Friday, June 19, 2020

Memories of growing up in the shadow of Tulsa's racist history

Happy Juneteenth, long celebrated in Denver's Five Points neighborhood, the heart of the African-American community.  Denver's culture was far removed from my home town, Muskogee, Oklahoma, place of my birth in 1938 and where I lived until high school graduation.  The George Floyd protests and Donald Trump's rescheduled rally in Tulsa rekindled some memories of my early life in the shadow of Tulsa, the place of the 1921 massacre of African Americans, the worst racial incident in our country's history.  When I first read "To Kill a Mockingbird", it was a spot-on description of the neighborhood in which I grew up and in a city whose White resident's views of race relations were eerily similar. I puzzled for many years as I grew older why that was so since Muskogee was not in the deep south. Thanks to the recent focus on Tulsa's history and memories of the roots of my White classmates who descended from those who settled there in the late 1880s, I realized there was a reason  Muskogee could just have been plunked down in Alabama or Georgia.  Its origins of settlers from the South and attitudes were the same. South of Muskogee there were cotton fields, too,  and azaleas, dogwoods, redbuds, and magnolias grew easily,. Muskogee lay at the western edge of the Ozarks where the accents were similar to the Appalachians'. There were whispers of the Tulsa riots within the White community.  I remember that whenever "race riots' occurred elsewhere in the nation, those who feared it would happen in Muskogee were assured with "don't worry: "Our know their place".  No doubt the 1921 massacre in Tulsa was very instructive. The event was still fresh in memories of our Black residents.

Muskogee was 60 miles from Tulsa. It was a city of about 40,000 with a significant African American community, though dominated by Whites and  Cherokees who sided with the White culture and segregationist practices. Muskogee followed the Jim Crow attitudes and strictures to the letter. Like Tulsa, it was on the Arkansas River, but 60 miles downstream,  near the border with Arkansas, a bootleggers source for products an easy drive away to supply dry Oklahoma. Corruption in politics was an accepted fact of life. In my days of growing up in Muskogee, it was back of the bus for "coloreds", strict segregation in schools, separate water fountains, and restrooms, clearly marked with which race was to use what facilities.

I was born into relative White privilege, relative because compared to oil-rich Tulsa, Muskogee was a mostly gritty blue-collar town and my father was an executive with Southwestern Bell Telephone, in charge of telephone "exchanges" for northeastern Oklahoma. Muskogee was closer in feel to Pueblo, Colorado, also on the Arkansas River hundreds of miles upstream northwest. Instead of steel mills, Muskogee had glass plants taking advantage of the Arkansas rivers' abundance of sand carried from upstream and deposited before the river entered the Ozarks.  Oklahoma, the site of the 20's oil boom, left the general population behind, and dust bowl days and dust storms still occurred in the 1940s.  Eastern Oklahoma had never quite recovered from the Great Depression.

I was in a  state of cultural disconnect with the rest of my classmates. My father was a native of the Ft. Morgan, Colorado area, a graduate from the University of Colorado, and born amidst the multicultural settlers of the eastern plains. Dad said James Michener's book, "Centennial", based on the history of northeastern Colorado, "got it right".  Dad's parents spoke the language of his Castillian grandmother at home: Spanish.  My mother was from the Springfield, Mo. area family, with a distinct Iowa and Indiana flavor of her parents' places of birth.  Their families had fought on the Union side in the Civil War. While the rest of White Muskogee was devoted to Jim Crow, I  was told at home by my mother that if I ever used the N-word, she would wash my mouth out with soap and she was forever pointing out how my African American nanny Ellen was so well educated and so smart, as was Maggie, our maid.  She treated them with respect and care, as an equal, not as a servant to order around, grateful for their help in a household with a father preoccupied with a demanding work position and my severely handicapped brother.   Our family also differed from the rest of Muskogee,  a predominately Baptist, evangelical community.  We were Presbyterians.  I believe that cultural background was why I became so empathetic with the plight of minorities. It colored my political views for the rest of my life.

End of Blog column

June 25 commentsI am ticked as heck at the comment posted on Facebook today that if you put a racial identity applied to a protester complaining about being discriminated against, you are a racist yourself. That is kin to those who say" all lives matter "as a way to put down "black lives matter." as a slogan. Twisting semantics by redefining the term while ignoring context are committed by those trying to rationalize their own racist attitudes.
There is a difference between one demographic group putting down another demographic group as inferior in order to rationalize treating them unfairly (that is racism) and being sensitive about a racial issue in order to fix the problem.. Recognition of victimization by one group over another requires naming which group is doing what to whom.
Fortunately, those who try to dismiss racism exist by denying discrimination and unfair treatment of the African American demographic are becoming a minority.

Racism was not the only element in my young history that shaped my view of politics and public policy.   While I am at it, I have continued this post and reproduced others for the benefit of my children and grandchildren. My adult children urged me to write more. You are welcome to read it.  I suppose I should retitle this segment as "why I became a liberal in some things, but not so much in foreign policy".

Growing up in Cherokee Country, 2/3 of my 4th-grade fellow classmates were on tribal rolls. I had to learn the name of every principle chief since the US was founded and the Trail of Tears was central to the history of the Cherokee nation. Two years ahead of me in school was Sequoya's granddaughter Winnie Guess, who later became a head cheerleader and could do the 5 hoop dance in full feathers at pep rallies and return in a short time to lead the school in our football chants in her cheerleader outfit. It was not until I left eastern Oklahoma that I realized that Native Americans were treated as cast-off garbage, living in poverty.. That knowledge and experience also helped shape some of my political thoughts and actions.

As long as I am on memory lane, I have added some prior blog postings that are autobiographical and also influenced my political thoughts and actions. This one is from earlier in March, 2020.
 We have heard of historical comparisons to COVID-19 to other mega pandemics.  There are certain advantages of my living so long, but still vivid in my memory bank was the polio epidemic of the late 1940s and early 1950's  before Salk and his miracle vaccine freed us from fear. Like the 1940's polio, COVID- 19  has no vaccine and no medicines to stop its progression. We can only treat the symptoms and avoid those who are infected.   We did not call it social distancing then, but we did it.  It was not enforced by a government but by my parents. In sweltering summers of eastern Oklahoma, we were not able to go to swimming pools or to cool off in air-cooled movie theaters.  We could only play with our neighborhood gang.    We did not complain.  We did not try to avoid the rules.  One look at the pictures in Life Magazine of children lying in rows of iron lungs was enough to put the fear of God in us. It worked. Our neighborhood gang escaped the disease.  The irony has not escaped me.  As a child, I was the most vulnerable to polio; as a person well over 60, I am once again the most vulnerable to another deadly epidemic and I am socially distancing myself with a vengeance. March 26; There was a playbook to deal with a pandemic left by the Obama administration in the wake of other pandemics and ignored by Trump's.  One more example of Trump's judgment and priority failures.

My interest in environmental issues and trust in science also has roots in my childhood. Dad was a geologist per his college degree and some friends and he set out to strike it rich in the Oklahoma oil boom.  After drilling three dry holes, he joined the telephone company.  He never questioned science. I took as many courses in physical geography and geology in college as they offered to liberal arts undergrads. Frankly, I do not respect science deniers.  Science is not a belief; it is a method to arrive at facts. I married a doctor and neither he nor I ever questioned his science and the quest for knowledge-based upon scientific methods. My observation is that science deniers are those who cannot accept "inconvenient truths" that run contrary to their ideology, religion, economic well being,  political goals, or disturb their preconceived ignorant notions. Period. Donald Trump filled his administration with science deniers and mineral extractors and those I listed unable to accept inconvenient truths.  I am disgusted. When Trump took a sharpie to mislead people on a hurricane path or try to wreck clean water and air acts or wonder aloud if household chemicals taken internally would cure coronavirus, or drop out of the Paris climate accord, denying climate change and man's role in it, he disgusted me even more and he revealed his basic ignorance of science.  He must have slept through grade school and middle school where such basics were taught .

I have always been interested in weather and climate, including global warming, but for a good reason.  I took a course in meteorology in college, though I consider my self a rank amateur.  This is from a 4/15/2012 blog posting:
Reports of Woodward, OK being hit by a tornado shortly after midnight today, with at least 5 killed,  reminded me of a post on this blog in June 2011 shortly after the Joplin tornado.  Woodward figured prominently in that post, as well. Early reports indicate the tornado warning system failed this time;  in the past, there were no warning systems, and the earlier tornado killed over 100. Excerpts from that 2011 post: "I was born and raised in tornado alley so spring was a time of terror for me. The pictures of Joplin, Mo., brought back some familiar pains in the pit of my stomach and memories.
My home town, Muskogee, Okla., is 125 miles southwest of Joplin, and Joplin was on the way to grandmother's house in southwestern Missouri. My 1940s childhood memory of Joplin was a pit stop to fill up the gas tank.
When tornado season came I huddled in my bed on the second floor of our wood-frame house, waiting for death to come. It never did, but I resolved never to live near tornado land again.
The Wizard of Oz story never had much credibility with me. I never thought I would wake up from a fantastic dream because I knew I would be sucked up and die in a funnel cloud.
Looking back on those times, I probably was realistic. There were no tornado sirens, no Doppler radar, and no storm shelters. The closest cellar was in a neighbor's home nearly a block away. All we were educated to do was to go to the southwest corner of the building. We knew no more than that. We were just sitting ducks waiting to be plucked up. The myth had always been that Muskogee was immune because it sat down in the Arkansas valley. One April day in 1945 the myth was blown away by a tornado that devastated the east side of the town. Two children were killed and my father, a telephone company executive, took me on a tour of the destruction, which only reinforced my terror of spring.
Two years later the Woodward tornado in the southwestern corner of the state killed more than 100 people. I remember the radio reports, newspaper's screaming headlines, and my parents talking about it. It was since that terrible episode that records began to be kept of death and destruction caused by tornadoes in the U.S. Joplin 2011 was the worst."

Perhaps the most important event that shaped my political thought was my junior year abroad in post-war Berlin, 1958-1959.   I have written many posts and published many columns about my experiences. Not only did I see the Stalinist takeover of eastern Germany and the Balkans first hand, I met my husband to be, also a soon to be a refugee from Yugoslavia.  After over 50 years of marriage, living in the US, and with frequent visits to Europe, he passed away in 2015.  He also served as Colorado's Democratic National Committeeman for twelve years, giving me the opportunity to be a fly on the beltway wall, with an intimate look into national political life, power, and events.

A version of this was published in the Sky-Hi News July 31-Aug 1, 2018
Thirteen years after World War II ended I spent my university junior year abroad in Berlin. It was a heady time for a US political science major wondering why what had happened. The Wall had not yet been built. I had conversations with survivors of the Nazi regime that seized control of the democratic government with populist support and violence and now it lay in ruins. I saw first
hand how the Soviets used propaganda and violence to consolidate control of their conquered once democratic eastern Europe.  I married a medical student from Yugoslavia, then a communist country headed by dictator Tito who had both popular support and who used brute force. We settled in the US, he became a US citizen, a respected doctor in private practice, active in civic and political affairs, and never taking for granted the freedom to pursue his dreams. We first visited Yugoslavia and his family in 1972 when the country began to allow refugees to visit. We returned about every two years until mid-2015 when he passed away. I experienced Yugoslavia in their brutal Stalinist era, fear of a late-night knock at the door, their period of a more benign dictatorship that still forbad dissent, and their civil war for independence. Today Croatia is democratic and a member of the EU and NATO. 

I wish such painful histories on no one. Modern autocrats like Putin of Russia and Erdogan of Turkey have used some of the same techniques 20th-century dictators used to turn democracies into dictatorships.  Donald Trump admires them. and adopts and tolerates some of their media and election tactics. 

Fair elections are the very foundation of American democracy. Media free both to criticize and to validate is one key. The security of election systems is another.  An informed electorate that will and can listen to all sides of public debate, sorts truth from fiction, and then votes while trusting the integrity of election systems can nip wannabe despots in the bud, allowing democracy to

Like his “strong men” idols, Donald Trump is no fan of freedom of the press or an advocate of elections secure from foreign manipulation. Instead, he frequently denies Russians meddled on his behalf in 2016 and favors and consults with media who support his views. In October he threatened to yank NBC’s broadcast licenses whose news reports also include news and data unfavorable to him. He calls media "enemies of the people”, tags reports he dislikes as” dishonest”,” “fake “, lies, while fact-checkers work overtime exposing his playing loose with facts.  Just last week he told a VFW audience, “what you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening…Just stick with us.” 
He continued to call contrary reports, "crap".. Claiming there are no credible facts except those presented by the Leader (Hitler called the contrary press, the lying press..Lugenpresse) is a tool wannabe dictators have used to destroy freedom of the press. In fact, at campaign rallies, some of Trump supporters aggressively chanted "Lugenpresse" at reporters.
He banned a CNN reporter from the White House for asking tough questions, said he was yanking security clearances of former intelligence officials who criticized him and initially left out of official Helsinki transcripts Putin admitting he wanted Trump to win in 2016. 
We know from Mueller’s indictment texts, Russians in 2016 used many media platforms to intensify racial and ideological divisions to help Trump. They hacked into state election systems and political party sites, showing an ability to manipulate future election outcomes.
       Why am I worried about American democracy's future?  So many do not care. A July 17 Atlantic/PRRI poll found only 22% of Republicans thought influence from foreign government in our elections was a major problem versus 68% Democrats; 40% independents and a subservient GOP House just voted down funding for hardening state elections systems’ cybersecurity.   Democracy is fragile, and its survival depends upon the dedicated support of the governed.  That support is weak and fractured.
     A worrisome poll:
40% of GOP members are OK with Russian meddling; 11% welcome it.
     Freedom of the press, concern about the rule of law, abiding by the Constitution, do not even turn up as a blip on polls of top voters' issues: .
    A frightening poll;

I would also be remiss if I did not mention how it is I became an opinion writer for our local newspaper. I never considered myself either a journalist or a writer, but an activist, working in the political system and organizing communities. Writing and speaking were only tools to accomplish a purpose.  However, in 2007, the editor ot the Sky-Hi News mentioned she was looking for a liberal columnist to balance the paper. The paper had a conservative columnist.  My number one fan husband volunteered me. After some moaning and groaning I was retired, I gave it a try and my new career began. I consider it an extension of my political activism but one I could handle given my age.  I never sought advanced degrees because life was interesting and fulfilling as it was at the time I had the opportunity.  I had the freedom to march to my own drumbeat, thanks to a financially comfortable life, a supportive husband,  though I always tried to be paid a fair wage to cover expenses and add to the family coffers. I was rarely unemployed, usually in positions that advanced some common good as I saw it,  and I considered myself one of the few lucky enough to make a living as a BA political science major. My first job in New York was with WNEW Ch 5 (now Fox) writing storylines. I was one of Denver's first radio talk show hosts for a couple of years (KNUS) but left for a public position in city government as Clerk and Recorder, serving under Mayor Federico Pena. Before any of that, I served for  7 years in the Denver DA's office leading investigations into consumer fraud and white-collar crime and later served in public and community relations in private and nonprofit sectors,. I came close to being elected mayor of Denver and was often the first woman to do this or that.

 However, it was in high school that  I found my voice, literally, and a new way of thinking.  I had a remarkable high school debate and speech coach, JW Patterson, and willing parents to become volunteers for his programs. We traveled all over the region, debating teams and in tournaments from Dallas to Houston and beyond.  I learned to argue both sides of any public policy issue. Issues were picked nationally: the first, direct election of the president was the topic in my sophomore year and free trade, my junior year. the basic debate arguments remain the same in 2020.  For my area of expertise, extemporaneous speaking, I had to be ready is to construct a 15-minute speech on any current event topic within 30 minutes. We were only t(o use certain sources to back up any argument or thesis, reading daily the Christian Science Monitor, the New York Times, US News and World Report, and the Manchester Guardian (for the international perspective). You will see that training reflected in the structure and sours of data in my columns. Our success in the national rankings of the National Forensic League statistics earned us national recognition and the National Finals of NFL debate was held in Muskogee my senior year.  I owe much to that program for acceptance to Northwestern University, where I was a debater through my sophomore year. JW Patterson continued as a renowned debate coach at the university level, retiring from the University of Kentucky. We are Facebook friends to this day. though he must be in his mid 90's by now.  For more about his incredible career, visit

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