Remembering the Tulsa race massacreFriday, June 04, 2021
One of the challenges facing early white settlers in what would later become known as the United States was the presence of tribes they described as Red Indians. These Native Americans lived on fertile ancestral lands which the white settlers wanted. Congress, therefore, passed laws and created treaties designed to remove Indians from these lands.
On March 28, 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which made way for the forced removal of thousands of Native Americans from approximately 25 million acres of fertile, lucrative ancestral lands to virtually barren land west of the Mississippi. Where there was resistance, the military assisted in getting 46,000 Native Americans to abandon their homes and settle in the new Indian Territory that eventually became the state of Oklahoma. More than 4,000 died on the journey, from disease, starvation, and exposure to extreme weather in what became known as the Trail of Tears.
By the end of World War I, however, more problems faced these white settlers. Firstly, the barren Indian Territory on which they had pushed the Native Americans was found to contain oil. In fact, Oklahoma is a Choctaw Indian word that means red people. It is derived from the words for people (okla) and red (humma). And 39 American Indian tribes were, by then, headquartered within the state of Oklahoma.
Oklahoma's state capitol building is the only capitol with an oil well directly underneath it. In 1941 that well was slant drilled through a flowerbed to reach the oil pool, which produced 1.5 million bbl over the next 43 years. So the Native Americans were again 'in the way', because the white settlers wanted that oil. A second nuisance was the black population of ex slaves and their descendants. The Ku Klux Klan, comprised mostly of white evangelicals, was one of the groups that used lynchings, castrations, and arson to 'control' the 'blacks and keep them in their place'.
Mindful of these conditions, 10,000 blacks settled in a section of Tulsa known as Greenwood. This area thrived with its own mansions, schools, churches, financial and other commercial enterprises so much so that it earned the moniker Black Wall Street. The white population was shocked that these blacks — many with substandard education — could accomplish so much on their own. At one gathering of Christian white ladies the following statement was made, “[A]nd I hear they have grand pianos in their living rooms…” The group was stunned. Things were getting out of hand, they thought. This piano matter was the subject of several meetings. Racial tensions increased.
About midday on May 31, Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old shoeshine entered the Drexel building intending to use the bathroom for black people on the third floor. Shortly thereafter, Sarah Page, the white elevator operator screamed and Rowland ran from the elevator. The Tulsa Tribune that afternoon reported that Rowland had sexually assaulted Page and Rowland was arrested by Sheriff Willard McCullough the following morning.
For reasons that are still open to speculation, one of the greatest concerns of the white population in the United States was the likelihood of white women fraternising with black males. As news of the Rowland matter spread, white men gathered with the intention of taking Rowland away and lynching him. When the black population heard, a group of armed blacks of mainly veterans from the war turned up to prevent this from happening. Sheriff McCullough stood his ground and said there would be no lynching. As the crowd departed, a white man decided to try to disarm a black man and all hell broke loose.
This marked the beginning of 18 continuous hours of shooting, fighting, and the burning of about 35 city blocks of Greenwood. White men were deputised and armed by city officials. Black businesses, schools, churches and hospitals were looted then burned. Greenwood was attacked from the ground and from the air as even bombs were reported to have been dropped from a plane. Slightly singed grand pianos found themselves in the living rooms of white folk. The fire department turned up but was turned back by the rioters.
Marcus Garvey, then living in the United States, put together a contingent of 100 nurses, but Tulsa officials rejected the offer. Some 1,256 homes of black residents were robbed of the cash which many blacks kept at home and other valuables then destroyed. By June 1, Greenwood, with its impressive buildings, was reduced to rubble. At noon, when the governor declared martial law, there was nothing left to protect.
During the riot, Rowland was kept safe by the sheriff who barricaded the top floor of the sheriff's building to protect him. That afternoon, after the riot, he was taken to court. It was determined that he had lost his footing and stumbled into Susan Page, innocently. He was freed and immediately left Tulsa — for good.
Some 6,000 blacks were corralled at the local fair grounds and forced to remain there for several days. Although the Oklahoma Bureau of Vital Statistics recorded the dead at a modest 39, serious investigations later estimated the dead to number around 300.
C L Netherland, a black businessman's recollection of how the event affected him went like this, “From a 10-room and basement modern brick home, I am now living in what was my coal barn.”
The authorities estimate white rioters decimated more than $200 million of black property in today's dollars. Courts decided the city of Tulsa was not financially liable for what the mob had done. Insurance companies got around claims through clauses that released them from damage payouts due to riots. The US Supreme court in 2005 decided not to hear a case seeking reparation for survivors and descendants of the Tulsa massacre after lower courts ruled the statutes of limitations had expired.
“The failure to provide reparation did not simply affect the direct victims of collective white violence,” wrote Alison Adams, associate professor, University of Florida.”It was part of a larger pattern that deprived later generations of African Americans of household assets and conveyed an implicit message that white violence would be either condoned or tolerated. That is the legacy that now demands a response.”
One measure of generational wealth and economic activity is the number of patents registered by a particular group. Researching African American patents between 1870 and 1940, Lisa Cook, in Journal of Economic Growth, May 2014, stated that black inventors obtained some 726 patents during that period. But lynchings and other race-based violence suppressed another 1,100 patents from black inventors during that period.
Cook tallied 38 riots, including the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, that led to a major loss of life and property. Most of the time rioters were white people targeting black people and their property. The effects of violence on black economic activity could have been both direct; for example black inventors' workshops that were damaged, and also the depreciation in the cost of commercial and residential property.
Cook also tallied 290 state laws that promoted segregation and decreased access to patenting institutions and networks of all-white patenting attorneys, as well as 2,787 lynchings of black victims during the period studied. “A lynching,” she said, “signalled that personal security — and with it the freedom to work and innovate — were not guaranteed.”
For decades there were no public ceremonies, memorials for the dead, or any effort to commemorate the events of May 31 - June 1, 1921. The Tulsa Tribune removed the front page story of May 31 that sparked the chaos from the bound volumes. Scholars later found that police and state militia archives about the riot were missing. Because of these actions, this sordid page of American history is rarely mentioned in history books or even talked about. In 1996, on the riot's 75th anniversary, a church service was held at the Mount Zion Baptist Church, burnt by the rioters but rebuilt.
Tulsa's Greenwood District thrived as the epicentre of African American business and culture. The systematic destruction of that area is one reason close examination of wealth in the US reveals staggering racial disparities. Using 2016 figures, at US$171,000, the net worth of the typical white family is nearly 10 times greater than that of a black family at US$17,150. These gaps reveal the effects of accumulated inequality and discrimination, as well as differences in power and opportunity…and events like the Tulsa Massacre.
Glenn Tucker is a past president of the Mico Historical Society. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or email@example.com.
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