My husband recently reminded me of an experience he had while doing some consulting work in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He had some free time, and decided to explore the town. He came across a neighborhood that was razed to the ground. Dozens and dozens of foundations laid exposed, with grass growing around and in between the cracks of the cement. He realized that it must be the site of the 1921 race riot, and shortly afterwards found a marker that said something about it. He said it was so eerie, standing in the middle of the desolate and abandoned area decades after the atrocities of that riot, and only blocks away from the bustling, dynamic center of this small city. I asked him what started that riot, and he said he couldn’t remember, but that it had something to do with a black boy and a white girl.
The novel I’m working on features a young interracial couple in a small fictional town that is facing racial tensions in the present. I knew almost nothing about this event in Tulsa, so I decided to do some research about it. First, I went to the website of the Tulsa public library, and scanned the Oklahoma history timeline that local history page features, the history from 1541-1940. I had to scan it several times before I realized that this riot wasn’t on the timeline at all. I couldn’t believe that an entire neighborhood being burned out didn’t show up on the State’s historical timeline. I dug a little deeper and then found some pages on the riot in the African-American Resource Center’s section. What I learned stunned me.
In the early part of the 20th century, Tulsa had developed a vigorous economy, especially among the black and native American residents of the city, in an district called Greenwood. It was known as “Black Wall Street”. Perhaps because of this, though I am only speculating, there was also a significant presence of the Ku Klux Klan in Tulsa. Race relations were not what one would call harmonious. Here is a fairly in-depth look at that history.
It all started the morning of May 31, 1921, in an elevator of the Drexel Building. Something happened between a black 19-year-old boy and a 17-year-old girl. Some say she was assaulted, others say it was a lovers’ quarrel. It could have been just an accidental foot-stepping. In any case, the boy was arrested, and plans were made to lynch him. At one point, there were up to 10,000 people gathered at the court-house where he was being held, trying to get to the boy to lynch him, with a small number of Sheriff’s deputies and some black men trying to protect him. You can read a quite thorough and compelling timeline of the riot, with maps, here. The facts that I find so astonishing are that over the course of the night and the following day, over 1200 black-owed homes and businesses were destroyed, and over 300 people died. It was the first time airplanes were used in combat, EVER, and they were used by white people to shoot at and bomb black people. State and national authorities were brought in to control the violence, but they actually just helped in the massacre and destruction, which were systematic and thorough. There are many sources of photographs and video available on the web, as well as the visual history I have posted above. Please take the time to view at least some of it.
What overwhelms and disgusts me most is that I think I may have heard about this before, but I’m not sure. How can that be? How can the largest race riot in the history of America be so buried? Tulsa’s own public library has a timeline of state history that doesn’t even list the tragedy. I can think of three events that even the most ignorant of American’s should know about Oklahoma’s history, and they are: the facts surrounding the Trail of Tears, the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, and this riot, the most costly one in the history of the United States. Why is it buried? I learned about the Trail of Tears. It is a mark of horrendous racism, just as this riot is. Is it too embarrassing? Is it still too close to home? Is it because racism is still the most challenging issue facing the country, even though we have been able to change our language to be more politically correct, and to elect a president based on the content of his character rather than on the color of his skin?
What I mean to say is that I don’t see the coverage of this event by mainstream…anybody – media, academia, civil society. Websites that document the event are mostly amateurish in production, though they contain well-written and researched content. Even Tulsa’s Public Library’s website buries the more polished site created by the AARC . Why aren’t we remembering this atrocity as a nation?
I think it is important, but not because we need to place blame. This thing is festering, as all the other hidden “embarrassments” of our country’s past are. I watch from afar, from across the ocean, and I see our country no longer just fragmenting, but rather shattering into a million pieces, and part of me weeps to see it. Our diversity as a nation is its greatest strength. But we seem to have not gotten that fact yet. We let these notions of difference cause conflict and strife, and then act as if they don’t exist. There is another way. We could begin to recognize that we can only reach real understanding and progress when we appreciate, but also value, our differences.
I hope to contribute to that dawning awareness, one that signals our maturity as a nation. What do you think we can do to help bring about healing, rather than blaming, as these negative aspects of our history come more to light?