Awareness of the event is growing recently, thanks to the increase in the testimonies of the survivors and their relatives. Last year, the HBO television network produced the TV series based on comics Watchmen and set it in Tulsa with many references to the massacre, and sponsored the publication on theAtlantic of a comic that told the historical event. Always onAtlantic, an article by Ta-Nehisi Coates had given new attention to that story a few years earlier.
Steve Kerr, who had previously taken a stance on political issues, for example speaking out against Donald Trump in 2017 and against U.S. arms policy in 2018, spoke of the Tulsa massacre during an episode of his podcast in early June. The episode focused on the importance of education to bring about changes in society, while throughout the country for a week many protesters protested against structural racism in the country, following the umpteenth murder of an African American man, George Floyd, by a white policeman. Steve Kerr admitted hearing about the Tulsa massacre for the first time a few years ago and said he was shocked that no mention was made of it at school. Setting aside the Tulsa massacre from public narrative is in fact a part of the story.
Since the early 1900s, approximately 11,000 African American people lived in the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa. The neighborhood, separated from the rest of the city by a railway track, was particularly rich and self-sufficient, while in the United States of the time, especially in the south, the neighborhoods with an African American majority population were the poorest. For this reason Greenwood was often called “Black Wall Street” or “Negro Wall Street”.
Much of Tulsa’s white population perceived the neighborhood’s relative wealth as unacceptable and was afraid of competition from its businesses. In addition, the local newspapers owned by whites described the neighborhood pubs as “sources of vice, immorality and, consequently, racial mixing”, reinforcing the idea in the eyes of many city dwellers that Greenwood residents did not know how to stay in their place. .
On May 30, 1921, a nineteen-year-old African American boy who worked as a shoe shine entered the building where there was the only public bathroom for African Americans (until the 1960s, discriminatory laws were in force in the United States that imposed “segregation”, which among other things, it prevented African Americans from using the same bathrooms as whites). She got on the elevator where a seventeen-year-old white woman was working (a figure necessary to make the elevators of the time work) and shortly afterwards the girl screamed. Today it is not known what exactly happened inside the elevator, but the most likely hypothesis according to Oklahoma Historical Society cited by Washington Post is that the boy stepped on the girl’s foot. Other people came running and the boy was arrested.
On May 31, a local newspaper wrote that “a Negro had attacked a girl” and in an editorial incited the white population to lynch him. The lynching of African Americans by whites was a relatively frequent event at the time: segregationist laws and the power of whites guaranteed the killers indulgence and that there would be no legal consequences. That evening two groups of armed people gathered in front of the court where the boy was imprisoned: one made up of whites, who wanted to lynch him, and one made up of blacks, who wanted to defend him.
Clashes began between the two groups before the court, but the dynamics that originated them are another point in history that, to date, remains unclear. It is known, however, that hundreds of people raided the Greenwood neighborhood in the course of those clashes that evening: they violently entered the houses and shops, took the valuables they found and killed them, according to a testimony reported by Washington Post, “Every black person who happened before their eyes.” Then they set houses and shops on fire.
At some point planes appeared, and even on this point the story is not clear. It is certain that the police flew over the neighborhood in order to contain the people on the run, communicating with the agents on the ground through messages closed in containers that were thrown on the ground. A reconstruction of the events of 2001 assumes that some witnesses in the confusion may have mistaken these containers for bombs. The same reconstruction, however, reports many testimonies of survivors who say they saw planes launch incendiary bombs and kill people who were running away with rifles. The report therefore concludes that the planes were certainly used by the police, and most likely some citizens used them to participate in the massacre, shooting people on the ground or throwing incendiary bombs. It is also possible that some planes were owned by individuals or private companies, because in 1921 there were two hangars in Tulsa that had the capacity to accommodate 14 planes. It is difficult to determine who owned an aircraft at the time because there was no obligation to register ownership of it.
As the violence worsened, the city administration entrusted the same protagonists in the persecution of black people with order and police, a decision that obviously aggravated repression and impunity.
In an article recently published on New York Times he wrote that more than a thousand houses, a dozen churches, five hotels, 31 restaurants, four pharmacies and eight medical offices, as well as a public library and hospital were destroyed in the blink of an eye. Without taking into account the first declarations of the local authorities that counted “a few dozen” of deaths, always says the New York Times, according to the reconstructions, the number of deaths was between 100 and 300. The testimonies of survivors that emerged recently describe the lynchings and persecutions of those days and the treatments reserved for corpses: stacked on street corners, transported out of the city on trucks owned by the municipality , burned in incinerators, dumped in a river or amassed in mass graves.
Many neighborhood residents who survived the massacre lost family members, home or work, often all three. The photos of the time show survivors who are carried with a gun pointed at the head in temporary fields. Public opinion accepted the reconstruction proposed by local authorities according to which on Black Wall Street black people had rebelled against whites causing unrest. This version was also used by insurance agencies as a motivation to reject compensation claims from neighborhood residents. Many survivors left the city. There were no legal consequences and what had happened quickly stopped talking.
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The massacre remained publicly silent until the end of the sixties – with the consolidation of dirty consciences and fearful official prudences – when Don Ross, an African-American politician and journalist born in Tulsa, founded a newspaper that published articles about the massacre. Don Ross later entered the Oklahoma state congress and established a commission to reconstruct the events of 1921. In 2001 the commission published a detailed description of the damage suffered by the community during the looting (which included, among other things, the reconstruction of the role. of the planes) and demanded compensation for the survivors and their relatives, which was refused both by the state congress and by the federal court, the latter on the grounds that the crime had lapsed. Even the request to dig in the area of a cemetery where it was suspected that the attackers had massively buried the bodies of the victims was denied. The reason was that there was not enough evidence that the bodies were there and that the excavations would have been traumatic for the relatives of the people buried in the cemetery.
In a report published on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the massacre, in 2011, the New York Times noted that local and national awareness of what had happened was increasing: two thirds of the city’s population said they knew more or less what the “racial riots in Tulsa” had been, and a “reconciliation park” had recently been opened with a monument in memory of the victims of the massacre. But they were small victories over the refusal of compensation, investigations and inclusion of the event in the history books. Meanwhile the survivors of the massacre were dying of old age, and with them the testimonies remained.
In the following years many survivors, now elderly, publicly told what they had seen. Some claimed to have seen the attackers throw bodies into mass graves. In 2019 the series Watchmen drew new attention to the historical event: the protagonist is a descendant of a victim of the massacre. Shortly thereafter, the mayor of Tulsa reopened the investigation that included excavations in areas of the city, to find and identify the victims. In February of this year, he declared that there was enough evidence to begin the excavations, which were then postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Also in February of this year, the Oklahoma education department said it would include the Tulsa massacre in the History program. Already in 2011 the state congress had communicated that the history of the massacre would be taught in schools, without however establishing a fund to finance the training and application of the decision.
Start talking about it again
Steve Kerr admitted that he still has much to learn about the country’s history by joining a growing tendency for white Americans to become aware of their privileged position and strive to understand the situation of daily oppression of their black compatriots. According to the logic of movement Black Lives Matter, which has gained visibility since May 25 (the day of George Floyd’s death, which sparked many demonstrations), including the Tulsa massacre in school curricula would serve to admit in the collective national imagination that historically injustices have been committed against the African American population: also in the white population, who are asked to participate in the demonstrations trying to listen and learn, because a white person’s vision of the world is often based (for structural reasons that go beyond personal responsibility) on a partial imagery.
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For whites, admitting that the African American population was subjected to much more violence than the rest of the population in U.S. history is described as a way of understanding the concept of systemic racism, which could be summarized as follows: contemporary violence against the African American population originates in the period of slavery, which lasted almost four centuries, and in the segregation that ensued and ended, from the legal point of view, only in 1964. The centuries of discrimination made the white population internalize a feeling of suspicion towards people with dark skin, whose expressions range from instinctive preference for a subway seat near a white rather than black person, to police violence.
This awareness work is much more likely to yield results if it occurs from schools. For this reason, including episodes such as the Tulsa massacre in school curricula is considered an important claim, like the other historical reviews that have been addressed in the United States in recent weeks.