My Mother's Story: Standing Up To Violence In Tulsa

Apr 15, 2012
Originally published on April 16, 2012 9:27 am

Jo Anne Wallace is the vice president and general manager of KQED Public Radio in Northern California.

In 1921, when my mother was 5 years old, there was a race riot in her hometown of Tulsa, Okla. Scores of black men, women and children were threatened and killed by mob violence. It was provoked by the rumor of a sexual encounter between a black man and a white woman on an elevator in one of Tulsa's tall, downtown office buildings. The prosperous black community of Greenwood on the northern edge of Tulsa was also decimated by the violence.

At the time, my mother's father, Joseph McCutchan, was a high school Latin teacher at Tulsa's Central High. Joe had also been a newspaper publisher in the small town of Pawnee. His wife, my grandmother Grace, was the mother of five young children. Because she was in very bad health, Joe hired a live-in housekeeper to clean, prepare meals and care for their youngest children. The new housekeeper was a black woman whose family lived in Tulsa's segregated black community on the north side of town.

On a fateful day in 1921, my grandmother Grace sheltered and protected her housekeeper as the bloody events began to unfold. As white men came to her neighborhood to round up blacks, Grace answered their knock at her door and denied there being anyone by that description in her home. When my mother told this story, she recalled that as Grace opened the door to the men, the housekeeper was praying so vehemently in the background that Grace feared the men standing before her would overhear the woman's voice and push their way into her home.

But the two women were lucky. The men left without Grace's housekeeper.

And so, during the violent days of 1921, Grace and Joe hid their housekeeper, her husband and children in the attic of their home. My mother was hazy on the details, but when she told the story to me and my sister years later, she recalled what her mother and father had done with real pride.

The shootings in Tulsa last weekend brought this story back to me. But as I read about the racial violence that still exists in my hometown, I find myself chagrined: I never asked my father about those awful days of 1921.

Haskell Claiborne Shelton, my dad, also grew up in Tulsa. His family was relatively well-to-do. My father was about 13 or so when the mob violence and killings occurred, and he must have been aware of what was happening. But he never talked about what happened in 1921. Never when my mother was recounting the story. Never separately with my sister and me. Why, why did I never ask what my father, his older brothers and sister, and his father and mother thought and did during those long, dark days in Tulsa? Why did he never talk about it?

Perhaps it was either because they were involved in some way, or because for years they participated in covering it up.

I know today that the tragic events of 1921 were buried, and buried again by the collective memories of the residents of Tulsa. For many years there was silence in Tulsa when it came to the riots. People didn't talk about them. Many schoolchildren growing up in Oklahoma didn't even know they happened.

But it's a story that deserves retelling.

I think my mother told it to me as a way to honor her mother. But for me it means more than that. It's the story of a courageous act in the face of racial violence. It's about community members helping one another. And for me — it has become one of the signature stories of my life.

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