Tulsa's Shame | The Nation


Tulsa's Shame

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Although most historians and legal experts find both the state and the city culpable for the majority of the damage done to Greenwood, politicians refuse to follow through on the findings because paying reparations for past wrongs is such an unpopular idea. Some even say that Ross, the originator of the bill for a commission to study the riot, backed down on reparations. "I know [some people have said that]," he says. "There were only three votes for reparations in the legislature, however, and the entire concept of some kind of restitution would have been lost if it was included." He adds, "Most lawmakers were searching for a good reason to do nothing. I am not only for reparations for Tulsa survivors, but for African-American victims of slavery as well."

Tulsa Resources
Click here for background information and to read Walter White's Nation essay on the Tulsa race riots, originally published on June 19, 1921.

About the Author

Adrian Brune
Adrian Brune is a freelance writer at work on a book about early-twentieth-century race riots.

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Stodghill says he doesn't expect things to change in terms of support from politicians, even though Oklahoma will undergo a shift in leadership in 2002. In this ultraconservative state, a change at the top means that newer Republicans will replace older Republicans. For starters, Steve Largent, a former football star and until recently a US Congressman, is making a bid for Frank Keating's seat as governor, as Keating exits because of a two-term cap on the position. Mayor Savage will also vacate her post in the next election, with a member of a wealthy old oil family, Bill LaFortune, looking to fill it. And just recently, Tulsans elected a former state legislator named John Sullivan to Largent's old job in Washington. LaFortune is willing to support privately funded reparations. So is Sullivan. Largent declined to respond to a request for an interview, as did fellow former football star and Oklahoma's only black elected federal official, Republican Congressman J.C. Watts. Keating also failed to return calls.

A recent poll found that only 26 percent of Oklahomans favored reparations even if no tax dollars were used, while 57 percent were against reparations regardless of funding. Elsewhere, sentiments are not much different, but in at least one case, a different decision has been reached. In April 1994 the State of Florida agreed to pay $150,000 to the nine survivors of the equally vicious Rosewood riot of 1923, in which whites demolished an entire town. Stodghill says he doesn't care about his or the issue's unpopularity. He has the backing of people who matter most to him--the survivors. "I have seventy-two signed letters from them saying they support what this coalition is doing," he says. "And sixty-six of those seventy-two said they will sign on to a class-action lawsuit if we pursue it." Survivor John Melvin Alexander, 82, is a vocal supporter. "I often think about that riot, and when I'm asked whether I favor reparations, I say, 'Yes, I certainly do!'" he says. "If Japanese-Americans got reparations for their suffering during World War II, we black Tulsa Race Riot survivors deserve it for our suffering in 1921." Oklahoma's culpability is as strongly established as Florida's.

In 1926 the Oklahoma Supreme Court found that the state was partly responsible for the riot in the case of Redfearn v. American Central Insurance Company. This case emphasizes that not only did Tulsa officials fail to take action to protect the blacks in Greenwood, they deputized men who burned Greenwood with the help of uniformed police. During the burning, city officials detained blacks in the convention center and fairgrounds while their homes burned. After the riot, they refused to allow blacks to receive aid from private agencies. The city tried to prevent blacks from rebuilding by passing a zoning ordinance that required the use of fireproof material that was too expensive for most to afford.

"Whatever interpretation one places on the origin of the riot, there seems to be a consensus emerging from historians that the riot was much worse because of the actions of Tulsa officials," wrote attorney Alfred Brophy in his report to the state, Assessing State and City Culpability: The Riot and the Law. Only one question remains when assessing the state's role: whether the Oklahoma National Guard assisted in the burning by firebombing from the air, as many of the survivors claim. Maj. Gen. Charles Barrett, in charge of the Oklahoma National Guard at the time, does not confirm this in his memoir, Oklahoma After Fifty Years, but he elaborates on the role of the Tulsa police. "Those special deputies were imbued with the same spirit of destruction that animated the mob. They became as deputies the most dangerous part of the mob--the first arrests ordered (after the riot) were those of special officers who had hindered the firemen in their abortive efforts to put out the incendiary fires that many of these special officers were accused of setting." While some whites as well as blacks were rounded up after the riots, all the whites were freed on bond. In the end, no one, white or black, served time for murder, larceny or arson.

When slavery ended, freed blacks came to Oklahoma in droves. Many settled near Tulsa to take advantage of the oil boom, serving the oil barons as hired help--drivers, gardeners and maids. Black Tulsans envisioned a large city and even a state they could call their own, according to historian Scott Ellsworth, who has researched the riot extensively. "Oklahoma represented not only a chance to escape the harsher racial realities of life in the former states of the Old South, but was literally a land of hope, a place worth sacrificing for, a place to start anew," he writes in the Race Riot Commission report to the state. Slowly, black Tulsans began establishing businesses and building large homes in Greenwood.

When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, the first law it passed was to institute segregation. But black people thrived despite the Jim Crow laws, and poorer whites became jealous. White children would stand on one side of Third Street--back then the divide between North and South Tulsa--and throw rocks at their black counterparts, says one survivor.

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