Tulsa's Shame | The Nation


Tulsa's Shame

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In the late morning of May 31, 1921, a young black shoeshine boy named Dick Rowland tripped and fell on a white elevator operator, Sarah Page, in the Drexel building. Rowland knew Page, and some speculate they had a romantic relationship, yet Page screamed. A clerk interpreted the scream as a cry of sexual assault and called the police. They arrested Rowland the next morning, June 1, and that evening's headline of the Tulsa Tribune cried, "To Lynch Negro Tonight," Ellsworth says. When a group of black World War I veterans descended upon the jail to protect Rowland, fighting broke out. The next day, a deputized mob arrived in Greenwood, looting and setting fire to the entire section. "My parents were awakened by the sounds of shooting, the smell of fire and the noise of fleeing blacks running past the house," says Kinney Booker, 88. "My dad had awakened us children and sent us to the attic with our mother. We heard Dad pleading with mobsters who had broken into our house. We could hear him begging, 'Please don't set my house on fire. Please don't burn my house.' But, of course, that is exactly what they did." Black people who escaped death were detained at the fairgrounds until a white person vouched for them.

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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Greenwood was eventually rebuilt, but things were never quite the same. The survivors and witnesses to the riot kept it to themselves for nearly sixty years--the whites out of embarrassment and the blacks out of fear of retaliation. North Tulsa is the most underdeveloped section of the city, with most money funneling into the south side of the city, where the middle class and nouveau riche tend to settle. None of the buildings in North Tulsa are more than two stories high, and there are no shopping centers and few supermarkets. Black Tulsans have to drive all the way across town to see a movie.

"With other terrorism, the enemy is from the outside. People can identify with that. In Tulsa, our enemies are our neighbors," said Ernest Tiger, director of development of the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce. "September 11 brought one thing home to us. We are not just a local community; we are a world community. We need to bring the world in to see us how we are today--the same way we were eighty years ago."

Everyone in the Unitarian Universalist church today knows the history of the riot. Most deal with it on a daily basis. In a rear meeting room, a medium-sized white man stands quietly in the circle of the Tulsa Reparations Coalition members, waiting to present his findings. To any stranger, he looks like a typical casual Tulsan, sunglasses perched upon his Nike hat. But a native will recognize him as Drew Diamond, the former police chief. Most would think him an unlikely ally of reparations, but Diamond is quite progressive in his thinking, and when he finally speaks, he brings up a valid point.

Five years after Timothy McVeigh blew up the Murrah Federal Office Building on April 19, 1995, he says, Congress appropriated money for the Oklahoma City National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism (MIPT). Its mandate was to research the social and political causes and effects of terrorism and the development of technologies to counter biological, nuclear and chemical weapons of mass destruction. The MIPT received $15 million from the federal government in 2000 and $14 million the following year. Now, the MIPT runs on $4 million a year, all of which goes to research projects, according to deputy director Donald Hamilton.

Diamond proposed asking the MIPT for money to pay reparations and to donate money to create a living memorial to the survivors of the 1921 riot. Hamilton says he received such a letter and turned down the group's request based on the MIPT's mission. "Our work went slowly at first, but research has really picked up and we use most of that money," Hamilton says. "I believe the survivors of the 1921 riot did survive a terrorist attack, and they deserve reparations. But the money can't come from us. We do something totally different."

Everyone in the room supports Diamond's sentiment and pledges to write letters to MIPT in addition to pursuing the lawsuit. The Tulsa Reparations Coalition is going to need more than a few people interested in getting involved in the lawsuit and the fundraising, though. It has a legal research committee, but it doesn't have an attorney to represent it, nor is there an attorney among the group. A coalition of churches, the Tulsa Metropolitan Ministries, has raised about $20,000 toward reparations privately, but the coalition can't touch this seed money. Finally, no other group in Tulsa, apart from the coalition, thinks reparations paid by the state will solve anything.

Tulsa attorney Gaberino says he thinks suing for reparations is a futile effort and the wrong way to go. On the national level, however, the reparations debate is getting a lot of attention, and in some instances enjoying success. The US government paid reparations to Japanese-Americans interned during World War II. And with regard to reparations for other race riots, Rosewood serves as a good example of how to go about it, according to supporters. Finally, US Representative John Conyers Jr. introduces legislation every year that seeks to require the government to pay reparations to the descendants of black slaves. "Reparations are the central issue of race relations in America for the twenty-first century," Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree told a University of Oregon law panel last fall. "Until we address it seriously, we will continue to make only modest progress with some of the larger issues."

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