(This fiction story is about racism in history, and involves critical race theory which some audiences find offensive)
On a hot, humid day in Tulsa, Avery, my friend, was asked to leave the pool. My mother had given my older brother, George, and me permission to take the bus downtown to visit the Tulsa public swimming pool. It was a quiet Sunday in mid-August, the temperature over ninety and the humidity just about the same. We were happy to have a chance to cool off.
It was the sixties in America, and the culture of our everyday life held a promise of change, including in Tulsa. Our parents were schoolteachers and believed in the work of Martin Luther King. He was a peaceful leader for Black rights. My parents welcomed his teachings into our home and the classrooms where they taught. Mr. King said in a famous speech that we should not judge by the color of skin but by the content of character, but more to the point, he meant all men are equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among those rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Our parents said that all people loved and laughed in the same ways, and it was wrong to judge others with preconceived notions. Our radios played songs about brotherly love all day long, so we had no reason not to believe them. But unfortunately, on that hot day in August, what they’d told us turned out not to be true.
Our family lived in a tract of housing that bordered a town called Greenwood. Mom and Pop told us that it had once been an all-black community. And I guess at the time, Greenwood was a thriving community.
When we started out in school many of them were segregated, but then some people fought to change that and when they did our parents volunteered to help drive kids to those different schools. And desegregation was not something my brother and I fully understood. Mom and Pop described it to us as an attempt to right an injustice so that black children could attend better schools. The part that was difficult to understand was that some people didn’t agree. Mom said it was complicated. So, one day I asked her why?
“Well, Bobbie, a long time ago, 1921 as a matter of fact, the entire neighborhood of Greenwood was destroyed by white people who didn’t want to believe that black people didn’t have the same rights to succeed in their own businesses like white people. Some thought it was an affront to the social order.” I didn’t always understand my mother’s big words, but it was okay to say when I didn’t. But sometimes, I didn’t need her to go into the long explanations.
“Then what happened?” I asked.
“A riot took place. A young woman, Sarah Page was an elevator operator in the Drexel building downtown Tulsa. One day, a young black man, Dick Rowland got on the elevator, and she accused him of attacking her.”
“And did he?”
“It didn’t matter because the white residents of Tulsa would not believe the young man. An angry mob formed to go against the town of Greenwood who stuck up for him because they knew the young man would not do such a thing. As it happens, Rowland, who worked as a shoe-shine boy said he had stumbled getting into the elevator and had accidentally stepped on her foot.”
“That could happen to anybody.”
“Sadly, the angry white mob did not believe his story. So, they called on the police and National Guard to help them, and together they torched the Greenwood homes and businesses and shot down anyone who resisted their judgment. And the people of Greenwood believed Rowland, so they fought back. And so, all that anger created a terrible riot that burned the whole place down.”
“That doesn’t seem right. If only they could have talked to each other. But that was a long time ago, right? And now things are better.”
“That still depends. Those black people were not able to ever regain their businesses or their homes. It made things very difficult for them. That is why your Pop and I want you to know about your history here in Tulsa. It is important to never imitate that type of prejudice because you never know how it will end.”
I knew what she meant. My brother, George, and I saw it happen at school more times than we liked to mention. I was glad to have an older brother in school because he meant to set an example, and he could be a real tough guy when he wanted to. He was six feet two and captain of the football team. I was thirteen, and though I’d catch up to him in a few years, I never believed I could measure up to him. He never seemed afraid of anyone. If someone said something to him about one of the black kids in our school with the n-word in it, he would go over and talk to them. I was never that brave.
He’d say, “When you use words like that, you show your lack of intelligence, kid. Being rude is like a loudspeaker for being stupid. You don’t want to be stupid, now, do you?” I wasn’t sure he changed any minds when they went back home, but they sure cleaned up their manners around him.
I didn’t have any black friends at the time, but George had one who shot baskets with him. His name was Donnie Tyrone. We just called him Donnie.
Every Saturday, they practiced hoops in Donnie’s neighborhood. The streets where he lived were overgrown with weeds and the basketball net was mostly shredded, but at least the rim was solid and in decent shape. Mom had told George it was okay to be friends, but not to linger past dark. I never told her that I sometimes tagged along with George, or that sometimes, it was past dark. I’d never tell on George. I figured I was always safe with him. I never worried. That was how I met Avery. He was Donnie’s little brother.
One day, after his chores, Avery came outside with a box of marbles. He had them all wrapped up in a soft handkerchief. He set the box down on the grass and took each one out separately, explaining all about each one. He had some beautiful cat-eyes and puries in his collection. He treated them like special jewels. He showed me how to shoot by lining up my thumb and putting a little spin on it.
“The right way is to keep your knuckle down on the ground. Keep a sharp focus.” He said and offered to play with me anytime. Since I liked him, I held him to his promise by coming along with George as often as I could.
George told me Donnie was a mighty good athlete. But at our school, he never made the basketball team. I thought George might help him with that, maybe go in and talk to the coaches. Then one day, I overheard Donnie talking to George. He said he was being hassled at school. He’d found something in his locker, a white hood with a note attached—you boy, are next. He worried about his parents, so I think it really scared Donnie. George wanted to go talk to the principal about it, but Donnie said he didn’t want to cause trouble over it. George came home and talked to Pop, but I guess in the end, they decided to respect Donnie’s wishes. Basketball wasn’t everything.
On certain Saturdays, I’d go along with George and Donnie when they took the bus downtown to get a coke at Mr. Morelli’s grocery store. He was a nice Italian man who never minded when we came in with Donnie, but just the same, he always suggested we go outside to drink our sodas.
A few times we met Donnie’s mom. She used to be a schoolteacher in an all-black school, but when they integrated the schools, Donnie said she lost her job because they didn’t want black teachers. His dad worked in the bottling factory in town. I could tell Donnie liked his mom and wouldn’t cross her. She greeted us like we were special guests, though we never stayed long enough to sit on their plaid couch or watch their T.V. We usually waited for Donnie in the wallpapered alcove. We could smell sweet cornbread baking and his mom wore a clean apron just like ours did when it was around supper time. You could tell she was proud of Donnie like someday he could grow up to be a doctor or something. Donnie said his mom was strict. During the week, he had to be home by five o’clock to finish his homework because she believed if he studied hard in school, he would be alright.
That day when we took off for the pool, the sweat dripped through the waistband of my trousers. The sun beat down and it was unbearably hot outside. George had invited Donnie and Avery to go with us to the city pool. I could tell they were as hot as I was by the wet stains on their t-shirts. When we arrived, we heard younger kids shouting and squealing in the water as they splashed a ball at one another. The song, Peggy Sue, played on the loudspeakers, but I don’t think anyone was listening. We set our towels on the grass near the fence and walked over to the diving board. We couldn’t wait to take our turn jumping in the cool water. A few girls got out of the line when they saw us coming. They whispered something to each other and pointed at us. The boys with the girls sneered when they looked our way and saw Donnie and Avery. They sized up my brother but didn’t seem bothered that he was bigger than them. Though it was allowed, many people didn’t seem to like the new laws allowing blacks into public places like diners and pools, but most of the time they were polite. But that day, those guys, who we didn’t recognize, meant to cause trouble. They went straight up to Donnie and one of them said, “You coloreds aren’t welcome here. Ain’t you got some swimming hole just for yer kind?”
George answered. “Back off, kid. They have a right to be here.”
“A right don’t give them permission.”
We just wanted to get in that water and cool off. I was confident George would take care of the situation like he always did. But everything happened fast after George told them to move. A larger boy wearing a khaki pair of shorts pulled out a shiny razor-like knife. I gasped. George nudged me over towards the concession stand.
“Bobby, get over there and stay put. You understand me?” He meant business, and I got scared.
At the same time, Avery tried to get to the pool. I think he had it in mind to jump in to escape. But the big guy with the knife grabbed Avery’s arm and lunged at his chest. The shiny blade pierced Avery’s skin right below his ribs. Avery dropped into the pool. I wanted to help my friend, but George had given me an order. George and Donnie were scuffling with the group of boys. My stomach was wretched. When I saw blood streaming in the pool, I nearly gave up my breakfast. The girls stood gawking. Horrified. No one helped Avery. Instead, everyone that was in the water got out fast. I’d never seen water turn red like that, and I couldn’t just stand there doing nothing. I ran for the telephone near the lifeguard station but one of the boys knocked me down.
“Calling the police won’t do you any good, punk.” He said. But it wasn’t the cops I wanted to call, it was my mom. I looked over at George and Donnie who were scrambling against three guys, one with a knife. Fists were flying, and legs were kicking. I couldn’t tell who was up or who was down. Avery thrashed in the pool, a blood-red on his swimming trunks that no chlorine could dilute. I had to do something. I thought of Mr. Morelli. I took off running the eight blocks, my feet barely hitting the asphalt of pavement that was hotter than a frying skillet. I needed to save Avery from bleeding to death.
When I reached Mr. Morelli, he dialed an emergency number and locked up the store. He called my mother to tell her to meet us at the pool.
It seemed like no time at all had passed, but when we got back, everyone had vanished except the pool janitor. My brother was lying face down, but he was moving his arms and legs. He looked like he’d be alright. But Donnie—he was on the ladder of the pool, his shoulders hunched and trembling, holding the lifeless body of his little brother. Rivulets of red blood streamed down his arms. He was sobbing. And it was the most awful, mournful sound I have ever heard in all my life. A sound I will never forget.
Donnie’s mom arrived in our mom’s car. She ran for the pool to hold her youngest boy’s body. We helped her carry Avery back onto the soft grass. She cried out for someone to help her, but there was nothing more anyone could do. Mr. Morelli offered to drive her where they needed to go. Our mom wanted us to go home where we were safe. George took me under his arm and told me I’d done a brave thing to get Mr. Morelli. I remembered my parents saying that it didn’t matter what color your skin was, that people loved and laughed the same. But that day, I learned something else; that they hurt and cry the same, too. I realized that hate doesn’t stay with history, because when they don't learn about it they don't know how to change the future. They just keep on acting in the same old ways.
I knew I would return to Avery’s house to check on his prized marbles and puries and to help his mom do any extra chores she needed doing. But most of all, I promised myself I would write this story because I never want to forget what happened to my friend Avery. It took courage for me to disobey my brother that day. I only wish I would have started running sooner because that was a day when brotherly love had seemed the furthest thing from anyone’s mind, and though it may hurt to hear it, it bears repeating.