Albion's Pebbles Trippet grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma. As our nation is now acknowledging, in 1921 the prosperous Black section of Tulsa, Greenwood, was utterly destroyed by the White Citizens backed by Law Enforcement. I asked our mutual friend what she knew about the event. And how did she emerge from Tulsa as an enemy of racism? —Fred Gardner
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I was predisposed to a humanist point of view. I was 13 when Emmet Till was killed, and he was 14. but I didn't know about that until later. What I did know about was the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956. I was in high school and I watched it very closely on the news for a solid year —that's how long they were out as a community. Rosa Parks was not just a retired seamstress, she was a seasoned organizer and secretary of an NAACP chapter. Martin Luther King was a new pastor who hadn't made any enemies yet. They walked and they car-pooled, they shared their resources. I was very impressed by what you can do if you do it together.
Along the way I heard about what happened in Greenwood in 1921 —the race massacre. It was never spoken of; it was a secret. But if you did any digging you could find out about it. That it happened —not the details. I remember being in a bookstore and reading about the era, and I found a few references to the Tulsa race massacre. I found out that it was the first time that bombs had been dropped from the air in this country, so I knew it was worse than anything that had ever happened. ”The Black Wall Street” was wiped out, and hundreds of people killed. It was the other side of town, but I felt it was my side of town, too. I identified with them. Nobody knew anything about it because nobody talked about it —not even the people who were most affected by it in the Black community. I don't know if there's ever been anything that was so successfully covered up. I have never heard of anything like a 100-year blackout of news of that nature.
I asked my parents if they knew about what happened in Greenwood and they said yes, they knew about it. I asked if they had harbored anybody; yes they did. They were really conservative and not into it, but they were decent. They took in the people who worked for them so they wouldn't have to go home while it was unsafe.
My father was a civil lawyer with an oil company in Washington, DC when I was born. Then we moved to Amarillo. That's where I had my first migraine when I was five or six. Then we moved to Tulsa, where he set up his own law practice. We lived in a nice middle-class neighborhood a block away from my segregated grade school/jr. high school. It wasn't until high school that I encountered four Black classmates —one of whom was Peaches Littlejohn.
When I was elected Treasurer, Peaches also won a position —but she was going to be disqualified because of poor grades and she came to me hoping I could help her. I couldn't but we became friends and in my senior year she and I would sometimes go together to drive-in movies. I drove a 1950 stick-shift Mercury and she'd hide in the trunk of the car to get past the gatekeepers, then join me in the front seat to watch the movie. In our own sincere way, we believed we were making a civil disobedience statement.
Little things like that are all I could find to say where I stood —to express my sincere belief that segregation was absolutely the wrong attitude to have, the wrong approach to life. But there was no movement around me. That was Tulsa. Tulsa was a very wealthy oil-boom town, the worst of the worst. Oklahoma City was where activism had some success.
My sister Connie and I were close growing up. She's four years younger. One time I asked her to come to Greenwood with me when they were showing a film with Sidney Poitier. I knew it was something she should see so she wouldn't grow up racist. So we went and there were some guys on the street who started talking —“Hey, baby,” and that kind of thing. Connie was nervous about it and I said don't be: “They're just being friendly. It doesn't amount to anything.” And we went in and saw the movie and it was fine.
I introduced her to a local Native American artist who became her mentor. She liked to go to Tulsa's downtown bus station, where she would mingle and draw people for hours, while I sat with her —an exercise in open-mindedness.
When I came back from my first year at the University of Wisconsin I joined the Tulsa NAACP's sit-in at a downtown cafeteria. It must have been around Christmas because it was still 1960. Downtown was right in between Greenwood, where the Black people lived and where the white people lived, where I lived. We walked in and sat down at the counter and did not leave, we stayed there for hours. I wanted to do something and I did what was available. I didn't do much, but it made its mark on my life.