Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The history that Tulsa tried to forget

I haven’t seen or heard it mentioned in news coverage, but Tulsa, Oklahoma, where two men have been detained following a series of apparently racially motivated shootings, has a history of racial tension.

In 1921 the inner-suburban black neighbourhood of Greenwood was the scene of what became known as the Tulsa Race Riot, one of the most destructive outbreaks of racial violence in American history. An estimated 10,000 people were left homeless and 35 blocks were razed by fire. Wikipedia says the official death toll was 36, but unofficial estimates ranged as high as 300. Most of the victims, though not all, were black.

It started as these things often seemed to, touched off by a report (never substantiated) that a black shoeshine boy, Dick Rowland, had assaulted a teenage white girl in an elevator. When a lynch mob gathered at the Tulsa County Courthouse where the terrified Rowland was being held, members of the Greenwood community armed themselves and went to the jail to protect him. It all escalated from there.

Underpinning the mob violence was high unemployment among whites, coupled with resentment of the prosperous black community of Greenwood, which had been dubbed “the Negro Wall Street”. Several of its residents were reputedly multimillionaires.

In the frenzy that raged through the streets of Greenwood, some victims were burned alive. Others were tied behind cars and dragged through the streets. Firebombs were dropped on Greenwood from planes and a newborn black baby was found dead in the street, apparently abandoned when its mother fled in panic.

What makes the Greenwood rioting especially intriguing is that for decades, all mention of it was erased from official archives and records. Many natives of Tulsa grew up unaware it had happened.

It wasn’t until 1997, 76 years after the event, that the Tulsa Race Riot Commission was set up. Among the witnesses were elderly black residents of Tulsa who were children when their neighbourhood was torched. When the commission reported back in 2000, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in neighbouring Texas headlined its coverage: “Tulsa’s terrible secret”. French magazine Le Vrai called the Tulsa riot the American equivalent of a pogrom.

The riot is commemorated in the Greenwood Cultural Centre, which my wife and I visited last year. Opened in 1995, it stands at the heart of the area devastated by the rioting in 1921. It’s now a rather sterile, lifeless neighbourhood that appears to have undergone what is euphemistically called urban renewal. The Oklahoma State University is nearby. On the Monday morning we were there, we appeared to be the cultural centre’s only visitors.

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