Black History Month: The Tulsa Race Riot and Its Implications

Last April, two men in Tulsa, Oklahoma were arrested for driving into the city’s black neighborhood and shooting indiscriminately at pedestrians, wounding two and killing three. One or two news articles mentioned that this was especially distressing to North Tulsa residents in light of the race riot of 1921. None elaborated further.

The race riots that linger in American (white) cultural memory are largely those directed by and focused inside the black community: LA, Detroit, Watts. Less so are those instigated by white aggressors like East St. Louis in 1917 and Chicago et al in the “Red Summer” of 1919. I had never heard of Tulsa, 1921. According to James Hirsch’s Riot and Remembrance: The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy, many white Tulsans would have preferred things to stay that way.

The Tulsa race war of 1921 was the targeted destruction of Greenwood, the city’s black neighborhood. Because of the decades-long culture of silence that surrounded the event, much of the history regarding Tulsa’s race war is disputed. All agree it began on Memorial Day, 1921, with the arrest of a young black man for allegedly assaulting a young white woman. Like many of these accusations, the alleged assault almost certainly did not occur. Though the young man was indeed arrested, it was clear through their subsequent actions that even the authorities felt the woman’s claim had little merit. Nevertheless, they decided to hold him overnight.

This worried Tulsa’s black community. In August of 1920 a white man was arrested for a widely-sensationalized attempted murder during a car-jacking. After his victim died in the hospital, a mob overran the courthouse, pulled him from his cell, and lynched him. The authorities hadn’t been able protect the white inmate in their care. How could they be expected to protect this young black man, with the added allegation of black-on-white sexual violence hanging over his head? And when the Tulsa Tribune published a scurrilous editorial about the allegation on the afternoon of his arrest, tensions ran even higher.

The evening of May 31st, a group of armed black men marched from Greenwood to the courthouse, intent on preventing a lynching. The sheriff promised them that no such thing would happen that night. They were hardly satisfied, but acquiesced and returned home. By that point, however, it was too late. Hearing that black men had come into the white part of the city with guns, Tulsa’s white population armed itself. The situation quickly escalated. Knowing that the white men had picked up arms, and fearing for the young man’s life, Greenwood’s men returned to the courthouse. There was a standoff. A white man tried to wrest a gun from the grip of a black man. Someone fired a shot. It was a little after ten pm.

The violence began in front of the courthouse, but it chased the fleeing black men back into Greenwood. By the time the National Guard was deployed the next day, around late morning, the black neighborhood was little more than a smoldering ruin. Greenwood had been home to a small but thriving black middle class. The amount of damage that had been done was estimated to be as much as $1.8 million – over $22 million today. Houses, churches, and the nation’s largest black hotel were looted and burned to the ground. The aggressors attacked with machine guns as well as small arms. Airplanes flew over the burning neighborhood, though their purpose was murky: dropping incendiaries? Or, as later white revisionists would have it, “sav[ing] blacks”? In either case, many of Greenwood’s residents were shot and lay injured on the ground, prevented from receiving medical attention. Estimates of the dead range from the “official” count of 38 to over 300.

White Tulsans gleefully chased some black people out of town; others, they rounded up and deposited into refugee camps. Here I quote directly from Hirsch: “Under General Barett [of the National Guard], blacks became wards of the state. Leaving the fairgrounds, they had to wear a green tag that included the individual’s name and address, and employer’s signature, and the words POLICE PROTECTION. Any African-American without proper identification would be arrested and returned to custody. All 7,500 tags were issued by June 7. They were, to blacks, another sign of subjugation, but whites saw them as long overdue.” Those who did not have employment were forced to clean up the ruins of Greenwood for 25 cents a day.

There were many underlying reasons for the destruction of Greenwood: morality crusaders, uneasy about white familiarity with its “sin district”; oil tycoons, who afterwards tried to turn the ruined neighborhood into an industrial park; poor whites, resentful of the wealth of those like J.B. Stradford, who lost as much as $125,000 ($1.5 million today) and fled Oklahoma when charged with “inciting a riot” (a crime which, if convicted, would have led to life imprisonment or death – if he avoided being lynched before trial). But in the end it did nothing so much as create an atmosphere of terror among Oklahoma’s black community – as did the East St. Louis riots in 1917, the Red Summer of 1919, and the thousands of lynchings across the United States from the 1890s to the mid-20th century.

One thing that stood out to me in Hirsch’s account were the responses of white Oklahomans to the call for reparations that came in the late 90s and early 2000s. It was unpopular, to say the least; in a 1999 poll 12 percent of respondents approved of tax dollars being spent on reparations, and “26 percent supported reparations if no tax dollars were used. Almost three out of four opposed private individuals using their own money to compensate black riot survivors.” Even more significant was the commentary: “[Congressman Kevin Calvey] noted in a radio interview that blacks commit a disproportionate number of crimes in America. ‘Why don’t we hold black Americans liable to white Americans for reparations for that?’ Like riot reparations, he said, it would be wrong.” And, some asked, what about reparations to the families of the white men killed in the conflict?

Setting aside the responsibility of the white supremacist power structure in black crime (as African-Americans are also disproportionately poor), and the fact that most crime is intra-race, there is a deeper issue here. White America has for generations perpetrated terrorism on its black citizens. The Tulsa race war and other similar events were no less than pogroms meant to destabilize the African-American community, to punish the “uppity,” and to reiterate white supremacy. The call for reparations isn’t about “the transfer of wealth,” as The Daily Oklahoman suggested, and it isn’t about “greed.” It would be an unspoken acknowledgement of what white America did and continues to do to the black community.

In a public hearing about riot reparations in 2001, “… a black woman from Tulsa stood in the back of the room and yelled out: ‘I was born in 1955 and I consider myself a survivor [of the riot] because of the damage done in 1921. If you drive through North Tulsa today, you’ll see we are still being affected.’” The destruction of Greenwood is just one aspect of the destabilization of the black community that still happens today. White America ignores that such atrocities occurred and in so doing denies its victims the catharsis that acknowledgement and apologies would provide.


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