Growing From History: Remembering the Tulsa Race Massacre
I was born in Oklahoma. My parents and my sister were also born there. Most of my relatives still live there and I just returned from a trip to Oklahoma.
As a child, I was always so excited to drive from the suburbs of Chicago to Oklahoma to visit my cousins, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. It was so different from where we lived.
I never knew much about the history of Oklahoma. I knew we were of Native American descent, as I heard stories from my parents about their grandparents and great-grandparents. I knew they grew up in a segregated society where they could not go to school with whites. I knew my parents didn’t have all the advantages I took for granted like a television, private telephone, indoor bathroom and a washer and dryer. Despite the challenges, they were happy and content and didn’t feel like they were missing out unless it was pointed out.
On this last visit to Oklahoma, my focus was on my parents. They have moved back to Oklahoma to retire. They are getting older, so I wanted to hear everything about what they remember about growing up in Oklahoma. I wanted to see for myself where they grew up and how they lived.
One of the trips we made was to a town called Rentiesville. My Grandma Wedgeworth was a Rentie. Rentiesville was one of 50 All-Black towns in Oklahoma and one of 13 that still survives. When the land run of 1889 opened more land to non-native Americans, Black people came from the Old South to Oklahoma to get some of this free land and make a better life. By 1920, Oklahoma had more than 30 towns that were considered All-Black. So much history here that I never heard about or learned about.
While I was there, I saw on television advertisements about the upcoming 100-year anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa massacre. One of the worst massacres in the history of the United States. What? One of the worst in the USA, right here in Greenwood, Oklahoma, 1 1/2 hours away?
How did I never hear about this? My parents grew up in Oklahoma, so I asked them about this. In fact, their history teacher was a famous Civil Rights Activist, Clara Luper. I was sure they knew all about this and it was taught to them in their All-Black school, yet they knew nothing about it. They told me it was never discussed or even mentioned. My Mother said she first heard about it when they moved to Chicago. They heard of a place in Tulsa called the Black Wall Street, where Blacks were entrepreneurs and the community prospered. They were told that everyone in the town was killed but did not have clarity on exactly what happened in Greenwood. No one talked about it, just like no one talked about the 50 All-Black towns in Oklahoma; more than any other U.S. state.
So, what happened? According to the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum, on the morning of May 30, 1921 a young black man named Dick Rowland, age 19, was riding in the elevator in the Drexel Building at Third and Main with a young white woman named Sarah Page, age 17. The details of what followed vary from person to person. Accounts of an incident circulated among the city’s white community during the day and became more exaggerated with each telling.
Tulsa police arrested Rowland the following day and began an investigation. An inflammatory report in the May 31 edition of the Tulsa Tribune spurred a confrontation between blacks, many of which being WWI veterans, and white armed mobs around the courthouse where the sheriff and his men had barricaded the top floor to protect Rowland. Shots were fired and the outnumbered African Americans began retreating to the Greenwood District. In the early morning hours of June 1, 1921 Greenwood was looted and burned by white rioters. Governor Robertson declared martial law, and National Guard troops arrived in Tulsa. Guardsmen assisted firemen in putting out fires, took African Americans out of the hands of vigilantes and imprisoned all Black Tulsans not already interned. Over 6,000 people were held at the Convention Hall and the Fairgrounds, some for as long as eight days. They were threatened and told to never speak of this or there would be consequences.
Twenty-four hours after the violence erupted, it ceased. In the wake of the violence, 35 city blocks lay in charred ruins, more than 800 people were treated for injuries and contemporary reports of deaths began at 36. Historians now believe as many as 300 people may have died.
In order to understand the Tulsa Race Massacre, it is important to understand the complexities of the times. Dick Rowland, Sarah Page and an unknown gunman were the sparks that ignited a long smoldering fire. Jim Crow, jealousy, white supremacy, and land lust, all played roles in leading up to the destruction and loss of life on May 31 and June 1, 1921. 1
We have to know history to grow from history. Educate yourself, your friends, your family, your children, your spouses, your community and let these conversations happen. Get comfortable with the uncomfortable conversations and help reveal the truths that lie within our elders.
I firmly believe that this history should be taught in schools. The more exposure we have to the truth, the faster we can heal as a nation. Together, we can lift up one another and Allies can truly understand what needs to be done and why. We can’t rely on schools to teach everything. I hope the marking of this horrible anniversary begins a renaissance of uncovering more truths of Blacks in America. Creating a ripple effect of unconditional love for one another. Opening the doors to equity, repair, and healing. As our President Joe Biden stated earlier this week in Tulsa, Oklahoma, “With silence wounds deepen.” Let’s break the silence!
- Image source: https://www.loc.gov/item/95517018/