“And so when this terrible thing happened, it really destroyed my faith in humanity. And it took a good long while for me to get over it.”
– Olivia Hooker, survivor of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots
It’s a typical story: White woman claims Black man assaulted her; mob of White men become enraged and launch a hunt for said perpetrator; any Negro male is automatically presumed guilty; exact details supposed incident are unknown. This was the scenario in May of 1921, when a young White female, Sarah Page, in Tulsa allegedly screamed after a young Black man, Dick Rowland, entered the elevator she operated. Even today the circumstances of the exchange between Page and Rowland remain unclear. But, in 1921, scores of hate-filled White men didn’t need to know such minutia. The White woman’s words were the only details they needed.
And thus, commenced what is now known to be the worst race-based riot in U.S. history. Police found Rowland and charged him sexual assault. The sheriff had refused to hand Rowland over to bands of outraged Whites. The throngs of self-proclaimed vigilantes stormed through Tulsa’s Black-dominated Greenwood neighborhood to exact further revenge. Greenwood featured a district known as “Black Wall Street;” where businesses owned and operated by African-American residents had become an incredibly independent and thriving economy within a city of some 100,000.
When the initial chaos was over, upwards of 300 Greenwood-area residents were dead and thousands left homeless. Some Black veterans of World War I (then called the “Great War”) had taken up arms in defense of their community, which surely incentivized the angry White men to continue their violent retribution.
The same madness would occur in Rosewood, Florida two years later. A White woman reported that a Black man had entered her home and attacked her. The woman’s husband gathered a group of about 500 Ku Klux Klan members and began a hunt through the area for any Black man they could find. They learned that a Black member of a prison chain gang had escaped and believed Black residents of Rosewood were helping him hide. The mobs then systematically tore through town, killing whoever they could (mostly Black men) and driving out most of the survivors. The entire community of Rosewood was decimated. The story of what happened remained largely unknown until at least the 1980s.
The story of Tulsa still remains largely unknown. I’d heard of the horror some 30 years ago and wondered why such a calamity would be so obscure. I now know why. Like much of Native American history, true aspects of the African-American experience are often overwhelmed by the cult of American greatness; the “Manifest Destiny” myths stained heavily with Eurocentric viewpoints. The Tulsa Massacre has received greater attention in recent months because of the tragic deaths of several African-Americans. Its significance has grown even more within the past couple of weeks, as Donald Trump was set to stage a campaign rally in Tulsa today. But that’s been postponed to tomorrow.
COVID-19 concerns aside, the event would have been held on one of the most historic dates in American history. On June 19, 1865, news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached the state of Texas – more than two years after then-President Abraham Lincoln had signed it. The decree established “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”
Known as Juneteenth, the event is now celebrated as a turning point in the U.S. Civil War; bringing an end to one of the bloodiest conflicts on American soil. The Emancipation Proclamation forcibly freed millions of people from the carnage of slavery; granting them the dignity of their humanity; something that had been stolen from their ancestors ensnared in the traps of slave traders on the beaches of West Africa.
That Donald Trump – one of the most cognitively-challenged and covertly racist presidents the U.S. has ever had – would hold a reelection rally on this date and 99 years after one of the single worst racial holocausts in modern American history speaks to an incredible level of ignorance among the historical elite and certainly of its arrogance. Knowing Trump, this shouldn’t be surprising. But the partiality of U.S. history also shouldn’t be surprising.
Many factors of our history – some dating back thousands of years – have been absent from the historical account. For decades, myths persisted that Native Americans willingly bowed down to Christianity and that Blacks lived happily within an enslaved existence. Even now, for example, many Americans believe most Hispanics are Latin American immigrants; when, in fact, the history of Hispanics in the U.S. goes back further than that of other Europeans and is tied inexorably with Native American history. In other words, it IS American history.
Anger over Trump’s June 19 convocation forced organizers to reschedule it for the 20th. But that won’t solve the dilemma of deliberate ignorance – just like civil rights legislation didn’t make all racial transgressions moot. The 1965 Voting Rights Act eliminated many of the barriers to voting obstruction. But, since the election of Barack Obama in 2008, we’ve seen Republican-dominated state legislatures try to roll back some of those protections under the guise of preventing voter fraud.
Much of the anger among Whites in 1921 was that Tulsa’s Greenwood section was prosperous and independent. The same happened with the Tigua community 18 years ago, when the state of Texas shut down their casino under the ruse of combating illegal gambling. The Tiguas had become wealthy and independent with proceeds from the casino; thus, lifting most out of poverty and off of welfare. But they hadn’t gotten permission from the conservative, predominantly White state legislature; an affront of unimaginable proportions the latter. Therefore, then-Governor Rick Perry and then-State Attorney General John Cornyn forced the casino to close. Many of the Tigua have now slipped back into poverty and back onto state assistance. Even as of last year, Texas is still trying to stop the Tiguas from becoming self-sufficient.
Again, anyone with a clear mind shouldn’t be surprised. Economic independence and wealth translates into political power. The voices and experiences of those communities are no longer silenced. That, in turn, upsets the self-appointed power elite – and the oppression begins. It used to come at the end of firearms and sticks. Now it comes with legislation.
It’s too easy to dismiss the ignorance of people like Donald Trump. But it’s also dangerous. And it does a disservice to the American conscious.
We can never truly make amends for incidents like Tulsa. We can, however, honor such brutal transgressions by remembering them; remembering exactly what happened and not deleting any feature of those accounts because some are uncomfortable with it. Again, that’s a disservice to the American conscious.