Introduction by RUSSELL COBB
The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing is to many people a powerful symbol of hatred and intolerance taken to tragic lengths. But eighty years ago there was an even more lethal, more intolerant day in Oklahoma, one which represented perhaps the worst instance of racial violence in America since slavery.
And while the details of the Oklahoma City bombing are well-known to most Americans, the events of the Tulsa Race Riot were covered up for almost seventy-five years in a "conspiracy of silence"--a silence that was only recently broken by the courageous testimony of the few living survivors before a state commission.
It began on Memorial Day 1921, in downtown Tulsa, a boomtown flush with oil money, and by the time the three-day massacre was complete, a well-armed white mob, some of them deputized by the police department, had ruined Tulsa's prosperous black neighborhood Greenwood--"the black Wall Street"--had razed thirty-six square blocks, burned to the ground more than 3,000 homes and killed as many as 300 people, many of whom were buried in mass graves or simply dumped anonymously into the Arkansas River. By the end of the onslaught, Tulsa's thriving black community, which numbered some 15,000 people and was famous for its cultural and financial achievements, rivaling New York City as a national center of urban black life, was destroyed.
The Nation sent Walter White to Tulsa to report on the aftermath of the riots in 1921. A journalist and the future director of the NAACP, White came back with an essay that came to be considered one of the seminal accounts of what happened and which still makes for searing reading today.
To commemorate the eightieth anniversary of the Tulsa riot, we've collected this article, a more timely report that the magazine published and a set of relevant links to some of the scarce Internet-based resources devoted to forging a collective memory of what happened to the black community in Tulsa in 1921.
Russell Cobb was a Spring 2001 Nation intern.
June 15, 1921
"An impudent Negro, a hysterical girl, and a yellow journal"--this, according to the Adjutant General of Oklahoma, is the combination which precipitated the terrible race riot in Tulsa and the killing of a score or so of people. Just how "impudent" the Negro was--impudence in a Negro is often self-respect in a white--remains to be proved, and how hysterical the girl; the deadly possibilities of yellow journal reporters the country, alas, knows to its shame. This time the unscrupulous journalist brought about the worst riot since East St. Louis's. The Negro quarter was destroyed by deliberately kindled fires, and thousands of persons were made homeless and penniless, the property damage alone being $1,500,000. But the damage to Tulsa itself would be irreparable if the attitude of that community were the brazenly defiant one which usually marks a Southern community after a scene of such violence and lawlessness. Happily, Tulsa has had remorse and is not afraid to admit it. A former mayor, Judge Loyal J. Martin, chairman of the emergency committee, has declared:
Tulsa can only redeem herself from the country-wide shame and humiliation into which she is today plunged by complete restitution and rehabilitation of the destroyed black belt. The rest of the United States must know that the real citizenship of Tulsa weeps at this unspeakable crime and will make good the damage, so far as it can be done, to the last penny.
There at last we have the true American note--no effort to blacken a race or to mitigate the shame, but that honest confession which alone is good for the soul of the guilty. To quote Judge Martin again:
We have neglected our duties and our city government has fallen down. We have had a failing police protection here, and now we have to pay the costs of it. The city and county are legally liable for every dollar of the damage which has been done. Other cities have had to pay the bill of race riots, and we shall have to do so probably, because we have neglected our duty as citizens.
Precisely; that is a good explanation of the intensity of the race problem in most of our cities. Your business men lure the blacks into the cities from the land; they pour into already overcrowded "quarters" to live in hovels or apartments so dilapidated as to be abandoned by all but the most shiftless whites. The burned Negro quarter in Tulsa was described as "a mile-square of shacks, huts, and hovels." Then if the Negro seeks to break out of such a ghetto you denounce him for his impudence in intruding upon the white man's preserves and lowering the value of his property. You curse him if out of his slough of despond come contagious diseases, if immorality and vice are rampant among human beings living like animals; and if a criminal bred in this environment comes out of it, you lynch him.
"We Americans," President Harding has just said, "are united in the sweetest concord that ever united men." Witness the smoking ruins of Tulsa, ruins that are to be rebuilt, though the innocent dead cannot be made to walk again! Is it all to end there? Surely there could be no clearer cause than this for the passage of Senator McCormick's bill for a commission to study the race issue. If Mr. Harding is to be President of the whole nation, if he is to do anything to bring about that "sweetest concord" which today is a figment of his imagination, he should insist upon an immediate inquiry into the color problem.