Remembering the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921

by | May 29, 2020 | Race

Ninety-nine years ago, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on May 31st, 1921, a 19-year-old African American named Dick Rowland walked into an elevator operated by a 17-year-old white woman named Sarah Page. A few minutes later, Ms. Page screamed, and both she and Mr. Rowland ran out of the elevator. Accounts vary on what happened between Mr. Rowland and Ms. Page in that elevator. Still, what followed from May 31st – June 1st, was a series of events that resulted in mobs of white vigilantes destroying Tulsa’s Greenwood District, known as Black Wall Street, one of the most affluent and prosperous African American communities in the United States.

Thousands of white citizens poured into the Greenwood District, looting and burning homes and businesses over 35 city blocks.Three hundred innocent African Americans were killed, over 800 were injured and 9,000 were left homeless in what is known today as the Tulsa Race Massacre. According to a later Red Cross estimate, some 1,256 houses were burned; 215 others were looted but not torched. Two newspapers, a school, a library, a hospital, churches, hotels, stores, and many other black-owned businesses were among the buildings destroyed or damaged by fire.

Media of the day legitimized the deadly violence on Black Wall Street by feeding the generalized perception that African Americans were out of line and needed to be put back “in their place.” Police and politicians justified the violence because African Americans needed to be subjugated. In short, the poorer whites had to destroy the unapologetically Black success of Black Wall Street so that they could maintain their façade of white supremacy. The demand for social equity, economic progress, equal justice, and equal treatment under the law was a direct threat to the status quo and to those who benefited from the racial animus at the foundation of Jim Crow laws and policies that permeate this country.

On August 1st, 1988, a battalion of 88 Los Angeles police officers raided two apartment buildings on the corner of 39th and Dalton Avenue in southwest Los Angeles. Police officers caused massive property damage (including smashed furniture, holes punched in walls, and destruction of family photos) and sprayed graffiti messages such as “LAPD Rules” and “Rollin’ 30s Die.” Dozens of residents from the apartments and surrounding neighborhood were rounded up. Many were humiliated or beaten, but none was charged with a crime.

This week, on May 25th a 46-year-old black man named George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer. The cruel, public asphyxiation of Mr. Floyd follows an unfortunate string of headlines this year that include 26-year-old EMT Breonna Taylor who was killed by police in her home in Louisville, Kentucky on the authority of a “no-knock” search warrant carried out at midnight by police officers in plainclothes and unmarked cars in search of illegal drugs that were never found, and 25-year-old Ahmad Aubrey, killed by vigilantes in Brunswick, GA while jogging.

On the same day as Mr. Floyd’s murder, another viral video showed a white woman calling the cops on a black man who asked her to leash her dog while in a part of New York City’s Central Park that required all dogs to be leashed. The video documents a scenario that has often resulted in the lynching of an innocent black man, the destruction of a neighborhood, or the massacre of an entire community.

The digital age has exposed the pervasiveness of racially-motivated violence by police and self-appointed vigilantes that African Americans have endured for generations. As the headlines and viral videos provide mainstream America with a graphic glimpse into what it means to be Black in America, we know all too well that these incidents will be reenacted time and again until we properly address the issues of race, poverty and the disenfranchisement of communities of color in this country.

We cannot allow ourselves to grow numb to such brazen flouting of the law and human decency. We cannot become complacent with the continual reenactment of our ugly racist history and not seek justice for our lost brothers and sisters.

It is important to note that, in the hours after the Tulsa Race Massacre, all charges against Mr. Rowland were dropped. In their official report, the police concluded that Mr. Rowland had most likely stumbled into Ms. Page or stepped on her foot. Maybe he did stumble or dared to ask her to leash her dog or take a leisurely jog through the neighborhood or ask that he be allowed to breathe.

We stand with George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmad Aubrey, and all the victims and their families who have had to endure the evils of cruel, senseless, racial violence.

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