Righting Historical Wrongs: The Tulsa Race Massacre

June 1st marked a century from a wrong that some of us would like to excavate from the memory hole, but the R-word often impedes even a frank discussion.

A discussion about whether there was law in Oklahoma after it ceased being Indian Territory in 1907?

Considering the facts on the ground, it might be fruitful to examine whether the white supremacists in our times running with the Adolf Hitler fan club is coincidence or just because the neo-Nazis agree on white supremacy but nothing more?

What will the discussion cost us in reputation? Will it cost us money? What could we tell the kiddies after all these years of lying silence?

R word? Racism?

Even scarier. Reparations.

A hundred years makes a lot of distance but I grew up about 40 miles from Tulsa. Even then, many of my neighbors worked in Tulsa. Now, when I go back to Bristow, it’s hard to see where people work if not Sapulpa (the only substantial town in between and the winner in a rivalry with Bristow about the placement of the County Seat of Creek County) or Tulsa.

Even now, it’s hard to understand blacks as “the” minority where I grew up. Minority meant us — Indians, the landlords until 1907. We were about 20%. Sure, there were blacks, but if you asked me how many, I would be likely to start naming off individuals I knew. I lived on the street that formed the border between Bristow proper and “niggertown.”

( Russell digression™ I was almost grown — in my late teens and already stalking the United States Air Force as a ticket out of Bristow — -when I discovered the other black neighborhood, where most folks lived and where all the businesses and other signs of public life were located excepting one church near my home where the worship services made so much racket in those days before air conditioning that I never had any question about where rock ‘n roll came from.

Of course, the uptight black parents were just like the uptight white parents in condemning rock ‘n roll — which never made much sense to my young ears. Every Sunday and sometimes on Wednesday evenings those kids who sang in the choir would head over to the church and rock out. Get ’em a drum kit [tambourines did not count] and a saxophone and they would be ready to cut hit records within a mile of my home!

A great mystery of my childhood was where the black kids disappeared to at age six. The white and Indian kids went off to Edison Elementary west of Route 66 AKA Main Street and those same groups went to Washington Elementary east of the Mother Road. For junior high and high school, the whole town attended the same school, the famed home of the Purple Pirates. Except the black kids.

My playmates from the other side of the street told me that all three schools (there being only enough blacks for one elementary school) for them were over in the other Bristow. The name of the school was Lincoln. Talking to those kids was the first I ever heard of Lincoln, and I did not understand why there was another whole school system.

If I may digress within my digression, Brown v Board of Education did not cause a great deal of strife in Bristow. The adults got together and negotiated a gradual integration plan, upper grades first. I was in the sixth grade when my progress intersected with the process of integration. It was no big deal to me because many of those kids I had been playing with all my life. It did not dawn on my sixth grade self to ask what happened to all those teachers from Lincoln.

They were all fired and it more than decimated the black middle class in Bristow. Decimated means one in ten, and it was more like half. Think about it. The “erl bidness” did not hire black roughnecks, even if roughneck were a middle-class job, which it became after the OCAW [oil, chemical and atomic workers, AFL-CIO] changed things. Other than oil jobs, most folks around Bristow were sharecroppers. I don’t recall a black lawyer and one of the two white doctors in town treated black patients. The middle-class jobs for blacks were funeral director, barber, letter carrier, several ministers, a couple of black-owned businesses, and all those schoolteachers K-12 who were suddenly unemployed.

The gradual phase-in of integration was sold as a means for the kids to get used to having black classmates. I doubt that was as difficult to get used to as the teachers being unemployed or the impact on the tiny community of having that much spending money removed.)

I expect there were more blacks in Tulsa and there were certainly more whites stirring up the business activity that would lead to Tulsa’s self-description as the “oil capital of the world.” It took geologists to find likely drilling sites and then lawyers to pry the land out of federal trust so the Indians could be cut out of the deal. Then came the roughnecks (my father was one) and the drillers (my grandfather was one until he was injured in a blowout).

When the wells came in, there were construction jobs building the mansions and servant jobs staffing them. Then there would be car dealers of all kinds and high dollar restaurants that employed people who could not afford to eat in them.

This ocean of prosperity contained a little tidal pool called Greenwood, where most comforts available to white folks could be purchased by black folks from black-owned businesses. Black people were even “allowed” to own guns, and a group of black men armed themselves and headed for the local jail when they heard a group of armed white men was there and about to carry out a common ritual thought to enhance the safety of the community.

They would, with minimal if any resistance by the sheriff, break out of jail a black man accused of molesting a white woman. This southern custom was called “lynching,” and it was observed whether the accusation was based on rumor or eyewitness testimony. It was so common that the odd sheriff who did not wish to have an inmate die on his watch would remove the accused black man from the jail and hide him until the mob dispersed or killed the wrong black man. I say “killed” rather than “hanged” because the stereotypical stringing up on a tree across the street from the courthouse was not always the manner of delivering the informal death penalty.

How do I know this?

Because the killing of a black accused without trial was so common that the proceedings were often photographed. The KKK might be hard to identify because all armed men look pretty much the same when wearing a pillow slip chapeau, but most perpetrators did not choose such attire. The resulting photographs were duplicated and sold as souvenirs — souvenir postcards until the U.S. postal service got finicky about delivering evidence of a felony in progress, a felony never charged for “lack of evidence.”

While many victims were hanged — -seldom with a proper hangman’s noose and measured drop said to render the victim unconscious instantly — -there were also fatal beatings and burnings and shootings. Sometimes all these methods were used, leaving the body horribly mutilated and the cause of death a guessing game.

This is the common fate that a group of black men set out to prevent for Dick Rowland, age 19. Reports vary a hundred years later on precisely what he is supposed to have done, but whatever the details, they came to a white mob as attempted rape of Sarah Page, a 17 year old elevator operator. That would be white elevator operator. There was some sort of disturbance from which Rowland ran away but was quickly apprehended.

A white mob gathered outside the jail, thought to be intent upon lynching Rowland. A smaller but armed black mob came from Greenwood to the purpose of preventing the lynching. The sheriff was trying to assure everybody that he had the situation in hand when, in that splendid historical passive voice in use at least from the French Revolution — when the tocsin rang itself — “a shot was fired.”

The outnumbered blacks prevailed in the first skirmish, losing two in the process of killing 10 whites. The white mob went out howling for revenge and the blacks retreated to Greenwood. Reports of what went on for the next day and a half read like a World War I battle. Some whites turned the top of a grain elevator into a machine gun nest. Other whites flew private planes over Greenwood dropping “turpentine balls,” makeshift incendiary bombs.

Black families were detained in “internment camps” for several days, their captors released, at first, only those who could get a white person to vouch for them in writing. It only took a day from deployment for the National Guard to restore order. That would be the new order, with 35 blocks of the most prosperous part of Greenwood turned to smoldering rubble. The dead among Greenwood residents started at a state total of 36, but many, many people were missing. Many of them went missing either from the internment camps or during the time when the families were locked up and unable to see what happened. There is rough agreement that the maximum number of dead is 300.

After the centennial ceremonies are over, forensic anthropologists are deployed to dig where ground-penetrating radar has suggested there may be mass graves. If they find human remains, there are plenty of people alive today whose ancestors went missing in early June, 1921. DNA might identify them.

Around the time of the 75th anniversary of this crime, Oklahoma convened a commission to investigate the Greenwood Riot, Massacre…there can be good faith disagreement about what to call it but the good faith does not extend to anything accidental. It was a crime that destroyed a community and a crime for which nobody ever stood trial. The Commission reported in 2001 and recommended reparations to the handful of living survivors and the descendants of known survivors of the massacre who just died of old age still waiting for justice.

Reparations have not been forthcoming and remain a controversial subject. It goes something like this:

If you weren’t even alive in 1921, you weren’t harmed.

Is that so? The primary means of intergenerational wealth transfer in the U.S. remains equity in real estate. That’s why the GI Bill jump-started the middle class with free education and the opportunity to own a home with no down payment. Black families missed the GI Bill when southern lawmakers set up obstacles for black veterans. The black citizens of Greenwood had earned substantial wealth before the events of May and June, 1921. That wealth was not transferred to the next generation; it went up in smoke of the fires set with racial animus. You bet your ass people not alive in 1921 were harmed.

Why should I pay for this? At most, the guilty parties are ancestors I never met. At least, my family was not even in Oklahoma when the crime happened.

Reparations are not punishment for the crime. The perpetrators got clean away and that will not change. It is a civil claim for damage done, and whether civil claims survive the actual perpetrator is up to the legislature, as this will be. The victims will never be made whole. I don’t understand how that morphs into an argument that contemporary taxpayers should not do their best to make the victims whole.

I’m not sure how you argue to descendants of the victims who lost everything that they should forgive and forget in the interest of social stability. We know what was done and we know who did it and to whom. Did the victims owe the perpetrators a clear conscience? Do they now?

The sums that would show a good faith effort to do the right thing a hundred years later are trivial, but only to those whose good name means something beyond inherited power.

Previously Published on Medium

Image: Public Domain

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