Mounce: Cherokee Strip, Memories and Mea Culpa 

A guest column from writer and educator Gary Joe Mounce about his home state of Oklahoma.

Personal recollections meet up in strange ways with historical facts. My sister and I are grandchildren of two pioneers who made the 1893 Cherokee Strip “Land Run.” The next wagon was driven by Jesus Villaseñor, Mexican friend of my Grandfather. No! Wait! That last sentence is a lie! No Mexican or Mexican American made the race, to my knowledge. 

Neither did Native Americans, whose land this had been. Nor did any more than 42 African Americans, among the over 160,000 participants. I didn’t want to bury the lead! This is my white mea culpa—appreciating the hard work of my grandparents, certainly, but acknowledging the illegitimate actions that allowed for the race itself. Yet, unaware of the context, Samuel Huston Mounce and Daisy Kirkendall Mounce established a claim in northern Oklahoma.

My grandparents were originally from northern Kentucky and Unionists; the vast majority of those who made the race were from deeper in the South, many, Confederates. They proved up on their 160 acres, south of Ponca City. After fighting and winning (legally) over Sooners who contested him for the claim, Granddad proceeded to build his two story house and barn, and helped build a little white church nearby. They both worshiped there, with my family, for their long lives (Granddad lived to be 100.) The Disciples of Christ, then and now, taught Christian, anti-racist values. 

Dr. Gary Joe Mounce

My Dad went on to study Agriculture (as did I, in Political Science, much later) at Oklahoma A&M, established by the Morrill Acts. Those educational grants were facilitated after lands were seized from Native Americans. My father profited from that institution, as did I. I had been born, on Christmas morn, in Depression year 1937, in nearby Arkansas City, Kansas, so special as a staging area for the great land race.

I was so smitten with Oklahoma, proud of my roots, I always claimed Oklahoma birth. More recently, however, with age, wisdom, and more facts, I have acquired reason to ponder a darker side of that history—my white privilege—which can also be a “psychological burden” (Vanessa Adams-Harris, Director of Outreach, John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation, Tulsa, Oklahoma). Only now do I more fully understand—comparing my own family and countless other white families—my “privilege” with the deprivations of others, namely Native Americans, Black Americans and Mexican Americans.

I feel that, in truth and good conscience, we should all re-consider our heritage in light of the analysis of basic historical facts. Racism and discrimination, seemingly endemic to the human race, were brought to America first from Europe, with its own brand of colonialism and colorism. Slavery continued, overwhelming society in pre-and post-Civil War Days. It is our fault if we (whites) ignore that history and do not plan to re-examine our own benefits, change attitudes, and help re-design policies to alleviate current conditions of those not as lucky as we were. I speak, in my case, of the favors of (relatively) “free” land, already forcibly seized by the government from Native Americans and the new opportunity granted to our (mainly white) ancestors.

John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, Tulsa, Oklahoma. (Photo credit: Tulsa Tourism Board)

From a traditional Native American perspective, one cannot “own” land, but may live on the land granted by the Great Manitou, by God or Nature. Native American “regenerative relationships to land were based on generations of deep interconnections through cosmologies, ceremonies, and languages” (Christopher Klein, A&E Network, 22 Apr 19). Native Americans were excluded from the “land race.” The “Run” was only possible after land was already split. To repeat, for emphasis, the vast majority of participants were white, many former Confederates, who had lost the treasonous war to maintain slavery. Oklahoma became, in effect, a “baby Confederate state” (Vanessa Adams-Harris).

If there be any out there who have specific knowledge of Native Americans who were themselves in the “race,” (ironic as that may seem), I would love to know. But, to date, according to my best searches, I have found no valid evidence. Certainly, what we know is that the “land rush hastened the demise of Indian territory. Subsequent land runs eventually removed most of the land from Native American control” (Klein).

Then, worse: in the 1920s, came incredibly evil white men, who married women of the Osage tribe, conniving to murder them for their oil rights! Read of it in the bestseller, Killers of the Flower Moon, by David Grann, or see the major film, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” adapted by Martin Scorsese, starring Lily Gladstone, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Robert De Niro. My sister and I were never told that sordid story; neither were the Native American students with whom we studied.

“Smoke billowing over Tulsa, Oklahoma during 1921 race riots,” now commonly referred to as the Black Wall Street massacre. (Photo credit: Library of Congress).

A few years ago we visited the Osage Museum in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. The gracious lady in charge, a member of the tribe, admitted that her parents never told her family that story either; they didn’t want them growing up, hating white people. We commiserated, best we could, astounded by the sheer mendacity of the criminals and the complicity of other white folks and corrupt law officials in Osage County. Then came the movie. We are glad that history, startling as it was, is finally being given its day.

And how about Black Americans, during and after the Land Rush? How did they fare? Not so well; few were included (Fluid Frontier: Minority Ethnic Groups in Oklahoma, Oklahoma Historical Society). Meanwhile, African Americans who settled in Oklahoma had established “more than 50 identifiable all-Black towns,” such as Tullahassee, Langston, Clearview, and Redbird. However, “many of the towns eventually dissipated, as Jim Crow laws, sweeping through the south, were also passed in Oklahoma” (Historical Society). Again, a stain on the honor of our state. (Little wonder Oklahoma is still one of the “reddest” states in the Union.)

My sister’s and my own education included Newkirk High School. We were spared some of the more racist aspects of Oklahoma life. We integrated in 1952, even before Brown vs Board of Education. We heard about dire circumstances for African Americans down in “little Dixie,” southeastern Oklahoma, near the Texas/Arkansas borders. But, in our experience, Black students were on the Student Council, a good Black friend was co-captain of our football team. Later, he and I both worked for Santa Fe Railroad; I, however, my white privilege enduring, was a Fireman, while Harold Love was a Brakeman.

Later, came worse events. (There should be a movie, there MUST be a movie made of this forgotten story.) The story—not told to us by our parents, if they knew of it—was of the rampant, violent white racism in Tulsa, Oklahoma. My sister and I visited Tulsa a few years after our Pawhuska trip. We were humbled by the reception we received as we toured John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, memorializing the massacre. We were welcomed by those who cared for the Park but appalled by the history of the massacre which wiped out the famous “Black Wall Street” and surrounding residents.

White racists, jealous of the Black community’s economic progress and relative independence, invaded the Greenwood District, beginning May 31, 1921. Lasting for two days, there was no so-called “race riot”, certainly not by Blacks, rather, white homicide on a mass scale, including bombing from airplanes, setting the Black neighborhood afire. The first to apologize, 70 years later, was Mayor Susan Savage, in the early 1990s. Only in 2020, did the city begin to “own-up” to its hidden past (“Tulsa World”).

When I learned of the massacre, I decided, as homage, as penance, I must visit Tulsa. My sister, who was with me in Pawhuska, made the trip. We were enraged by the actions of whites of that era, but in awe of the tranquil, well-kept Park, dedicated in memoriam to the over 300 African Americans murdered. We also admire and applaud the firm but non-racist policies and accomplishments of their descendants who have kept up the pressure for greater accountability.

The principle reason for this mea culpa is to share with my former students and with the Rio Grande Valley my own experiences and feelings; they inter-connect with my feelings for the largely Hispanic community here, among whom I have lived and taught for the last 50 years. (Note: my spouse is from Mexico and my children, Mexican American). In no way do I insist others must feel the shame and guilt I feel. I wanted to express my understanding of the difficulties so many descendants of ethnic groups robbed by my white ancestors have experienced. 

In my case, specifically, I am realizing more fully each day the benefits my own ancestors in the “great race” in the Cherokee Strip received, often at the expense of other American citizens. My belief is stronger than ever that the Native Americans and African Americans—and Mexican Americans–who did not share in the privilege that was provided to my forebears or, even, at times, who were killed for trying to do so, deserve our respect and consideration.                     

Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by UT-Rio Grande Valley Professor Emeritus Dr. Gary Joe Mounce. The column appears in The Rio Grande Guardian International News Service with the permission of the author. Dr. Mounce can be reached by email via:

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