There are so many stories not included in our many histories of the church and of the world and of our country. Stories reveal so much about not only our past, but can help us understand trajectories for a shared future. Archaeologists continue to unearth remnants of stories, and historians and genealogists continue to uncover stories of people whose lives shape our present.
Unfortunately, the intentional burying of stories also shapes our present. For almost 100 years, the story of a massacre in Oklahoma has gone untold by mainstream history. Angry white citizens marched into a neighborhood nationally known as “Black Wall Street” on May 31,1921. Woodrow Wilson’s administration had undone all the work of Reconstruction by this time. Among other things, the administration fired all African Americans in any federal job, except food service and janitorial. Federal policies emboldened the burgeoning KKK and Jim Crow.
Black Wall Street developed after the Civil War as blacks from the South sought to make a new life and community amidst opportunity associated with the oil boom. The entire community was targeted because of a rumor. They were attacked for 18 terrifying hours with Molotov cocktails and shotguns. Reports put the death toll at 36, but the current estimate is 300 people killed. 9,000 people were left homeless because their homes were burned. Property damage in today’s dollars was $26 million.
It was barely a footnote in the state’s history until the incident was featured on an HBO series. The discovery of mass graves may lead to knowing more about the fate of some of our fellow citizens. Excavation of one site is scheduled. (https://enewspaper.latimes.com/desktop/latimes/default.aspx?pubid=50435180-e58e-48b5-8e0c-236bf740270e&edid=bbbd8f15-c977-4af0-a1f2-d71b08def338&pnum=5)
Generations of families were set back by this racist terrorism. What do we owe citizens who were not only denied rights afforded to others, but were violently violated in ways that have set a trajectory of increased difficulty?
One of the beatitudes is “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” The meek are not those who are weaker or humble. It’s general consensus by those who study the gospels and the language in which they were written that “the meek” are the poor and the afflicted. It makes me wonder what is my relationship to “the meek” when their history, their stories are bound up with my own.
The work of compassion and reconciliation is sacred work. The tragedy of those 18 hours in Black Wall Street determined the trajectory of generations. Those generations, especially the present one, deserve our compassion. The untended wounds of the past call for reconciliation: Recognition of harm done and willingness to repair that harm. Let us be alert to where God may be calling us to unearth and uncover stories so we may join Christ in the sacred work of compassion and reconciliation.
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