President Joe Biden recently visited Oklahoma to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921. The commemoration prompted a renewed debate over racial justice in the United States, and highlighted the vital importance of truthfully examining and remembering our past, admitting our collective wrongs, and striving to seek justice for victims of racial hatred both past and present. It is a heart-wrenching and eternally relevant discussion.
As background, the Tulsa Race Massacre (formally known as the Tulsa Race Riot) began with an incident on May 30, 1921 between teenagers Dick Rowland and Sarah Page in an elevator inside the Drexel Building in downtown Tulsa. Rowland was African American, Page was white, and what exactly happened between them has never been clear. At one point, however, she screamed and drew the attention of a white department store employee who called the police. Rowland ran, and Page told the police she had been assaulted. She recanted the story within a few days, making it at least clear that no attack actually took place, but by then the damage had been done.
Police arrested Rowland on May 31. Groups of African American men, many of them veterans of World War I, armed themselves to protect him from lynching and marched on the courthouse. They were met by larger groups of armed white men intent on seizing him. When the two groups began fighting each other the local sheriff and his men barricaded themselves in the top floor and successfully protected Rowland. Unfortunately, local law enforcement also deputized many of the whites, giving them a license to commit violence. The fighting spread and the next day the city exploded.
On June 1 thousands of angry whites destroyed 35 blocks of housing and businesses in the Greenwood District. Greenwood was known as the “Black Wall Street” because of the relative affluence of the businesses and residents there and was the focus of intense white resentment and jealousy at a time when Jim Crow laws and white supremacy were commonplace. More than 1,200 homes and buildings were destroyed in an orgy of destruction that left at least 8,000 people homeless, injured more than 800, and destroyed $200 million worth of property. Local law enforcement largely supported the white mobs, as did elements of the Oklahoma National Guard when they were called in to restore order. More than 6,000 African American men were detained at the local Fairgrounds and Convention Hall for days, ostensibly for their protection, leaving their homes and families subject to robbery and depredations by marauding whites.
The exact number of dead will never be known, but scholars estimate between 100 and 300 were killed, the vast majority of whom were African American. It remains the single worst incident of racial violence in American history, one that was deliberately covered up by local authorities (including the virulently racist Tulsa Tribune) and left out of Oklahoma history curriculums for generations.
Yet what happened in Tulsa is best understood not as an aberration, but as one among countless incidents of racial violence in the United States during the early 20th century. In the summer of 1919 alone, race riots swept through 36 American cities and killed hundreds. Lynchings were commonplace, and many scholars now see this period as the highwater mark for post-slavery racism and violence in our country.
We have made great strides in racial justice since that time, but these events remain extraordinarily difficult and depressing to discuss. Many Americans prefer to forget them entirely or skim briefly over them in history classes and then move on, and the question of paying reparations to descendants of those who suffered injustice often raises the ire of those who resent being blamed for events that took place so many years ago. That resentment underlies much of the pushback against Critical Race Theory and other academic approaches to teaching about racial injustice, and though characterizations of those approaches are almost always distorted, exaggerated and misunderstood by critics, the anger directed against them is very real. In some ways it undermined the efforts of the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, which began with bi-partisan fanfare years ago and devolved into predictable partisan animosity that saw Republican U.S. Sen. James Lankford resign and Gov. Kevin Stitt removed by commission organizers. How we remember the past has become intensely political.
Yet the deeply ingrained racism and violence in American history that the Tulsa Race Massacre illuminates demands our attention and understanding. It had enormous consequences for our society and produced long term consequences that are hard to measure and are with us still. Thousands of African Americans lost loved ones and everything they owned in the blink of an eye. Very few ever received compensation or recognition. No one was ever convicted of murder or held responsible for the destruction, and thousands were forced out of Tulsa forever.
One of those who left was Viola Fletcher, who witnessed the massacre at the age of 7 and today is the oldest living survivor. She testified before Congress last month and poignantly recounted how her family witnessed murder and destruction and was forced to move to California in abject poverty. The loss of all of their wealth forced everyone to work, and as a result she never finished school and spent the bulk of her life working for low wages while her country largely ignored and sometimes suppressed the truth about the massacre. She lived long enough to see progress, but the vast majority of the victims of the Tulsa massacre and countless other incidents of racial violence did not. In her testimony before Congress, Fletcher said we must acknowledge America’s sins. It is, she said, “the least we can do.”
And she is right.
Lance Janda has degrees in history.