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Jonathan P. Baird: Tulsa 1921 and the racism that remains

  • People walk along Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa, Okla., on June 19, where the words “Black Lives Matter” have been painted on the road as people mark Juneteenth, in the location of the former Black Wall Street neighborhood. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 6/29/2020 6:40:14 AM

With President Trump’s campaign rally in Tulsa, attention shifted to that city and its history. In all my years in school I never heard about a race riot in Tulsa in 1921. The story was somehow purged from U.S. history courses. Until the last week or so, the story had been disappeared. I had not seen it even in places like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

The events of May 31 and June 1, 1921, began with a newspaper report that a black man had assaulted a female white elevator operator. The story has never been verified. It is the same racist stereotype that often has preceded a lynching.

The accused man, Dick Rowland, was arrested for the alleged assault. An angry crowd of white men gathered at the courthouse. A number of Black World War I veterans rushed to the courthouse to stop what they feared would be a lynching attempt. Shooting ensued and quickly 12 people died.

In a short time, a much larger crowd of white men congregated and went on a rampage, killing, looting, and burning through Tulsa’s Greenwood district. At the time, Greenwood was one of the largest and wealthiest Black communities in the United States. It was called Black Wall Street.

Greenwood had the largest Black-owned hotel in the United States, as well as Black-owned banks, medical practices, law offices, restaurants, and a library.

For two days Greenwood was under mob rule. The city had deputized white men and handed them weapons. Black people in Greenwood had the option to stay in their homes and be burned to death or they could try to run out in the street and hope they would escape getting shot.

In addition to the vigilante mob, private planes bombed the Black community from the air. Buck Colbert Franklin, a lawyer and the father of the historian John Hope Franklin, wrote an eyewitness account: “I could see planes circling in mid-air. They grew in number and hummed, darted and dipped low. I could see something like hail falling upon the top of my office building. Down East Archer, I saw the old Mid-Way hotel on fire, burning from its top, and then another and another and another building began to burn from the top.”

The governor declared martial law but the mob destroyed over 35 square blocks, including more than 2,000 Black-owned businesses and homes. An estimated 100 to 300 people died and another 800 were admitted to the hospital for injuries. Ten thousand people were left homeless. The city locked up 6,000 Black people who were held for several days.

Black Wall Street was destroyed. This was the worst civil disturbance since the Civil War. The historian Scott Ellsworth described it: “It looked like Hiroshima and Nagasaki afterwards.”

Yet no one was ever held accountable for these crimes. There were no murder or other prosecutions. Insurance companies refused pay-outs, citing riot clauses in their contracts. To this day the Tulsa local government has refused to pay reparations and the federal court dismissed claims based on the statute of limitations.

It misconstrues these events to call them “race riots.” Pogrom or massacre are more accurate. Where else have private planes dropped incendiary devices on American citizens?

Questions arise about how and why this massacre could have happened as well as about why the public does not know about it. Was the mob violence spontaneous or organized? Was there Ku Klux Klan involvement? Is the death count accurate? Mass graves are still being excavated. Was jealousy about black accomplishment in Greenwood why whites went so berserk?

As to why we do not know about the Tulsa massacre, how much is the result of a conscious effort by Tulsa and Oklahoma leaders to suppress this story? How much is self-censorship? Why was the suppression of this story so successful for so long?

These events make sense only in the context of our white supremacist history. In the 1920s racism was ubiquitous in America. Historians have described the early 20th century as a nadir of race relations.

The Klan was enjoying a resurgence nationally in the aftermath of the release of the movie Birth of a Nation. By the 1920s the Klan had between 2 million and 5 million members and millions more who were sympathizers.

Lynchings were common. Between 1907 when Oklahoma was admitted as a state and 1921, Oklahoma had 31 lynchings. The Klan carried out hundreds of night rides, beatings, and whippings.

From the time Oklahoma became a state, racial segregation was the general rule. Among the first laws passed by the Oklahoma state legislature were laws that segregated rail travel and that disenfranchised Black voters.

In 1916, Tulsa passed an ordinance that mandated residential segregation. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the ordinance in the following year but the city ignored the court ruling. Tulsa maintained segregated public facilities such as restrooms and water fountains. Tulsa remains hyper-segregated now.

A vast silence was the public response to the massacre and this went on for decades.

In 1996, 75 years after the massacre, the Oklahoma state legislature authorized a commission to investigate these events. Historian Ellsworth says that 1996 was the first time the massacre was ever mentioned on national TV. The commission delivered a final report in 2001 recommending reparations but the Oklahoma legislature has refused. The commission had identified 118 living survivors of the massacre. The state gave survivors a gold-plated medal bearing the state seal rather than reparations.

The racism has not stopped. By failing to follow the recommendations of the massacre commission, Oklahoma has dismissed the suffering that occurred and added to the state’s legacy of shame.

It is past time for denial. The Black community in North Tulsa still experiences high poverty rates and lower life expectancy than other Oklahomans. In the wake of the George Floyd protests, Oklahoma should rectify its disgraceful record of segregation, silence, and inaction. Oklahoma is still not doing the right thing.

(Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot and blogs at jonathanpbaird.com.)




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