OOLOGAH, Okla. — Oologah community members gathered at the gazebo by town hall Wednesday for a round table on racism and racial injustice.
Around 30 people of diverse skin tones and backgrounds came together for dialogue and an opportunity to learn from each other’s experiences.
Organizers of the event said it was intended to be the start of ongoing discussion in the community, and an opportunity for open and respectful conversation.
One of the organizers, Thomas Buchanan said, “Our silence, our not doing anything, is contributing to racism and racial injustice, and I’m not okay with that.”
The discussion was lead primarily by Wayne Walls, a black man and 10-year resident of Oologah, married to a white woman and father to two mixed children. Walls is a social studies teacher at Carver Middle School in North Tulsa and holds a master’s degree in rehabilitative counseling. Walls is a regular figure in town as a coach for the Little Mustangs basketball team.
Walls started the conversation by saying, “It’s great to see everybody here today. It shows me that you care about this conversation that can be very tough. But just like when I coach kids who are uncomfortable doing new things, you’ve got to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, because that is the only way we are going to grow.”
Aside from a few instances of explicit racism when Walls first moved to Oologah, like a man refusing to shake his hand because of the color of his skin, or being called the “N word” behind his back, most of Walls’s experiences have been hate-filled glances and people locking their doors or clutching their belongings tighter when he walks by. And even without a criminal record, Walls said he still feels nervous on the rare occasion that he is stopped by police.
According to U.S. Census data, 1 percent of the population of Oologah is of African American decent. According to the historical account of some town members present, both Oologah and Talala were once “sunset towns,” where the unspoken policy was if black people stayed in town past sunset, they would be lynched or run out of town.
“Years ago, I was very frustrated and I didn’t understand why I was here, in a predominately white town,” Walls said. “God has me here for a reason.”
Walls’s former professor and close friend Dr. John Sassin of Langston University came as an invited guest to participate in the conversation as someone who has spent his career studying generational trauma and rehabilitation.
“We don’t need Wayne to develop a tough skin. That is unfair. We are asking a human being to develop a shield around them to protect them from us,” Sassin said. “As an older white male, it is not a duty, it is not an obligation, it is compassion, it’s empathy, it is love and understanding. It is the basic principles we were taught since we were children. It’s our job to take the cross off the Christ and let him have a moment of peace before he gets to his destination. Our job is to lift off the burden we have put on other human beings.”
Sassin is part of the group organizing events for the Centennial of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
“We’re doing interviews with a lot of people on generational trauma,” Sassin said. “Native Americans faced it, African Americans faced it, Immigrants have faced it. We think that it goes away in time and it just dissipates with good deeds and kind words. But the reality is, these sins of our fathers follow the generations. The reality of racism has followed the generations to now.”
Sassin said, “As people, we have kept our knees on a lot of folks for a long time. It’s time for us to let everybody breathe again.”
Adrian Ellis, a two-year resident of Oologah, said he hadn’t experienced racism in Oologah the same way he did growing up in Owasso. However, he said, he still deals with racial insensitivity in jokes and comments that are made to him as the only black employee at his job.
Multiple multi-racial couples were represented, sharing stories of being called disgusting in public and having neighbors keep a close eye on them any time they were outside the house.
Mandy Burch, who was born and raised in Oologah, said she and her family left Oologah because her mixed-race daughter felt uncomfortable being the only girl that looked like her in the school.
“When people say they don’t see color, that’s not true. And when you say, ‘I don’t see color,’ you are ignoring that racism exists,” Burch said. “Right now it is really important to have empathy for one another, put ourselves in their shoes, and realize that racism does exist.”
Multi-racial couple David Lacey and Taylor LaTouche shared their own experience from within their relationship of how to have tough conversations about racial and cultural differences while maintaining love.
Jason Baker shared a story from earlier that same day, when he witnessed a person use a racial slur in public, and didn’t say anything to correct them.
“I didn’t say anything, I let her walk away, and I am ashamed of that,” Baker said. “I used to tell black jokes in my house, and I’m ashamed of that.”
“I have black nieces and nephews, and I have not been there ally, because I stood by when these things happened in my community,” Baker said.
Another person in the group shared about realizing her own racial blind spots the first time it was suggested that there should be black baby dolls in the church nursery.
“I just hadn’t thought about it before,” she said.
Many more white members of the congregation noted moments when they were forced to recognize their own privilege.
Oologah United Methodist Church pastor Jennfier Long said, “How do you make your church welcoming to all, when Sunday mornings are one of the most segregated hours of the week?”
The two hours of conversation ended with the community planning for future events where issues of race could be discussed openly, respectfully, and in a family atmosphere.
Oologah residents and families who would like to participate in future events were encouraged to join the group Act Now on Facebook by searching Act Now Oologah.
Walls said, “In order for us to have change here, we have to start with our children.”
Harrison writes for Claremore Progress, a CNHI LLC publication.