Lessons to be learned from the oft-forgotten past
Aesop (620-564 B.C.) was a slave in ancient Greece who told amusing stories that contained a moral. In the fable of "The Fox and the Grapes", a fox is frustrated in his attempt to obtain some high hanging grapes, so to ease his bruised ego he declares the grapes were probably sour anyway. This pretty well sums up life. We can be happy because of what we receive or we can adjust our goals.
My friends Edna and Travis Finley awakened me to this method of handling fate when they attended the showing of a short film Peg and I entered in the Ben Johnson Film Festival held at the Constantine Theatre on June 11, 2011, in Pawhuska. Pawhuska is where Travis and I grew up. Edna grew up in Stillwater, but spent her summers in Pawhuska with her grandparents, the Cunninghams, who lived by Booker T. Washington school in the area we then called Colored Town.
The film gave an overview of a book I wrote about the 1878 murders of several Black men on the courthouse campus in Mt. Vernon, Posey County, Indiana. The lynchings were unfortunately quite real and were described via historical fiction. As a subtle tribute to Travis, I used his name, with his permission, for a character in the book.
When the Pawhuska Chamber of Commerce, the Osage County Historical Museum and the Constantine Center invited Peg and me to include our film in the festival, I called Edna and Travis and invited them to the showing. It was good to see them after the half-century that had transpired since we had grown up separately in the segregated society of the 1940s, 50s and 60s.
Peg and I met up with Edna and Travis out in front of the Constantine Theater that beautiful Saturday afternoon and got to reminisce briefly before the program was to begin. When we entered the Constantine, which had been called the Kihekah Theater when we were kids, we separated and Peg and I went up on the stage to introduce the film. I looked out in the crowd that was seated on the main floor of the old movie theater but did not see Edna and Travis. I had planned to ask Travis to stand so I could explain his part in the book.
I had to have the technician in the booth in the balcony start the film, so I left the stage and went to the balcony. There, sitting by themselves, were Edna and Travis. I went to them and asked why they were not on the main floor. They said, “We weren’t allowed to sit down there before so we just naturally came on up to the balcony for now.” Then they both said at once, “Besides, you can see better from up here.”
Edna, Travis and I remember integration of the Pawhuska schools in 1957 as a rather seamless experience. We could not recall even one instance of violence or upheaval. Travis made Oklahoma All-State in basketball in 1958 and went on to make junior college All-American in basketball at Pratt Junior College in Kansas.
Then, when he returned to Pawhuska several years later, he served on the Pawhuska City Council for several years while also serving as a Baptist Associate Minister. These facts might lead us down a halcyon path but, as Edna said to me last week, “A lot of it we try not to remember.” Or for people such as myself, who may have lived through the Jim Crow era blissfully unaware, it might be better if we do try to remember.