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United Way Blog

Tulsa:  A Native Son Remembers

Acclaimed jazz drummer Washington Irving Rucker is a proud Black Tulsan.

“Greenwood holds a special place in my heart. I was born on Greenwood in a rooming house, atop Holiness's grocery store in 1937.”

But he doesn’t romance or gloss over what happened there not long before his birth – events that America is only now coming to grips with:  in 1921, a white mob raided the Black section of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and during a deadly rampage, looted and burned hundreds of homes and businesses until a thriving district was destroyed.

Rucker, now 84 and living in Los Angeles, reflected on growing up in segregated Tulsa and around the area he calls “Deep Greenwood.” A storyteller, he revived the enduring trauma inflicted on the Black community following the massacre a century ago as well as the resilience embodied in Deep Greenwood’s rebirth and in the fortunes of a native son. The stories often revolve around his early life and the obstacles he overcame to make it out of Tulsa and chart a career that took him around the world as a jazz musician.

Rucker’s accounts are sometimes light-hearted, like the ones about him climbing the “mawberry” tree as a child with friends. Other times, they’re heartbreaking, as when he recalls being robbed of the “Best Boy” honor in grade school despite having the highest GPA in his class. “Wrong skin color,” he said.

And there was the way he made the Booker T. Washington High School band, initially rejected, but eventually granted a spot after a classmate told the instructor “Mr. Fields, Sand Springs can play, let him join the band!”  “Sand Springs” was a reference to the area where Rucker attended school and was a nickname given by his classmate, Crazy Red.

And then there are the stories describing his connection to the race massacre of May 31 through June 1, 1921.

Asked what he knows about “Black Wall Street,” a popular reference to Greenwood’s thriving business district, he made a swift correction: “The term Black Wall Street is foreign to my ears. I grew up, learned to play music, and had a career as a musician on Deep Greenwood. It’s always been Deep Greenwood.”  

OK then. With that bit settled and a writer properly schooled, the conversation moved on to what he remembered being told about events the nation is commemorating a full century later. Shockingly, he would not learn the enormity of the massacre of Greenwood’s Black citizens until nearly half-a-century later.

“The history of Black folks was taught in parts. No mention of a riot was ever spoken,” he said. “It was always a ‘disturbance,’ not a race riot. We didn’t talk about it. We didn’t learn about it in school.”

But when he did learn about it, he couldn’t shake the ugliness of it.

“Vernon Baptist [Church] was a block away from Greenwood and Archer, and had evidence and remnants of fire as did the other church on Elgin and Eastern. The basements were burned and left to remind folks of the disturbance and to set the tone for Blacks north of Archer. As a kid, we went to Bible study from school to these churches,” he said.

“And still, Blacks remained mum. It was as though the riot never happened,” added Rucker, still miffed that the Black community turned to silence to cope.   

In retrospect, he said, the evidence of fire damage became a cautionary tale to the youngsters sitting for Bible lessons. What was being communicated was a common warning of that time: know your place and stay in it.

Rucker described a vivid picture of the savage cruelty inflicted during the riots on Tulsa’s lone Black detective, John Smitherman, who had one ear missing.  “They say the white folks cut off his left ear and made him eat it during the disturbance.” 

Once old enough to venture out on his own, Rucker said nearly all evidence of the massacre was gone.

“By the time I came around, in the mid-1940s, Deep Greenwood had risen, been rebuilt, and was again the center of Black businesses, entertainment, and commerce.  There was absolutely no evidence of the race riot that had taken place; save for mentions in passing of ‘minor’ disturbances.”

With Deep Greenwood well-established in its second life, Rucker would leave Tulsa in 1955 to join the Navy and later start his 60-year career as a musician. The words of a mentor would prove prophetic: “This pair of sticks will take you all over the world.” 

This week, Viola Fletcher, the oldest living survivor of the attack at 107 years old, testified to Congress.  Small in stature, but larger than life, she brought the recollections of inhumanity perpetrated on Black Tulsan’s for millions of Americans to learn. She was among those who saw family fortunes wiped out, self-sufficiency derailed and lives taken.

“I have lived through the massacre every day. Our country may forget this history, but I cannot. I will not, and other survivors do not. And our descendants do not,” she said.

Fletcher is among the Black Tulsans and others calling for compensation for their generation of losses. 

Rucker has mixed feelings about the nation’s recognition, especially in today’s racially charged climate. 

“I hold on to my Greenwood roots and my love for Deep Greenwood with all my heart to this day,” he said.  “That there would be a celebration of this time in our history, though, is tantamount to the trauma and pain it must have been in 1921.” 

Acknowledging the massacre in Deep Greenwood is an important first step, he concedes, but he is firm that it can’t be the last.

As the discussion concluded with Washington Irving Rucker – native Tulsan, veteran, world traveler, musician, American, and this writer’s father, there was one more thing to ask: “Dad, what do you hope for 100 years after the Tulsa massacre?”

He offered gently, “I do hope that voices are raised, not silenced. I do hope we stand up for all that is due to us as citizens of America. I want to hear the drums of freedom and hope and equality before my time is up.”

Pamela Rucker Springs is the daughter of Washington I. Rucker. She serves as the Vice President of Communications for United Way Worldwide.