Black Oklahoma: Tearing down bridges that white supremacy built

Introducing #2892MilesToGo Tulsa, Oklahoma

This post was written by storyteller Kristi Orisabiyi Williams.

Until the lion learns to tell it’s own story, the story will always glorify the hunter.

African Proverb

Oklahoma has historically been a state that is often overlooked. If you are not from here and someone mentions Oklahoma, you may think to yourself, Oklahoma, who lives there? Hollywood images of Cowboys or the “wild west” may come to mind.

Yet ironically, Oklahoma has a unique and untold history like no other. If Black history in America was a Bible, Oklahoma would be it’s Old Testament. Oklahoma has played such an intricate part in Black history and Black liberation. Even as a person who has spent most of my life in Oklahoma, it has taken me 15 years to learn that. 

Before statehood in 1907, Oklahoma (then Native Territory) was somewhat like Wakanda – the fictional African kingdom from Marvel’s Black Panther. In Native Territory, the only people who could own the land were Native Americans and Black people. Imagine that! By 1920, Oklahoma had over 50 Black and Black tribal townships. Edwin McCabe and other prominent figures championed to make Oklahoma a Black state.

Kristi Orisabiyi Williams painted this artwork she calls The Promised Land because Black and Native people believed they could build their lives in Oklahoma for generations to come.

During the period of the Indian Removal Act, the Southeastern Tribes – Creek, Choctaw, Seminole, Cherokee, and Chickasaw – brought enslaved Africans with them on the Trail of Tears. In 1866, these tribes emancipated their enslaved Africans who became known as “Freedmen.” After the Civil War, the Creek, Cherokee, Seminole, Chicaksaw and Choctaw tribes were forced to sell their land to the U.S. Government. In 1887 Congress passed the General Allotment Act. Allotments were given in 1898-1906 and recorded by the Dawes Commissioners. Those five tribes allotted land to the Freedmen. The Creek Nation alone allotted 1,094,240 acres of land – much of which was rich with oil. As a result, many Black people were extremely wealthy in Oklahoma through land ownership. However, much of that land was stripped unrightfully from Black and Native land owners over time through disingenuous laws and practices that were created when Oklahoma became a state in 1907. As this country has dialogue on how to close the wealth gap, these historical stories are important.

In the past few years, the world has come to know more about Tulsa, Oklahoma. Many people have learned about the Freedmen, the Five Civilized Tribes, The Greenwood District, Black Wall Street, 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, and the 1921 Tulsa Mass Graves Investigations from a recent plethora of documentaries. The world has heard about the police killings of Terence Crutcher, Eric Harris, Joshua Harvey, Joshua Barre, the Holtzclaw case, and the fight for Julius Jones‘ life. Documentaries and television shows have touched on Oklahoma’s Black towns and Black districts like the Deep Deuce, Forts & Battlefield sites, contributions of Black servicemen like the Buffalo Soldiers and Lawman Bass Reeves, Black frontier experiences, and sundown towns. 

What the world may not know about Oklahoma, is that there are people who have been on the ground bringing awareness to our struggles, sharing our stories, advocating with community members, and seeking solutions through historical storytelling. Among those people are six community storytellers – Chief Egunwale Fagbenro Amusan, Dr. Alicia Odewale, Gregory Robinson II, Tedra Williams, Eli Grayson, and myself. We are a group that consists of Greenwood Descendants, Freedmen Descendants, Native Descendants, Activists and Educators. 

The 2892 Tulsa Wayfinders from left to right: 1. Kristi Orisabiyi Williams; 2. Eli Grayson; 3. Dr. Alicia Odewale; 4. Chief Egunwale Fagbenro Amusan; 5. Tedra Williams; 6.Gregory Robinson II.

And we are 2892 Project Storytellers. We are one flame that seeks to light the many candles that will illuminate 2892 miles of our stories. 

By sharing our stories we hope to keep the legacy of our ancestors alive, uplift our communities, and to teach our young people that learning about our community is not only about understanding who we are but what we did, how we did it, and what we are doing now. History isn’t just about what happened in the past, it is also about how past history has impacted lives who have been affected by it. The only way to understand that is to hear firsthand from those who have been scarred by history from generation to generation. 

Kristi Orisabiyi Williams painted this artwork of the Dreamland Theater where her aunt was when the massacre happened. The lady in the red represents the spirit of her Aunt Janie. The Redbird represents an ancestor. She says, “In our culture, being visited by a red bird represents ancestors who come to check on us.”

Uncovering history is a form of social justice and studying history allows one to make better decisions for their community, city, state, and the world at large. Having a platform to tell our stories our way is a revolutionary act that creates powerful ripple effects of change. Our hope is that this work will inspire leagues of educators and young people to study, uncover, and tell critical stories of justice that have been lost or neglected. Everyone is a storyteller and everyone has an impactful story to share with the world. In the work of social justice, we each must reinvent ourselves as storytellers who have nothing to lose so we can be effective at pushing change forward. 

Join us through our journey as we share the blueprint that our ancestors left us to build true community at its highest level. We will share the tools that our ancestors left for us to build a strong Black economic prowess that built an economy within an economy in the face of Jim Crow. We will share the battles we currently wage with the same hateful spirit that burned Black Wall Street and Greenwood in 1921. We will illustrate how philanthro-capitalism has and is damaging Black communities. We will take you deeper into the story of Oklahoma Native tribes and how they owned enslaved Africans. We will teach you that true reconciliation has absolutely nothing to do with building bridges, but that it has everything to do with exposing the ugly truth about white supremacy so that we can burn destructive bridges in order to build a beloved community anew. My mother always told me, “It’s better to know your destination before the journey.” Yet through my experience, it seems that our journeys tell us so much more about our destination. 

It is my hope that as educators and young people engage with our journey, they are enlightened by our stories so much that they tell their own stories and leave their own communities better than they found it.

Kristi Orisabiyi Williams, Dr. Alicia Odewale, Chief Egunwale Fagbenro Amusan, Gregory Robinson II, Tedra Williams, and Eli Grayson are the newest storytellers to join the 2892 Miles to Go Geographic Walk for Justice project from the National Geographic Society. They are a collective of many whose Community Storytelling Journeys will unearth experiences of human history and culture across communities. Follow along with #2892MilestoGo.

The art featured in this piece was created by Kristi Orisabiyi Williams. The lead image is a painting about Native tribes who owned enslaved Africans, which she exhibited locally in an art show. Kristi is especially proud of this one because her neighbor’s 6 year old grandson helped her paint the trees. The small red one was his idea.

One thought on “Black Oklahoma: Tearing down bridges that white supremacy built

  1. I am just hearing about Oklahoma, meanwhile, it is tragic that Police still kill innocent people, especially in Africa. Thanks for this article

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