Monday, September 20, 2021

How to Remember the Tulsa Race Massacre 100 Years Later: Factors of Accountability

Joe Biden - gettyimages-1306723021
President Joe Biden (Getty)

*Pres. Biden will speak in Tulsa on Tuesday, June 1.

Remembrance = respect. This is a conventional thought related to placing flags on the tombstones of deceased military veterans as we look back on the lives of those who served and sacrificed for America through Memorial Day observances. Today, May 31 will be a different type of “Memorial Day” for Black Americans reflecting on the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacres as events across Oklahoma beckon the nation, not only to remember, but also to reckon with the residual evils of racism.

Something else to respect, remember, and think about …

The Tulsa-Greenwood riots have been acknowledged as one of the bloodiest days in American history, but it can not only be remembered for physical damage. Supporters of a bill to get compensation for the violence inflicted on Black Tulsans want the incident to be remembered for the splintering obstruction on the descendants of the victims. They are seeking a remedy in Congress.

Tulsa Race Massacre survivor - male negro slain laying in street
A photograph depicts a morbid scene from June 1, 1921. (Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

The events of May 31 and June 1 of 1921 that ruined the affluent, all Black Greenwood District in Tulsa, OK to a point of no return have been largely overlooked over the last century. This history was blotted out of school books and wiped off the map of America’s consciousness. The destruction in the area in death-toll and on the ground was tsunami-like. Where are the graves of the Tulsans that were killed on which to place flags or flowers? Many bodies of the estimated 300 who died were not recovered in the ruins leaving survivors and descendants with no normal way to process the pain of loss. Time reports that efforts to find a reported mass burial site of Black Tulsans continue today.

National media attention on the incident has opened up dialogue about the socioeconomic effects of the tragedy and renewed interest in reparations for it. Harvard University researchers estimate that the damage claimed from the Massacre ranges from $32.6 and $47.4 million. However, others claim the property losses could total up to $100 million, states the New York Times. Regardless of the accuracy of estimated loss, the numbers provided represent large sums of money that could have improved the livelihood of Black people.

To fully deal with the detriment of the Tulsa riot is to accept that the devouring of an entire town built up by Blacks in the post-Reconstruction era — and the government’s silence about it — has had a pathological effect on the families impacted by it. Legacies for generations to come went up in the smoke and flames that a White mob of over 1,000 set with impunity. No one has ever been convicted of a crime for the hatred that engulfed that Greenwood neighborhood due to an unproven claim against Dick Rowland, a Black 19-year-old of attempted rape of Sarah Page, a White 17-year-old. Accounts of what occurred were conflicting so no one knows what really happened.

Tulsa Race Massacre survivor - troops in Tulsa
A group of soldiers march through Tulsa during the massacre. (Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture)

The 75 (or so) Black men who showed up carrying guns to protect Rowland form a possible lynching knew there would be trouble. They did not bargain for the over 1,000 Whites who also showed up and overtook them — and their entire “mecca.” The terrorism went over two days. They were not prepared to prevent the annihilation.

National Guard troops were called to protect Blacks and the American Red Cross responded to address the needs of the injured at the time. Over the years there have been efforts to demand financial recovery. The government formed a 2001 commission to investigate the incident and find justification for reparations. Community leaders continue to address how current disparities in Tulsa are the ramifications of the Tulsa Race Massacre and they are still fighting to regain what was taken from the Black community.

It took two days to disrupt 15 years of growth and stabilization in the Black community, while the immeasurable impact has lasted until now. Records indicate that over 10,000 residents lost everything and all insurance claims were denied. Blacks went from building wealth to homelessness instantly. Displaced survivors struggled to recover financially and emotionally. In her testimony to Congress in April of this year, a 107 survivor said she still smells the smoke and hears the screams. The war-like devastation in a word was traumatizing.

Some Blacks Oklahomans returned to revitalize the are in the 1930s and 40s and brought Greenwood back to its former glory. But urban renewal struck it down again according to a Human Rights Watch report.

Viola Fletcher, the oldest living survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre, testifies before the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee hearing on “Continuing Injustice: The Centennial of the Tulsa-Greenwood Race Massacre” on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on May 19, 2021. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

We are learning through the testimonies of descendants of this tragedy. As the racial and political divide in the nation continues to widen, the three survivors of the massacre, all over the age of 100 are sharing their stories to bring the enduring impact of the riot into focus today. It is yet another “say their name” moment of our times driven by political activism. These senior activists are Viola Fletcher, 107, her brother Hughes Van Ellis, 100, and Lessie Benningfield Randle, 106. Their attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons and Dr. Tiffany Crutcher (who said her grandmother helped build the area) called out the injustice and White Supremacy that has gone unchecked in a Congressional hearing weeks ago. Solomon-Simmons said in his appeal for accountability that so far there have not been any consequences for the atrocity in Greenwood from any one adding, “We hope and pray we can get consequences from Congress.”

All of their work has not been in vain. At the same hearing. Democratic Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson introduced the “Tulsa Greenwood Massacre Claims Accountability Act” to make it easier for descendants to push for reparations. In 2007 the Supreme Court threw out the hearing for reparations on the matter on the grounds it did not meet the statute of limitations. Reparations requests were honored for families of the Rosewood Riots of 1923 that ruined another all-Black area in the 1990s. Dr. Fisen Heath cited this instance and a few others but pointed out that reparations have not been paid to Tulsa victims or on a broader scale the descendants of American slavery.

Tulsa Race Massacre - smoke rising from bombing
Smoke rises from buildings during the race massacre. (Alvin C. Krupnick Co./Library of Congress/Reuters)

The remembrance of the Tulsa Race Massacre is not only being observed with events, but also through the presentation of various educational programming. The media is providing long-overdue coverage to make up for decades of ignored opportunities to acknowledge the situation in the classroom through documentaries, articles and reports. Through watching and participating in focused events, programs and activities, perhaps collectively the nation can place the flag of remembrance on the invisible tombstones of innocent African Americans that were lost this Memorial Day.

While the fight for justice is on-going, some progress has been made pertaining to exposure and recorded history. A Google search will bring up many results on the subject. There are numerous ways to get educated about the Tulsa Race Massacre (aka the destruction of Black Wall Street) upon the commemoration of its centennial.



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