Tulsa Massacre: The Violence That Shaped Our Nation - Rolling Stone
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The Violence That Shaped Our Nation

White America is finally learning. Black America could never forget

An African-American man with a camera looking at the skeletons of iron beds which rise above the ashes of a burned-out block after the Tulsa Race Massacre, Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 1921. (Photo by Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty Images)

An African-American man with a camera looking at the skeletons of iron beds which rise above the ashes of a burned-out block after the Tulsa Race Massacre, Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 1921.

Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty Images

From his office window, attorney Buck Colbert “B.C.” Franklin could see planes circling low overhead Greenwood, the thriving African American district in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the early morning hours of June 1st, 1921, and they were growing in number. Moments later, he heard “something falling like hail upon the top of my office.” The planes were dropping bombs. In a 1931 manuscript, Franklin vividly described what he witnessed during those horrifying hours, when thousands of white citizens brutally attacked the African American community of 15,000 situated within 35 blocks surrounding the corner of Greenwood Avenue and Archer Street, just north of the railroad tracks that divided the city’s black and white sections. Homes and businesses were set on fire, raided, homeowners who remained to defend their homes were shot and their property looted. Franklin’s is one of many first-person accounts that chronicles one of the worst acts of racial violence in U.S. history.

Oil money had flowed plentifully into Tulsa since 1905, making it one of the fastest-growing cities in Oklahoma, swelling the population from 18,000 to 100,000 in 10 years. Yet racial tensions persisted, and like other communities nationwide, it adhered to the norms of Jim Crow, going so far as to segregate their telephone-pole installations. African Americans were barred from shopping in white-owned businesses, so they established their own self-sustaining enterprises. A modest few thrived in a professional class of doctors, lawyers, and entrepreneurs. The vast majority of Tulsa’s black residents — blocked from white-only jobs in the oil industry — settled on low-wage, menial service jobs; they still were able to reap material comforts.

Yet, the yellow journalism of the Tulsa Tribune had exacerbated deepening racial resentment, and the kindling that sparked this particular atrocity was the accusation of an alleged assault of a white-girl elevator operator by a black shoeshine boy. Soon, rumors spread that he was going to be lynched; black Tulsans from Greenwood flocked to offer additional armed protection to the sheriff to defend the boy from a white mob. By the late morning, a white mob advanced across the railroad tracks.

“Lurid flames roared and belched and licked their forked tongues in the air,” Franklin wrote. “Smoke ascended the sky in thick, black volumes and amid it all, the planes — now a dozen or more in number — still hummed and darted here and there with the agility of natural bird of the air.” Franklin noted his frustration when he had tried in vain to contact the sheriff’s office and the fire department: “Is the city in conspiracy with the mob?”

The Tulsa Massacre of 1921 was pogrom. Over 48 hours, the Greenwood community was decimated, more than 3,000 homes and businesses burned to the ground as white mobs sacked and burned 35 square blocks, killing people in their homes before looting their things and then burning the homes to the ground, leaving thousands homeless, and an estimated 300 people dead. Last year, forensic anthropologists reported preliminary findings of mass graves connected with the massacre.

But last week, President Trump announced plans to hold a campaign rally on June 19th, his first since the COVID-19 outbreak — a pandemic that has already claimed more than 115,000 Americans, a disproportionate number of whom were black. And it wasn’t just the 99th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre on which he planned to hold his Herrenvolk reality show, replete with a fusillade of lies and aired grievances, staged specifically to gin up racial animus among his most ardent supporters — it was also Juneteenth, a holiday that has been celebrated for more than 150 years to commemorate the end of slavery. This move, juxtaposed against the backdrop of the pandemic and a nation enraptured in Black Lives Matter protests, demonstrated Trump’s flagrant dismissal of the value of African American lives and his ignorance of American history.

Local and national African Americans leaders were outraged. California Sen. Kamala Harris tweeted, “This isn’t just a wink to white supremacists — he’s throwing them a welcome home party.”

Over the weekend, Trump reversed course, switching the date of the rally to the following day. To wary African American eyes, though, just the suggestion of a Trump rally in Tulsa on Juneteenth was a bullhorn. It proved Trump’s continued sympathies toward white nationalists despite national calls for unity and reform.

“Identity-based affronts are never done out of ignorance,” says Koritha Mitchell, professor of literary history at Ohio State University and author of Living With Lynching and the forthcoming  From Slave Cabins to the White House: Homemade Citizenship in African American Culture. She refers to these instances of attacks on marginalized groups as “know-your-place aggression.”

Whether it’s a micro-aggression, assault, or murder, the goal is to remind the targeted group of their ‘proper,’ subordinate place,” says Mitchell. “And Trump has been more transparent than most about his understanding that reminding certain people of their denigrated place will cost him nothing politically. [I]t would solidify his political power and his latitude to flaunt it.”

This particular imbroglio highlights the persistent erasure of critical moments of Black American history in the national narrative and imagination. And as the most recent New York Times bestseller list quietly admits, many recognize the need to educate themselves with rigor and curiosity. For decades, U.S. school curriculum was shaped by the propagandist efforts of William Dunning — a historian who buried the failures of reconstruction and provided intellectual credence to Jim Crow — and the Lost Cause, a delusory ideology that recast the Civil War as a battle over “states rights.” Depending on the state, school textbooks cultivate this historical blindness and outright erasure of events like the Tulsa Race Massacre. For far too many Americans, the history of the United States is sanitized of brutal facts that inform how we became the country we are now. White Americans are constantly relearning facts that African American communities can never forget.

Consider last October when HBO’s critically acclaimed limited series Watchmen debuted: Tulsa, and Tulsa Race Massacre trended for hours on Twitter. Showrunner Damon Lindelof noted that he first learned of it through reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Case for Reparations and recognized the opportunity to use the show as a “delivery mechanism for this piece of erased history” without exploiting it.

“I think that history’s prescient,” said Watchmen staff writer Cord Jefferson in a recent interview with Rolling Stone. “Particularly when it comes to racism and how black people in this country are treated. The fact that we made a show about police violence and white-supremacist violence, and, several months later, we’re dealing with police violence and white-supremacist violence, that’s just because we’re making a show about history.”

Irony is dead. Yet, spectacle and stagecraft are currencies for Trump. Contrast with the horrors of the Tulsa Race Massacre, Juneteenth is a cherished holiday celebrated in African American communities nationwide to commemorate the announcement of the end of slavery in Texas in 1865, two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The Lone Star State was the last holdout of the slavocracy. After the U.S. Army captured New Orleans in 1862, slave owners trekked up to 150,000 enslaved persons from neighboring states to Texas, according to one slave account noted in Leon Litwack’s Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery.

Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, effectively outlawing slavery in the confederate states. The 13th Amendment that codified Lincoln’s executive order had passed Congress in January 1865 and advanced toward ratification. The confederacy surrendered in April 1865. Yet, for the 250,000 enslaved in Texas, the chicanery of the slave owners went unchecked until June 2nd, 1865, when U.S. Army forces arrived to inform them of their liberation. Even still, news traveled slowly across the state. On June 19th, in Galveston, Texas, General Order 3 was read publicly and printed in the local paper to announce the end of slavery:

“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection therefore existing between them becomes that between employer and free labor.”

Yet liberation wasn’t immediate, and the newly freed women and men took control of their destinies at their peril. In one account, Katie Darling remained with her captors for an additional six years because her white mistress refused to let her go, saying she “whip me after the war jist like she did ‘fore.” Plantation owners decided when and how they would notify their captives. Some waited until after harvest season to inform them.

Laura Smalley, a surviving enslaved woman of Hempstead, Texas, told John Henry Faulk in 1941, “You know, and old master didn’t tell you know, they was free.”

Faulk, astonished, asked for clarification, and Smalley expanded: “No, he didn’t tell. They worked there, I think now they say they worked them, six months after that. Six months. And turn them loose on June 19th. That’s why, you know, we celebrate that day. Colored folks — celebrates that day.”

Less than a year after the news of emancipation spread through Texas, black women, working with the Freedmen’s Bureau, organized the former enslaved people around a date more meaningful to them than the Fourth of July; the first Juneteenth Day was celebrated in 1866. Juneteenth is not about military intervention to enforce freedom; it is a day of reclamation and remembrance. It is an affirmation of black humanity and dignity. For a nation in love with forward movement, the unreconciled past haunts.

 

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