Ross, Don 1941–
Don Ross 1941–
Oklahoma State Representative
Don Ross, former civil rights activist and journalist, was first elected to the Oklahoma State Legislature in 1982. During his 18-year career as a legislator, Ross has focused primarily on education, the arts, labor relations, economic development, and affirmative action. Ross has brought more than $79 million to north Tulsa—the city’s predominantly African American area—including funding for health care, and programs for children and senior citizens. He has been named “legislator of the year” 13 times by organizations ranging from the NAACP and the Native American Chamber of Commerce to the Mental Health Association and Americans for Civil Liberties.
Outside of his home state, Ross is best known for his efforts to uncover the truth about the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, thought to be one of the most violent race riots in American history. For more than fifty years, the riot was hushed up; several books on Tulsa history omitted it altogether. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ross was one of the first journalists to write about the Tulsa riot, even as both blacks and whites criticized him for opening old wounds. Later, as a state legislator, Ross drafted a bill creating the Tulsa Riot Commission, a team that would be charged with discovering what had really happened in 1921.
Don Ross, the son of Israel Ross and Pearline Vann (Evette) Ross, was born on March 11, 1941 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. After graduating from Tulsa’s Booker T Washington High School in 1959, he joined the Air Force for four years. In 1963, he returned to Tulsa, where he found a job in a bakery. “I was the first black union baker in the state of Oklahoma,” Ross said in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography.
During the early 1960s, Ross became involved in the city’s fledgling civil rights movement. “I had activist friends who recruited me,” Ross told CBB. “We demonstrated. We picketed segregated restaurants and parks, and employers who wouldn’t hire African Americans.” Although Ross was arrested several times, he told CBB that the civil rights struggle in Tulsa was mainly non-violent. In addition to his work in Tulsa, Ross was active in the Mississippi Freedom Movement, and attended the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Also in 1963, Ross began to explore the possibilities of a career in journalism. “I got into it by accident,” Ross told CBB. “One of the editors of the local black paper [the Oklahoma Eagle] had a deadline, and he asked me to get the who, what, where, when, and why.”
Soon afterward, Ross was offered the chance to write a weekly column for the Eagle. “It was a column of my observations about social issues and urban issues. Sometimes it was satirical,” Ross told CBB. “I’ve written a weekly column since 1963.” Originally titled “From the Ghetto,” Ross’s column was later renamed “City Life,” and then “Urban Shades,” its current name. While the column’s name has changed, “it still
At a Glance…
Born Don R. Ross on March 11, 1941, in Tulsa, Oklahoma; son of Israel Ross and Pearline Vann (Evette) Ross. Children: james Kavin, Edward Alonzo, Reginald Andrew, Ronald Charles, and Donna Annette. Education: Central State University (now University of Central Oklahoma), B.S., M.S. Studied at University of Tulsa College of Law, Rutgers University, Columbia University. Military Service: United States Air Force. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Methodist.
Career: Labor affairs director, Tulsa Urban League, 1967-72; assistant managing editor, Gary Post Tribune, 1972-77; vice president and general manager, The Oklahoma Eagle, 1977-78; president, Ebony Partners; member, Oklahoma House of Representatives, 1983-.
Awards: Outstanding Service, National Urban League; Outstanding Staff Member, Tulsa Urban League; Distinguished Merit Citation, National Conference of Christians and Jews; Meritorious Journalism, Associated Press; named Legislator of the Year 13 times.
Member: NAACP, Tulsa Urban League, Tulsa Club, Greenwood Chamber of Commerce.
Addresses: Home —Tulsa, OK. Office —Representative Don Ross, 2300 N. Lincoln Blvd, Room 404, Oklahoma City, OK 73105.
has the same texture,” Ross told CBB.
In the mid-1960s, Ross enrolled at the University of Central Oklahoma (formerly Central State University), where he majored in journalism; however, he did not complete his degree until 1986. In 1989, he earned a master’s degree in political science from the University of Central Oklahoma. He has also attended the University of Tulsa College of Law, and studied labor relations at Rutgers University and Columbia University.
In 1967, Ross became labor affairs director at the Tulsa Urban League, a position he held until 1972. Meanwhile, he continued to write for the Oklahoma Eagle. In 1968, he wrote three columns about the history of the Tulsa Race Riot. “This was the first time that the story had hit the public,” Ross told CBB.
During the early 1970s, Ross helped to establish a regional magazine called Impact. “It was modeled after Ebony magazine,” Ross told CBB. “It focused on arts, history, and culture, like Ebony.” In 1971, the fiftieth anniversary of the Tulsa Race Riot, Ross wrote an article about it for Impact. The reaction from readers was surprisingly hostile. Ross was quoted in a Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service story, “Both blacks and whites got on my case for causing trouble. I had violated the conspiracy of silence going on for 50 years.”
In 1972, Ross was offered a job as assistant managing editor at the Gary Post-Tribune in Gary, Indiana. At the time, there were very few black journalists, let alone editors; Ross was one of the first African Americans to work on the management team of a major metropolitan newspaper. “It was culture shock,” Ross told CBB. “I had never lived in a predominantly black community, with a black mayor. At the time Gary was the headquarters of the drug culture—it was a tough place.”
However, Ross credits the time he spent in Gary with inspiring him to make his own run for office. “As a journalist, I was covering that scene, watching the power work,” he told CBB. “I was able to draw my own conclusions about what should be done.”
In 1977, Ross moved back to Tulsa to take a position as vice president and general manager of the Oklahoma Eagle. After a year, he left the paper to launch his own public relations firm, Don Ross & Associates. Almost 20 years later, in 1995, Ross re-launched the company as Ebony Partners. In addition to public relations, Ebony Partners has created two photographic exhibits—one on the history of jazz in Oklahoma, and one on the Tulsa Race Riot—which have traveled internationally.
In the early eighties, Ross decided to run for a seat in the Oklahoma House of Representatives. Elected in the fall of 1982, he would go on to serve in the legislature for 18 years. “It was a natural evolution from the Civil Rights Movement,” Ross told CBB. “The power to make a change is in politics, not just in the streets. Many activists from that period have since become politicians.”
As a state legislator, Ross has focused primarily on education, the arts, labor relations, economic development, and affirmative action. He has also struggled to improve health services, social services, and cultural opportunities for African Americans and other minorities.
Among the laws Ross has authored were Oklahoma’s first affirmative action law—a law establishing preferences for minority vendors—and affirmative action goals for higher education. Ross helped to establish a state holiday honoring the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and lobbied to have Interstate 244, which runs along the border of the Greenwood district of Tulsa, renamed for King. Ross was also the principal author of legislation updating Oklahoma’s child labor laws.
Of all his accomplishments in the legislature, Ross is proudest of the fact that he led the fight to take down the Confederate flag flying above the building. “When I was sworn in in 1984, my son Edward was with me,” Ross told CBB. “He asked why we flew that flag. I had no answer for him. I had never noticed it.” In 1989, Oklahoma became the first state in the nation to take down the Confederate flag above its governmental buildings.
During his legislative career, Ross has held several leadership positions. He has served as secretary and chairman of the House of Representatives Democratic Caucus, and vice-chairman of the Tulsa County Democratic Party. He was chairman of the Oklahoma Legislative Black Caucus from 1982 to 1984 and again from 1986 until 1988. Ross has also served as chairman of the speaker’s committee on at-risk youth, and co-chairman of Oklahoma Task Force on African-American Males.
Currently, Ross is chairman of the appropriations and budget sub-committee on health and social services, with responsibility for more than $1.2 billion annually. He is also a member of the rules committee, the education committee, and the appropriations, energy, and transportation committee. In addition to his responsibilities as state legislator, Ross has served on the executive committee of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators (NBCSL), and as special assistant to the NBCSL president.
Ross has also struggled to gain recognition for the Tulsa Race Riot, which had nearly wiped out the Greenwood community decades before. The riot began with a seemingly innocuous event: a young black man, Dick Rowland, boarded an elevator operated by a young white woman, Sarah Page. What exactly happened next is unclear—one historian suggests Rowland accidentally stepped on Page’s foot—but police arrested Rowland and charged him with assault. The next day, a crowd of whites and blacks gathered at the courthouse. Fighting broke out, and quickly spread to the Greenwood district. By the next day, all of Greenwood was in flames.
Ross was the principal organizer of the 75th anniversary commemorations of the 1921 riot. The ceremony included the dedication of “The Wall Street Memorial,” a ten-foot granite monument inscribed with the names of more than 200 black-owned businesses that were destroyed by the flames.
In 1997, Ross co-sponsored legislation to establish the Tulsa Race Riot Commission. “Four years ago, if I had proposed a Tulsa Race Riot Commission, I would have been laughed off the House floor,” Ross commented in the newspaper Tulsa World at the time. “Even though the legislature is more conservative today, there are more people on all sides—including the governor and the mayor—who are pushing for this project and others that would benefit the citizens of north Tulsa.” The Tulsa Race Riot Commission, an eleven-member group, was charged with studying the events of the riot, and making recommendations about reparations. The commission, which has interviewed dozens of people who survived the riot, is due to deliver a report in the spring of 2000.
Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, Sept. 15, 1999.
Oklahoma Eagle, July 3, 2000; July 10, 1997.
Tulsa World, November 15, 1998.
Additional information was obtained through a personal interview with Don Ross, Nov. 15, 2000.