Tulsa: A Forgotten Tragedy

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In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the growing prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement, there has been a widespread re-examination of how racism has impacted America’s past. This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre, a tragedy that has been systematically ignored and downplayed since it occurred, despite being one of the worst incidents of racial violence in American history. 

In the aftermath of the First World War, in which more than seven hundred thousand African Americans enlisted, returning black veterans believed that they had earned the same rights afforded to their white compatriots. Many states were unwilling to enact this. Indeed, since the failure of reconstruction in 1877, de jure segregation had been enforced in the South, whilst the supposedly progressive North remained de facto segregated. The resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan combined with these tensions to produce the Red Summer of 1919, and race riots spread across the country from Illinois to Tennessee. In this febrile atmosphere, even the slightest of provocations invited violent reprisals. Tulsa, know at this time as the ‘Oil Capital of the World’, was a relatively prosperous city and, like so many other prosperous American cities, was segregated. The black community was concentrated in the thriving Greenwood District, which included an area known as ‘Black Wall Street’ due its wealth.

On 30 May 1921, a young black shoe-shiner named Dick Rowland was arrested for assaulting a white lift operator, Sarah Page. Although there have been vague suggestions that the two were lovers who were quarrelling, the more generally accepted explanation is that Rowland tripped and grabbed onto Page’s arm to stabilise himself. Although he was arrested, the case was, unsurprisingly, dropped just four months later. Despite this, a series of incendiary newspaper headlines following Rowland’s arrest produced an atmosphere of sharp racial tension, with one article from the Tulsa Tribune effectively calling for Rowland to be lynched. Crowds gathered outside the Tulsa courthouse where he was being held, and groups of white men demanded the sheriff turn the detainee over to the mob. In response, a group of black war veterans went to the courthouse to protect Rowland. Soon, seventy five-black men were confronted with fifteen hundred white men. What could easily have been an accidental shot was the tinder that lit the matchbox, and sporadic shooting incidents punctuated the night of 31 May.

The next day, thousands of white citizens (including members of the Ku Klux Klan), drawn not only from Tulsa but also the surrounding area, descended into Greenwood. The Oklahoma history society notes that some members of the mob had been deputised by the police, suggesting that law enforcement was in some way complicit in what followed. Many in the mob were armed, and soon, looting, arson and murder broke out. Firefighters were turned away from the scene by rioters, whilst the area was allegedly bombarded from the air by explosives dropped from planes. Millions of dollars of damage was wrought, and thousands of black citizens were forced to flee, while many others were interned locally. The massacre only ended when the National Guard intervened after two days of carnage. Thirty-nine people, the vast majority of whom were African Americans, were confirmed to have died, but this number is likely a dramatic underestimate. To this day, searches are being carried out for possible mass graves. 

In the aftermath of the massacre, thousands of black residents, made homeless by the chaos, were forced to live in tents. White developers swiftly made attempts to stop black people returning to Greenwood. ‘Black Wall Street’, the area which was once a centre of African American wealth, was destroyed, and even today, the area remains significantly poorer than the rest of Tulsa. A culture of silence soon sprung up. References to the massacre were removed from police records, along with the infamous headline of the Tulsa Tribune. No one was convicted following the tragedy and, in a sickening twist, contemporary reports from the Tulsa city commission blamed the black community for causing the violence. 

In 1997, the Oklahoma state government finally set up a commission of inquiry. The commission recommended that reparations be given, but no legislation was ever introduced to mandate this. The Tulsa race massacre has regained prominence this year as its hundredth anniversary is marked, and recent reflection of the events of that fateful weekend in 1921 has sparked a wider debate on how America should deal with historic racial injustice. Some have gone has far to suggest that if reparations are paid to the three living survivors of the massacre it could be a watershed moment in America’s struggle to confront the demons of its past. The Tulsa race massacre remains a telling reminder of the racial violence which characterised that tragic epoch of American history. As we commemorate its hundredth anniversary, we can only hope that an effort is being made both to provide justice for its victims and to prevent a repeat of such a horror.