TULSA, Okla. — On a recent Sunday, Ernestine Alpha Gibbs returned to Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Not her body. She had left this Earth 18 years ago, at age 100. But on this day, three generations of her family brought Ernestine’s keepsakes back to this place which meant so much to her. A place that was, like their matriarch, a survivor of a long-ago atrocity.
Albums containing black-and-white photos of the grocery business that has employed generations of Gibbses. VHS cassette tapes of Ernestine reflecting on her life. Ernestine’s high school and college diplomas, displayed in not-so-well-aged leather covers.
The diplomas were a point of pride. After her community was leveled by white rioters in 1921 — after the gunfire, the arson, the pillaging — the high school sophomore temporarily fled Tulsa with her family. “I thought I would never, ever, ever come back,” she said in a 1994 home video.
But she did, and somehow found a happy ending.
“Even though the riot…
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