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THOMPSON: Still no accountability for Tulsa Race Massacre

May 31, 2021 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


A hundred years ago today, thousands of white residents of Tulsa, OK turned on their Black neighbours in a racially motivated riot that in just 18 hours killed as many as 300 people and completely destroyed America’s most vibrant Black community.

No one...not a single person to this day has been held accountable for the murders...for the destruction of property...for stealing the wealth of hundreds of Black families. It remains one of enumerable racial judicial travesties in a land that has the temerity to place statues of Lady Justice - blindfolded, holding balance scales and a sword - in front of its courthouses.

The facts and truths behind the deadly massacre weren’t just overlooked...they were hidden for decades. A revisionist history of lies - not unlike those Trump Republicans invented immediately after losing a fair election last Nov. 3, and after leading the Jan. 6 Insurrection on the Capitol - quickly replaced what really happened a century ago.

When white folks did talk about what is now known as The Black Wall Street Massacre or the Greenwood Massacre it was largely fiction. But for the most part, they not only didn’t talk about it...they acted as though it never happened.

Like most of the scores of white-led race riots in America from 1915 through the 1940s...an alleged but unsubstantiated affront of a white woman by a Black man was the spark that fuelled what white citizenry called justice.

History is best understood in the bright light of context. Oklahoma became the 46th state in 1907, and its very first legislative act was the passing of Jim Crow laws...the legal sanctioning of racial apartheid. Whites in Tulsa systematically disenfranchised Black folks...they could not vote, serve on juries or hold an elected office.

Over the next decade, white people passed Jim Crow law after law...segregating rail travel...mandating residential segregation by “forbidding Black or white people from residing on any block where three-fourths or more of the residents were members of the other race.” And while the U.S. Supreme Court ruled such laws unconstitutional in 1917...they existed for another three decades largely with impunity.

In 1915, the most controversial movie ever made in America - “Birth of a Nation” - portrayed Black men (mostly played by white actors in blackface) as unintelligent and sexual aggressors toward white women. The movie reinforced racist beliefs and fuelled a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.

So it was by the early 1920s that white-controlled American politics and popular culture conspired against Black folks across America. Despite overwhelming and widespread oppression, some Black people were still able to accumulate a measure of wealth in Tulsa and elsewhere...and that on top of long-held biases, stereotypes and prejudices seemed to enrage many White people.

That was certainly the case in Tulsa...but there were other white vigilante raids targeting Black folks across America during that era. In Rosewood, FL, in 1923, somewhere between 27 and 150 Black people were killed...The Ocoee Massacre in 1920 killed 30 to 35 Black people...and the Perry Massacre in 1922 saw one Black man burned at the stake and two lynched...all three of these vigilante mob killings in Florida.

The imprecision of the actual loss of life in these mob actions and lynchings is understandable...white people controlled not only the police and judicial systems, but the newspapers, as well, so documentation often downplayed deaths and destruction.

During the 1920s, there were about 30 lynchings of Black people each year, mostly Black men accused not so much of a real crime, but of some affront to white women or white men. Some 72,000 people lived in greater Tulsa, nearly 60,000 white people and 12,000 Black people. About 3,200 white Tulsa residents were members of the Ku Klux Klan in 1921.

The Black Wall Street Massacre started over an alleged attack of a white teenage elevator operator - Sarah Page - by Dick Rowland, also a teenager, who worked in the building’s shoeshine parlour. There were no eye witnesses. Rowland later said he tripped and grabbed the girl by the arm to break his fall. Page made no accusations, but someone who heard her scream that afternoon called the police.

The next day the Tulsa Tribune ran a sensational story with the headline: “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl In an Elevator”...and for the thousands of Tulsa Ku Klux Klan members and sympathizers that was all that was needed to incite them to exact what they deemed justice...but what was nothing more than revenge.

Thousands of white people formed a mob...burning 35 blocks of the segregated Greenwood section of Tulsa...shooting and beating innocent Black folks into the night and next morning. The mob destroyed more than $32 million (current value) in property, including hotels, offices of doctors and lawyers, retail shops and private homes. Several private airplanes were used to drop dynamite and turpentine balls that exploded and burned on impact on Greenwood homes and businesses.

Six thousand of the 12,000 Black people - mostly men - were interred by National Guard troops who arrived the morning after the riot started. But the damage was done. Thousands of Black people left Tulsa in the coming days and weeks...fearful of continued reprisals. Hundreds of prosperous Black families lost everything...homes, property, businesses and money held in homes and banks.

In 1996 - 75 years after the riot - the Oklahoma state legislature authorized a Commission to investigate the Tulsa Race Riot...and five years later it released a report and recommendations. The report said reparations should be paid by the city and state...none has been paid to date.

The Oklahoma State Legislature didn’t include reparations in the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Reconciliation Act signed into law in 2001. Instead, the act funded up to 300 college scholarships for descendants of the riot...and built a memorial park commemorating the riot. Also, 118 survivors - aged 85 to 106 - were presented gold-plated medals with the Oklahoma state seal.

The story of the Black Wall Street Massacre has been told widely...through television news, documentaries, movies, plays, songs, artwork, books and articles, as well as columns like this one. So facts and truths have over time been cemented securely into history.

Unfortunately, so has America’s long history of talking about justice rather than just making things right. Not a single white person was arraigned, charged or brought to justice for the events in Tulsa. None of the Black people who suffered losses in the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921...or their descendants...were paid restitution for what was destroyed or stolen from them.

I don’t know, but if I were one of those victimized then — or their descendants now — I’d say to America: “It’s time to put your money where your mouth is.”

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines.


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