The gruesome death of George Floyd in Minneapolis is riveting the nation’s attention. We’ve seen it happen multiple times previously—a black man dies at the hands of police. That indefensible storyline is but one chapter in America’s history of black and white. Another despicable chapter involves coordinated mass killings of African Americans—not by police, but by fellow Americans.
And one storyline in that chapter, written 99 years ago this week, is still being written—with the ending very different from the beginning. What happened nearly a century ago was awful. What’s happening today gives hope.
I’m referring to the “The Tulsa Race Massacre” (called ‘a riot’ at the time). It took place in the Greenwood area of Tulsa, Oklahoma, over two days, May 31 and June 1, 1921. Before it was over, 39 persons were confirmed dead, but estimates are that over ten times that number died—mostly African Americans—by gunfire, explosives, and incendiary devices dropped from airplanes.
What happened in Tulsa a century ago wasn’t unfamiliar to the time. Two years earlier, the ‘Red Summer of 1919’ (‘red’ for blood) saw deadly attacks against African Americans. It was a nationwide affair—in Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Nebraska, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Washington DC, Virginia, and West Virginia. Attacks took place in cities you know by name (e.g., New Orleans), in generally unfamiliar towns (e.g., Elaine, AR, Coatesville, PA), and in cities you’d never suspect (e.g., Syracuse, NY). Hundreds of people died by lynching, shooting, burning, and other means.
Contributing to both instances—in 1919 and 1921—were social tensions following the return of Black Americans from fighting the European War. White Americans were concerned about being displaced in the workforce and about African Americans gaining political power. Many also believed that African Americans were Socialists or Communists.
Back then, White resentment was high. But in White America—even in the many years that followed—acceptance about what happened was generally low. David Krugler, author of 1919, The Year of Racial Violence: How African Americans Fought Back, puts it this way: “It doesn’t fit into the neat stories we tell ourselves.”
One source that didn’t forget about the Tulsa riots was the city’s only black-owned newspaper, The Oklahoma Eagle. The publisher today, Jim Goodwin, won’t let Tulsa forget. The nation needs to be reminded, too. And that’s why I was pleased to see a feature article published about it recently in the LA Times.
What we know to be true about human and social behavior is this: it’s not possible to change the future without first acknowledging the past. Truthfulness is required.
Reporter Kurtis Lee describes what happened In Tulsa nearly a century ago. “For 18 hours, beginning the night of May 31, white mobs raced through Greenwood—known as “Black Wall Street” for its thriving African American-owned businesses—tossing Molotov cocktails, torching churches and hospitals, leaving nearly 300 black people dead and forcing thousands to flee. As so often back then, the violence was sparked by a rumor that a black man had tried to sexually assault a white woman. It was false. And as so often, there were few white casualties and no prosecutions, let alone arrested.”
For context, post-war Tulsa was thriving with oil money, and many in the Black community were doing quite well. “Greenwood epitomized black entrepreneurialism in the face of Jim Crow,” Ricco Wright, a businessman and activist, told the LA Times earlier this year. “It showcased black self-sufficiency and black excellence.”
But the city was mostly segregated, the KKK was active, and vigilante justice wasn’t uncommon. The rumor of a black youth assaulting a white woman flicked a burning match on a balled-up newspaper.
What’s important today is not just what happened in Tulsa back then; it’s what has transpired in the years that followed. Yes, the major local newspaper didn’t cover the story much at the time, and many documents about the riot that should be available in public records/archives aren’t. But others persisted in a different direction: they wanted to set the record straight.
A race riot commission was created in 1997. The report released four years later concluded that many more people had died than the number that had been reported originally. That was a start. Several years after that, the State of Oklahoma decided that what happened in Tulsa in 1921 should be a required study topic for high school students across the state. Then, in 2012, the riot commission was officially renamed to the “The 1921 Race Massacre Commission.” (italics added) This Sunday afternoon, May 31, the commission and a community center dedicated to remembering what happened in 1921 will sponsor a virtual commemoration of the Massacre.
What we know to be true about human and social behavior is this: it’s not possible to change the future without first acknowledging the past. Truthfulness is required. That happened in Tulsa, and it needs to happen elsewhere…everywhere across America.
I file news clippings and articles—you may do the same—and the most important file of my lot is labeled ‘commonwealth.’ By ‘wealth,’ I don’t mean money; I mean social capital we build and share as a people. Right now, social capital is low in Minneapolis, and it is low across the U.S., too. It need not remain that way—IF we accept and acknowledge the errors we’ve made, and dedicate ourselves to living a different future. That won’t happen by taking action once. Ad hoc responses won’t do. It comes by way of many people doing many things over an extended period of time. That’s what Tulsa is doing.
Tulsa, like other cities, is nowhere near where it wants to be. But if there’s a lesson to be learned in the aftermath of what happened in Tulsa 99 years ago this week, it’s this: it’s possible to be better. As Olivia Hooker, believed to be the last surviving person of the 1921 massacre, told NPR, "Our parents tried to tell us, don't spend your time agonizing over the past. They encouraged us to look forward and think how we could make things better."
Oliva Hooker passed away in 2018. The philosophy endures.
You can listen to this article at Frank’s podcast, Under the Radar, at Anchor.FM.Frank’s podcast is also available on these podcast platforms: Apple, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Breaker, RadioPublic, Pocket Casts, and Overcast.