As President Donald Trump travels to Tulsa to whip up his white followers’ racism—while putting them in danger by packing 19,000 people into the indoor BOK Center on Saturday in the midst of a spike of local coronavirus cases—there’s another part of the city that he won’t get to see.
Within walking distance from the downtown arena is the Woody Guthrie Center, a museum and archives devoted to the troubadour’s life and legacy. Ironically, Trump is part of that legacy.
Guthrie, best known for composing “This Land is Your Land,” was born in 1912 in Okemah, 64 miles from Tulsa. In 2001, the Oklahoma Legislature declared Guthrie’s “Oklahoma Hills” the state’s official folk song. According to Joe Klein’s 1980 biography, Woody Guthrie, the singer’s father Charles participated in a 1911 lynch mob and was a Ku Klux Klan member.
Tulsa’s Klan members participated in the May 1921 massacre that destroyed Tulsa’s Greenwood District, a flourishing Black business and residential area known as "Black Wall Street," killing between 150 and 300 people, injuring 800, and leaving at least 10,000 black Tulsans homeless.
The Guthrie Center, opened in 2013, sits on the edge of the Greenwood district, now in the midst of a decade-long effort to raise awareness about the massacre and restore the area as a haven for Black-owned businesses and homeowners.
In his 2011 biography, Woody Guthrie: American Radical, Will Kaufman traced how Guthrie’s views evolved from embracing old-fashioned racist stereotypes to becoming a crusader for racial and economic justice. Several of his songs, including “The Ferguson Brothers Killing” and “Buoy Bells From Trenton,” condemned racism by police and the criminal justice system. Another song, “Mister Charlie Lindbergh,” excoriated two right-wing demagogues—aviator Lindbergh and radio priest Father Charles Coughlin—who led the isolationist and anti-Semitic “America First” movement in the 1940s. (“America First” was a central theme of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign).
Like Guthrie’s dad, Trump’s father, Fred, was a racist. After World War II, Trump used federal financing to construct massive apartment projects in New York's outer boroughs and barred Black families from renting the units.
From 1950 to 1952, Guthrie rented an apartment in Trump’s Beach Haven complex near Coney Island in Brooklyn with his wife and children. He soon realized that there were no Black tenants in the building and wrote two songs, “Beach Haven Ain’t My Home” and “Beach Haven Race Hate,” about Trump’s racism. Kaufman discovered the songs—which Guthrie never recorded—in Tulsa’s Guthrie Center archives in 2015.
One verse goes:
I suppose Old Man Trump
knows just how much racial hate he stirred up
In the bloodpot of human hearts when he drawed
That color line here at his eighteen hundred family project
The elder Trump was corrupt as well as racist. In 1954, at hearings conducted by the Senate Banking Committee, he admitted to profiteering by wildly overstating the development costs of his projects, including Beach Haven, to obtain more government financing. (After he took over the company, Donald Trump set up a phony business to obtain tax breaks by inflating the buildings’ expenses).
Guthrie’s songs about Fred Trump proved prescient. During the 1960s and 1970s, the New York City Commission on Human Rights documented the Trumps’ routine practice of turning away potential Black tenants. A New York state investigation discovered that in 1967, only seven Black families lived in the 3,700-unit Trump Village complex in Brooklyn.
In 1973, the U.S. Justice Department sued Trump Management for discriminating against Blacks, naming both Fred Trump (the company's chairman) and Donald Trump (its president), as defendants. Donald claimed that the government was trying to force him to rent to “welfare recipients.” Donald hired well-connected attorney Roy Cohn to defend him.
Two years later, the Trumps reluctantly signed a consent decree requiring them to desegregate their buildings, but without admitting guilt. Then, in 1978, the DOJ accused the Trumps of violating the consent decree.
The lessons Donald Trump learned from his father and Roy Cohn remained with him as he expanded his business into luxury condos, office buildings, resorts, casinos, golf courses, hotels, a TV reality show, and politics: Lie, cheat, steal, never admit a mistake, put profit over people, and use racism to make a buck, sow division, and gain power.
Trump’s visit to Tulsa puts all these traits on display.
Soon after Trump announced that he was coming to Tulsa on Friday, June 19 for his first campaign rally since the COVID-19 outbreak, black Tulsans and others, including Sen. Kamala Harris, lambasted him for scheduling the event on Juneteenth—a “second independence day” for African-Americans. Trump capitulated, delaying the event by one day. He was also criticized for bringing his rally to a city with a harsh history of racism including several recent controversial incidents of racial profiling and racist comments by Tulsa police.
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, urged Trump to visit the Greenwood District during his visit to Tulsa. But local black residents said that Trump wouldn’t be welcome in that historic neighborhood.
“I wouldn’t want to pose with him for a photo op,” said Cleo Harris, a Tulsa native who owns Black Wall Street T-Shirts and Souvenirs in the Greenwood area. “Coming to Tulsa during Juneteenth weekend and holding a rally is a slap in the face to Black Americans. That’s the mindset of white supremacy.”
“I hope he just goes to the rally and then leaves,” said Tulsa native Tykebrean Cheshier, a college student and Black Lives Matter activist who is organizing a counter “Rally Against Hate” on Saturday at Veterans Park, one-and-a-half miles from the BOK Center.
Trump claimed that he selected Tulsa because of Stitt’s success in containing the virus. Vice President Mike Pence, said Oklahoma had “flattened the curve.”
In fact, since Stitt re-opened the entire state to business on June 1, Oklahoma, and Tulsa, have seen a dramatic spike in new virus cases.
Dr. Bruce Dart, the executive director of the Tulsa County Health Department, urged city officials to shut down the event. “Regardless who is hosting this rally, we would recommend you not attend large events,” Dart said. “If you want to stay safe, don’t go.”
Even the conservative daily newspaper the Tulsa World published an editorial on Tuesday saying: “We don’t know why he chose Tulsa, but we can’t see any way that his visit will be good for the city.”
The Woody Guthrie Center—located on Reconciliation Way—won’t be open this weekend, but executive director Deana McCloud said she’d welcome Republican activists to visit the center, where the original lyrics to Guthrie’s songs about Fred Trump are on display, when it reopens.
“The historical connection of these two families is really intriguing,” McCloud noted. “While we don’t deny Woody’s racist upbringing, we appreciate the way he evolved to become an empathetic, justice-loving person who spoke up against racism. It’s interesting to see the very different paths Donald Trump and Woody took.”
Peter Dreier is professor of politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College.