CW: Racial Violence
Today is the 99th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre. I moved here, to Tulsa, three years ago and I’ve been studying and teaching the Massacre at Tulsa Community College for that entire time.
It’s a big controversy here still because it was covered up, rarely spoken of for fifty years or so, but since Scott Ellsworth’s Death in a Promised Land in 1982 it’s been talked about quite a bit more. HBO’s Watchmen also did good work garnering attention.
Here are the quick facts:
-Greenwood, in 1921, was a mostly Black neighborhood. It was extremely affluent, in large part because the white Oklahomans had forced them to farm on land that didn’t grow crops so well. But it turned out that those crops weren’t going well because of the oil underneath. Black Wall Street, as Greenwood was called at the time, was born. (https://web.archive.org/web/20081026071428/http://blackwallstreet.org/bwshistory/bwstulsa1830-1921.a.htm)
-Dick Rowland and Sarah Page (an elevator operator) were on an elevator alone together. When that elevator arrived on the ground floor, Page screamed. Rowland was arrested. No one knows what actually happened. Likely, it was nothing, but Page is rumored to have made a written request for the charges to be dropped. (https://www.tulsaworld.com/tulsa-race-massacre-what-happened-to-sarah-page-and-dick-rowland-following-the-massacre/article_67810913-0f34-58da-af38-f6a9ff8ea5e0.html)
-The next morning, The Tulsa Tribune ran an article on the front page, “ “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in an Elevator.” (https://www.tulsaworld.com/news/tulsa-race-massacre-1921-tulsa-newspapers-fueled-racism-and-one-story-is-cited-for-sparking/article_420593ee-8090-5cfc-873e-d2dd26d2054e.html)
-White citizens, with guns, went to the courthouse demanding Rowland be handed over so they could lynch him. Black World War I veterans, having fought for freedom in their country, marched down to protect Rowland with rifles. The first time they met, the police managed to send everyone home.
-The second time, a shot was fired. All hell broke loose. Very important to state this cleary: the massacre started because a white mob was not allowed to lynch a black man.
-According to multiple eyewitnesses, the white mob was “deputized and handed weapons” by the police. (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/long-lost-manuscript-contains-searing-eyewitness-account-tulsa-race-massacre-1921-180959251/)
-That “by the police” part is really important.
-This is where it gets even crazier. Cuz the police didn’t stop with handing out guns to the angry white people. They requisitioned crop dusters to drop Turpentine bombs on the neighborhood. (https://www.okhistory.org/research/forms/freport.pdf). Note: That PDF is the state of Oklahoma’s report from 2001.
-35 city blocks were destroyed. According to my friend JayCee, an Oklahoma historian, “White mobs prevented firefighters from doing their job, and in some cases, restarted fires that had been put out. I think it’s important to show that there was a concerted effort to destroy Greenwood, and this wasn’t just a mob mentality.”
-The number of people killed has long been disputed. The state itself initially said there were 38 (12 white, 26 black), but most estimates are now upward of 300 with a committee working to find mass graves now. (https://www.npr.org/2019/12/17/789015343/new-research-identifies-possible-mass-graves-from1921-tulsa-race-massacre)
-Along with the death and the destruction of property, around 6,000 Black Americans were held in unlawful captivity for days. (https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0021934708318607)
-The event, for nearly eighty years, was called “The Tulsa Race Riot.” It’s a weird way to frame an event. When Guns N’ Roses played late, or whatever happened to set off the Pumpkin Festival Riot in New Hampshire, no one dropped turpentine bombs from planes. The police didn’t hand out guns. So why the weird name?
The people living in Black Wall Street had insurance on their property. But guess what that insurance didn’t pay out in the event of?
A riot. (https://www.tulsaworld.com/news/local/racemassacre/tulsa-race-massacre-in-aftermath-no-one-prosecuted-for-killings-and-insurance-claims-were-rejected/article_3ba23c3c-886d-5821-9970-02153261960a.html)
-Wyatt Tate Brady, who was at the center of Tulsa’s founding and is rumored to have masterminded the Massacre, pushed hard for the city to change its zoning laws. Instead of being able to rebuild on their land Black American property was replaced with railroad tracks, highways. In 2010 the stadium where the Tulsa Drillers and Tulsa Roughnecks play was built on that land. (https://thislandpress.com/2012/04/18/tate-brady-battle-greenwood/)
-The attempts at Reparations by the state have been pitiful to this point, and a judge struck down an attempted lawsuit in 2004 (http://www.nbcnews.com/id/4588836/ns/us_news-life/t/judge-nixes-tulsa-race-riot-reparations/#.XtLg5mhKjIU).
There are two points opponents of reparations frequently make: the first is that the government is not responsible.
Which is completely and utterly false. At the moment the first police officer handed out the first gun the state assumed at least partial responsibility. Two groups of people were fighting. They only gave guns to one of them. The fact that they requisitioned crop dusters to drop bombs after that only adds to it.
Tax payers (among who are the people of Greenwood, who were shot, tortured, burnt, and left homeless) paid for those guns. They paid for those officers to hand them out. They paid for those officers to get those planes off the ground, dropping bombs.
-The second is that it was so long ago.
First of all, the last known living survivor died in November 2018. This wasn’t generations ago. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/olivia-hooker-one-of-the-last-survivors-of-the-1921-tulsa-race-massacre-dies-at-103/2018/11/22/f5c03934-ee71-11e8-8679-934a2b33be52_story.html). Olivia Hooker died less than two years ago.
The claim that it was so long ago also belies a complete misunderstanding in how wealth creation and reproduction works. Every conservative I know (except maybe one?) went to a private high school. I did too.
We were taught how to tie a tie and make eye contact when we shook hands. We were coached on how to game the SATs (Did you know that in 2007 not answering a question doesn’t cause a deduction, while a wrong answer takes off a ¼ of a point so it’s better not to guess unless you can eliminate two options to make it 50/50?). And most importantly, we were put into a smaller class of people who because of their wealth, intelligence, and connections are now small business owners, doctors, and lawyers who are now willing to do favors for each other. To interview each other’s friends and kids for jobs. It’s how the upper-crust stays the upper-crust.
(And I know they worked hard. Having privilege doesn’t mean that you didn’t work hard and no one ever said it did. It means that there were more doors you could go through that led to better results because of wealth and family connections.)
Those are privileges the children of small business owners, doctors, and lawyers in Black Wall Street would’ve had.
Then there are the emotional effects. Take a minute and imagine that everything you owned was destroyed by men with guns and planes dropping bombs. The bank where you had your savings was destroyed. The grocery store where you got your food? Cinders. The barbershop? Gone. Your doctor’s office? Rubble.
What are you going to tell your kid about it? Your grandkid?
-How does this play into what’s happening now?
It’s everything. So much of our political divide now comes from a massive difference in the way people see the world. It should not come as a surprise that many of the college freshmen I teach in Tulsa, Oklahoma are conservatives and most of my friends are liberals. I get a look at both sides.
Conservatives view the world as a set of individual actions. It’s integral to their philosophy. We need small government because individual freedom is the highest attainable goal. Those actions might look like something else that happened before, but each is a unique set of actions, individual courses chosen by individuals who are above influence.
Liberals view the world in a larger context.
When George Floyd is murdered by a police officer kneeling on his neck for nine minutes (Do you remember when all the memes were about how long twenty seconds was when we were relearning to wash our hands for COVID-19 a month or two ago? Twenty-seven of those), conservatives and liberals seem to agree, the officer was in the wrong. There is no conscionable argument that George Floyd’s murder was justified or warranted.
But to conservatives it’s an isolated incident. A mistake, made by an individual. It might look like what happened to Eric Garner or Trayvon Martin or Ahmaud Aubrey or any of the other young Black people who have been murdered, but it’s all individual incidents.
When you think about it that way, destroying a Target makes very little sense.
Liberals can see the line straight back to the Tulsa Massacre. Straight back to slavery. In that context, taking needed supplies from a Target after yet another member of the Black Community is lynched makes a lot of sense.
-Please don’t take this as a both-sider thing. Every event happens within a context, and to pretend that it doesn’t so you can feel, I don’t know the word, free?, is ridiculous. It’s childish and arrogant.