How Oklahoma Covered Up The Worst Race Riot In World History

How Oklahoma Covered Up The Worst Race Riot In World History February 21, 2015

Tulsa_Race_Riot__1921__Ok__Hist__Soc__ So, I’ve been reading that Oklahoma has been trying to get rid of its AP History classes because they’re too negative when it comes to America. And I’m supposed to be outraged, I gather. But I’m not, really, all that more outraged than usual.  Oklahoma has been pulling this nonsense for years. Did you know, before reading this article that the worst ever race riot in the world’s recorded history — and the second worst riot, PERIOD — happened in Tulsa Oklahoma?  Maybe.  But a lot of people don’t.  Why?  Because…it paints an unsavory picture of America. Let me sketch the details.  So, it was 1921, and there was segregation in the city of Tulsa, right?  Now, in Tulsa, for a variety of factors (including a nearby oil boom), there was a black suburb called Greenwood that started to be so well off it was nicknamed “The Negro Wall Street.”  If you went there, you found black people in suits and ties, going to movie theatres, being professional doctors, lawyers, and so on.  They never needed to go to the white side of town — they had extremely nice libraries, movie theatres, restaurants, law offices, and the like. So, the white people saw the black people being successful in Tulsa.  Really, outrageously successful.  That separate but equal motto?  The black individuals had ARRIVED.  They had reached respectable status.  If the true motive of segregation was to keep the races separate and not to keep blacks subordinate, the white individuals should have been happy that it was supposedly working. They weren’t.  Greenwood was an embarrassment to the white South in a time when the KKK was increasingly taking hold in Oklahoma.  It was hard proof that, given the right opportunity and circumstances, black people would choose not to be in slums — they could build themselves up to outdo the most prestigious parts of white southern culture on its own terms.  Like a sore thumb, it stuck there.  And the white part of the segregated city looked on, a ticking time bomb.  It must have been frightening for the black people, who were outnumbered by the black people 10-1. The Chicago Tribune summarizes the incident well here:

On May 30, 1921, a 19-year-old black shoeshine man named Dick Rowland entered the Drexel building downtown to use the segregated restroom. While approaching the elevator, which apparently hadn’t stopped evenly with the floor, Rowland tripped and fell on the operator, a 17-year-old white girl named Sarah Page. The girl screamed, drawing the attention of onlookers who yelled rape.

Authorities arrested Rowland and held him overnight in the county jail, though Page declined to press charges.

The following day, the Tulsa Tribune ran a story in the afternoon edition headlined, “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator,” and added a racially charged editorial calling for a lynching. That evening an angry white mob showed up with guns to kill Rowland and an angry black mob showed up with guns to protect him.

A gun went off, and the two sides went after one another shooting and punching. The whites overpowered the blacks, pushing them to the Greenwood dividing line. Over the next 12 or so hours, the whites went on a shooting, burning and looting rampage in Greenwood.

And it was a brutal rampage.  Greenwood was ransacked.  Black people fought back, but they were no match for the white people indiscriminately shooting civilians and black individuals (who, you remember, were only involved because they were trying to keep a falsely accused black man, who was later released without even being charged, safe from a lynching).  Police officers and law enforcement were involved; the sheriff even, according to a book written by Alfred Brophy, a (white) Professor of Law at Chapel Hill, would deputize citizens to further license them to terrorize the black area.  As the white people ransacked and sat fire to 35 entire city blocks, turning them into ruins and doing today’s equivalent of 21 million dollars worth of damage, Governor Roberts finally sent in the National Guard.  Which began arresting people.

Black people.

That’s right.  No white people.  Black people only.  Not a single white person — who were doing all the rioting, remember — got arrested or charged.  Some of the black people were being held hostage by white vigilantes — and the National Guard came in, took over custody for the white individuals by taking the black people into custody, and let the white kidnappers be.

That’s not the worst part, though.  The worst part is what happened afterwards.

Because right now, chances are high that, if you’re white, you’re thinking, “Man, just get over it.  That happened almost 100 years ago.  This is now.  Things like this don’t happen anymore.”

Which is ironic, because that’s exactly what Oklahoma did.  This was the second largest riot in the recorded history of the WORLD, remember.  And for a long time, nobody ever heard of it, because people didn’t really want to talk about it.  The investigation was very light and said only 36 people were killed, when we found out later that it was 300.  If you look around the net, you’ll see it be called a “cover up,” but it doesn’t seem to quite be that.  It seems to be the thought that black lives didn’t really matter.  This wasn’t really American history.  American history was white lives dying for prestigious reasons, sacrificing themselves for the freedom of their white comrades.  It wasn’t 35 charred city blocks in a black neighborhood.  It wasn’t 300 dead blacks.  It wasn’t 10,000 professional blacks suddenly made homeless. It wasn’t lynchings.  And it certainly wasn’t well-to-do blacks in segregated communities who had overcome all the socioeconomic damages thrown at them.  If the more subtle marginalizations didn’t validate white superiority in the Oklahoma narrative of the time, burning 35 city blocks to the ground would.  So, if anything, turning Greenwood into a wasteland that would never be the same again FIXED history.  It wasn’t part of history.  I’m not sure it was intentionally covered up so much as just ignored.  It was black people dying in a black neighborhood, not white people highlighting concepts of freedom and dignity.

Aljazeera America reported the following in 2014:

According to a 1921 New York Times article, Judge Loyal J. Martin, a former mayor of Tulsa who chaired the first race riot committee — the Tulsa City Commission — just days after the attack, said in a mass meeting that the city could redeem itself and move forward only “by complete restitution and rehabilitation of the destroyed black belt.” “The rest of the United States must know that the real citizenship of Tulsa weeps at this unspeakable crime and will make good the damage, so far as it can be done, to the last penny,” he said. But that never happened. Insurance companies denied claims from African-Americans, leaving them with nothing but the clothes on their backs, forced to start over or leave. Blacks tried to sue the city and state for damages but had their claims blocked or denied, according to the official report. On June 14, just two weeks after the riot, Mayor T.D. Evans addressed the commission, telling it that the incident was “inevitable” and that the victims “should receive such help as we can give them.” But then he said something else: “Let us immediately get to the outside fact that everything is quiet in our city, that this menace has been fully conquered, and that we are going on in a normal condition.” In other words: The city should move on. And for 90 years, that’s what happened.

But you’re probably still thinking, if you’re white and living in Oklahoma, “Come on, man.  Get over it.  That happened so long ago.”

How do I know that?  Because I’m a reverse-racist black person?  You can think of me what you like, but the point of fact is that is what Oklahoma DID. In 1999, all the facts were brought up.  The damage was assessed, records were dug through, and the story that had lain hidden for 80 years was laid bare in all of its terrible detail.  As the Al Jazeera America article states, after the investigation was published in 2001, it was recommended that the living victims be compensated.  However:

Paying reparations was just not something Oklahomans were interested in entertaining. Brown said that almost as soon as word got out about the possibility of reparations, the Greenwood Cultural Center began to receive hate mail and angry, anonymous phone calls from people who did not support paying out. A lot of the calls were similar: “I wasn’t here, my parents weren’t involved in it.” The Oklahoma state Legislature accepted the report and the “moral responsibility on behalf of the state and its citizens” but flatly refused to pay any type of reparations. More than 200 people sued the state, seeking recourse for damages. The survivors weren’t asking for individual checks for themselves or their descendants; they wanted educational benefits such as scholarships for students in the area to attend historically black colleges and universities and health benefits for descendants who remained in Greenwood.

So, there were several of them alive, whose lives were ruined by that tragedy. And they would have gotten some justice, too…had not Oklahoma railed angrily that no, they were NOT going to get reparations, the PAST was in the PAST, and giving them money for something that happened so long ago was like giving money to Native Americans.  Get the fuck over it, survivors of the second worst riot in the world’s recorded history.  It’s not our fault.

And you still don’t really hear about it in the history books, do you?  Because it didn’t happen.  Because black lives don’t matter.  Because it doesn’t belong there with Thomas Jefferson and George Washington and Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

“But,” you say, “That’s back in 2001.  We’re way less racist now than we were then.  So get over it.”

MAYBE you would have a point if it wasn’t for one thing.  There are about a dozen people STILL alive and STILL trying to demand some kind of compensation for the damages.  Just to put this into perspective, they have been trying to do this FOR ALMOST 100 YEARS NOW.

Nothing.  Notta. Zilch.  Not a cent.

Oklahoma’s attitude towards AP American History is the epitome of white America’s “Forget about our racist past” narrative.  Not as much has changed since 1921 as we’d like to think.  We still look at the current conditions and criticize them in ways that are purposefully meant to perpetuate centuries-old stereotypes, and we blind ourselves to the fact that this is what we are doing by erasing the history that reveals how longstanding these stereotypes are. Tulsa Race Riots aren’t news.  The problems in some black neighborhoods have NOTHING relevant to do with a history of segregation and discrimination, and everything to do with black people not pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps.

And we’ll stop at nothing.  Even if it means denying compensation for the survivors of the second largest riot in world history.  Even if it means taking out all the critical parts out of our history books.  We’ll do our damndest to show the world that white America — or, as we put it, “America” — is the greatest nation on earth.

This is something that I know, as a somewhat conscious black American in our country.  So if you’re running around paranoid at cuts to AP History, please know that I’ve already finished emptying my tear ducts for the survivors of things like the Tulsa Race Riot; you should understand my lack of surprise when the answer is an unsurprised shrug, even as I hear another person rail about the greatness of our country while telling me, “Forget about the past.”

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,"
Then.

Besides, 
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

-- Langston Hughes


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