Tulsa race massacre, a century later: wounds still open and weeping

Over 24 hours on 31 May 1921, Tulsa witnessed what is thought to be the worst single event of white supremacist violence against African Americans in the nation’s history

The full-page advert in a special Black History edition of USA Today presents a technicolor vision of modern-day Tulsa, with sparkling images of public parks and brightly painted murals celebrating the local Black community under the banner headline: “Tulsa Triumphs.”

“Tulsa is leading America’s journey to racial healing,” the text says, inviting visitors from across the US to sample the delights of Oklahoma’s second-largest city. The enticements include “an emotional opportunity for learning and reflection” and a “space for reconciliation … Tulsa triumphs, and you can be a part of this pilgrimage.”

The advert is a brazen attempt to turn Tulsa’s grim distinction as the setting of one of the most grotesque mass lynchings in US history into a tourist draw. It is the work of the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, a body of prominent state and city politicians and other local notables who have put together the city’s established version of the 100th anniversary of a very special day.

On that day, 31 May 1921, white Tulsans ran amok, shooting any Black person in sight, dropping incendiary devices from the air on to their homes and burning to the ground one of the most flourishing Black business districts in the country, known as “Black Wall Street”. Some 35 blocks of Black real estate in the Greenwood neighbourhood were destroyed.

Ruins of Greenwood district after race riots in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in June 1921.
Ruins of Greenwood district after the race massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in June 1921. Photograph: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

At least 300 men, women and children were murdered. Over 24 hours, Tulsa witnessed what is thought to be the worst single event of white supremacist violence against African Americans in the nation’s history.

From the terror of 31 May 1921 to the “triumph” of 31 May 2021 – it makes for a powerful attraction for visitors. The only hitch with this depiction of Tulsa rising from the ashes is that from the perspective of the Black survivors and many of the descendants of the massacre, it has no basis in reality.

Tulsa isn’t leading America’s journey to racial healing. And it certainly hasn’t triumphed. Talk to many of the people whose families were directly affected by the hellfire unleashed 100 years ago, and they will tell you that the wounds are still open and weeping.

“When I read that ad, it made me angry,” said Kristi Williams, whose great-aunt was forced to flee Tulsa in 1921 to escape the bloodthirsty horde. “Reconciliation? There hasn’t been any reconciliation. If I told you I was hungry, you would give me food – not a picture of some food.”

Damario Solomon-Simmons, a Tulsa civil-rights lawyer who is representing the three known survivors of the race massacre in a reparations lawsuit, responded more bluntly. “‘Tulsa triumphs’ is a complete 100% lie. This city is one of the most segregated and discriminatory in America, and that’s not anecdotal – look at the facts.”

A woman walks past a ‘Black Wall Street’ mural during Juneteenth celebrations in the Greenwood district of Tulsa, the site of the 1921 race massacre, on 19 June 2020.
A woman walks past a ‘Black Wall Street’ mural during Juneteenth celebrations in the Greenwood district of Tulsa, the site of the 1921 race massacre, on 19 June 2020. Photograph: Seth Herald/AFP/Getty Images

The facts do tell a starkly different story from the official account of racial healing. They suggest that the deep injury that was inflicted on Black residents in the 1921 massacre remains untreated, with the consequences clearly reflected in today’s glaring racial disparities.

Human Rights Watch has compiled some of the key data:

  • North Tulsa, where a large proportion of the city’s Black population lives today, has 34% living in poverty, compared with 13% in the largely white South Tulsa;

  • Unemployment among Black Tulsans is more than double that of whites;

  • The median income for Black North Tulsa is $29,000, for white South Tulsa $60,000;

  • Life expectancy for Black Tulsans is 70 years, for white Tulsans 81 years.

Discontent over the official remembrance came to a head at the weekend. The main event planned by the Centennial Commission, featuring singer John Legend and the Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams was abruptly cancelled in a disagreement over how much the commission would contribute towards a reparations fund in return for attendance at the event by survivors of the massacre.

It is one of the extraordinary elements of the 1921 catastrophe that survivors are still alive. Three individuals are active today who as children experienced the horror of white sadism perpetrated on that day.

The oldest of the trio, Mother Viola Fletcher, just turned 107. At a recent event in Tulsa, she walked unassisted to the podium and recalled what happened to her as a seven-year-old girl.

“I still remember all the shooting and running,” she said. “People being killed. Crawling and seeing smoke. Seeing airplanes flying, and a messenger going through the neighbourhood telling all the Black people to leave town.”

House hearing on the Continuing Injustice: The Centennial of the Tulsa-Greenwood Race Massacre Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties, on May 19 in Washington, DC.
Survivor Mother Viola Fletcher, 107, listens to fellow survivor Hughes Van Ellis, 100, during the House hearing on the Tulsa race massacre in Washington DC on 19 May 2021. Photograph: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Then Fletcher stopped speaking. Even after 100 years, the memories of that day still have the power to overwhelm her.

Fletcher is a lead plaintiff, along with her two fellow survivors – Lessie Benningfield Randle, 106, and Hughes Van Ellis, 100 – in the reparations lawsuit. The suit is being brought under Oklahoma’s “ongoing nuisance” law, and names as defendants the City of Tulsa, the county and other entities that were complicit in the events in 1921 and in the on-going suppression of the Black community that followed.

As the debate intensifies nationwide about reparations for African Americans for the harm inflicted through slavery and other racial injustices, the Tulsa lawsuit is being watched closely as one of the most advanced actions being played out in US courts. Solomon-Simmons hopes it will be the vanguard of the reparations movement.

“Tulsa is the test case,” he said. “If we are going to have overall reparations in America, it will have to happen here in Tulsa first.”

One of the remarkable features of the 1921 massacre is that despite the scale and ferocity of the violence – in addition to the murders, some 1,200 Black homes were destroyed – not one of more than 100 legal cases that were filed in the aftermath has ever had its day in court. Solomon-Simmons has made it his mission to break that jinx.

“We believe that this case will be heard and that we will prove what everybody already knows – that the racial and economic disparities that exist in Tulsa today are the result of the 1921 massacre. For the first time, we will establish that the Black man has rights that the white man must respect.”

The Republican mayor of Tulsa, GT Bynum, insists that he has put at the forefront of his administration the goals of addressing the legacy of the massacre and investing in community-led redevelopment. Part of that plan is to begin today – the day Joe Biden arrives in town to round off the centennial events – in the form of a major excavation project in Tulsa’s Oaklawn cemetery in search for what are thought to be mass graves of 1921 massacre victims.

After it has been determined whether the remains are of 1921 victims, Bynum then intends to use DNA testing and genealogical research “to bring some healing and justice to the Tulsa community”, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office said.

Workers sift through soil in a truck on 17 July 2020 as work continues on an excavation of a potential unmarked mass grave from the 1921 Tulsa race massacre at Oaklawn cemetery in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Workers sift through soil in a truck on 17 July 2020 as work continues on an excavation of a potential unmarked mass grave from the 1921 Tulsa race massacre at Oaklawn cemetery in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Photograph: Sue Ogrocki/AP

As for reparations in the form of cash payments to the survivors, Bynum is dismissive. “Mayor Bynum has stated he does not believe this generation of Tulsans should be financially penalized for what criminals did 100 years ago,” the spokesperson said.

The reparations lawsuit hangs awkwardly over the Centennial Commission as it seeks to put a positive spin on present-day Tulsa and how it has “triumphed” over its painful past. Some $30m have been raised for the official commemoration, most of which has been invested in a spanking new history center which the commission has called “Greenwood Rising”.

Phil Armstrong, the commission’s project director, has promised that the exhibitions contained in the museum will “not whitewash or cover over, but will tell the truth in all its horrific grittiness”. Local Black activists are hopeful that the center will add to public understanding about how a once-thriving hub of Black business and innovation was torn down in a whirlwind of racial hatred.

But they are critical of several key aspects of the commission’s work. It’s not just that most of the millions it raised have gone to attracting outside visitors to the city, with nothing given directly as reparations to the community.

The name “Greenwood Rising” has also provoked a hostile response from some Black Tulsans. “How is Greenwood rising?” said Nehemiah Frank, the editor-in-chief of the Black Wall Street Times whose great-great-grandparents lost their homes and businesses in the massacre.

He added: “Nothing has changed. When you come to Tulsa and walk through the Greenwood district it is completely unrecognizable – there is no sign of the greatness that this community was.”

Young people play basketball during Juneteenth celebrations in the Greenwood district of Tulsa, the site of the 1921 race massacre, on 19 June 2020.
Young people play basketball during Juneteenth celebrations in the Greenwood district of Tulsa, the site of the 1921 race massacre, on 19 June 2020. Photograph: Seth Herald/AFP/Getty Images

The commission has also been criticized for failing to involve the survivors and descendants of the massacre in conceiving and executing the new museum. “We have to be careful who’s telling our history,” Williams said.

She cited an old African proverb: “Until the lion learns how to tell its own story, the story will always glorify the hunter.”

There are certainly some powerful hunters on the board of the commission – among them several of the top Republicans in Oklahoma. In addition to Bynum, they include the US senator from Oklahoma, James Lankford, who was one of the Republicans in Congress on 6 January who objected to Joe Biden’s electoral college certification in obeisance to Donald Trump’s big lie that the election was stolen from him.

Until two weeks ago, the Republican governor of Oklahoma, Kevin Stitt, also sat on the commission. He was ousted after he signed into law HB 1775, a bill that will curtail the teaching of critical race theory in Oklahoma’s public schools and colleges.

The bill bans teachers from making any student “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex”. Its passing into law just days before the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre has prompted fears that it could be used to put a chill on learning about America’s long history of white supremacy, from slavery to lynchings – and even the 1921 massacre itself.

Regina Goodwin, a native of Greenwood who represents Tulsa in the Oklahoma state legislature and whose great grandparents had their businesses burnt to the ground in 1921, called HB 1775 “a horrible bill. You can’t legislate for ‘discomfort’. Could a parent say that their child is discomforted by a class on the race massacre, of course they could.”

Goodwin also pointed to several other contentious laws passed recently by Oklahoma’s Republican-controlled legislature. A new law has been pushed through in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests that grants immunity to drivers who unintentionally injure or kill demonstrators blocking the road.

Another bill prohibits people from posting videos and other information that personally identifies police officers. That has prompted concerns that people who film police misconduct on their phones – such as the video of Derek Chauvin murdering George Floyd – could be subjected to criminal prosecution.

“All of this says Black lives don’t matter,” Goodwin told the Guardian. “As we talk about the centennial of the Tulsa massacre, let’s remember that Black people are still being massacred. In 1921 people were shot to death and no one was charged, no one convicted. It’s 2021, and the same thing is happening today.”

Contributor

Ed Pilkington

The GuardianTramp

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