Representative Monroe Nichols
There has never been a more crucial time to remember that black history is American history.
For me, Black History Month has always been a time of reflection that brings out my pride as a black man and deepens my resolve as an American and an Oklahoman.
Since we are a country, the question of race has been linked to our politics. Often what is lost in contemporary political debates is the true story of Black Americans and why the journey we’ve come is the greatest American story ever told – why it should always be told.
For me, American greatness is not so much in who we have been or even who we are, both of which provide important context for our history, but American greatness has always been best captured in who we strive for and continue to fight to be.
We are a people who work to push this heavy rock up a steep hill of progress, and this rock has always been the heaviest for black Americans to move.
Oklahoma is at the heart of the black experience. In the words of EP McCade, “What will you be if you stay in the South?” Slaves liable to be killed at any time and never treated properly. But if you come to Oklahoma, you have equal opportunity with the white, free, independent man,” like so many black people fleeing racism from the American South, who came to Oklahoma. Oklahoma was the promised land.
A debate about creating a black state in Oklahoma has already reached the halls of Congress and the White House. Oklahoma of course did not become a black state, and directly after the state was created, Jim Crow laws were passed to prevent black prosperity in Oklahoma.
Black people, surely discouraged but not defeated, built cities across Oklahoma and, in my hometown, built the largest black wealth district in American history – the Greenwood District in Tulsa. However, in 1921 Greenwood was burned down in an act of unspeakable racial violence and killed over 300 Oklahomans.
Like the history of Greenwood and Black Towns across the state, Black Oklahomans have always been at the forefront of the fight for equal rights. Before Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), there was the Ida Louis Sipuel Fisher fight in Sipuel v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma (1948) and the George W. McLaurin fight in McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents (1950).
Prior to the Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins, which are widely credited with starting the sit-in movement across America in 1960, Clara Luper of Oklahoma led a group of college students to s’ sit down at Oklahoma City’s Katz Pharmacy in 1958 to defy the very same laws that were crafted at the time of the state’s creation.
Black Americans have always fought for the soul of America, and black people in Oklahoman have been at the heart of that fight. It is impossible to truly love America and not be proud, whatever your race, of the contributions to black Americans.
The movement for equal rights is what sets America apart from any other country in the world. Oklahomans should have special pride.
We are all part of a common heritage, a dream captured in the words of Langston Hughes:
O, let America be America again –
The land that never was yet—
And yet there must be – the land where every man is free.
The land that belongs to me – that of the poor, of the Indian, of the nigger, of me –
Who made America
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Black History Month is perhaps the greatest reminder that the dream of what our country can be is still a dream worth fighting for. Our story is not a source of blame but a collective call for America to be what we always promised it would be. Happy Black History Month, Oklahoma!
Nichols represents House District 75 and is the Vice Chairman of the Oklahoma House Legislative Black Caucus.