A couple of weeks ago, my family and I drove to Dallas. Being that we only live about 30 minutes away, we actually visit quite a bit. It seems that inevitably we will drive by Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. It truly is a beautiful school boasting famous alumni including Erykah Badu and Norah Jones. Every time we drive by I casually think about the fact that my great- grandmother attended this high school and graduated in 1924.
The kids were sleep in the car, and we had time to kill, so as we approached the area I decided that I wanted to go to the campus and get out to take pictures. So, I did just that.
I got out of the passenger seat and began snapping photos trying to get the camera angle just right. I expected to get a nice shot that I could post on Instagram with the perfect caption. What I didn’t expect was the overwhelming feeling of wonder and sadness and if I’m being honest, anger to fill me as I stood on the campus. You see, this beautiful performing arts high school was once the only high school in Dallas where black students were allowed. I gazed at the skyscrapers and the overall busyness of the downtown that surrounds the school. As I looked, I wondered what it must have been like for my great- grandmother, Ethel in 1924.
Isn’t it funny, or maybe not so much, that this country never wants you to forget unless remembering dares to uncover the truly hateful and monstrous things that have been done to people within its very borders? The phrase “never forget” never seems to apply to slavery. It never applies to the thousands of innocent black men, women, and children lynched because the hate so consumed another person that it turned to violence. It never applies to the inalienable rights that people of color once could not exercise.
So often people of color are told, either explicitly or implicitly, to forget. What this does to us is rob us of reconciliation. For hundreds of years, across generations we have been told to forget. It started with our African heritage, when Africans that were brought to America as slaves had to forget their culture, language, and heritage. This pattern has continued through today, when we’re told to forget what our ancestors went through as slaves, told to forget the loud and often violent racism in which most of us are only a generation or two removed.
On that campus in 2019 in Dallas, my mind traveled back to the 1920s. This was arguably the Ku Klux Klan’s most powerful period. It was a time where nearly a third of white men walking around in Dallas were members of the KKK. A time where the klan penetrated every level of authority. Police, judges, political figures, etc. A time where the KKK’s popularity was so mainstream that they had their own recognized day at the State Fair of Texas in Dallas on October 23, 1923. On this day the organization had its largest ever initiation ceremony inducting over 5,000 men and over 800 women into a community of hate. Ethel, my great- grandmother was a senior in high school at Booker T. Washington.
When I was a senior in high school my biggest fear was not passing my physics final. As I continued my brief walk on Booker T. Washington’s campus, I couldn’t help but reflect. I wonder what Ethel’s biggest fear was in 1923. What did she do on KKK day? Did she hide? Did she pray? Did she ask the Lord for protection from the rowdy and murderous antics that often surrounded events held by the KKK? Was her experience in Dallas the reason why she eventually started a new life in California? Unfortunately, I’ll never know. According to my mom, my great-grandmother very rarely talked about life in Texas. I think she was trying to forget.
It’s sad to think that the State Fair of Texas has not issued an apology of some sort, or even recognition after hosting such a large event inspired by hate and encouraged by violence. I do however know why. It’s because we’re told to forget. But, these things can’t be forgotten. They’re far too painful, and that pain is hereditary. As I stood on that campus I knew once and for all, I can’t forget and I won’t.