SOUTHERN INDIANA —Many people may not think of Tulsa, Okla., in the context of the United States' history of racial strife.
While historic moments like Dr. Martin Luther King's Selma to Montgomery March in Alabama are ingrained in the public consciousness, the same can't be said of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 — during which 300 people were killed in an area of the city known as Black Wall Street.
The racially-charged incident was largely ignored by the press at the time. Oklahoma schools weren't required to teach about the riot until recently. Last year's HBO series Watchmen was one of the first major productions to recreate it on screen, bringing it to a wider audience for the first time.
Shawn Carruthers, who recently became the first African American president of the Floyd County Commissioners, said the riot wasn't discussed much growing up in Tulsa.
"At that time, most of the African Americans lived out in the north side," he said of his childhood. "The rest of the city was white, for the most part.”
Born in 1968 to hard-working parents, Carruthers attended a nearly all-black elementary school. For middle school, he saw the opposite end of the spectrum, with "99.9%" of his classmates being white.
By the time he got to high school, the student body was more evenly divided. This wide range of experiences helped Carruthers develop into the man he is today.
"There was a time where I learned that people were just people, and to deal with them as people," he said. "I learned not to be intimidated because of race. Race really never was an issue. I had friends from all backgrounds. Those experiences are what made me who I am today. I can walk into any room no matter who's in it and feel comfortable.”
Over the course of his 12-year career in politics, Carruthers has risen through the ranks. In addition to being the first African American president of the commissioners, he's also the only person of color to serve as Republican chairman for any county in Indiana.
"I don’t take lightly the opportunity [Floyd County has] given me," Carruthers said. "Many times in places I go, I tend to be the only African American in the room. It’s something that I can’t let me feel intimidated or feel out of place.”
According to a study released by WalletHub, the Hoosier State ranks 43rd in the country in terms of progress of racial integration of white and black populations. Though the overall rate of progress is lagging compared to much of the country, Indiana's current levels of racial integration were ranked 31st.
While Carruthers said this shows that Floyd County is "ahead of the curve" relative to the rest of the state, Nicole Yates, president of the New Albany NAACP, said it points to a wider problem of not enough being done to bridge the opportunity gap between races.
Despite Carruthers' achievements, not many other people of color hold elected positions of power in Floyd County. The New Albany City Council and the Floyd County Council are both made up of only white members, as is the New Albany Floyd County Consolidated School Board.
"When you know better, you do better, and we can always do better," Yates said. "I think that schools, police and fire and other organizations can do a better job at trying to recruit persons of color in order to integrate. I do not believe that what you see represents the community in which folks serve.”
When a lack of diversity exists in higher offices and other leadership roles, Yates said it can lead to a feeling of discouragement within minority communities.
“It’s always good to feel like you can relate to someone who looks like you," she said. "It’s very hard to feel like you are being heard if you can’t look around the room at individuals who share your concerns. Everybody should be represented."
Views on how to achieve a higher level of integration differ between Carruthers and Yates.
From Carruthers' perspective, individuals within the community should take it upon themselves to find opportunities to serve. A lot of times, he said, that means stepping outside of comfort zones.
If at first things don't work out, such as when he lost his first attempt at office, Carruthers said it's important to not give up.
"I think that’s the biggest challenge for people, stepping out and trying to do what you want to do," he said. "I’m a firm believer that in America, we can achieve any goal that we want to achieve. I think I’ve led that by example, I guess."
But Yates believes the onus to produce change is on existing institutions and their leaders. It's all about "being intentional," as Yates puts it.
That means more party leaders pushing people of color to run for office. Organizations and government entities must actively seek diversity and inclusivity, if that is truly their aim. It shouldn't take being "pushed or guilted" into change, Yates added.
“It’s sad that in 2020, we're still having these conversations," she said. "I hope that going forward, we can do better and work out these things. If you don’t know where to go, perhaps you’ll look for resources to get to where you want to be. I don’t think there is a shortage of minorities, so it can be done, if it’s something you’re truly sincere about.”