Nehemiah Frank is a young African American teacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma and someone I am blessed to have met in my work around education story-telling and advocacy. He is also the founder and executive director of the Black Wall Street Times, an online media company that seeks to tell the history of Greenwood and north Tulsa, its people and their aspirations.”
Frank was invited to present at Tedx Tulsa and this past Friday was the day he took the stage and told his story. The full text of his remarks is below.
“Finding the Excellence Within”
Excellence is not a word I heard or used when I was growing up.
I never heard it at school.
I never heard it at home and was a teenager before I understood the meaning of the word.
I was a young man before I could fully embrace the concept of the word.
I was born a statistic — one of every three African-American boys coffled into the school-to-prison pipeline because I could not read.
A path that classified my reason for existence.
It wasn’t until fifth grade, at 10-years of age that I learned to read.
I had been shuttled through earlier grades in special education classes because I was considered slow.
Not illiterate, but slow, a presumptive construct I was to accept.
Teachers told my parents I would never graduate from high school.
America predicted my future.
America prepared me for the school-to-prison pipeline.
But, it took one teacher in fifth grade to shine a little light in my direction and turn my fate towards success.
Although I struggled to read and write to catch up to my grade levels, I continued to look for the “helpers,” teachers, along the way, who cared enough to see me strive towards excellence.
Through hard work, dedication, and a few excellent teachers, I arrived to my senior year of high school.
During that year, my Spanish teacher’s enthusiasm was punctuated with “¡Excelentes!” whenever I gave the correct response.
I savored those moments because they came infrequently. I typically heard a “¡No! Lo Siento” coupled with an “intenta otra vez.”
Yet somehow, Señora Ortega found the patience to work with me outside of her regular class hours.
She believed I could be excellent.
Little did she know, her ¡Excelentes! would leave a long-lasting, healthy impression upon my life.
The everlasting gift of literacy led me to a book, Up from Slavery.
A narrative written by the distinguished academic and great orator of that era, Booker T. Washington.
The narrator told the story of a teenage negro boy, who traveled from town to town risking his life to read the newspaper to an illiterate crowd of formerly enslaved people.
When I read that part of the story, I could not hold back my tears for this young Black boy’s willingness to endanger his life to deliver information to his people.
Because he would have been lynched if caught reading.
And because he learned to read, he was an asset to his people.
He was their only means to information.
Consider this, African Americans were the only people in the United States explicitly forbidden to become literate.
My grandfather never learned to read.
Joseph Frank and Emma left school with only a third and fifth-grade education to help their families by working the fields in Louisiana.
To escape the harsh conditions of Jim Crow Louisiana, they migrated to Jim Crow Oklahoma for a better opportunity.
Their greatest ambition for their children and grandchildren was to finish high school, learn a trade, and get a good job.
The audacity to believe can shatter decades and even centuries of harmful, socialized conditioning.
For their next generation, hope remained.
I finished high school and enrolled in college in Chicago, IL.
I found a spiritual community on the South side of Chicago
The caliber of Excellence in this church heavily influenced my academic drive.
One Sunday, the senior minister, Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, delivered a sermon about the Black Wall Street, in Tulsa, OK.
Booker T. Washington, ironically, named the Greenwood District the Black Wall Street in one of his numerous visits to Tulsa.
Before then, I had never heard about the Black Wall Street.
He used references from the biblical Book of Nehemiah, the designer of the wall of Jerusalem and paralleled the story to a people in America, two generations out of slavery, who built a community of perfection and economic power in the shadows of ignorance.
This community was one of the most prosperous in America.
The sermon ended with the tragedy in the destruction of the Black Wall Street — 600 businesses, thousands of homes, and the massacre of human lives destroyed by the fear of Black excellence.
It was at that moment, I understood the racialized dynamics and the impact of the destruction of the Black Wall Street.
That was day I learned about the historical greatness of this community.
That moment was my calling to go back home to Tulsa, Oklahoma.
And reclaim our story.
Today, I am a college graduate.
I am a teacher; I teach black boys and black girls to read and to write.
I plant seeds for the next generation of excellence.
I am an entrepreneur.
I am the founder of a digital news media company, the Black Wall St. Times.
I move in the footsteps of the negro boy who endangered his life to share the news.
My name is Nehemiah.
I am Excellence.