Years ago, in high school and later, in college, I wanted to be a history teacher. I have always been fascinated by history, and the fact that history repeats, especially where no lessons have been learned. But I wonder, how we can expect to learn anything from history when we aren’t, weren’t, and might not ever be, if the Republicans have their way, taught the full history of this country, the good, the bad, and the terribly ugly.
I took history classes in grade school, middle school, high school and many in college and not once, ever, did I hear the words ‘Tula Race Massacre.’ Not once. Oh, I learned about Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and a few others, but I never heard of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, about Black Wall Street, about the murders of at least 300 Black Americans and destruction of what was, in fact, an entire thriving city.
But I have learned that the reason for this is that our history is written, at least for school textbooks, mostly by white people, who, perhaps through no fault of their own, never heard of Black Wall Street either. I only learned of the Tulsa Race Massacre last year … and only because the twice-impeached, one-term loser wanted to hold one of his super-spreader rallies in Tulsa on the anniversary of the massacre. I have, however, since then, read much about the massacre, and have seen several documentaries this past week as the 100th anniversary came and went.
And that makes me angry. I mean, I wasn’t brought up to think that I was better than anyone else, whether because I was male or white; I was brought up to believe we are all the same, even though we may look, love, or worship differently, or have different education or different socio-economic status. And I wonder if this stain on US history, which has gone silent in schools since it happened, I wonder that if it had been taught and discussed, would we have learned something new, changed our ways. Would we need a Black Lives Matter movement in 2021 if we knew what had happened to all those Black lives in 1921? And so, for anyone who doesn’t know about the Tulsa Race Massacre, let me tell you what I now know …
It began on May 31, 1921, when a Black teenager named Dick Rowland was working at a shoe-shine stand. His employer didn’t’ have a “colored” restroom, so Rowland walked down the block to the Drexel Building to take the elevator to the fourth floor and use the nearest “colored” bathroom. No one really knows what happened on that elevator—Rowland says it lurched and he bumped into the elevator operator—but at some point, the young white operator, Sarah Page, screamed and Rowland fled. The police were called, and Rowland was arrested the next morning for assault, code for rape.
During the day, white men began to gather around the courthouse where Rowland was being held, looking to lynch the teenager. Their numbers grew and grew and around 9PM a group of 25 armed Black men—including World War I veterans—arrived at the courthouse to make sure Rowland wouldn’t be turned over to the mob. The sheriff assured them that the young man would be safe, and turned them away, but as the mob of angry white men grew to over 1,500, later that night some 75-armed Black men returned to the courthouse, where they were met by the white men, many of whom were also armed. The sheriff again tried to persuade the Black men to leave the jail, assuring them that he had the situation under control, but then a shot was fired, and all hell broke loose, leaving 10 White men and two Black men dead.
The outnumbered group of Black men retreated to Greenwood and that was when the sheriff began to deputize those angry white men and provide them with firearms because there were rumors that Black people from neighboring towns were flooding into the city, but there is no evidence that this ever occurred.
What did happen was that this growing mob of angry white men poured into Greenwood on the morning of June 1, 1921, looting and burning homes and businesses over 35 square blocks. Police and firefighters arrived on scene, but did nothing to help, allegedly because rioters had threatened them with guns and forced them to leave.
And it wasn’t just white men with guns and torches and gas cans attacking Greenwood, eyewitnesses tell of airplanes carrying White assailants, who fired rifles and dropped firebombs on buildings, homes, and fleeing families. Law enforcement officials later said that the planes were to provide reconnaissance and protect against a "Negro uprising" even though it has been said that many in law enforcement were aboard at least some flights that torched Greenwood.
By the end of the day, more than 1,256 Black-owned homes were burned to the ground, with another 215 looted. In the downtown area, the two Black-owned newspapers, a school, a library, a hospital, several churches, hotels, stores and many other businesses were also destroyed. By the end of the day, Governor J. B. A. Robertson called out the National Guard and declared martial law, but the riot had effectively ended. Though guardsmen helped put out fires, they also imprisoned many Black Tulsans, and by June 2 some 6,000 people, all Black, were under armed guard at the local fairgrounds.
There were no convictions for any of the charges related to violence.
On June 3, 1921, over 1,000 businessmen and civic leaders met to form a committee to raise funds and aid in rebuilding Greenwood. Many Black families spent the winter of 1921–1922 in tents as they worked to rebuild. But then a group of influential White developers persuaded the city to pass a fire ordinance that would have prohibited many Black people from rebuilding in Greenwood. Their intention was to redevelop Greenwood for more business and industrial use and force Black Tulsans further to the edge of the. The case was litigated and appealed to the Oklahoma Supreme Court where it ruled unconstitutional but most of the promised funding was never raised for the Black residents, and they struggled to rebuild.
While the Oklahoma Bureau of Vital Statistics officially recorded 36 deaths, historians estimate the death toll may have been as high as 300. In 2001, the report of the Race Riot Commission—which has subsequently, more accurately, been renamed the Race Massacre Commission—concluded that between 100 and 300 people were killed and more than 10,000 people were left homeless over those 18 hours; property damage amounted to more than $1.5 million in real estate and $750,000 in personal property.
And yet we were never told about this because … many survivors left Tulsa, and those who stayed, both Black and White, kept silent about the terror and violence for decades, and the massacre was largely omitted from local, state and national histories. And for decades, there were no public ceremonies, no memorials for the dead or any efforts to commemorate the events of May 31-June 1, 1921. Instead, there was a deliberate effort to cover them up.
The Tulsa Tribune removed its own May 31st front-page story of the assault on a white girl by a “negro” that sparked the chaos from its bound volumes, and both police and state militia archives about the riot have gone missing as well.
Erased, Forgotten. Never taught in schools.
A bill in the Oklahoma State Senate requiring that all Oklahoma high schools teach the Tulsa Race Massacre failed to pass in 2012, with its opponents claiming schools were already teaching their students about the riot. It was not recognized in the Tulsa Tribune feature of "Fifteen Years Ago Today" or "Twenty-five Years Ago Today" and every year, on the anniversary of the massacre, no mention was ever printed in the local papers. A 2017 report detailing the history of the Tulsa Fire Department from 1897 until 2017 makes no mention of the 1921 massacre.
In 1996, as the riot's 75th anniversary neared, the state legislature authorized an Oklahoma Commission to investigate the Tulsa Race Riot, by appointing individuals to prepare a report detailing an account of the riot. The commission had originally been called the "Tulsa Race Riot Commission", but in November 2018 the name was changed to "Tulsa Race Massacre Commission. A final report was delivered in February 2001, and recommended actions for substantial restitution to the Black residents, in the form of reparations to survivors and descendants of survivors; a scholarship fund available to students affected by the Tulsa race riot; establishment of an economic development zone in the Greenwood district; and a memorial for the reburial of the remains of the victims of the Tulsa race riot who had been placed in mass graves in a local cemetery and presumed to have been dumped into an area known as The Canes along the Arkansas River.
Lastly, in the hours after the Tulsa Race Massacre, all charges against Dick Rowland were dropped, with authorities having concluded that Rowland had accidentally stumbled into Page. Dick Rowland left Tulsa after his release and never returned.
It was all a misunderstanding that left many hundreds dead, many thousands homeless, and an entire city destroyed.
Oh, and before I go, I should also point out that I was never taught about the by an all-white mob in 1910 or of white supremacist terrorism in 1919.
How will we ever do better if we don’t learn from the past?