Today, June 19th, 2020, I give you the excerpt from The Last Mile of the Way, which I wrote with Darius Gray fifteen years ago. We used vocabulary (“Negro” “Colored”) consistent with our narrator’s time. This excerpt addresses the Greenwood massacre.
The cover of this book in its original publication shows Darius’s family–his parents, Elsie and Darius (Derrus) and his sister Sandra. Darius is the baby.
End of Chapter 22
Thousands of former slaves had migrated to Oklahoma to find new lives and true liberty. Seemed they were finding it, too. Just outside Tulsa, in a little place called Greenwood, there were Negro doctors and Negro teachers. Booker T. Washington called it the “Black Wallstreet” because it was such a hopeful and pretty place, with new churches and schools and fancy theaters. One of the Churches—Mount Zion—had been completed only a short time before Memorial Day of 1921.
But nobody’s faith can get built without a trial first. Egypt suf- fered ten plagues before it let the Hebrews go, and America was brought to the horrors of Gettysburg before it freed its slaves. Many figured the Civil War was plague enough. We never counted on all that would follow. We sure never counted on what would happen in Greenwood.
During the Memorial Day weekend, Elsie was visiting her cousins in Greenwood—as she often did on holidays. They were watching One Man in a Million at Tulsa’s Royal Theater when a colored man raced inside. He halted on stage, a blind shadow shielding his eyes from the projector beams. Finally he managed to find the steps past the orchestra pit, and he bolted down the aisle. Oh, he ran fast, but not fast enough. Someone with a high, piercing voice yelled, “There he is!” A revolver clapped. The shadow quit running and dropped. Elsie saw that man’s body twitch twice and then lie still, stone dead and spreading a pool of blood.
One cousin—Elsie never could remember which—grabbed her elbow and said, “We better move quick to Greenwood. Things lookin’ bad here.”
As it turned out, Greenwood was the worst place they could have gone, for Greenwood would burn to the ground that night.
There had been an incident. A white girl had accused a Negro of grabbing her in an elevator. Even though she dropped her charges, talk of lynching was already clogging the air. That young colored man was no safer than a rabbit on an open field near a pack of foxes. No young colored man was. Gun-wielding white men, many of them members of the Klan, said the black boy was “hunting trouble,” and decided they’d hunt him down before he could find it.
Well, Negroes had come too far in Oklahoma to be overrun now. Negro houses were well built and their gardens well tended. Negro children were getting schooled. Greenwood’s colored population declared they would not be beat, and they stood ready to protect that proud, pretty town.
White forces stormed in as if the First World War had been just a trial run. They carried torches and kerosene. From afar, they seemed a huge, moving flame. They’d go from house to house, street to street, igniting everything in sight, not sparing even the places of worship. Twenty-three churches burned to the ground that night. Even that brand new church, “Mount Zion,” got spoiled.
As for the Negro fighters, they took up their positions inside or behind railcars and quick-dug trenches. But even those Negroes who had fought in the war couldn’t block what was coming.
Just before dawn, airplanes swooshed down, strafing Greenwood with bullets, turpentine balls, and dynamite. These were like the very planes soldiers of the Great War had flown, but now they was aimed at the Negroes of Greenwood.
In the end, upwards of three hundred blacks was shot or burned, and more than 6,000 were marched to jail.
Greenwood had been razed, and Elsie had witnessed it.
That was 1921. She would try for the rest of her life to forget what she’d seen. She would try to reclaim her innocent youth and to believe in the future again—as all us would.