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Saturday, June 19, 2021

Explained: The Tulsa race massacre whose 100th anniversary falls next week

In 1921, from the evening of May 31 until the afternoon of June 1, a violent mob of Tulsa’s White residents attacked a prosperous Black neighbourhood, killing hundreds and leaving the locality in ashes.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: May 27, 2021 8:38:18 am
Two armed men walk away from burning buildings as others walk in the opposite direction during the June 1, 1921, Tulsa Race Massacre in Tulsa, Okla. (Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa via AP)

US President Joe Biden will next week visit the city of Tulsa in Oklahoma state, in honour of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre, known among the worst incidents of racial strife in American history.

The visit by a US president on the occasion is being read as a signal to acknowledge the race massacre, whose history has long been suppressed and left out of national memory.

In 1921, from the evening of May 31 until the afternoon of June 1, a violent mob of Tulsa’s White residents attacked a prosperous Black neighbourhood, killing hundreds and leaving the locality in ashes.

The White House made the announcement on Tuesday, just after Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris met with the family of George Floyd, whose killing one year ago led to massive anti-racism protests across the country.

Last year, former President Donald Trump had visited Tulsa during his reelection campaign, but sparked controversy after his rally was initially planned on June 19, or ‘Juneteenth’, a holiday marking the end of slavery in the US. The rally was then postponed to the next day.

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What is the Tulsa race massacre?

The massacre took place in Greenwood, a thriving Black-dominated neighbourhood that had sprung up at the start of the 20th century on the northern side of Tulsa, separated by a railroad track from the city’s White-dominated part on the south.

A march led by the Rev. Dr. Robert Turner for reparations related to the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, in Tulsa, Okla., Oct. 9, 2019. (The New York Times: Joseph Rushmore)

Known as the “Black Wall Street”, Greenwood was a favoured destination for African Americans from the Southern US states– where laws actively upheld racism and disempowered Black people– to come and seek upward mobility.

The vibrant locality of 35 city blocks (or basic units) was run entirely by Black Americans, with places to live, work, worship, shop and play, and had around 10,000 residents. Greenwood’s economy was insulated from the rest of Tulsa, as laws upholding racial segregation meant that Black people could not go to White-run establishments.

The neighbourhood’s progress stoked resentment in the eyes of Tula’s White residents, and racial tensions triggered in 1921 led to it being nearly wiped out by violence.

What triggered the violence?

In May 1921, a series of events took place that “nearly destroyed” the entire Greenwood area, according to the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum.

On May 30, 1921, a Black man named Dick Rowland was imprisoned for allegedly assaulting a White woman. After his arrest, an “inflammatory report” published in the May 31 edition of the Tulsa Tribune spurred a confrontation between Black and White armed mobs, as per the museum’s website. Some of the members of the mobs armed themselves to protect Rowland, while others wanted to lynch him.

By the morning of June 1, 1921, heavily armed White rioters looted and burned down the Greenwood area, leaving over 300 dead in the violence. Some of the rioters were deputised and given weapons by city officials. Black people were indiscriminately shot on the streets, and planes are also said to have dropped dynamite over the neighbourhood. Firefighters who arrived to douse the flames were threatened and forced to leave. The bodies of those who died were buried in mass graves, while some were discarded in a river.

Over 18 hours of destruction ravaged Greenwood’s hard-built prosperity as all of its 35 blocks were burned to the ground. According to The New York Times, apart from the 300 dead, hundreds were injured, and 8,000 to 10,000 were left homeless. Over 1,470 homes were burned or looted.

The state’s then-governor enforced martial law after the massacre had effectively ended, and guardsmen who helped put out flames also imprisoned Black residents, detaining 6,000 in internment camps.

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What happened after the massacre?

The massacre brought ruin to thousands of households, and racist laws and unwilling insurance companies put obstacles in the way of Black entrepreneurs wanting to rebuild. Nobody was prosecuted or punished for the devastation.

A group of Black men are marched past the corner of 2nd and Main Streets in Tulsa, Okla., under armed guard during the Tulsa Race Massacre on June 1, 1921. (Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa via AP)

Tulsa authorities actively ignored and covered up the massacre, and news reports were suppressed, despite the scale of the carnage. Police and state militia records of the incidents disappeared, as did the Tulsa Tribune story that was removed from bound volumes. History textbooks did not mention the incident for decades, and the silence ensured that the massacre remained one of the least known or talked about in national discourse.

In 2001, a commission by the state of Oklahoma found that the destruction led to property loss claims of $2.8 million, around $27 million in today’s money. Apart from the mammoth figure, historians also look at the potential economic gains and overall development that was denied to America’s Black community had Greenwood been left standing.

Currently, a lawsuit is pending and there have been discussions about whether and how the families that were affected by the massacre should be compensated. No compensation has so far been paid, as per the NYT report.

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