The Tulsa Race Massacre Happened 99 Years Ago. Here

mob destroys 35-square-blocks of the black community, 300 killed, 8,000 left homeless

Author: Jennifer Vineyard, New York Times

Posted on January 27, 2021


Last year, the HBO series ‘Watchmen’ depicted the Tulsa Race Massacre, one of the worst outbreaks of racial violence in American history, in its series premiere.

The Tulsa Race Massacre receives scant mention in most history textbooks and some facts remain hazy — mystery persists about, for example, exactly how many people were killed and where they were buried. But there’s no question that it was one of the worst outbreaks of racial violence in American history: a horrific spree of murder, arson and looting inflicted by white residents upon the prosperous African-American community of Greenwood, followed by a shameless cover-up.

The HBO series “Watchmen,” which debuted Oct. 20, 2019, begins with a depiction of the Tulsa horror and suggests that its aftereffects could be a recurring plot point. In the show’s alternate history, unlike what actually happened, reparations had been paid to the victims and their descendants, and resentment about this lingers among white supremacists.

For useful background to all this, here is a collection of eyewitness accounts, official reports and subsequent reporting and commentary on the destruction of the thriving district once known as “Black Wall Street.”

‘Unearthing a Riot’
[The New York Times]

A wall of silence surrounded the Tulsa race riot, which was instigated in part by the city itself, reported Brent Staples, by permitting and aiding the looting, arson and murders in Greenwood. The law professor Alfred L. Brophy argued that city officials “made the riot worse” when police deputized hundreds from a lynch mob. The state legislator Don Ross, who had published the exposé “Profile of a Race Riot,” detailing Ku Klux Klan involvement, also found evidence of the mayor and the city commission plotting to “steal black land so that the ‘colored section’ could be pushed farther north,” he said.

‘Oklahoma Was Never Really O.K.’
[New York Magazine]

Frank Rich took a hard look at the legacy of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, and wonders about the whitewashing of American history pertaining to the Tulsa race riot, which was “still within recent memory” during its creation. “Or would have been had it not been purged from the record. And I mean literally purged,” he wrote. “The incident was not a part of the Oklahoma public schools’ curriculum until 2000, and only recently entered American-history textbooks.”

‘Timeline: The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre’

Tracking the conditions leading up to, during, and following the 14-hour-period of May 31-June 1, 1921, such as the previous investigation into the corrupt police force and the arrest of a young black teenager for allegedly attacking a white female elevator operator (a case that was later dismissed). As the suspect was held in a courthouse cell, a large crowd gathered outside, leading to armed confrontation and looting. “At dawn, a force of ‘citizens, police and members of the National Guard,’ numbering perhaps 1,500, moved into Greenwood from the south and west, under orders to take into protective custody unarmed blacks and to subdue any who resisted. To people in Greenwood, it looked more like an invading army.”

‘A Long-Lost Manuscript Contains a Searing Eyewitness Account of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921’
[Smithsonian Magazine]

In a 10-page document written in 1931 and found in 2015, an Oklahoma lawyer, Buck Colbert Franklin, bore witness to the riots, including aerial assaults of planes dropping incendiary bombs, contributing to the arson: “Lurid flames roared and belched and licked their forked tongues into the air,” Franklin wrote. “Smoke ascended the sky in thick, black volumes and amid it all, the planes — now a dozen or more in number — still hummed and darted here and there with the agility of natural birds of the air.”

‘Eyewitness to the Desolation of “Black Wall Street”’
[The New York Times]

Olivia J. Hooker, one of the last living survivors, remembered the violence that ripped apart her peaceful Greenwood community, when looters broke into her home as she and her siblings hid under the dining table. “I used to scream at night,” she said. “It took me years to get over the shock of seeing people be so horrible to people who had done them no wrong.”

‘The Eruption of Tulsa’
[The Nation]  

“What is America going to do after such a horrible carnage — one that for sheer brutality and murderous anarchy cannot be surpassed by any of the crimes now being charged to the Bolsheviks in Russia?” journalist and civil rights activist Walter White wrote in 1921. “How much longer will America allow these pogroms to continue unchecked?”

‘A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921’
[Oklahoma Historical Society

The Oklahoma Commission report in 2001 detailed damage from the riots and recommends a number of reparations, including direct payment, scholarship funds, economic development, and a memorial, as “a starting place.” “Justice demands closure as it did with Japanese Americans and Holocaust victims of Germany,” wrote the state representative Don Ross, who introduced the bill to the legislature calling for a study of the history of the riot. “It is a moral obligation.”

‘Searching for Graves — and Justice — in Tulsa’
[The New York Times]

Estimates for how many died vary partly because not all graves of the riot dead have been found. Brent Staples reported in 1999 on the search for mass graves along the Arkansas River and elsewhere.

‘Coming to Grips With the Unthinkable in Tulsa’
[The New York Times]

With no reparations made and the Commission report buried, the survivors filed suit seeking damages, with a legal team including Johnnie Cochran Jr., Willie Gary, and Charles Ogletree. “The arrival of the high-profile legal team sent a shock through sleepy Tulsa,” Brent Staples wrote in 2003. “But the most electric moment came when 88-year-old John Hope Franklin, one of the most important historians of the 20th Century, was found to have joined the suit as a plaintiff.”

‘We lived like we were Wall Street’
[The Washington Post]

In 2018, Tulsa’s mayor G.T. Bynum reopened the mass grave investigation, searching three suspected sites: two cemeteries and a former dump identified as possible grave sites, based on accounts from witnesses coming forward. “We owe it to the victims and their family members,” Bynum said. “We will do everything we can to find out what happened in 1921.” The investigation is ongoing.

‘As Survivors Dwindle, Tulsa Confronts Past’
[The New York Times]

Commemorating the massacre’s 90th anniversary in 2011, A.G. Sulzberger charted the recognition — and lack thereof — of the massacre. Although small gestures had been made, efforts toward reparations had failed.

‘They was killing black people’
[The Washington Post]

All that’s left of the original Greenwood are 14 reconstructed red brick buildings. The rest has been developed into high-end apartments, shopping complexes, and an arts district targeted to Millennials, pushing descendants of the massacre out of the area.

‘Black Wall Street: The African-American Haven That Burned and Then Rose From the Ashes’
[The Ringer]

Victor Luckerson examined the hard-won revival of Greenwood as an aspirational symbol of black prominence, even if Hollywood has yet to embrace the historical tale. “Part of the problem is that the story of the massacre, if told accurately, would paint thousands of white people as pillagers and murderers,” Luckerson wrote. “Black historical narratives that make it to the screen tend to incorporate a white savior — think Matthew McConaughey in ‘Armistad’ or Brad Pitt in ’12 Years a Slave.’” John Legend and Oprah Winfrey, however, have had TV shows in development, with varying degrees of success.


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