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Juneteenth in Tulsa: freedom still a distant, delayed dream for Black America


TULSA, Okla. — Black Americans gathered Friday to mark the anniversary of an emancipation that came two and a half years late — liberty that many say feels like it never came at all.

It's been 155 years since June 19, 1865, the day slaves in Texas learned of their freedom, a day now known simply as Juneteenth. The news came late — nearly 30 months after Abraham Lincoln issued his famous Emancipation Proclamation — and change moved at a glacial pace.

The old ways and attitudes never really left, many in the Black community argue. Instead, they evolved with the times, manifesting in more subtle, socially acceptable ways, always conspiring to make life more difficult for anyone who wasn't part of America's white establishment.

And even with protesters in the streets and Black Lives Matter slogans cropping up in cities all over the United States, painted on pavement, scribbled on face masks and emblazoned on building-sized banners, justice and fairness remain as elusive as ever.

"Freedom still really hasn't come,"  said Quraysh Ali Lansana, a poet and teaching artist at the Tulsa campus of Oklahoma State University.

"It was late in 1865, and it's late in 2020. So we need to celebrate and acknowledge that we are still here, but we also know ... that our freedom really still hasn't arrived, and we still have to be fighting and working toward that every day."

That's especially true in Tulsa, the scene of a race riot in 1921 that many historians consider the single worst incident of racial violence in American history.

The Tulsa massacre erupted over Memorial Day weekend when a Black man was accused of assaulting a white woman in the city's Greenwood district, also known as Black Wall Street. In the ensuing mayhem, 12 people were killed and a mob of white rioters laid waste to the neighbourhood, looting shops and setting fire to homes.

On Friday, at a local memorial to those who died or lost homes and businesses in the chaos, 49-year-old Bruce Carter took a stand against what he considers the very same injustices, 99 years later.

"We work hard every day — and it is hard being a Black man in America," said Carter, drenched in sweat, leaning on a full-sized casket draped with the American flag and filled with handwritten injustices solicited from the crowd.

"I'm going to outwork you ... and eventually I'm going to get there before you. But why does it have to be like that? Why do I have to get up at 4 in the morning and stay up until 9 at night fighting and working on the same thing that my equal does, but he can do it from 9 to 5?"

Also in the casket was a lawsuit Carter filed Friday against the federal government's Small Business Administration, alleging unfair treatment of Black-owned small businesses in rural and underserved areas that have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, but are struggling to access federal assistance.

In a solemn procession, Carter and his pallbearers marched the casket through the largely deserted streets of downtown Tulsa, escorted by police, past boarded-up shops and businesses and within a stone's throw of the BOK Center, where Donald Trump will be Saturday.

They moved right past a growing encampment of Trump supporters lined up for the president's rally, many since Monday. The encounter was without incident, thanks in part to the heavy two-metre steel barrier lining Tulsa's downtown roadways.

They stopped outside the Page Belcher Federal Building, where Carter went inside to file the lawsuit at 1:08 p.m., a time he chose to symbolize the eight minutes and 46 seconds it took for George Floyd to die under a police officer's knee in Minneapolis last month.

He chose to file it in Tulsa, he said, because he considers the way the federal government is treating Black-owned businesses in America to be no different than the economic disparities that gave rise to Black Wall Street in the first place, and ultimately fuelled its tragic demise.

"I hope that with all the attention that's been brought to the city, that some of those wrongs are really righted," he said.

"They should figure out how we duplicate what was built, and you start to right some of the wrongs. Everybody didn't hang someone, everybody didn't put on a sheet. You can't treat everybody like that."

For Lansana, who is also executive producer of a public radio program called "Focus: Black Oklahoma," Juneteenth serves as a reminder that Black history in the U.S. is inextricably bound to the actions of the white establishment and the systemic racism that has pervaded the system for more than 400 years.

He cites the words of Clara Luper, a noted civil rights leader in Oklahoma who died in 2018, who once described her role as making white people understand that "black history is white history. We cannot separate the two."

"There would have been no Tulsa race massacre if white folks hadn't blown it up. Our histories are intertwined," he said.

"There would not have been a Black Wall Street — or Greenwood district, which was for a time, the most thriving, economically independent Black community in the world — if it weren't for segregation, if it weren't for Jim Crow laws."

Trump's "Keep America Great" rally, in a state where he carried more than 65 per cent of the vote in 2016, was originally scheduled to take place Friday, but it was later rescheduled for Saturday — a controversy the president credited for making what he called an otherwise unknown holiday "very famous."

Lansana said he's bracing for clashes between Trump supporters and ongoing Black Lives Matter protests which are expected to take place nearby.

"There's not enough land mass to separate these two constituencies, and so there will be conflict. I hate to say it, but I'm pretty sure that's what's going to happen."

The Oklahoma Supreme Court on Friday rejected a request to require everyone attending the rally to wear a face mask and stay at least six feet apart from everyone else in the arena to guard against the spread of COVID-19.

And there was confusion about the city's nightly curfew near the venue: Trump tweeted that he'd spoken with the mayor and that the curfew — initially imposed amid fears of violence reminiscent of the riots and looting that scarred the early days of the Black Lives Matter protests — would be lifted.

Trump issued a warning Friday.

"Any protesters, anarchists, agitators, looters or lowlifes who are going to Oklahoma please understand, you will not be treated like you have been in New York, Seattle, or Minneapolis," he tweeted.

"It will be a much different scene!"

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 19, 2020.

— Follow James McCarten on Twitter @CdnPressStyle

James McCarten, The Canadian Press

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