Black History Month: Living a life of legacy and resilience
In the five decades that followed the end of the Civil War in 1865, which state had the most townships founded by Black Americans?
The answer — Oklahoma — might surprise you.
But for Sam Pegues, currently a water distribution manager who has worked at Denver Water for 37 years in a variety of roles, that fact isn’t a simple statistic; it’s part of his family history.
After the Civil War, many Black people moved to Oklahoma and built thriving towns and neighborhoods through cooperation and collaboration.
Pegues’ grandfathers moved to Oklahoma for reasons related to racial prejudice.
His maternal grandfather, a farmer, wanted to own land and escape Jim Crow laws in the South. His paternal grandfather moved to Tulsa to help people rebuild their lives after a traumatic event.
In Tulsa, the predominantly Black neighborhood of Greenwood was one of the most successful of these new townships. Some of Pegues’ family settled in Greenwood. Others previously established a farm about 80 miles west of Tulsa in Langston, Oklahoma.
“Greenwood was founded by a wealthy Black landowner as a safe place for Blacks to live. Even though Oklahoma welcomed Blacks, there were still a lot of white business owners who wouldn’t work with the Blacks,” Pegues said.
“In Greenwood, they built their own bank, shops, theater and schools. It was an incredibly successful district.”
Many Greenwood residents became wealthy, and it eventually became known as the “Black Wall Street.”
But not everyone in Tulsa was supportive of their success.
Pegues’ family was impacted by one of the worst incidents of racial violence to happen in the United States. It’s known by several names, including the Tulsa Race Riot, the Tulsa Race Massacre and the Black Wall Street Massacre.
On May 31, 1921, a false sexual assault accusation from a white woman in Tulsa against a Black man set off a disastrous sequence of events in Greenwood.
“A mob of white men started destroying homes and businesses, and burned almost all the buildings down,” Pegues said. “Black people were murdered in the streets.”
Experts believe between 100 and 300 people were killed. Most of the Black people who lived in Greenwood lost everything.
Because the event was initially classified as a riot, most insurance claims for property damage were denied. Pegues said that no government funds were given to help with rebuilding, so the neighborhood was rebuilt by private citizens and volunteers.
“One of those volunteers was my grandfather,” Pegues said. “His family came from South Carolina and Arkansas to help people in Greenwood rebuild their lives.”
Pegues’ family is still involved with Greenwood.
His uncle, Julius Pegues, born 14 years after the massacre, is well known in Tulsa for his mentorship and support throughout the Black community, and his work to place memorials and monuments recognizing Tulsa’s Black history.
“We know these stories and where they came from,” Pegues said. “We have to make sure they live on.”
Inspired by family members’ commitment to community and to service, like his parents and his Uncle Julius, Pegues also wants to help people remember stories about important people and places in Black history.
Pegues is particularly passionate about the history surrounding the Buffalo Soldiers, three cavalry regiments formed by Congress after the Civil War made up entirely of Black soldiers.
Given their name by Native Americans, the Buffalo Soldiers were instrumental in the westward expansion of the United States, while facing prejudice, inadequate shelter and hostile environments. They built forts and railroads, delivered mail, guarded stagecoaches and engaged in combat.
They also were some of the first caretakers in our National Parks.
“Most Black people haven’t even heard of the Buffalo Soldiers, and this is our history,” Pegues said. “You have to know your history. Know where you came from, and the contributions of people before you, so you can remember that and learn from it.”
In 1999, Pegues and friends created the Buffalo Soldier Motorcycle Club as a historical organization devoted to preserving the soldiers’ legacy. As part of the club’s commitment to community, members help three schools raise money for school supplies, winter clothing and food drives.
During his travels with the motorcycle club, Pegues makes a point to learn about and visit museums and historical sites important to Black history.
“With the Tulsa massacre, somebody was looking to put someone in their place, and started something that was senseless,” Pegues said. “But in my travels around the country, I’ve heard these stories against Black people over and over again.”
Pegues said he’s heard about the injustice done to Black landowners who had productive and fertile farmlands condemned under the auspices of being in “unsafe” floodplains, then sold for development.
He’s learned about a historical Black cemetery destroyed during the construction of a new highway, although the road was relocated around nearby white and Jewish cemeteries.
“I’ve heard these stories even in places like New York City, where we typically think slavery was condemned. Yet a massive slave cemetery, the African Burial Ground, was found in the middle of Manhattan,” Pegues said.
“So much of it comes back to racism and greed. A lot of people have gotten rich off the backs of Black people over the centuries.
“You hear about these injustices, historically and today, and it feels like an endless cycle of oppression against Blacks. You feel like the system was made for you to lose, and you can’t win,” he said.
When talking about events that happened almost a century ago, Pegues said it’s impossible not to draw similarities between racist events that happened in the past and racist events happening now.
Just as the stories of the Black Wall Street in Tulsa keep those memories alive, Pegues said it’s important to talk about what Black people have gone through, what they’ve done and what’s been done to them.
“It’s tough, but you’ve got to talk and to listen and to learn so you can go forward,” Pegues said.
Pegues mentors young Black people, telling them to chase knowledge — not money. It’s advice he’s also given his two daughters.
“When you work to understand how things work, the why’s and the what’s, the science behind your work, you’ll learn something and get better at what you’re doing, which means the money will be there,” Pegues said.
“You’ve got to learn something. Not learning is not an option. You want to make money for what you know.”
Pegues said that during his career, he learned that as a Black man, he felt he had to work twice as hard — and do the job better — to show what he could do.
“There was a lot of fierce competition, and yeah, I got passed over sometimes,” Pegues said. “But my attitude was that I’d work circles around other people, and I’ll still work circles around other people today. I didn’t make it just a job, I made it my career because I liked the work.”
Pegues’ work ethic is something that he learned early in his life, spending summers at his grandfather’s farm in Langston, Oklahoma. On about 800 acres, where crops and livestock had to be cared for daily, there was always work for him and his three siblings to do.
“When I was a kid, we’d spend every summer on my grandfather’s farm. We had this 10-acre watermelon patch, and we’d sell these big watermelons by the truckload,” Pegues said.
“It was hard work, but it was fun. And it was a great lesson in money management. You didn’t get something if you didn’t work for it.”
Pegues also saw the value of cooperation to achieve success.
When his grandfather started the farm, agriculture in Oklahoma wasn’t diverse, so Pegues said Black farmers had to be resourceful and astute to what was going on.
“My grandfather worked with four of five different Black farmers, and they all had to organize to use what they had so everybody got things done,” Pegues said.
“One farmer might have a tractor, and another farmer might have a baler, but that tractor or baler went to everybody’s farm. It was challenging, but they always made sure everyone’s land was tilled, planted or harvested by working together.”
Pegues’ said his grandparents’ and parents’ lives showed him the value of hard work, a tradition he continues to carry on. Every year, Pegues returns to the family farm in Langston to help with projects and reconnect with his cousins.
When Pegues started at Denver Water, he was a laborer, eventually being promoted to a working foreman. He’s done a lot of different jobs working his way up and is now a manager in the maintenance department.
“I’ve definitely learned to give and take over the years,” Pegues said.
“I always tell the younger people on our teams that it’s important to realize there’s more than one way to get the job done. You have to listen and learn as you go along before you jump in and try to do something new.”
Pegues said he, like every other Black man he knows, has experienced discrimination and harassment firsthand. But he believes that ultimately, education, resilience, conversation and persistence will bring change.
“Black History Month helps educate people, but I think it’s important to remember we’re living Black history every day, all the time. There are still people who don’t want Black people to get ahead. We still have racist laws on the books in our nation,” he said.
“But Black people are resilient, and we survive because we’ve been through it. I know it’s exhausting and people get worn down, but you’ve got to have faith in something.
“You’ve just got to keep moving ahead.”