Words by Michael Berglund.
Miss Anne lifts a rainbow-colored scarf from the small cage sitting on the picnic table in her backyard. Angry black eyes on a white, ratty-furred face peek out through the metal mesh.
"A possum," Miss Anne, my 80-year-old neighbor, tells me. "I caught it in the cage last night."
It is Saturday, and while she'd been trying to catch this possum for months, she didn't anticipate that the little guy would inconvenience her by sneaking into the trap on the weekend. She tried to call animal control: closed until Monday.
"You know someone who needs a possum?" she asks.
I don't. I don't even have the guts to trap a possum. We had a possum family that lived in our tree for a summer, and when my partner and I would come home late at night, they'd be resting on a low branch, their eyes glinting from the reflected porch light. Despite my partner's reassurances that they're harmless, I'm certain they're demon-possessed and out to get me.
Fortunately for her, Miss Anne doesn't share my paranoia. In fact, having lived next to her in the Brady Heights neighborhood for the last six years, I've learned one key trait about Miss Anne: she's resilient.
Miss Anne moved to Brady Heights in 1964. She's raised three children in the neighborhood. She's suffered the loss of her husband. She's watched the neighborhood transform from a safe, family-oriented neighborhood to a hotbed of racial strife; she's experienced the exodus of neighbors to south Tulsa, watched as empty houses became dilapidated, hoped as new neighbors moved in to revitalize the historic homes. Through it all, Miss Anne lived in the same house, sat on the same porch, watched the neighborhood bloom, wither and re-grow.
"We bought this house in 1964. We'd been living in an apartment across from where the Tisdale is now,” she says. “We were wanting more room, and I used to walk down Latimer to catch the bus. I saw a 'For Sale' sign, and so we contacted the lady and bought the house, and we've lived there ever since."
Miss Anne leans down to inspect the possum closer. It inches towards the back of the cage, bares rows of sharp teeth, and hisses. "Oh, now, come off it," Miss Anne says gently, "you'll be fine." She sees me step back and reassures me. "He's just scared," she says. "Nobody likes to be caged, right? He'd never hurt you." I don't feel better.
"There were a lot of kids who lived here who went to Roosevelt and Central High School and Emerson. It was a real homey neighborhood and everybody knew everybody else and would sit on the front porch and wave when they saw people in the evenings. There were enough children of different ages so that there was a lot of companionship and fun things for them to do. It was the kind of neighborhood where everybody looked out for everybody else's kids, you know, just like a small town would. In fact, it was like a small town in the city."
The mid-60s, according to Miss Anne, changed the neighborhood. The Civil Rights movement was gaining steam in Middle America. In 1963, the NAACP Youth Council of Oklahoma City began sit-ins at lunch counters. In March of 1965 local and state police in Alabama used violence to stop marchers attempting to walk from Selma to Montgomery. The atmosphere in Brady Heights began to reflect the racial tensions occurring nationally. Miss Anne believed in the message of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and she worked to instill his message of peace and equality in her children. Friendly interaction between blacks and whites was commonplace in and around the neighborhood, but in the mid-60s, at times, groups of African-American teens from adjacent neighborhoods, feeling empowered by King's message, forgot the ideals of non-violence that sat at the core of King's dream for America.
"A group of kids knocked my son Tony down and beat him up,” recalls Miss Anne. “It scarred him emotionally more than anything. And he came home and said, 'Mom I wanna know, you always say there's as many good blacks as there are bad ones. Where were those good ones when they were beating me up?' And I told him, 'You know, those good ones were just as scared as you were.'"
The neighborhood began to change, as did the perception of tranquility in Brady Heights.
"People started moving south,” she says. “For a long time, there weren't hardly any children at all up here."
The condition of the historic homes, once built and lived-in by historic Tulsa figures such as Tate Brady, G. Y. Vandever, I. S. Mincks and “Diamond Joe” Wilson, started to deteriorate as they were left abandoned and neglected. A once upper class, fashionable Tulsa neighborhood fell into relative obscurity.
Through the tumult that occurred over the next 15 years, Miss Anne remained devoted to those in the neighborhood. In one instance she befriended two elderly sisters whose house had become virtually unlivable.
"They had a hole in their roof. One slept on the floor and the other slept on a chair."
Miss Anne tried to convince them to move to healthier conditions in an assisted living facility downtown. After much cajoling, they finally did, but the house remained dilapidated.
Another shift began when the Brady Heights Neighborhood Association (BHNA) formed in 1980. Wes Young, a Tulsa Race Riot survivor, was elected the first president of BHNA, and he set to work to list Brady Heights as the first Tulsa neighborhood on the National Register of Historic Places. Miss Anne suggests that since then, families are moving back into the neighborhood. She hears the sounds of children in yards again, and she boldly walks through the neighborhood to check on those around her. When my partner and I leave town, we don’t worry about our house. Miss Anne has our phone number.
"I don't know how it is down south, but I don't think they're as close-knit a neighborhood as it is up here, and I really wish that people would become that way. We really have lovely neighbors up here."
In addition to "lovely neighbors," the neighborhood boasts some of the most unique homes in Tulsa. From styles such as our Greek revival home to a mansion in the style of Robert E. Lee's Arlington home to prairie style, to the only Queen Anne style home in Tulsa, Brady Heights encapsulates a time in Tulsa's history when divisions such as class and race mattered less than expressions of individuality.
I take one last look at the possum as Miss Anne places the scarf back on the cage. When I realize he's just as scared of me as I am of him, he doesn't seem as frightening. I ask her what she's going to do with it.
"I don't know, but I sure can't keep it," she replies. As I walk back to my house, I see her gently pick up the cage and walk towards a stand of trees behind our houses. She sets the cage down under a weathered sycamore and opens the front door.