A white mob killed hundreds of Black people in Tulsa 100 years ago. Survivors still demand justice

Cataclysmic violence brought death and destruction to Tulsa in 1921. Systemic injustice ensured Black Wall Street would never return, but Greenwood keeps fighting, Alex Woodward writes

Monday 31 May 2021 17:02 BST
<p>A white mob killed as many as 300 people and bombed a thriving Black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921.</p>

A white mob killed as many as 300 people and bombed a thriving Black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921.

Within two days, it was reduced to rubble. Tulsa’s Greenwood was a place of possibility and prosperity for Black Americans following decades of enslavement, racist violence and legalised discrimination in a Jim Crow-era marked by public lynchings and the beginnings of mass incarceration emerging from slavery.

An oil boom saw Tulsa’s population grow in the early 1900s. By 1921, in Tulsa’s northern neighbourhoods, a thriving community of 10,000 people energised 35 blocks dotted with red-brick buildings and marquees for clubs and movie theatres, with newspapers, upscale restaurants, hotels and churches, nearly all owned and operated by Black residents.

Legalised segregation prohibited Black residents from interacting with or benefitting from a largely white economy, but Greenwood allowed Black Americans to pursue a three-dimensional life previously unavailable to them.

On 31 May, 1921, the nation’s “Black Wall Street” was in flames.

As many as 300 people were killed and thousands of residents were left homeless in one of the bloodiest episodes of racist violence in the US. But it was one in which no one was ever charged with a crime – and which was washed from white America’s collective memory. It wasn’t until 2019 that Oklahoma high school students were required to learn about it.

Following decades of neglect, and a growing recognition of systemic racism, the nation's attention has fixed on the massacre's history. President Joe Biden will deliver a speech from Tulsa on 1 June to mark the 100th anniversary of the massacre.

But justice remains elusive for the survivors and a community living in its shadow.

On 30 May, 1921, a white elevator operator falsely accused a Black shoe shiner of sexual assault.

Hours after the Tulsa Tribune published the headline “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator”, a mob swarmed the courthouse where 19-year-old Dick Rowland was being held, spawning a wave of racist violence outside a county courthouse and into Greenwood.

Twenty-seven Black people were lynched in Oklahoma between 1907 and 1920, according to a Tulsa commission tasked with investigating the massacre. And within 14 hours from 31 May into 1 June of 1921, as many as 300 people were killed.

A white mob deputised by law enforcement and supported by city officials indiscriminately fired on Black residents. Airplanes dropped flaming turpentine-soaked rags and dynamite. Witness accounts say the bodies of Black victims were thrown into the Arkansas River or into mass graves. Survivors were rounded up at gunpoint and detained in internment camps.

A 2001 commission tasked with investigating the massacre said the mob “set fire to practically every building in the African American community, including a dozen churches, five hotels, 31 restaurants, four drug stores, eight doctor’s offices, more than two dozen grocery stores, and the Black public library.”

The neighbourhood’s once-booming 35 blocks were gone.

“I will never forget the violence,” said Viola Fletcher, the oldest of three living survivors of the attack.

She was seven years old, asleep in her bed, when her family told her they had to leave their home.

“Black men being shot. Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke. I still see Black businesses being burned,” she told members of Congress on 19 May. “I hear the screams. I live through the massacre every day. Our country may forget this history, but I cannot. I will not.”

By the 1960s, Greenwood was beginning to get back on its feet, with Black businesses opening throughout its 35 blocks.

But the long road to recovery would suffer the same systemic impacts of racial violence that reverberated across the US throughout the 20th century, from redlining and construction of highways through Black neighbourhoods to “urban renewal” initiatives and the use of eminent domain to seize Black-owned property.

The story of Greenwood is not just one under the shadow of a singular cataclysmic, racist event. It includes decades of stolen intergenerational wealth and lingering racial disparities under the same government that not only supported the massacre 100 years ago but is still determining how to make amends for those crimes and their lingering impacts.

A commission appointed by the Oklahoma state legislature in 1997 spent nearly four years investigating the massacre before issuing four major recommendations to state and local governments, including guidance to make direct payments to survivors and their families.

It also recommended creating a scholarship for survivors’ families, an economic enterprise zone in Greenwood, and a memorial and a proper burial for the victims, including those exhumed from unmarked graves in future excavation projects.

Most of the recommendations never fully materialised, or have fallen short of community demands and expectations – a scholarship fund has paid out $1,000 to 172 students over the last 20 years, Human Rights Watch reported, and an economic development district has largely benefitted white residents, while a delayed excavation project only began in 2020.

None of the survivors or their families have received any direct payment.

The failure to provide comprehensive reparations – and efforts from city and state officials to raise millions of dollars for museums and tourist attractions that profit from the atrocities – have only compounded the harms, survivors have argued.

The three living survivors of the massacre are the lead plaintiffs in a reparations lawsuit against the city and county of Tulsa, the state of Oklahoma and Tulsa’s Chamber of Commerce, arguing that the state and its economic centre are responsible for the massacre and its ongoing impacts.

In its latest report, “US: Failed Justice 100 Years After Tulsa Race Massacre,” Human Rights Watch has urged state and local officials to “develop a comprehensive reparations plan that includes compensation to descendants of massacre victims, and immediately provide direct payments to the three known living massacre survivors, all over 100 years old.”

Dreisen Heath, a racial justice researcher with Human Rights Watch, told members of Congress that the massacre “remains a bloody stain that will continue to define this country until reparations are paid”.

“If we can’t fully account for one of the worst incidents of racial violence in the US, then who are we as a people, and what does this country actually stand for?” she said.

The city remains incredibly segregated – the northern part of the city holds 17 per cent of the city’s population and 41 per cent of its Black residents. More than 35 per cent of north Tulsa’s population lives in poverty, compared with 17 per cent in the rest of the city.

Tulsa is also a “case study in abusive, overly aggressive policing in the US,” the organisation said.

Police there are more likely to stop drivers in areas with higher poverty rates with predominantly Black populations than the rest of the city. Those stops also last longer, and are more likely to include a search or arrest. Black Tulsans are also 2.3 times more likely to be arrested than white residents, according to a Human Rights Watch analysis.

The city’s Equality Indicator reports have generally improved since Tulsa’s participation in the initiative in 2018, though unemployment among Black residents remains 2.5 times higher than white residents, and the median household income among white residents is nearly $25,000 higher than the Black median household income, a gap that has grown within the last four years.

Today, only a portion of the once-famed 100 blocks of Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street” remains “somewhat preserved as a Black-owned business district,” according to Human Rights Watch, along with Vernon Chapel AME Church, one of the only still-standing structures from the massacre.

Surrounding them are university satellite campuses, a sports field, luxury condominiums, and a hulking stretch of a highway overpass from Interstate 244. Vacant lots and empty buildings to the north have been rezoned for industrial use, and growing fears of gentrification creeping into Greenwood from a neighbouring arts district have threatened to squeeze out what’s left.

The massacre’s 100th anniversary is bookended by two devastating, state-sanctioned acts of violence, with the police murder of George Floyd on 25 May, 2020 reviving an international call for justice for Black people killed by police.

Days before the centennial, Oklahoma’s Republican Governor Kevin Stitt signed into law on 7 May a bill that restricts how public schools can teach about race, which opponents have said will have a chilling effect on how students learn about racism as well as the history of the massacre in their own state.

After signing the legislation, the governor was removed from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, which called his support for the law “a sad day and a stain on Oklahoma.”

Citywide events to mark the massacre’s centennial have also fallen apart after organisers said they could not meet demands from survivors, as their families and their advocates have criticised Tulsa officials for advertising the city, including using images of the massacres and survivors, as a touchstone for racial justice.

The Centennial Commission has raised at least $30m, $20m of which has gone into building Greenwood Rising, a museum project set to open for the centennial.

Laura Pitter, deputy director of the US Program at Human Rights Watch, said that while a museum that discusses victims’ experiences can be part of a reparations effort, “when it’s done in lieu of or at the expense of other types of necessary repair, and without properly consulting the survivors or the descendants, it can be very damaging.”

The city’s only Black elected official said she does not intend to visit the project, and a Black state lawmaker who served on its commission resigned.

A community-organised series event – the month-long Black Wall Street Legacy Festival – stands in contrast to the Remember and Rise event, which was set to host a performance from John Legend and an address from voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams.

Days before it was set to begin, it was cancelled. The commission halted the event “due to unexpected circumstances with entertainers and speakers.”

The commission said that it had agreed to provide $100,000 to survivors and $2m to a reparations fund, but that the request was increased to $1m for survivors and $50m for the fund.

Advocates for the survivors and their families denied that there was a non-negotiable amount attached to their demands, and that negotiations between them and the commission fell apart after the commission failed to agree to provide “direct financial support” to those families and that a fund “would be administered by descendants and North Tulsa community members” and held in a Black bank.

The Legacy Festival features virtual appearances from Senator Cory Booker and US Rep Sheila Jackson Lee, who are leading efforts in Congress to establish a federal commission to study slavery’s legacy, how to formally recognise the need to redress its legacy, and apologise for it.

Lessie Benningfield Randle, among three living survivors, and who was six years old when she fled her home from the massacre, said she did not believe she was going to survive.

“People in positions of power, many just like you, have told us to wait,” she told members of Congress on 19 May. “Others have told us it’s too late. It seems that justice in America is always so slow, or not possible for Black people, and we are made to feel crazy just for asking for things to be made right.”

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