Tulsa Race Massacre: A Mindset Still Alive Today
You may have heard the controversy about Trump holding a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma on Juneteenth, the holiday celebrating the news of liberation reaching enslaved people in Texas in 1965 — two and a half years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation into law.
A lesser known part of that controversy has to do with the horrific massacre that happened 99 years ago this month in Tulsa. Only a president unmoved by racism and committed to upholding White supremacy would insist on holding a rally at such a significant confluence of dates, places, anniversaries, and current race relations. Of course, the rally was moved to June 20th, but the history of the Tulsa Race Massacre remains largely unheard of.
The Tulsa Race Massacre, sometimes called the Tulsa Race Riot, occurred May 31 through June 1, 1921. After a Black nineteen-year-old, Dick Rowland, was falsely accused of raping a teenage White girl, mobs of White Oklahomans took to the streets of the Greenwood District, raiding homes and businesses and murdering up to 300 Black residents. This is now seen as the single worst incident of racial violence in American history.
The Greenwood District, sometimes called “Black Wall Street” due to the unusual (for that era) wealth of some of its Black residents, was a mecca of Black excellence, with thriving movie theatres, shops, and more. Over 35 blocks were burned during the massacre.
The unverifiable accusation of rape — the alleged victim later decided not to press charges, and her statement to police is not recorded anywhere — demonstrates the real connection between White fragility and the safety of Black lives. With no evidence, a false accusation and a low-key police investigation, a sensationalist editorial led to White mobs attempting to lynch the accused teenager. Black residents of the Greenwood District, fearing for Rowland’s life, showed up to defend him, and violence broke out.
Further complicating the story, it is believed that White jealousy about some Black residents’ relative prosperity led to the immense destruction of Black-owned property.
The Tulsa Race Massacre, the deadliest incident of race violence in American history, devastated the Black community in Tulsa. Although only 39 people are confirmed to have been killed, the Tulsa Race Riot Commission estimates that there were up to 300 victims and that 10,000 people were left homeless. While White rioters may have been motivated by jealousy of a few Black residents who were relatively wealthy, it’s important to note that the vast majority of Black Tulsans lived in poverty, in shanties and shacks. Again, White fragility takes over the narrative and leads to an outsized and deadly response.
It wasn’t just lives that were destroyed: according to the Tulsa Race Riot Report, there were almost $1.5 million dollars in damages, mostly impacting Black-owned property, which would be equal to about $20 million today. In 2001, the Commission identified 100 residents that survived and recommended reparations be paid to them; the local government did not honor that demand.
The fact that almost all records of the violence have been destroyed or are otherwise missing indicates that the White mobs had no reliable or justifiable reason to be upset; hiding or destroying evidence, such as an alleged editorial warning that Rowland would be lynched, ensures that those responsible can never be held accountable for their actions. Again, White fragility controls history and allows the killing of hundreds of Black people to be erased from our collective memories (if not for the few who have worked tirelessly to keep it alive).
The reports that do exist often call the event a “race riot,” indicating blame for both parties, but that description is incorrect. It was a planned and organized mass killing of Black citizens and a cover-up of that massacre, to the extent that the majority of victims’ remains have not been located to this day.
One hopeful aspect of this story is the resilience of the Black community that survived. While many were killed and some left Tulsa following the massacre, those that remained were largely able to rebuild by the 1930s.
Today, the current mayor of Tulsa has reopened the investigation, which may take years. After Tulsa newspapers intentionally refused to cover the massacre until 75 years after it happened, the Trump rally controversy has perhaps had one positive effect: now, for the first time, many people are hearing about, reading about, and talking about the Tulsa Race Massacre. Having been left out of the vast majority of history curricula and rarely discussed at all, the memory of this tragedy is finally coming to light and taking hold in the hearts and minds of activists who see an undeniable link between race violence of the past and police brutality today.
Today, Tulsa is still not a safe haven for Black people. Just last week, two teenage boys (13, 15) were arrested and beaten by the police for allegedly jaywalking…..on a small side street with no sidewalks. Recently, a Tulsa police official was criticized for his comments about research on race and policing during a local radio interview. “All of their research says we’re shooting African Americans about 24% less than we probably ought to be based on the crimes being committed,” Major Travis Yates said on the Pat Campbell show. Of course, when held accountable, he says he was just stating research but doesn’t say what research and says, what’s the infamous line? That his “words were taken out of context.” Does allegedly jaywalking correspond with being reprimanded with excessive force? Is this really what policing should be for?
The Westernized/American heavy-handed top-down punitive approach, as it played out in the arrest and violent actions towards two innocent teens, illustrates why the combination of racial bias with the normalization of excessive force so often proves to be a deadly combination. If the teens were truly doing something wrong, unsafe, or dangerous, perhaps advice and guidance would allow for correction, connection, and actual community wellbeing. Because a police officer, heavily trained for violent encounters but not at all equipped to be an educator, social worker, or community safety official, has discretion over how to handle alleged crimes, racial bias tends to surface far too often.
Once again, the seemingly large distance between a historical incident of race violence and the world we live in today seems to shrink. The systems and implicit biases have not changed. Racism has not been rooted out of this country. And as long as it remains, nothing will change for Black Americans. Let’s not forget our history, lest we see it repeat again.