Tulsa marks race massacre centennial as US grapples with racial injustice
On the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre — in which a thriving Black neighborhood was burned to the ground and hundreds of residents were killed by an angry white mob — local and national leaders find themselves grappling with the lasting effects of racial injustice and violence.
In Oklahoma, prominent public figures will be on hand this week for the grim 100-year anniversary, including President Biden, members of the Congressional Black Caucus and civil rights advocates.
“I see Tulsa as a microcosm of things that are happening in other parts of the country, and I see Tulsa having the opportunity to set the example for how we get this right,” Nicole Austin-Hillery, executive director of the U.S. program at Human Rights Watch, told The Hill.
The centennial comes just a week after the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder, an event that sparked nationwide Black Lives Matter protests calling for an end to police brutality and systemic racism.
The pursuit for racial justice and equity has figured prominently not just in Democrats’ legislative agenda in Washington but among the three remaining survivors of the Tulsa massacre and their descendants as well.
“I will never forget the violence of the white mob when we left our home,” Viola Fletcher, 107, told a House Judiciary subcommittee on May 19.
“I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lining the street. I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams,” she added.
Fletcher and her brother, 100-year-old Hughes Van Ellis, are among the last survivors of the massacre, along with Lessie Benningfield Randle, 106.
In 1921, Greenwood was a bastion of Black wealth at a time when Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan hamstrung and terrorized Black Americans in the South.
Dubbed “Black Wall Street,” the northern section of Tulsa was home to dozens of Black-owned businesses, including hotels, restaurants, law firms and medical practices.
Despite its prominence, the massacre was little known, if at all, in most parts of the country, until the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 was created in 1997. Four years later, the panel released a 200-page report detailing how the deadly event unfolded.
The seeds of violence were planted on the morning of May 31, when the Tulsa Tribune reported that 19-year-old Black shoeshine Dick Rowland had attempted to assault Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white elevator operator in the Drexel Building in the white part of town.
The Tribune’s overdramatized account of what happened — the story headline read “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator” — sparked the forming of a lynch mob outside the Tulsa County Courthouse, where Rowland was in custody.
A group of roughly 25 Black men from Greenwood went to the courthouse armed to stop the mob from taking Rowland, only to be turned away by authorities.
Later, after the white mob continued to grow and a larger group from Greenwood returned, a scuffle broke out, followed by gunfire. Greatly outnumbered, the men from Greenwood returned to their neighborhood.
Tulsa police appointed hundreds of white men and boys “special deputies,” even supplying some of them with guns.
It’s a “striking example of how our institutions, particularly policing but not only policing, have played a role over our history in enforcing systemic racism and brutality against Black Americans,” Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), second vice chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, told The Hill.
By midday on June 1, martial law had been declared, but Greenwood was already in ruin. The white mob had razed more than 1,200 houses across 35 city blocks, looting hundreds more. The prosperous business district of Greenwood was destroyed.
As many as 300 people died, historians say, though the exact number is unknown due to mass gravesites. The destruction displaced about 10,000 Greenwood residents.
In total, more than $1.8 million of Black property was destroyed, more than $27 million by today’s dollar.
The staggering economic loss was never recovered by Black Tulsans and is seen as a key factor in the stark racial wealth disparity in the city 100 years later.
“In 1920, Black and white residents in Tulsa had nearly identical homeownership rates,” Horsford said, citing a report on the massacre released last week by the Joint Economic Committee.
“Today, white Tulsans are nearly twice as likely to own a home as Black Tulsans. So that shows you the direct impact and why we need restorative justice for the families, for the survivors, for the descendants, the community at large,” he added.
The median household income for white Tulsans is $55,448 — almost double the amount for Black Tulsans of $30,463.
Restorative justice, also known as reparative justice or reparations, was one of the recommendations of the Oklahoma commission’s 2001 report.
“Reparations to the historic Greenwood community in real and tangible form would be good public policy and do much to repair the emotional and physical scars of this terrible incident in our shared past,” the commission wrote.
Steps toward justice, the commission said, could take the form of direct payments to the survivors and their descendants, a scholarship for descendants, economic development in Greenwood and a memorial for the massacre victims.
John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park was opened in 2010 to honor the victims, and a scholarship fund was established. And while economic redevelopment has taken hold in Greenwood, it has largely taken the form of gentrification and monetary gain for white business owners instead of Black Tulsans.
Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum (R) has said he doesn’t support direct payments to the survivors but acknowledged in 2019 that the city’s “racial and economic disparities that still exist today can be traced to the 1921 race massacre.”
Vanessa Hall-Harper, who is chairwoman of the Tulsa City Council and represents most of North Tulsa, including Greenwood, told The Hill that the city’s efforts were a “huge failure” and underscored local lawmakers’ desire to keep the “status quo.”
“Racism,” Hall-Harper replied simply when asked about Tulsa’s inaction.
In September, Randle and the other two survivors of the massacre sued the city, demanding that Tulsa “abate the public nuisance of racial disparities, economic inequalities, insecurity, and trauma their unlawful actions and omissions caused in 1921 and continue to cause 99 years after the massacre.”
The 100-year anniversary includes events hosted by the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, which spearheaded the building of Greenwood Rising, a $30 million history museum and center that will fully open in July.
Award-winning artist John Legend and rising Democratic star Stacey Abrams were both scheduled to participate in the commission’s main event on Monday, but organizers unexpectedly canceled the event on Thursday, citing “unexpected circumstances.”
Many advocates have argued that the centennial commission hasn’t done enough to raise up the voices of the survivors and their descendants, but Horsford said he doesn’t want that to detract from the importance of the weekend.
The focus should be on “what caused the massacre and those who contributed to it and the systemic reasons for it,” Horsford said.
Joining the Nevada congressman in Tulsa will be House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Democratic Reps. Lisa Blunt Rochester (Del.), Cori Bush (Mo.), Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas), Brenda Lawrence (Mich.) and Maxine Waters (Calif.).
“Many times we thought we had finished that era, and that we could, in essence, move on, really, to create as the Constitution says a more perfect union, but here we are in another racial period,” Jackson Lee told The Hill.
“But it’s also a time for healing, and it’s a time for opportunity, and it’s a time to really reinforce that this is part of America’s attempt, if you will, for a more perfect union,” she added.