Greenwood Community on fire, Tulsa 1921

The Racist Terror of Tulsa 1921

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”—William Faulkner

[Editorial note: This article quotes from primary sources that contain racial slurs, fully spelled out. We made the decision to include these quotes in full to present a true and graphic depiction of the racist poison that permeates the United States to this day.]

One year ago, the George Floyd protests shook the world with their elemental breadth and depth. Millions of Americans hit the streets in the middle of a pandemic in a historic movement to reject racism and police brutality. But the pent-up rage that overflowed after yet another murder-by-cop in Minneapolis didn’t come from a clear blue sky. Centuries of incidents of exploitation, oppression, humiliation, and degradation were the accumulated tinder just waiting for a spark. The Tulsa massacre, which took place on Memorial Day one hundred years ago today, was one of those incidents.

Over the course of May 31 and June 1, 1921, a mob of enraged white vigilantes descended on the city’s black district of Greenwood, slaughtering an estimated 300 black people. This so-called “race riot” in northeastern Oklahoma was the largest mass killing since the American Civil War. Despite the overwhelming odds, however, Greenwood did not submit meekly to the KKK-inspired assault, and armed residents defending their neighborhood succeeded in killing roughly 50 pogromists before they were overrun.

The events in Tulsa are a tragic example of how American capitalism uses the poison of bigotry to “divide and rule.” Once unleashed on the world, the monster of racism took on a life of its own and has left many corpses in its wake.

Tulsa in 1921 was a booming oil town of some 90,000 residents, around 15,000 of whom were black. A territory until 1907, the newly formed state of Oklahoma was seen as a promised land of opportunity and possibility by whites, blacks, and immigrants alike. The rising city had been carved out of land formerly set aside for the forced resettlement of various American Indian groups after the Trail of Tears—until major discoveries of petroleum in 1901 and 1905 transformed it into the “oil capital of the world,” and the lust for profits once again trumped all treaties and agreements.

The event that unleashed the racist maelstrom in 1921 involved Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old shoeshiner, who on May 30 was accused of assaulting Sarah Page, a 17-year-old elevator operator in the downtown Drexel Building. “Diamond Dick,” as he was known to his friends, was a regular in the building as the top-floor bathroom was the only place he could relieve himself in the area in segregated Tulsa.

A romantic relationship between the two teenagers has been surmised by some historians—this, at a time when interracial relationships were illegal. What is clear is that after Rowland was brought into custody, Page was unwilling to corroborate the alleged assault. As a result, police seem to have concluded that the entire affair was an overblown misunderstanding not worthy of further investigation.

But the white-owned Tulsa Tribune knew a sensationalist story when it saw one and emblazoned its May 31 afternoon edition with the headline: “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in an Elevator.” Sarah Page was described as “an orphan girl who is working to pay her way through school.” And Rowland was described as a “Negro delivery boy lurking in the building for no reason.” A now-disappeared editorial, remembered by witnesses at the time, inflamed things further with the title: “To Lynch Negro Tonight.”

The Tulsa County sheriff was fully aware of the danger to his prisoner as tensions rose steadily in the hours that followed, so he moved Rowland from the city jail to the holding cell on the top floor of the County Courthouse. But for the white Tulsans who began swarming around the building, Dick Rowland’s fate had already been decided. He had to be punished for besmirching the dignity of a white girl. Even touching a white girl was tantamount to attempted rape and miscegenation in their Jim Crow eyes. And for that, this “uppity,” “bad Negro” had to be strung up.

Thousands of black boys and men around the country had been and would be lynched for far less. Remember, this was 34 years before Emmett Till was brutally murdered in Mississippi for flirting with a white woman. And in the still-wild west of Oklahoma, even white people were subject to extrajudicial executions. For example, the murder suspect, Roy Belton, who had been dragged out of jail by a mob and lynched in Tulsa the year before with the connivance of the local police.

 visibility Related Images found on the Internet, copyright status not evaluated. Aero view of Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1918
Tulsa in 1921 was a booming oil town of some 90,000 residents, around 15,000 of whom were black. / Image: Library of Congress via Picryl

And in 1917, the city was the scene of the “Tulsa Outrage” during the labor wars that raged in the oilfields. Twelve activists of the IWW and five others who dared serve as witnesses for the defense were sentenced for “vagrancy” or not owning pro-war Liberty Bonds. After sentencing, the police handed the men over to the local “Knights of Liberty,” who led them at gunpoint to the outskirts of town to be bound to a tree, whipped, tarred, and feathered. As one of the victims described it: “After they had satisfied themselves that our bodies were well abused, our clothing was thrown into a pile, gasoline poured on it, and a match applied. By the light of our earthly possessions, we were ordered to leave Tulsa and leave running and never come back.”

Knowing full well what awaited young Dick, Greenwood’s residents risked everything they had built and rallied to defend their own. Dozens of black WWI veterans and others met to discuss their options, and at around 9:30 pm, 50–60 of them headed downtown, rifles, shotguns, and other improvised weapons in hand, to offer their services to help protect Dick Rowland. After a discussion with the sheriff, they were convinced that the authorities had everything under control, so they headed back to Greenwood.

But the sight of armed and organized black people further enraged the members of the mob, who went back to their homes to grab guns of their own. KKK agitators harangued the crowd with speeches along the following lines, as fictionalized in The Burning by Tim Madigan: “The honor and purity of white women everywhere is at issue right here in Tulsa! A young orphan girl has been horribly violated! Can Tulsa stand by for that? Does her pain not deserve avenging? What Tulsa court is sufficient to deal with a Negro beast such as the one who sits behind bars in the jail right up there, just across the street?”

Rumors swirled wildly back in Greenwood. One asserted that the mob had already started to storm the Court House to nab Dick Rowland—another, larger group of around 75 armed men from Greenwood returned to the courthouse at around 10:00 pm. The white mob now numbered 2,000 and bristled with firearms of every type, and a tense standoff ensued.

Taunts and slurs were shouted, and a white man demanded that a black man surrender his pistol; he refused. Then, whether accidental or deliberate, as a warning or with ill-intent, a shot rang out—the signal for general mayhem. Confusion and gunfire erupted, and within seconds, ten whites and two blacks lay dead or dying on the street. A running firefight ensued as Rowland’s would-be defenders retreated north across the Frisco railroad tracks, the de facto border between two worlds, to set up defenses and begin the mass exodus into the countryside surrounding the city.

The events at the courthouse seemed to confirm the hellish nightmare of white supremacists everywhere: that a so-called Negro uprising was underway. It had to be snuffed out by any means necessary. It was no longer a question of lynching an individual but of decimating an entire people to put them back into their place. The sight of the oppressed taking up arms to defend themselves short-circuited their racist brains, and the bloodlust overflowed, as it had against Nat Turner and his followers.

The local American Legion and National Guard were activated and patrolled the streets as white Tulsans looted stores and the city’s arsenal to acquire guns and ammunition. Dozens of police, both in and out of uniform, helped direct the violence. Vigilantes were officially deputized and urged by a police sergeant to “get a gun and get a nigger.” Hundreds of live-in black servants quartered in affluent white homes were rounded up, beaten, and detained under armed guard in the city’s Convention Hall.

White armed rioters - 1921
The white mob numbered 2,000 and bristled with firearms of every type, and a tense standoff ensued. / Image: George Lane, Flickr

Gunfights raged across the Frisco tracks, and the false rumor spread that an armed black army from Muskogee was headed towards Tulsa, further enraging the mob. They had numbers and arms on their side, and they slowly inched their way into Greenwood, despite the heroic rear-guard actions of WWI-veteran snipers who took out several dozen of the invaders. Black businesses on Greenwood Avenue and Archer Street were set ablaze, and crews from the city’s fire department were turned away at gunpoint. Likewise, with the ambulance workers who sought to attend to the growing numbers of wounded.

At around 5 am on June 1, a whistle or siren sounded, and the all-out assault on Greenwood began. Black Tulsa was looted and put to the torch. The pogromists fired indiscriminately into black homes and businesses, doused them in gasoline, and set them alight. When the people inside ran out to escape the flames and smoke, they were shot down in cold blood. Clothing, jewelry, and even pianos were carted off and loaded onto vehicles. Scores of unarmed black people were executed point-blank, their bodies strung up on ropes and dragged behind cars.

Adding to the terror, several accounts attest that civilian airplanes soared over Greenwood raining bullets and firebombs down on the black neighborhood. According to one eyewitness account: “Lurid flames roared and belched and licked their forked tongues into the air. 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 birds of the air.” A handful of black fighters in Mount Zion Baptist Church were among the last holdouts.

National Guard troops from Oklahoma City arrived later that morning, martial law was declared, and most of the violence had subsided by noon. But the damage was done. Dick Rowland had escaped lynching, but his neighbors had been brutalized, and his neighborhood razed to the ground—cruel retribution against his race in the name of “justice.” Nearly 200 businesses and 1,256 homes had been burned. Another 215 homes had been looted but not burned. Ten thousand of the district’s traumatized residents were homeless, held in detention centers, or dispersed to the four winds.

Hundreds of humiliated and injured black prisoners were held at gunpoint and marched through the streets as white crowds watched from the sidewalks, subjugated people being reviewed by their conquerors. Trucks piled with black corpses zoomed through the streets, and dozens of bodies were dumped in anonymous, unmarked mass graves or thrown in rivers without funerals or death certificates.

And despite receiving some national media coverage in the immediate aftermath, the facts were rapidly falsified, promises to provide funds for rebuilding and restitution were promptly forgotten, and collective public amnesia prevailed for decades. Not a single person was ever tried or convicted for the worst mass murder of black Americans in US history, surpassing the Confederate massacre of surrendered Union soldiers at Fort Pillow in 1864.

Houses being burned in Tulsa June 1921
At around 5 am on June 1, a whistle or siren sounded, and the all-out assault on Greenwood began. Black Tulsa was looted and put to the torch./ Image: George Lane, Flickr

“Black Wall Street”

Among those slaughtered during the so-called “Tulsa race riot” was Dr. A.C. Jackson, hailed by the renowned Mayo brothers as the “ablest black surgeon in America.” The creator of medical inventions still in use to this day, he was the son of former slaves who had survived the collapse of Reconstruction and a lynch mob in Memphis before establishing themselves in Oklahoma Territory at the end of the 19th century.

They had joined thousands of others from Arkansas, Florida, Texas, Georgia, and Mississippi, fleeing Jim Crow and heading west, some of them integrating into local Native American tribes. Collectively, they built more than a dozen “freedom colonies” or “freedmen towns” across Oklahoma, civic and defensive enclaves where black people could aspire to lives of relative autonomy, peace, and quiet. The 35 square blocks of Greenwood—dubbed “Black Wall Street”—were among the finest, a source of pride for black Americans everywhere.

The popular Dr. Jackson owned one of eight doctors’ offices in Greenwood before “the burning.” Alongside these were churches, restaurants, groceries, barbershops, pool and dance halls, a public library, hardware stores, a photography studio, tailors, lawyers, pharmacies, dry cleaners, haberdasheries, the Dreamland Theatre, Williams Confectionery, and Booker T. Washington High School.

Along with Jackson, other prominent figures in Greenwood included Tulsa Star editor Andrew J. Smitherman, the famed retired lawman John Smitherman, the auto mechanic wizard John Williams, and the hotelier and lawyer J.B. Stradford. They and others had long debated the way forward for black people in America.

Rainy Day on Main St. Tulsa OK 1910
The 35 square blocks of Greenwood—dubbed “Black Wall Street”—were among the finest “freedom colonies,” a source of pride for black Americans everywhere. / Image: Tom Baddley, Flickr

Should they accommodate themselves to the reality of white supremacy, keep their heads down, build up their own businesses and property through hard work and moral rectitude, and climb slowly but surely up the social integration ladder towards some kind of respectability within the confines of white America? Such was the course advocated by “The Great Accommodator,” Booker T. Washington. Or was Marcus Garvey’s black-nationalist, separatist “back to Africa” movement the way forward? Or should they fight for their rightful place in American society and heed the fiery and inspiring words of W.E.B. Du Bois, penned in a 1919 editorial after a “race riot” in Chicago:

Brothers, we are on the Great Deep. We have cast off on the vast voyage which will lead to Freedom or Death. For three centuries, we have suffered and cowered. No race ever gave Passive Resistance and Submission to Evil longer, more piteous trial. Today we raise the terrible weapon of Self-Defense. When the murderer comes, he shall not longer strike us in the back. When the armed lynchers gather, we too must gather armed. When the mob moves, we propose to meet it with bricks and clubs and guns.

But we must tread here with solemn caution. We must never let justifiable self-defense against individuals become blind and lawless offense against all white folk. We must not seek reform by violence. We must not seek Vengeance … We must defend ourselves, our homes, our wives and children against the lawless without stint or hesitation: but we must carefully and scrupulously avoid on our own part bitter and unjustifiable aggression against anybody.

Most of Greenwood’s leaders believed—or rather, desperately hoped in the aftermath of the Red Summer of 1919—that Washington’s gradualist vision would bear fruit. After all, Washington had inspired Greenwood’s name, a reference to the black district he had helped create in Tuskegee, Alabama. And it was he who had coined the term “Negro Wall Street” after visiting the Oklahoma neighborhood in 1905.

However, the comparison to New York’s financial district is meaningful relative only to the plight of most black Americans at the time. Rather than “Black Wall Street,” it was really just a modest “Black Main Street.” The neighborhood’s black-owned businesses inspired great pride. But they also inspired jealousy among many whites. The sight of black people in late-model cars and fine clothing was an intolerable affront to the racial hierarchy of the time. But there was no real capital, no banking, no stock market, no financial nerve center for exploiting the workers of the country and the world.

Greenwood was an island of modest prosperity out of stark necessity, segregated as it was from white Tulsa. Referred to by whites as the “Negro settlement” or “Little Africa,” it was cut off and excluded from Tulsa’s civic life, water supply, refuse collection, and sewage system. A black Tulsan could only buy shoes or clothing or eat a meal in a restaurant in Greenwood.

In its overwhelming majority, Greenwood was a commuter neighborhood of working-class menial laborers servicing wealthy white Tulsans. And when push came to shove, Greenwood’s handful of relatively well-off residents identified more with their black neighbors than they did with the truly affluent whites in other parts of the city.

Jim Crow, the KKK, and the Red Summer of 1919

To understand the poisonous convergence that led to “the burning,” we must place it in its broader historical context, if only in broad strokes. After the Civil War, Southern society was turned upside down, particularly during Radical Reconstruction. Millions of former slaves owned property, carried arms, voted, won political office, and built enclaves of relative prosperity. The former slavocracy—and the millions of poor whites who had backed them in a war for slavery and secession—felt emasculated and vindictive.

The rise of the original Ku Klux Klan was its response. The white men in white hoods sought to salve the injured pride of the former Confederacy by enforcing white supremacy through terroristic violence and rolling back the clock on Reconstruction, radical or otherwise. Known as “the Invisible Empire of the South,” its first Grand Wizard was the former Confederate cavalry general, Nathan Bedford Forrest, the slave-trading architect of the massacre of surrendered black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow and beneficiary of forced convict labor.

Nathan Bedford Forrest Wizard of the Saddle
The first Grand Wizard of the KKK was former Confederate cavalry general, Nathan Bedford Forrest. / Image: TradingCardsNPS, Flickr

Although the KKK was suppressed by federal troops early in Ulysses S. Grant’s administration, by the time of the financial panic of 1873, general Northern weariness with Reconstruction led to the abandonment of millions of freedmen to the tender mercies of the Redeemers, lynch mobs, sharecropping peonage, and convict-leasing. Frederick Douglass’s grim prophecy from May 9, 1865, had come true: “[Slavery] has been called a great many names, and it will call itself by yet another name; and you and I and all of us had better wait and see what new form this old monster will assume, in what new skin this old snake will come forth next.”

When the film Birth of a Nation was released in 1915, it caused a nationwide sensation. Not only was the film a technological breakthrough, but it also exalted “Lost Cause” Confederate apologism, mob justice, and the KKK, while glorifying in black-face racist stereotypes of beastly, lascivious “bad Negroes.” Its message of national unity—white unity—resonated with millions, including the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the sitting president, Woodrow Wilson, who had it screened in the White House.

As he put it: “It’s like writing history with lightning. My only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” Such an endorsement is hardly surprising, considering Birth was based on his friend Thomas Dixon Jr.’s novel, The Clansman, and leaned on elements from Wilson’s own pro-Klan History of the American People. Inspired by their romanticized portrayal in Birth, the KKK was revived that same year, this time as a nationwide phenomenon with tens of thousands of adherents far beyond Dixie.

Soldiers returning from the battlefields of Europe in 1918 and 1919 were welcomed home with a post-war economic depression. Unemployed white veterans were looking for scapegoats and found them in the form of blacks, immigrants, Reds, and Catholics. But the over 350,000 returning black veterans—having served in the name of freedom and welcomed as equals by many in France—believed social equality was their due. As W.E.B. Du Bois put it in his powerful poem, “Returning Soldiers”:

We return
We return from fighting
We return fighting

And with the Great Migration out of the South in full swing, the stage was set for the violent clashes that erupted in the summer of 1919, echoing earlier incidents in places like East St. Louis and Houston.

Termed the “Red Summer” by James Weldon Johnson of the NAACP, it overlapped the “Red Scare” after the victory of the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution and the Palmer Raids against political radicals and immigrants that followed in 1919 and 1920. In more than three dozen cities as well as rural Elaine, Arkansas, white supremacist pogroms raged in an orgy of racist violence. In Norfolk, a white mob attacked a group of returning black WWI veterans. In Bisbee, Arizona, several “Buffalo Soldiers” of the 10th US Cavalry were assaulted, beaten, and shot in a fight with local racists. In Chicago, 13 days of rioting erupted after Eugene Williams, a black youth who swam into the “white side” of the water at a segregated beach, was stoned and drowned. Untold hundreds were killed and injured, and in places like Washington, DC and Chicago, black people gave as good as they got in self-defense.

In September of that year, the African Blood Brotherhood was formed in New York to stand as “the Negros’ rock of Gibraltar.” Its founder, Cyril Briggs, a Caribbean immigrant, was influenced by socialist and even communist ideas and argued for armed self-defense and class unity against the common enemy: capitalism. The ABB organized solidarity and spread the word about what had really happened in Tulsa, and the group was eventually subsumed into the Communist Party of America.

The African Blood Brotherhood was formed to stand as “the Negros’ rock of Gibraltar,” and argued for class unity against the common enemy: capitalism. / Image: Dahn, Wikimedia Commons

For their part, the new KKK had seen the massive potential for growth in Tulsa in the years before the burning. With the oil boom sputtering due to the post-WWI economic crisis, there were plenty of discontented whites looking for someone to blame. Virtually all the “respectable” leading men of Tulsa had white robes hanging in their closets. And as national KKK organizers had allegedly told the local leaders: “the best way to increase membership is to have a good riot.”

As described in The Burning, on February 4, 1921, the Tulsa Tribune “published what amounted to a press release for the new KKK, a story that lauded the secret order’s ambitions to add chapters in Oklahoma. The new Klan, the story said, was to be a living, lasting memorial to the original Klan members who had saved the South from ‘a Negro empire [built] upon the ruins of southern homes and institutions.’ Among the KKK’s principles, the Tribune story continued, was ‘supremacy of the white race in social, political and governmental affairs of the nation.’”

This blessing from the journalistic mouthpiece of white Tulsa contributed to a rapid rise in KKK membership. And although the rabid vitriol of the Tribune certainly fanned the flames of race hatred, it merely gave expression to the racist poison embedded in the DNA of American capitalism.

Such was the societal minefield being navigated by Dick Rowland when he stepped into the elevator of the Drexel Building on that fateful day.

Greenwood’s ashes

As with all acts of terror, although individuals were targeted and killed, the real aim was to cow and humiliate an entire population. The blame for the massacre was laid entirely on those “uppity Negroes” who had dared come to Dick Rowland’s defense. The long-prophesied “Negro uprising” had come to pass and had to be snuffed out by any means necessary. Blacks were the racial inferiors of whites, and they deserved everything they had gotten—and then some.

Having achieved their “good riot,” KKK recruiters cleaned house, and the local membership soared as mayors, sheriffs, district attorneys, and city council members all paid their dues. The Klan even created auxiliaries for women and children aged 12 and up. White hoods and robes were a popular Halloween costume for years to come, and the country’s largest KKK facility was built right next to Greenwood—an ominous warning for those who had survived.

Ruins of Greenwood Section of Tulsa: 1921
The images we have today of piled bodies and burning and burned Greenwood are reminiscent of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after they were annihilated by US imperialism. / Image: Washington Area Spark, Flickr

The images we have today of piled bodies and burning and burned Greenwood are reminiscent of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after they were annihilated by US imperialism. Many of these images come from postcards that were gleefully sent around the country, treasured reminders of the time when Tulsa Negroes were “put well and truly in their place.” Aside from there, there is precious little official documentation of the scale and scope of murder and arson. Official logs from the National Guard and even the infamous Tulsa Tribune editorial calling for the lynching of Dick Rowland have been missing for decades.

The “peace” that followed was akin to that between a sociopathic domestic abuser and their traumatized victim, still living under the same roof. Black auto mechanics again had to repair the cars of those who just days earlier had sped through Greenwood shooting it up, and maids had to wash the clothing of men who may well have burned down their homes. To be sure, many whites were profoundly shocked and ashamed at what had happened. A majority had not engaged directly in the violence and, in some cases, even tried to stop the killings and torchings. More than a handful had sheltered their black domestic servants in their basements or even braved the fires and shooting to rescue their friends and employees from Greenwood itself—whether out of genuine human sympathy or simply to ensure their sources of cheap labor.

What followed the catastrophe can, therefore, only be likened to a Triumph held after a war of Roman conquest. Thousands of black Tulsans had fled the city, many of them never to return, a diaspora of survivors whose descendants live today in St. Louis, Chicago, Kansas City, California, and beyond. But hundreds and perhaps thousands of others had been arrested and corralled in civic buildings, parks, cow pens, and pigsties. Like Japanese-Americans during WWII, they were herded into a makeshift internment camp at the city’s baseball fields. The only way out was for a white person to vouch for you and sign you out. A race-based pass system was established requiring these “good blacks” to wear a green identification tag to move around the city—or face arrest.

Homeless black man, Tulsa 1921
What followed the catastrophe can, therefore, only be likened to a Triumph held after a war of Roman conquest. / Image: George Lane, Flickr

Although some money and support poured in from black townships around the country and the NAACP, relief efforts fell almost entirely to the Red Cross—the first time the organization had been mobilized to respond to a man-made and not a natural disaster. It provided healthcare, shelter, food, and wages for public relief work. But even that was repulsive to many whites in Tulsa who exploited blacks for menial labor. Some wrote letters to the editor complaining that paying “servants” wages for such work would “ruin them after things are settled again.”

In the days after the burning, the infamous Tulsa Tribune declared: “It Must Not Be Again.” But it didn’t mean that the racist violence shouldn’t be repeated. Rather, it bluntly stated that Greenwood must not be black again:

Such a district as the old “Niggertown” must not be allowed again in Tulsa. It was a cesspool of iniquity and corruption … Anybody could go into the most unspeakable dance halls and base joints of prostitution. In this old “Niggertown” were a lot of bad niggers and a bad nigger is about the lowest thing that walks on two feet.

The mob had succeeded where the local authorities had failed—just as hurricane Katrina allegedly “succeeded” in “cleaning up” historic black neighborhoods in New Orleans. Local developers had long had their eyes on the land north of the Frisco tracks, which was prime for industrial development. “Black Wall Street” had been reduced to a shanty town of tents and shacks, and speculators now tried to buy up plots for pennies on the dollar. Even the city’s fire codes and zoning laws were changed to make it more difficult for those who had lost everything to rebuild. A court case eventually reversed this, and those who returned did rebuild—but it took some two decades before the district regained some semblance of its former condition.

There was, in fact, a criminal investigation into the massacre—with an all-white jury. In a perfect microcosm of Jim Crow America, not a single white person was charged with arson or murder. However, black business owners like J.B. Stradford were indicted for inciting a riot. Stradford, who had escaped to Chicago, fought the charges for decades and was not formally cleared until 1996—six decades after he had passed away.

slain black man laying on the street with his head covered from the Tulsa Race Massacre, 1921
There was, in fact, a criminal investigation into the massacre—with an all-white jury. In a perfect microcosm of Jim Crow America, not a single white person was charged with arson or murder. / Image: George Lane, Flickr

Whether out of shame for their city or because they feared prosecution, white Tulsans drove the horrific secret of the massacre deep underground. Attempts by journalists and others to dig into the facts were met with stony-faced silence and even death threats. As for Tulsa’s black people, a code of stoic silence was enforced for fear of “stirring up the white folks” and suffering another massacre. Only a handful of guardians of the story handed it down the generations, selectively and surreptitiously.

As a result, entire generations of Tulsans, both white and black, have grown up without even an inkling about what had happened. Only in the 1990s, after the Oklahoma City terrorist bombing, did awareness about Oklahoma’s worst domestic terror attack begin to grow. With nary a word in the state’s history books, many Tulsans only learned of these events from recent television programs like Watchmen and Lovecraft Country.

In 2001, an Oklahoma state commission concluded that reparations should be made to survivors as part of the public recognition of the massacre. Needless to say, no such reparations have been paid. Today, as part of the centennial commemoration, a fancy new history center, hotels, and other projects heavily funded by big corporate donors and investors are being prepared. And a mass grave containing 11 anonymous bodies was recently discovered, confirming the horrors described by survivors. But the generational loss and trauma suffered by the survivors have never been addressed.

Tulsa remains deeply divided today, with glaring racial and geographic disparities in poverty, unemployment, investment in infrastructure, and police brutality. Adding insult to injury, over the decades, “Black Wall Street” has been deeply gentrified. In the 1960s and 70s, it was gutted like so many other black neighborhoods, as an interstate highway was driven straight through its heart. And in the summer of 2020, in the middle of the George Floyd movement, Donald Trump scheduled a campaign rally in Tulsa—on Juneteenth, of all days. He eventually backed out, but large pro- and anti-Trump crowds turned out to face each other down nonetheless.

Smoke engulfs buildings and the sky on Archer Street
Whether out of shame for their city or because they feared prosecution, white Tulsans drove the horrific secret of the massacre deep underground. / Image: George Lane, Flickr

The struggle continues

As with so many other essential cultural and historical contributions by black people in this country, the story of what happened in Tulsa ten decades ago has been marginalized, minimized, and buried from view. It is the duty of revolutionary Marxists to bring alive the history of our class’s struggles, victories, and defeats: we study the past to understand the present and prepare for the future.

So what lessons can we draw from the Tulsa catastrophe? The early 1900s were the nadir of the centuries-long struggle by black people for integration into American society. Despite individual examples of human empathy, working-class solidarity was sorely lacking in Tulsa in 1921. This is a graphic example of what a lack of class consciousness and solidarity can lead to. The responsibility for this lies ultimately with the leaders of the AFL at the time.

In the end, W.E.B. Du Bois and others in the black radical, socialist, and communist tradition, such as Claude McKay, were proven right: black workers would have to fight for their place at the American table, that table could not be allowed to remain capitalist, and they couldn’t win that battle alone.

BLM and International Workers day demonstrations in Minneapolis, MN
The two-headed hydra of racism and capitalism can only be defeated by the working class, united across all national, racial, ethnic, religious, gender, and other lines. Such unity can only be forged in common struggle. And although this is easier said than done, there is no other way. / Image: Fibonacci Blue, Flickr

The two-headed hydra of racism and capitalism can only be defeated by the working class, united across all national, racial, ethnic, religious, gender, and other lines. Such unity can only be forged in common struggle. And although this is easier said than done, there is no other way.

In the years that followed the burning of Greenwood, the way forward was charted by the struggles of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the rise of the CIO. The broad demographic composition of last year’s Black Lives Matter movement should also inspire confidence in the prospects for united revolutionary class struggle in our lifetime.

Only the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by socialism can bring about meaningful reparations for centuries of capitalist exploitation and oppression. One hundred fifty-six years ago, a courageous generation of black and white Americans, both free and slave, both in and out of uniform, waged a revolutionary war to abolish the institutions of slavery. Despite their heroism and sacrifice, they didn’t quite finish the job. It is up to our generation to finish the work they started.


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