By Abby Zimet / Common Dreams
Lessons from the past: Last week marked the 97th anniversary of Tulsa, Oklahoma’s 1921 Race Massacre, wherein mobs of white vigilantes, abetted by complicit government and law enforcement officials, looted, burned, bombed from the air and virtually destroyed the black, thriving, middle-class Greenwood community widely known as Negro Wall Street, in the process killing at least 300 of its 10,000 black residents, and likely many more.
Then perhaps America’s most preeminent, albeit segregated, black community, Greenwood was created by post-World-War-One blacks fleeing the Deep South; divided by railroad tracks from white Tulsa, they built scores of black-owned businesses, hotels, restaurants and law offices, as well as a library and hospital even as racial hostilities, lynchings and the ranks of Klan members grew — in Tulsa, to over 3,200.
What is now deemed this country’s worst domestic terror attack began with a classic racist ploy. On May 30, reported the Chicago Tribune, a 19-year-old black shoeshine man named Dick Rowland entered a downtown building; approaching the elevator, which hadn’t stopped even with the floor, he tripped and fell on operator Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white girl. She screamed — though later declined to press charges – and onlookers rushed to yell rape because it was easier than yelling that black social and economic power threatened the country’s white supremacy.
Police arrested Rowland and held him in the county jail. With the next day’s Tulsa Tribune story — “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator” — and its call for lynching, things swiftly escalated to an armed standoff between a white mob and a group of black residents seeking to protect Rowland. A gun went off, a fistfight ensued, and the whites, who vastly outnumbered the blacks, began rioting — shooting, burning, looting, killing and even dropping napalm-like bombs from private fertilizer planes in the first bombs ever dropped on American soil.
The governor declared martial law, over 6,000 black Tulsans were interned in camps where they were reportedly beaten, starved and killed, and within 24 hours the city’s 35 blocks lay in charred ruins, leaving every resident homeless.
Initial reports said over 800 people were injured and around 35 people died; that number was later raised to 300, though some historians say the actual total could rival that of Pearl Harbor and 9/11 combined. A grand jury indicted about 20 black men and no whites.
Many of the accused blacks fled, and nobody went to jail. In the 1990s, with eyewitness accounts and appalling artifacts — a photo labeled, “Running the Negro out of Tulsa” — still surfacing and pressure for accountability growing, Dr. Olivia Hooker, 103 years old and the oldest survivor of the massacre, founded the Tulsa Race Riot Commission.
Its conclusions confirmed the total complicity of the white power structure, which failed to contain white vigilantes, chose and armed many of them as deputies, stood by as they burned black homes and businesses, declined to prosecute or punish any of their criminal acts and, except for the Red Cross, largely left Greenwood’s rebuilding to the victims themselves.
Last week, Tulsa held a series of events at Reconciliation Park and a police accountability forum to discuss the massacre and a “whitewashed history (that) allows us to (avoid) facing the true horrors of our past, thereby absolving us of responsibility.” A local bishop has called out the role of the Church, from today’s evangelicals to the back-in-the-day rule that you had to be Christian to join the Klan; especially today, with Trumpian toxicity on the rise and black lives still under threat, “We have a lot of work to do.” Above all, critics argue, the recurring, untenable gap in history books echoes “America’s vast silence about the atrocities that were performed in the service of white history.”
In an interview, Dr. Hooker, then a child whose parents had sought to protect her from the era’s racism, recalls hearing what she thought was hail. Realizing it was time to end a silence that still resonates, her mother brought her to the window, where she saw a machine gun. “Look at that American flag,” her mother said. “Your country is shooting at you.”