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Gates joins UND pillars of civil rights

Eddie Faye Gates, renowned historian of 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, died Dec. 9; deserves to be recognized among UND’s great alums

UND alumna Eddie Faye (Petit) Gates (1934-2021)

Eddie Faye (Petit) Gates had seen the world – the good and the absolute worst of it – by the time she first stepped foot on the University of North Dakota campus in the fall of 1967.

She was 33 at the time, married 13 years to Norman, her husband, an Air Force officer. They met as students at the famed Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and wed soon after.

Bringing with her a ton of transfer credits, Gates would only spend one academic year at UND. But that one year was arguably one of the more socially and politically volatile in American history – even on a northern small-town campus. The events of that year, and her life prior, as the granddaughter of slaves and daughter of Oklahoma sharecroppers in Jim Crow America, would set in motion a career dedicated to fighting injustice and inspiring next generations to do better.

Like many places in American in the late 60’s, UND was a focal point of regional activism, roiled by the deepening conflict in Vietnam and human rights criticisms of U.S. military actions. The Civil Rights movement and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s push for social change also were huge parts of campus discourse.

Gates would graduate from UND, with honors and a bachelor’s degree in education, on June 2, 1968 – only two months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., in Memphis.

It’s against this backdrop that Gates would begin to make her mark in Tulsa, Okla., where she would spend 22 years in the classroom, much of it as a history teacher. But it’s her work as a historian, Holocaust consultant, author and staunch advocate for reparations to survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre (May 31-June 1, 1921) that has become her greatest legacy.

For this work, Gates deserves to be included among the growing pantheon of UND alumni considered national pillars of the American Civil Rights Movement. For Black History Month, which kicked off this week, UND celebrates Gates and three other UND pillars for change: Era Bell Thompson, Fritz Pollard, Jr. and Judge Ronald Davies — all contemporaries of MLK who didn’t sit idly during tumultuous times in America.

Era Bell Thompson, Fritz Pollard, Jr. and Ronald Davies
Era Bell Thompson, Fritz Pollard, Jr. and Ronald Davies

Pillars for change

Thompson (1905-1986), as editor of Ebony magazine for four decades, shone a steady light of understanding on how to achieve harmonious racial and gender relations. She attended UND from 1925-1927.

Thompson, on several occasions, conducted interviews with MLK to document his nonviolent crusade of civil disobedience for the sake of change.

Davies (1904-1996), as a federal judge, was the man who ordered the desegregation of the previously all-white Little Rock (Ark.) Central High, opening up new frontiers for African Americans and setting the table for President John F. Kennedy’s landmark civil rights legislation shortly thereafter.

Davies, a native of Crookston, Minn., and 1927 UND grad, famously faced down Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, who opposed the federal desegregation order, and called out his state’s National Guard to prevent nine African-American students from going to school on Sept. 4, 1957. Davies stood firm with his order and the “Little Rock 9,” as they became known, eventually were able to attended classes in Little Rock. The incident brought international focus on America’s desegregation effort.

And then there was Fritz Pollard, Jr. (1915-2003), a star UND football and track athlete, who nearly three decades before MLK’s marches on Selma and Washington, D.C., helped serve up a wake-up call on the athletic field that racial dominance was a myth. Though never truly setting out to be a Civil Rights example nor hero, Pollard was thrust into the role on the world stage as a member of the U.S. Track and Field Team at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany.

At the time, Nazi dictator Adolph Hitler had amassed an army of Germany athletes – men and women – that optimized his “Aryan” vision of pure white racial superiority. One problem, at least for Hitler: a handful of young black American athletes, including Pollard and Jesse Owens, were destined to alter the dictator’s grand plan with an athletic display that, in the words of ESPN writer Larry Schwartz, “singlehandedly crushed the myth of Aryan supremacy.”

Life of renown

Gates, who passed away on Dec. 9, 2021 at the age of 87, deserves to be recognized among these great UND alumni.

Upon graduation from UND, Eddie Faye and Norman, returned to her native Oklahoma. Norman had just left the Air Force. The family settled in Tulsa, and Eddie Faye began teaching history at Edison High School as one of the school’s first Black teachers who shared historical insights her students had never heard before. She would become the Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator for the Tulsa Public School District, and was instrumental in implementing a multicultural curriculum in Tulsa schools.

After more than two decades with Tulsa Public Schools, Gates retired in 1992, but continued her research on Black history — particularly as it pertained to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre – considered the darkest day in the city’s history.

Gates eventually became the chair of the survivors committee of the “1921 Tulsa Race Riot Commission,” and is best known for her role in recording the narratives of more than 200 survivors who lived through massacre and documenting second-hand accounts from more than 300 of their descendants. She also was among the most forceful advocates for including survivors’ and descendants’ perspectives in the commission’s final report to the Oklahoma governor, as well as reparations for the survivors.

In June of 2021, exactly 100 years after the massacre and mere months before Gates’ death, the Tulsa City Council finally apologized for not protecting the city’s Black residents from a mob that looted and burned Tulsa’s Greenwood District in late May and early June of 1921. The City Council also officially acknowledged that neither the city’s fire department nor its police department came to the aid of citizens in the district.

Gates has been recognized by the Smithsonian National Museum, Tulsa’s Gilcrease Museum and several other museums and organizations for her efforts to document the stories of survivors and descendants of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

She also published several books, including 1997’s They Came Searching: How Blacks Sought the Promised Land in Tulsa, which preserved recollections of many in the Black community of Tulsa.

Gates and her legacy are perfect examples of dedication, focus and perseverance of so many in our nation who fought for equality and justice.

UND events in honor of Black History Month are sponsored by the Office of Student Diversity & Inclusion and UND Student Life. They are free and open to the public, except for the UND Dining theme meal. Here’s a run of events taking place this month:

Black HERstory Month Forum, 6 p.m. Thursday (tonight), Feb. 3, 201 Memorial Union

The celebration begins with a Black HERstory Month Forum, 6 p.m. Thursday (TONIGHT), Feb. 3, in 201 Memorial Union. Conversations will center on Black feminism, culture, identity and celebration. It’s an opportunity to connect with other students, learn about Black history, find community and celebrate identity.

QTPOC Voices, 5 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 10, in the Pride Center, 204 Memorial Union

QTPOC (Queer & Trans People of Color) Voices is a space to provide community, support, and advocacy for students of color who identify as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community. This is an opportunity to talk about shared experiences, ask questions, get access to support resources, and more.

Soul Food Dinner, 5-7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 15, 201 Memorial Union

Student Diversity & Inclusion and Student Athlete Support Services will sponsor and celebrate Black HERstory Month with a soul food dinner. Play some trivia!

Black History Month Dining Theme Meal, 4:30 – 8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 17, Wilkerson Dining Center