By CHARLES CANTRELL
THE CIRCLE OF LIFE: Student singers from the Deborah Brown Community School join hands to form a symbolic circle of life around the Tower of Reconciliation. The tower is the centerpiece of the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park. The students took part in the park dedication in October of 2010.
Courtesy Kavin Ross/John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation
“We need to do everything possible to emphasize the positive qualities that all of us have, qualities which we have never utilized to the fullest, but which we must utilize if we are to solve the problem of the color line in the twenty-first century.”
– John Hope Franklin, The Color Line
This year marks the 90th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. It is also the second year that The John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation has held a national symposium focused on ways to transform years of racial division into a hopeful future of reconciliation and cooperation for Tulsa and the nation. The Symposium was aptly titled, “Tragedy to Triumph” reflecting the ongoing mission of the center to foster understanding among all factions of our diverse cultural landscape. Although the horrific violence that occurred in the Tulsa of 1921 served as contextual backdrop to the symposium, the intent of the gathering was as always how best to learn from the event and move forward as a community and a nation to summon our better angels in dealing with social, racial and cultural differences.
To help achieve this, the center is developing a consortium of academic institutions, historical societies and organizations devoted to equality, racial justice and social harmony. This is in part to facilitate the annual symposium’s convening of scholars and practitioners to explore current research in race relations and to acknowledge the progress made in social reconciliation.
The keynote speaker for this year’s symposium was Joseph V. Montville, senior associate, Center for the Study of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations, Merrimack College. He is also Distinguished Diplomat in Residence, American University and chair for the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution, George Mason University. His academic credentials alone more than qualified him to address the gathering, but providing additional gravitas to his message titled “Hope & Healing: Black, White, and Native American,” was his body of work covering diplomatic assignments in Iraq, Lebanon, Libya and Morocco between 1965 and 1973 wherein he witnessed first hand the violent consequences of racial, cultural and societal conflict.
In his message, Montville sited three psychodynamic concepts that have emerged from the studies of ethnic and sectarian conflicts around the world. They are dehumanization, the intergenerational transmission of historical grievance and the psychology of victimhood. To understand these concepts provides insights into and understanding of the dynamics of profound societal conflicts.
Quoting from Montville’s address to the symposium, “We learned that one cause of the apparent intractability of ethnic, religious or, more simply, identity conflicts, is characteristic of almost all of them. Where one or more sides in a political conflict has suffered traumatic historic or current losses whose depth and tragedy have not been acknowledged or atoned for by the side that caused the losses, the wounds do not heal. They can be five, fifty or five hundred years old. We learned that time does not heal wounds. Only healing does.”
He went on to say, “We have come to understand that we must show respect for their (those wronged) humanity and their cultural identity, including religious identity, and to express our concern for their well-being and their children’s well-being and future. Or more simply, that we care about them.”
Montville stressed the need to “walk through history” and the “taking of an inventory of hurts carried out together by the winners and the losers or the aggressors and their victims, or their descendents, to rediscover what happened in the past which keeps alive so much anger and resentment in the present.”
In one of the many break out session of the symposium titled “A Documentary Study: The Power of Memory: Tulsa Greenwood 1921 Tulsa Race Riot,” a profound moment came when an elderly Tulsan shared a personal story from his past that illustrated what this particular session was about and in many ways what this symposium for racial reconciliation was about.
His story first spoke to what it was like to be a young black man in early Tulsa growing up living in two very different worlds and consequently adapting to those worlds by becoming essentially two different persons. North of First Street was of course Tulsa’s Greenwood area where the young man lived and grew up with family and friends enjoying the affirmation and comforts of the segregated black community. The other world was anywhere South of First Street including the Adams Hotel in downtown Tulsa where he worked. It was here that he talked and behaved differently in order to fit in and earn a living. It was a skill set he had been taught from childhood by all those who lived in the world to the north.
Each day he crossed that great divide of First Street and the railroad tracks on his way back and forth to work. The trek took him past a music store displaying the newest in record players. As a music lover he was fascinated by the wonderful new devises and it became his dream to own one. To his surprise, the white owner of the store agreed to hold a record player in lay-away for him. It was a somewhat unprecedented gesture coming from someone living in the world to the south and it caught the young man a little by surprise, but it also marked the beginning of a friendship.
The bond between the two grew with each encounter as they discussed music and discovered similar tastes in musical genres. Each payday brought the young man back to make a payment until one day the shop owner suggested since it was going to take a while to pay off the balance why not take the player home to enjoy and continue paying as he could. It was another unexpected gesture that took the young man by surprise. A new level of friendship and trust had been extended to him and to this day remains a profound moment in his life. The young man took the player home and after the balance was paid in full the friendship continued.
Everyday across the globe and in local communities violence in all its ugly forms erupts between ethnic, religious and cultural groups pitted against one another fueled by ignorance, fear and hatred. Because we are subjected to a constant diet of media attention to this form of human behavior, we can grow to believe we are defined by such ugliness. In the meantime countless small acts of kindness, understanding and reconciliation go unnoticed and unheralded. The mission of the John Hope Franklin Center for Racial Reconciliation and its annual symposium is to study, understand and shine a light on “the positive qualities that all of us have” in order to create a more harmonious world. This was John Hope Franklin’s life long quest and it is now the quest of the center that bears his name.
The story of the shop owner and the young man continues: many years after the two had gone separate ways there was a chance encounter at a local hospital. During a visit to the hospital the young man recognized the shop owner recovering in a nearby bed. He introduced himself. The shop owner remembered him and from there on the memories began to pour out of the two old friends. As the now aged young man tells it, nothing had changed. Many years ago, against all odds two people living in different worlds had set aside their fears and perceived differences to form a friendship that has endured and continues to represent a small, but powerful, strand bridging two worlds. This is what the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation and its annual symposium is really all about.