100 years later, recognizing the Tulsa Massacre as a part of our history
WASHINGTON: Finally, 100 years after it occurred, the Tulsa Massacre is receiving the recognition it deserves. What happened in Greenwood, Oklahoma from May 31 to June 1, 2021, represents a dark day in our history.
For the first time, an American president visited Tulsa to commemorate this event. He met with three survivors, now centenarians, and the descendants of other victims.
Biden saying that:
“For much too long, the history of what took place here was told in silence, cloaked in darkness. But just because history is silent doesn’t mean it didn’t happen…I come here to help fill the silence because in silence wounds deepen. And, painful as it is, only in remembrance do wounds heal.”
We cannot learn from history if we pretend that it never happened.
Until recently, this massacre, which killed up to 300 African Americans, burned nearly 40 square blocks to the ground, and left at least 9,000 black residents homeless, was largely unknown.
Most history books never mentioned it.
Some years ago my daughter spent a year working in Tulsa for Americorps. After her graduation from college, our family visited. Prior to the trip, my wife did some research and learned of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre events.
None of us had ever heard of this before. It never appeared in history textbooks.
Once in Tulsa, we visited the area. There was almost nothing there, and not a single historical marker. What was once a prosperous black neighborhood, referred to as the “Black Wall Street” by Booker T. Washington was still scarred. Tulsa wanted very much to forget this event.
Historian Scott Ellsworth, in his book “Death in a Promised Land: the Tulsa Riot of 1921,” writes that,
“Overnight, over one thousand homes occupied by blacks had been destroyed in Tulsa. The Greenwood business district had been put to the torch. In terms of density of destruction and ratio of casualties to population, it has probably not been equaled by any riot in the U.S. in this (20th) century.”
Located along and near Greenwood Avenue, the area included schools, a hospital, two newspapers, 13 churches, 3 fraternal lodges, 11 rooming houses, 4 hotels, 2 theaters, numerous retail stores from restaurants to billiard parlors, and a public library.
The Greenwood Cultural Center says the area was “a hotbed for jazz and blues and the site where Count Basie first encountered big-band jazz” as well as “the richest African-American neighborhood in North America.”
One black victim of the violence was was 40-year-old physician, Dr, Andrew C. Jackson. The Mayo brothers, of Mayo Clinic renown, regarded him as “the most able Negro surgeon in America.” He came out of his burning house with his hands up. He was shot three times and bled to death.
The spark for the Tulsa Massacre
The Massacre came about when a 19-year-old shoe shiner, Dick Rowland, left his shoeshine stand to use the only restroom available to blacks in segregated downtown Tulsa.
He went to the Drexel Building where a 17-year-old white girl, Sarah Page, operated the elevator. Between the first and third floor, Sarah let out a scream. Rowland said he tripped and fell against her. She was not harmed in any way and pressed no charges.
She never claimed that anything improper had occurred. Rowland was arrested. The Tulsa Tribune allegedly headlined an editorial, “To Lynch Negro Tonight.” A white crowd gathered, and things soon got out of hand.
Interestingly, the article 1921 Race Riot: Tribune mystery unsolved, rebukes that the riots were a result of a Tulsa Tribune article.
“I think it’s very unlikely there was an editorial that called for the lynching of Dick Rowland,” said Brophy. “If there had been, the Black Dispatch would have pointed it out.”
Others, including Ford, think the Tulsa World would have, too. The two newspapers were bitter enemies and wasted no opportunity to skewer the other. The World did, in fact, promote the idea that the Tribune’s arrest story sparked the riot. It said nothing about an editorial.
It is more likely that the riots were sparked by a government and people against them.
Oklahoma was a segregated state.
In 1910, legislators passed a law intending to prevent blacks in Oklahoma from voting, but it was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. This was also the era of so-called “progressive” Democrat Woodrow Wilson in the White House.
The Democrat President was a committed segregationist.
Under his administration, black postal workers across the country lost their jobs. Federal offices in Washington and across the country were segregated by Wilson. He hosted the screening of the pro-Ku Klux Klan movie “The Birth of a Nation” by D.W. Griffith at the White House.
Wilson later commented about how much he liked the movie.
Events in Tulsa, unfortunately, were hardly unique.
On Nov. 10, 1898, white supremacists murdered African Americans in Wilmington, North Carolina and deposed the elected Reconstruction-era government in a coup d’etat.
The town’s newspaper, the Daily Record, was burned down and as many as 60 people were murdered in a few hours. The local government which was elected two days earlier was overthrown and replaced by white supremacists. It was the only coup d’etat to take place on American soil.
Before the violence, this port city on the Cape Fear River was remarkably integrated.
Three of the 10 aldermen were African Americans and black people worked as policemen, firemen, and magistrates. Democrats, then the party of the Confederacy, vowed to end this “Negro domination.”
In 1900, the North Carolina legislature effectively stripped African Americans of the vote.
The Massacre in Tulsa was preceded by events in Wilmington and followed by other such assaults on black people in many cities, such as Atlanta and East St. Louis, Illinois.
Recognition of these events is long overdue.
At the Vernon AME Church on Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa, where black people sought refuge during the Massacre, the Rev. Robert Turner unveiled a prayer wall for racial healing. The Rev. William Barber, standing outside the church, which was set ablaze during the Massacre, said he was humbled
“to stand on this holy ground. You can kill the people, but you cannot kill the voice of the blood.”
The Rev. Turner declared,
“Outside of the majestic Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, it will be one of the few public outdoor prayer walls in the world, and we believe it will be the only one solely used for racial healing.”
No one in Tulsa was ever punished for this attack
The victims were never compensated for the lives and property lost, either by the government or insurance companies. There is no discussion of reparations for the three survivors and the descendants of those who were lost.
It is good for all of us that the history of what happened in Tulsa in 1921 should be widely known by Americans.
History is complicated.
As human beings are flawed, so do all societies exhibit such flaws. Societies often like to hide or cover up such parts of their histories.
Only now is Germany confronting its genocide in Namibia. Canadian flags are flying at half-mast in memory of the murder of indigenous children. The role played by European countries in their colonial ventures in Asia and Africa is coming under increased scrutiny in Spain, Portugal, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France, and other countries.
As President Biden said in Tulsa,
“We do ourselves no favors by pretending none of this ever happened. I come here to help fill the silence because in silence wounds deepen. And painful as it is, only in remembrance wounds heal.”
About the Author:
Allan Brownfeld is a veteran writer who has spent decades working in and around Washington, D.C. Brownfeld earned his B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary. His M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia, and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonwealth, and The Christian Century. Visit his Writers Page to learn more.