Tulsa tries to atone for role in Black massacre

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The Independent US

Tulsa tried hard to forget its darkest days for 70 years. But now, the city in Oklahoma is remembering one of the worst racial atrocities in American history, and may act to compensate the victims.

Tulsa tried hard to forget its darkest days for 70 years. But now, the city in Oklahoma is remembering one of the worst racial atrocities in American history, and may act to compensate the victims.

On 31 May, 1921 white residents stormed the black part of Tulsa. When they had finished, perhaps 300 people were dead and a prosperous and thriving place, known as the Black Wall Street, was in flames, with 35 city blocks left in ruins. For decades the event was swept under the carpet but now the city is trying to make amends.

The trouble started when a young black man was rumoured to have grabbed a white girl by the arm in a lift. He was arrested, rumours swept the city that he would be lynched and a confrontation between white and black Tulsans exploded into violence.

The state's National Guard were too late to stop the fighting but did have time to use their heavy machine guns to kill blacks who had not fled the city. Most of the bodies have never been found and the death toll was persistently given as much lower - perhaps three dozen.

One of the grimmest tasks of those studying the incident has been to search the city cemetery for what are though to be mass graves. Some reports from the time said high explosives and aircraft were used to destroy the area. This was ethnic cleansing. There can be no doubt about what the white residents wanted to do. One contemporary postcard (Americans would often send each other postcards about these vile events) reads: "Running the Blacks out of Tulsa."

The point, as in Croatia or Bosnia, was not just to murder but to remove the people. Across the country, white Americans were ethnically cleansing communities during the period, between the end of the 19th century and the Thirties, that is sometimes called the Black Holocaust. In Forsyth County, Georgia, a notorious nest of racism, over 1,000 black citizens were driven from the area in 1912 after the rape and murder of a white woman and the lynching of her accused assailant. In the last census, Forsyth County had 28 black residents out of 75,000 people.

Since 1997, Tulsa has tried, to investigate the killings. The commission set up to investigate the atrocity met yesterday to consider how to right the wrong, and was discussing an offer of $12m in compensation. "We do not feel this will come close to making those affected whole," said Jim Lloyd, a lawyer who sits on the commission. But it would, he said, make a start. A local politician has suggested that the city and state pay $3m each for the Tulsa killings.

The issue of reparations is not new. Florida granted $2.1m in reparations in 1994 for a riot that destroyed the black community of Rosewood in 1923. At least one other such atrocity, in Arkansas, is also being investigated. "It's an emotional issue. We don't want to limit any view, any debate," said Bob Blackburn, who is the chairman of the commission on the issue. "We want the truth."

America's leading black organisation, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People grew out of a conference to protest at an atrocity in Illinois, in 1908, and it continues to press for justice for those who suffered in the Black Holocaust. "The general idea of reparations is to somehow make whole," said Julian Bond, its chairman. "There is no way that money can make whole such a grievous wrong. It is more the acknowledgment that some wrong has been done."

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