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February 19, 2005

The 1921 Tulsa Riot

Crooked Timber points us to a Financial Times story on the 1921 Tulsa race riot: up to 300 African-Americans killed:

FT.com / Home UK - Burnt offerings: "Otis Granville Clark is a wonder. At 102, the former butler of Joan Crawford - who served Clark Gable and Charlie Chaplin - still drives, lives on his own and twice a week attends church in his home city of Tulsa, Oklahoma. He has been a church-goer for decades, ever since he heard the call and, surprising Crawford and himself, became an evangelist preacher. Today his blue eyes have gone milky but they still sparkle, his wiry frame remains agile, and his most painful memories are still fresh - even after 83 years.

Coiled on the edge of an understuffed sofa, Clark leans back and screws his eyes tight to summon up 'that day'. It remains the most vivid of his life. 'That was the day I saw blood,' he says. He was a young black man of 18, scarcely aware of the world beyond his neighbourhood on that warm spring morning in 1921 when 'the shooting and all' began....

Historians call the firestorm that convulsed Tulsa from the evening of May 31 into the afternoon of June 1 the single worst event in the history of American race relations. To most Tulsans it is simply 'the riot'. But the carnage had nothing in common with the mass protests of Chicago, Detroit and Newark in the 1960s or the urban violence that laid siege to Los Angeles in 1992 after the white police officers who assaulted Rodney King were acquitted. The 1921 Tulsa race riot owes its name to an older American tradition, to the days when white mobs, with the consent of local authorities, dared to rid themselves of their black neighbours. The endeavour was an opportunity 'to run the Negro out of Tulsa'....

When martial law finally brought quiet, 35 blocks of Tulsa's north side - with 1,256 houses and 23 churches - had burned to the ground. Hundreds of homes and shops had been looted. Black men had been shot, burned and dragged through the streets. At the time, Clark lived in his grandmother's house with his stepfather. His own father worked as a porter on the trains on the Frisco tracks that ran through Tulsa, carrying passengers from St Louis to San Francisco. During the riot, Clark's grandmother's house was burned down and his stepfather disappeared - Clark believes he was killed but he has not been able to prove it. Clark soon left town, jumping a cargo train to search for his father in California. Greenwood, by then, was in ashes.

Years later, white witnesses would be haunted by what they had seen as young boys: a black corpse hanging from a telephone pole and others stacked like cordwood on railroad flatcars. The true death toll will never be known. The confirmed count stopped at 39, but a Red Cross tally at the time ran as high as 300 dead - most of them black. Rumours still persist that the dead were buried in unmarked graves or dumped in the Arkansas River that runs across the city's west side....

The notion that reparations might be made for the victims of Tulsa's riot seemed fanciful for a long time. For 50 years, the destruction was barely even acknowledged. Descendants, black and white, spoke of it in whispers, in the halls of power there was no urge to dig into the past, and beyond the city limits the tragedy was hardly known. But in the summer of 1971, Ed Wheeler, a local history buff and radio personality, broke the silence. Wheeler was an unlikely candidate to excavate Tulsa's darkest secret - he is white and now a retired brigadier general in the Oklahoma National Guard.

In 1971, however, he was commissioned by the magazine of Tulsa's chamber of commerce to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the tragedy. Wheeler managed to interview nearly 60 black and white survivors. He drove across the Frisco tracks at night. 'Blacks were still scared to tell their stories,' he says. 'They'd meet only in their churches, with ministers present.' When the folks downtown read the expose - Wheeler had collected a trove of photographs of the damage and discovered that police, sheriffs and National Guard files on the riot were 'missing' - the chamber refused to run it.

He turned to Don Ross, a young black journalist and civil rights veteran trying to keep afloat a fledgling local magazine devoted to black issues, Impact. Ross, a Tulsa native, had only learned of the riot in high school. Later he would discover that his grandfather had lost his business in the violence. The Impact issue with Wheeler's 'Profile of a Race Riot' sold out, even after three printings. Wheeler received death threats. 'Not from the Klan,' he said, 'But from the guys who did it themselves. In 1971, more than a few were still alive.'...

Posted by DeLong at February 19, 2005 07:03 AM

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I first learned about this incident in 1983 on a visit to Tulsa. I think that it was in either the local history centre or the visitors' centre, I forget which. Anyway, the woman in charge was quite open about it all.

She told me that local lore had it that the killings had been sparked off by a story in a Tulsa newpaper. Some Black men had been arrested for rape and the paper ran a front page story claiming that a lynch mob was due to grab them that night. Whether or not that was true, the mob then began to gather anyway.

Funnily enough the local paper which was still owned by the same family in 1983 has denied this version of events and and always claimed that it never ran that story.

Posted by: Ken at February 19, 2005 07:49 AM

I was listening to Al Franken yesterday and his guest (I forget his name but some conservative hack obviously) was making his case for why the Civil Rights Act was "a mistake" because had it passed, the "free market forces" would have eventually righted everything. And, of course, how we would have been much better off without that horrible government interference.

Al did not bring up the Tulsa riots that I heard, but it would be interesting to see how that argument would be fitted into this sordid set of facts.

Posted by: Alan at February 19, 2005 09:52 AM

thanks for posting this.

Posted by: Christopher Brandow at February 19, 2005 10:08 AM

Mistake: "because had it passed" -- i meant to write "had it not passed."

Posted by: Alan at February 19, 2005 10:33 AM

In the late 1950's, while an undergraduate at Oklahoma University, I took a course in Oklahoma history (a required course, as I recall). It required a lot of reading, lectures, and short research papers, especially as related to Oklahoma Native Americans, many of whom had been forcefully removed from Southeastern areas of the United States. Interestingly, I don't remember one assignment or discussion of the 1921 Tulsa race riot.

Posted by: bncthor at February 19, 2005 01:14 PM

Why is this news? I learned about this in my American high school in the 1970's. Perhaps I was the only one listening...

Posted by: RSN at February 19, 2005 07:05 PM

RSN: I think the answer to your question has something to do with bncthor's post immediately above yours: "...Interestingly, I don't remember one assignment of discussion of the 1921 Tulsa race riot ."

Posted by: mrjauk at February 19, 2005 09:16 PM

RSN it is not news but isn't this riot the one that destroyed the "Black Wall Street".It had a much larger impact than even the 31st Street Beach riot in Chicago.Maybe that is why Alan contrasted the conservative on Al's show with what would be his reaction to the fact that a prospering community had been terrorized under american aparthied and denied market access.

Posted by: DEEPGHETTO at February 19, 2005 09:42 PM

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Posted by: at February 21, 2005 06:31 PM

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