A century of  'Hands up, don't shoot'

A 1921 photo shows a group of black men who were rounded up in the aftermath of the Tulsa race riots. A 2001 report on the riots helped change the perception that African Americans caused the violence. (Courtesy of McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa)

Mark Trahant

May 31 is the anniversary of Tulsa, Oklahoma's Greenwood Massacre

Mark Trahant

Indian Country Today

A century ago the United States was finally free from the Great War and dealing with day-to-day waves of a flu pandemic. 

The country was also tested by unresolved questions about racism and violence. Tested and largely failed. 

"The white supremacist Ku Klux Klan organization revived its violent activities in the South, including 64 lynchings in 1918 and 83 in 1919," wrote History.com editors in a piece, The Red Summer of 1919.  "In the summer of 1919, race riots would break out in Washington, D.C.; Knoxville, Tennessee; Longview, Texas; Phillips County, Arkansas; Omaha, Nebraska and – most dramatically – Chicago. The city’s African-American population had increased from 44,000 in 1909 to more than 100,000 as of 1919."

The flu and the disparity of treatment played a role because hospitals were segregated and African Americans had to seek care at black-owned institutions. 

In a refrain all too familiar to Indian Country, a public health report found: "The medical and public health problems that African Americans faced during the 1918 influenza epidemic must be understood within a broader context. At the turn of the 20th century, black people found themselves in the midst of the 'nadir in American race relations,' a historical period marked by disfranchisement, anti-black violence, legalized segregation, black peonage and white supremacist ideology. Racism and legalized segregation restricted access by black patients and health professionals to health-care facilities."

Then the period known as the "Red Summer" conflicted with the story that America was telling the world. 

"It flowed in small towns like Elaine, Arkansas, in medium-size places such as Annapolis, Maryland, and Syracuse, New York, and in big cities like Washington and Chicago. Hundreds of African American men, women and children were burned alive, shot, hanged or beaten to death by white mobs. Thousands saw their homes and businesses burned to the ground and were driven out, many never to return," The Associated Press reported last year. "It was branded 'Red Summer' because of the bloodshed and amounted to some of the worst white-on-black violence in U.S. history."

This is the era when unequal became a permanent norm. "But it also galvanized blacks to defend themselves and their neighborhoods with fists and guns; reinvigorated civil rights organizations like the NAACP and led to a new era of activism; gave rise to courageous reporting by black journalists; and influenced the generation of leaders who would take up the fight for racial equality decades later," the AP wrote.

This is a narrative that plays out today in Minneapolis and in cities and towns across the United States.

"The people who were the icons of the civil rights movement were raised by the people who survived Red Summer," Saje Mathieu, a history professor at the University of Minnesota, told AP. And today there are no national observances marking the Red Summer because the story contradicts the post-World War I-era notion that America was making the world safe for democracy.

Tulsa
Ruins after the race riots, Tulsa, Okla. American National Red Cross photograph collection (Library of Congress)

99 years ago today: Tulsa Massacre

As if the Red Summer was not enough. On May 31, 1921, stirred by a resurgent Ku Klux Klan, the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, known as the Black Wall Street, was demolished. 

"A mob destroyed 35 square blocks of the African American Community during the evening of May 31, through the afternoon of June 1, 1921," said a report on the event by the state of Oklahoma in 2001. "In the aftermath of the death and destruction, the people of our state suffered from a fatigue of faith — some still search for a statue of limitation on morality, attempting to forget the longevity of the residue of in justice that at best can leave little room for the healing of the heart."

Hundreds of whites were deputized and participated in the violence, even providing firearms and ammunition to people, all of them white, who looted, killed and destroyed property, the Tulsa Race Massacre Commission said. No one was ever prosecuted or punished for the violent criminal acts.

And even nearly a century later the photo of the "captured" African Americans evokes memories of more current encounters such as Ferguson, Missouri, and "hands up, don't shoot."

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Williams Bldg., West side of 100 blk. N. Greenwood Tulsa, Okla. After race riots, June 1921. American National Red Cross photograph collection (Library of Congress)
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Entrance to refugee camp on the fair grounds, Tulsa, Okla., after the race riot of June 1st, 1921. American National Red Cross photograph collection (Library of Congress)

Historian Jon Hope Franklin was a co-author of the 2001 report by the state. 

He wrote: "For those hearing about the 1921 Tulsa race riot for the first time, the event seems almost impossible to believe. During the course of eighteen terrible hours, more than one thousand homes were burned to the ground. Practically overnight, entire neighborhoods where families had raised their children, visited with their neighbors, and hung their wash out on the line to dry, had been suddenly reduced to ashes. And as the homes burned, so did their contents, including furniture and family Bibles, rag dolls and hand-me-down quilts, cribs and photograph albums. In less than twenty-four hours, nearly all of Tulsa’s African American residential district — some forty-square-blocks in all — had been laid to waste, leaving nearly nine-thousand people homeless. Gone, too, was the city’s African American commercial district, a thriving area located along Greenwood Avenue which boasted some of the finest black-owned businesses in the entire Southwest. 

"Harsher still was the human loss. While we will probably never know the exact number of people who lost their lives during the Tulsa race riot, even the most conservative estimates are appalling. While we know that the so-called 'official' estimate of nine whites and twenty-six blacks is too low, it is also true that some of the higher estimates are equally dubious. ... Maurice Willows, who directed the relief operations of the American Red Cross in Tulsa following the riot — indicated in his official report that the total may have ran as high as three-hundred."

Screen Shot 2020-05-31 at 11.44.16 AM
Library of Congress

The narrative about the massacre remained as divided as the event itself.

As Franklin wrote in his report: “For decades afterwards, Oklahoma newspapers rarely mentioned the riot and entire generations of Oklahoma school children were taught little or nothing about what had happened … I observed and have concluded the 1921 riot had a devastating impact on Tulsa that lasted for decades … A culture of silence and official negligence descended on the white community of Tulsa in the years after the riot, and persisted for several decades.”

The Tulsa City Commission issued a report two weeks after the massacre saying: “Let the blame for this negro uprising lie right where it belongs — on those armed negros and their followers who started this trouble and who instigated it and any persons who seek to put half the blame on the white people are wrong.” The grand jury reached the same conclusion. “There was no mob spirit among the whites, no talk of lynching and no arms. The assembly was quiet until the arrival of the armed Negros, which precipitated and was the direct cause of the entire affair.”

Officials may have blamed African Americans for the "race riot." But the community and the Red Cross labeled it a massacre from the start. 

The Red Cross' chronicle of destruction: 

House burned, 1,256

Houses looted but not burned, 221

Families living in tents, 245

Number of families registered, 1,912

Number of persons registered, 5,739

And, from a Dec. 30, 1921 report:

Whites hospitalized at Red Cross expense, 48

Blacks hospitalized at Red Cross expense, 135

Red Cross first-aid cases related to massacre, 531

One-room homes constructed, 180

Two-room homes constructed, 272

Three-room homes constructed, 312

One-story brick or cement buildings, 24

Two-story brick or cement buildings, 24

Three-story brick or cement buildings, 3

Reparations still demanded

Human Rights Watch published a report Friday that called for reparations to be paid. 

"The Tulsa Race Massacre and surrounding events led directly to the loss of hundreds of lives, loss of liberty, substantial personal and business property loss, and damage to objects of cultural significance. Compounding inequalities stemming from the massacre led to lower life expectancy, increased need for mental health services, loss of economic opportunity, and other harms to community members over decades," Human Rights Watch said. "Yet the victims of the massacre have yet to receive an effective remedy."

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Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, is editor of Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter - @TrahantReports

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