The Tulsa Race Massacre Was A Hundred Years Ago And Just Yesterday

The Tulsa Race Massacre Was A Hundred Years Ago And Just Yesterday
Photo: Alvin C. Krupnick Co. 1921. US Library of Congress. Public domain.

One hundred years ago, on May 31 and June 1, 1921, upon rumor of a young Black man assaulting an elevator operator, white supremacists burned and murdered their way through the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma, largely destroying what had been an island of wealth and security for Black residents. Some 40 blocks were leveled, and 20 years before Pearl Harbor, it may have been the first aerial attack on US soil.

Like most white people, I only learned of the massacre long after I was out of school, when I attended a session at an academic conference in 2001. While the history was largely not commemorated outside the Black community for much of the 20th century — and was pretty well actively covered up — it's finally gotten a belated acknowledgement in officialdom and pop culture. Many Americans learned about the massacre when it was dramatized in the 2019 HBO adaptation of Watchmen, and also when Donald Trump held a Superspreader Rally in Tulsa on Juneteenth last year, at which former presidential candidate Herman Cain most likely got the COVID-19 infection that killed him less than two months later.

The 1921 massacre had probably been brewing for years as white resentment built over wealthy Black people. But its immediate spark came when 19-year-old Dick Rowland took a break from his shoe-shine business to use the only nearby restroom for Black people, in the Drexel Building. He tripped while getting on an elevator, and either grabbed the arm of the white elevator operator, Sarah Page, or possibly stepped on her foot. She screamed, and a white store clerk accused him of attempted rape.

Page later wrote a letter saying Rowland had done nothing wrong, but by then Greenwood was long gone, along with as many as 300 of its residents killed, and thousands left homeless.

Also, it looks like we've finally turned the corner on how the event is named. When I first heard about it, it was generally called the "Tulsa Race Riot," which is deliberately vague about who was running riot. "Tulsa Race Massacre" is the far more common usage now.

Today, Joe Biden will be in Tulsa, to memorialize those who died — nobody knows how many, although estimates range from a low of 75 to as many as 300 — to meet with the three remaining survivors, to call for racial justice, and to announce some measures his administration will take to begin closing the racial wealth gap. Vice President Kamala Harris met with the survivors earlier today.

President Biden is scheduled to speak at 4:15 Eastern from Tulsa; here's the White House video feed.

The numbers from the obliteration of an entire community are horrifying. According to a 2001 state commission, at least 1,256 homes were destroyed, along with businesses, churches, movie theaters, schools, and hospitals. A Brookings Institution summary notes that even now there has still "been little academic work to quantify the economic harm Tulsa's Black residents experienced," and called on scholars to "fill in the gaps."

One reason there are so many gaps to fill is that for decades, the white establishment in Oklahoma covered up the truth. Entire archives of documents and newspaper records vanished. University of Michigan professor Scott Ellsworth told NBC News that, as late as the 1970s, when he began researching the massacre, "Researchers who would try to do work on this ... had their lives threatened and had their career threatened." A recently discovered mass grave in Tulsa's Oakwood Cemetery will be excavated this summer, which is likely to help provide a better estimate of the death toll.

Residents of Greenwood would eventually file some $1.8 million in damage claims with insurance companies, worth around $27 million in 2021 dollars; all but one of the claims were denied, and certainly not everyone who suffered losses had insurance to start with. At least a white business owner did get compensation for guns taken from his store. Also,

A 2018 article in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology estimates the direct financial impact of the 1921 massacre. "If 1,200 median priced houses in Tulsa were destroyed today, the loss would be around $150 million," the researchers wrote. "The additional loss of other assets, including cash, personal belongings, and commercial property, might bring the total to over $200 million."

The long-term impact, of course, was generational; imagine if all that wealth had been passed on in the following hundred years. It's just one part of America's long history of systemic racism, in this case the prevention of Black families having the means to build wealth that whites take for granted. (See also redlining, see also Ta-Nehisi Coates's "The Case for Reparations," as vital a read now as when it was published in 2014.)

In a statement today, the White House noted that the "destruction wrought on the Greenwood neighborhood and its families was followed by laws and policies that made recovery nearly impossible" and that the experiences of Greenwood survivors "have echoes in countless Black communities across the country."

Because disparities in wealth compound like an interest rate, the disinvestment in Black families in Tulsa and across the country throughout our history is still felt sharply today. The median Black American family has thirteen cents for every one dollar in wealth held by White families.

Biden will announce some first steps at narrowing the racial wealth divide, including an interagency initiative, led by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge, to address inequity in housing appraisals.

"Homes in majority Black neighborhoods are often valued at tens of thousands of dollars less than comparable homes in similar, majority white communities," the White House said. "This effort will seek to utilize, very quickly, the many levers at the federal government's disposal ... to root out discrimination in the appraisal and home buying process."

HUD will also reverse two rule changes put in place by Donald Trump that weakened fair housing protection, although a schedule for Sen. Cory Booker to come live with white suburban families has yet to be determined. Don't crowd, everyone will get a chance.

The administration will also work to increase by 50 percent (over five years) the number of federal contracts awarded to small disadvantaged businesses.

Currently, around 10% of federal contracts go to SDBs annually, totaling around $50 billion. An increase of 50% by 2026 would mean an additional $100 billion in federal contracts awarded to SDBs in this five year period, officials said.

It's a start, at least.

With the 100th anniversary of the massacre, more people will be educated about what happened in Tulsa — and cities across the country — even as Republicans try to handwave away America's history of systemic racism by banning it from being discussed in schools, including a recently passed Oklahoma law barring the teaching of concepts that the state decides are intended to cause any student to "feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress" because of their race or gender. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt insists the law wouldn't prohibit teaching about 1921, which might be true as long as teachers keep saying "but that's a long time ago and things are all fine now."

Now let's all watch Joe Biden talk us through our better angels, in this open thread.

[White House / CNBC / Brookings / CNBC / Politico / Science News]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.


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