost and incarcerated, many homes and businesses were destroyed, reduced to rubble and ash during the two-day melee on May 31 and June 1.
My great-grandfather, Ike Evitt, lost his business, Evitt’s Lizard Lounge, in the riot and never recovered financially from his loss. At 89, his daughter Mildred, my great-aunt, was one of the few survivors able to tell the world her story before her passing. The pain of the past was a bitter pill for Aunt Mildred; many times, she was hesitant to share her memories. The hurt was still fresh even after many decades. Nonetheless, she shared the pages from our family’s history.
As if a sign of something to come, my 7-year-old son and I were outside when he noticed a flock of redbirds flying through our neighborhood. “Mama said her grandmother told her that if you see redbirds, make a wish and it may come true,” my son declared.
I shared with him that my grandmother told me the same story. We spent the day photographing redbirds.
That evening, his mother and I talked about our grandparents and what little we knew of our history. Her family, as well as mine, lived in one of the 32 black townships that were established in Indian Territory before statehood.
In the 1830s, my ancestors were forcibly marched to these western lands on the infamous Trail of Tears with the Creek Indians. They became founders of the black villages of Brunerville, Huttonville, and Prairies Edge. They were also tribal leaders in North Fork and Canadian Colored and among the early settlers in Langston. The old homestead is still in the family.
Mama said her grandmother told her that if you see redbirds, make a wish and it may come true.
The townships were once prosperous and active. But over the decades, many of them lost their population to the larger urban communities and disappeared.
When I was my son’s age, I would spend many weekends with my grandparents, Pearline and Floyd Vann. They spoiled me rotten. I was the only one of six siblings who would visit them consistently on the weekends. They lived in one of the city’s housing projects near Greenwood Avenue. I remember traveling with them up and down Greenwood, visiting the unassuming but legendary people who lived there. They would update each other with old gossip, pass on the new, or just reminisce about the good old days.
Growing up on Greenwood in the 1960s was much different than the golden years before and after the race riot. My memories of Greenwood are of dilapidated and decaying businesses and buildings. Owners of the dying establishments were among the survivors of that dark period in Tulsa’s history. They never spoke openly of that evil event, but they never forgot it either. Their anger was their persistence and their resilience.
As a pre-teenager, some of my most memorable moments with Grandma were our road trips to the small towns of Vinita, Taft, Boley, Muskogee, Okmulgee, and Red Bird. We would visit her favorite fishing holes, along with friends and relatives. In Red Bird, I remember Grandma giving me two quarters that I put in my pocket. I walked down the chat-and-oyster-shell-covered road to the town’s only general store. I bought a bottle of strawberry pop, salted peanuts, and other goodies.
Days after my son and I chased those redbirds around our neighborhood, I was asked to be a guide for the Rudisill Library’s annual Black Towns of Oklahoma Tour. I didn’t feel comfortable enough with what I knew of the townships to lead a tour. The curator disagreed. We toured Taft, Haskell, Rentiesville, and Red Bird. Many of the townships still in existence have unchanged landmarks that have survived the test of time and the session of nature. As far as I could recall, I had never visited these places. However, once there, the trip became a destination of déjà vu. Each stop was familiar. And once we got to Red Bird, a wave of memories came flooding back.
Some of my most memorable moments with Grandma were our road trips to the small towns of Vinita, Taft, Boley, Muskogee, Okmuglee, and Red Bird.
The once vibrant town included a general store, a town hall, and a post office. Red Bird’s mayor, Eugene Osborne, talked eloquently about the town’s past and future. The structures that adorned the corridor of the town’s main road, now paved, were McHenry’s Night Club and that same general store, now faded and frail. All those memories of my visit to Red Bird with Grandma came roaring back while walking the historic streets.
I had a lengthy talk with the mayor, who introduced me to the plight of the small and dying community. After our conversation, he asked me my name. “Kavin Ross,” I answered. I am a photojournalist with The Oklahoma Eagle in Tulsa.”
He asked: “Are you related to that politician Don Ross?”
“Yes, he is my father. Do you know him?” I asked.
“Yes, he is my first cousin.”
I was in total shock. It was a confirmation of the feeling I had after leaving the bus. I could not reach my father, but I talked with my Uncle James Leroy, after whom I was named. I was also named after my maternal uncle, also named James.
My father, Oklahoma State Representative Don Ross, was the author of House Bill 1035, which led to the creation of the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. In 1956, as a freshman at Tulsa’s storied Booker T. Washington High School, Ross was educated on the Greenwood story by history teacher W.D. Williams. He received his initial lessons on the atrocities that affected Williams and his family, owners of Williams’ Dreamland Theater, Williams’ Confectionery store, and an automotive repair shop. Senator Maxine Horner, whose district also encompassed the historic Greenwood District, co-sponsored House Bill 1035. Ross and Horner and the other three members of the Black Caucus of the Oklahoma legislature supported the resolution; to ensure its passage, a majority of the state legislature supported the new law.
I told my uncle James Leroy that I’d forgotten I had visited Red Bird before. “Nephew,” he said, “your grandma, back in the day, would go to all of those small towns because she had family there.”
My uncle James still maintains the family property in the town. Somewhere in the town’s cemetery is the resting place of my great- grandfather, James Ross. James, along with his brother Leroy, was an orphan and a resident at the now-defunct Deaf, Blind, and Orphan Institute in Taft, Oklahoma. As they got older they would make a name for themselves in the community of Red Bird. I never knew him or my kinfolk. James’ son Israel would marry my grandma, but a bitter divorce severed any ties with that side of the family. My dad rarely saw his father.
Surprised and excited, I tried to make as many connections as I could with the locals to see what branches of my family tree they perched upon. A man walking with one crutch, missing a leg, befriended me. He was not a resident of the area, but grew up in another township called Boynton. As I talked with him, he informed me that his wife is a native to the area and the town’s postmaster. She and I shared family histories. The stories she told me echoed what I had heard from my son’s mother about her family. It was revealed that the postmaster’s father was my son’s great-great-grandfather, and she was his great aunt. After leaving his Tulsa family, he moved to Red Bird and started another family.
The bus was loaded and ready to go. Before I boarded the bus the postmaster said to her husband, “Kavin looks a lot like Stephon.” Her husband agreed that there was a familiarity to their nephew.
“What is your last name?”
“Ross,” I said.
“Oh my God,” she replied. “Ross is my mama’s maiden name.”
I rushed onto the bus, still not sure if it was because the driver’s horn was blowing or because I didn’t want to find out that my son’s mother and I could very well be distant relatives. I was purposely avoiding the answer.
In a small town, virtually all of the families have intermarried over the years. One day, my son may go back to trace both sides of his family and finish the story that I might not want to hear.
I have now traced my grandmother’s family from the Trail of Tears to six of the 32 early black towns. On my grandfather’s side, my family’s lineage connects to the legendary lawman Bass Reaves. They too moved through Boynton, Taft, and Red Bird. My son’s mother’s ancestors came with the Cherokees on the Trail of Tears, and my family on the Creek trail. We were connected years ago, and now again by Red Bird. In retrospect, I have as much, or more, of a family connection to those black townships as anyone on that tour.
I didn’t make a wish when my son and I were chasing redbirds. However, the next time I see one, I will be careful for what I wish for.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 10, May 15, 2014.