Russ Cobb is an associate professor in Latin American studies and creative writing at the University of Alberta. His nonfiction writing has won many national and regional awards. His journalism has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, Slate, and the Nation, and on NPR, and his latest book is The Great Oklahoma Swindle: Race, Religion, and Lies in America’s Weirdest State (March 2020).
Sins of the Father
A story made the rounds when I was in high school that Tulsa, Oklahoma, had displaced Peoria, Illinois, as the test-marketing capital of America. Peoria had been a metaphor for bland, whitebread America. Now it was Tulsa.When I told people where I was from, they usually looked at me with a blank stare. “It’s the test marketing capital of the country,” I would say. I would follow that up with another widespread truism. “Tulsa has more churches per capita than any other city.” Both of these statements are urban myths that belie a hidden reality.
About twenty years ago I was browsing the library stacks looking for a lazy summer read. I was living in Austin and working on my PhD in comparative literature. A book in black and red, with the title Death in a Promised Land, caught my eye. The cover said something about a “riot” in Tulsa. I was shocked to read that the neighborhood of Greenwood was once known as Black Wall Street, where opportunities attracted the brightest minds to Tulsa. And then, in little more than a day in the spring of 1921, it was completely destroyed by a white mob.
I read the entire book in a day. It seemed impossible that something so horrific could have happened on the quiet streets of Tulsa. It had never been mentioned in my Oklahoma History class. We had gone on architecture walking tours downtown. We went to the Historical Society and to Gilcrease. Nothing. I actually went back and found my old Oklahoma History textbook to see if the massacre was mentioned. Nothing.
I asked my mother if she knew what happened in Greenwood. Of course she did, she said. She went to Central High School in the early 1960s. The school was just starting to integrate and rumors of Tulsa’s past racial violence haunted the school. But as a poor white girl who had transferred to Central from Muskogee, she wanted to fit in. My mom, like almost everyone else I grew up with, wanted to believe that the past was a distant country, and the sins of the father were not those of the son.
For me, however, learning about the destruction of Greenwood changed my identity. Everything I thought I knew about Tulsa—its Peoria-style mediocrity and gentle conservatism—was coming undone. It was like learning your quiet old grandpa from the greatest generation was actually a war criminal. I started to question the very foundation of my identity as a white Oklahoman.
That foundation, like the modern edifice of this city, is inseparable from the oil boom of the early 20th century. Oil brought my great-grandfather—also called Russell Cobb—to Oklahoma in 1926 from New York City. These were Tulsa’s halcyon days, when magnificent art deco skyscrapers arose from the gentle hills. Cobb founded the Tulsa Tennis Club, joined the Petroleum Club. By 1940, he was Tulsa’s Chief of Police and Campaign Manager for the Republican Candidate for governor. But more importantly than all that: he was an oil man. He raised his son, Rusty Cobb, to be a part of the business. Together they struck out into wildcat country in western Creek County. For a time, the money came easy. In the 1950s, my grandfather landed his helicopter on the first hole of Southern Hills during a PGA golf tournament.
Another story had him fishing in his Cuban yacht with the hotelier Nicky Hilton. The pair had caught no fish. “Maybe they’ll bite this,” my grandfather said, throwing a handful of 100 dollar bills into the water. He paid tuxedoed waiters to walk over from the Tulsa Club to his office on 3rd and Boulder with a trayful of top-shelf vodka and tonics.
Then, something happened. In the early 1960s, the elder Cobb checked himself into the swanky Hotel Tulsa and shot himself in the bathtub. My grandfather, his only son, was struck with grief. He spent the entire fortune in a haze of booze and decadence. I never met him: he died without a cent to his name in the VA hospital in Muskogee. Some have said that the men in my family are cursed.
I have no interest in the supernatural, but I do have an interest in the hidden ways oil has shaped not only my family, but also the social formation of modern Oklahoma. Oil is the throughline between multiple tragedies I explore in The Great Oklahoma Swindle. Oil has made Oklahomans like Harold Hamm and George Kaiser into some of the richest people in the nation. And yet, Oklahoma by 2018, the state had sunk to near the bottom in education funding and teaching pay, while drillers received tax breaks. Workers at the convenience store QuikTrip made more than university-certified teachers in the state’s public schools. All of this in a state that with a hidden history of socialist rebellion, African-American entrepreneurship, and Native American resilience. It’s hard to sum up all the contradictions of what makes the place America’s weirdest state but teasing out those stories is at the heart of The Great Oklahoma Swindle.