BY ARTHUR SCHWARTZ | There is an irony that this year’s Memorial Day falls on the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre, one of the most horrific events of racial violence in the post-Civil War history of the United States, and until recently, one of its most forgotten. (In part, we have Donald Trump to thank for re-awakening interest, because of his Tulsa rally last May 31; and, before that, its role as a plot point in the 2019 HBO series Watchmen).
Today, May 31, marks the 100th anniversary for one of the worst acts of racial violence in American history, the Tulsa Race Massacre (which also occurred into June 1). Back in 1921, a mob of white people tore down and burned the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Okla.—a segregated part of the city so prosperous and bustling, it was known as “Black Wall Street.”
According to historians, over 1,200 homes and buildings were destroyed by the violence, killing between 100 and 300 people. What was described as a wall of white people marched through Greenwood, firing into homes and businesses and torching buildings. Greenwood was bombed by airplanes—the only City in the US, other than Pearl Harbor, ever bombed from the air! But thanks to white-dominated power structures in the city of Tulsa and state of Oklahoma, news about the massacre was wiped from many official sources for decades, and the story was buried.
All that will likely change over the next week and beyond, as a flood of programs centered on the Tulsa Race Massacre come to television.
All that will likely change over the next week and beyond, as a flood of programs centered on the Tulsa Race Massacre come to television last night and today. The History Channel (see trailer at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bHrQouNrzBI&t=16s) and the film itself is at https://watch.historyvault.com/specials/the-night-tulsa-burned/full-special. You may need a trial subscription to the History Channel to watch. CNN (see trailer at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bkz0dcqr3w8&t=30s) and PBS (see trailer at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=diyUd6vsRV0&t=42s) are presenting programs aimed at reminding Americans just how deadly unchecked racism can be.
Common themes emerge from these films, and from an excellent article in the current NY Times Magazine (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/29/us/mary-jones-parrish-tulsa-massacre.html ).
The first theme was the power of white society to control what history is recognized, to erase uncomfortable truths and resist efforts to dig up the truth (sometimes literally, as when officials ended early attempts to find mass graves of massacre victims in 1999). Such insistence on erasing Black pain from a community’s official history creates, by necessity, a shadow hist among people of color and passed along, often by word of mouth. White America may have tried to forget Tulsa, but the massacre’s details lived in the stories of Black survivors and their descendants, handed down like bitter family heirlooms.
The second theme/painful truth was the lasting damage such attacks can have on a people. Before the massacre, 191 Black-owned businesses stood in the Greenwood district, including one of the finest hotels in the country. These days, there are fewer than a dozen Black-owned businesses in that same area, now reduced to a block-long main drag with modest establishments like a barbershop, health clinic, and coffee shop.
How did it start? When a large group of Black people showed up in Tulsa to stop the lynching of a young Black man unfairly accused of sexually assaulting a white female elevator operator—white crowds had been incited by incendiary, unfair coverage from The Tulsa Tribune—a white man tried to grab a gun from a Black man. A struggle ensued, the gun went off, and the white mob had their excuse to obliterate Black Wall Street over two days of brutal violence. The event shows how history’s broad trends can feed into a singular disaster. As Southern states ratcheted up racialized violence and racially oppressive laws to snatch back Black voting rights, and to crush a generation of Black veterans who had served America in World War who were no longer willing to accept the indignities of indiscriminate racial oppression.
What went on in Tulsa should remain meaningful to us in NYC. As I discussed earlier this year in Westview News (click here for the article), we had our own race riots, right here in Greenwich Village, Chelsea, and Soho in 1863. The murder of George Floyd, just over a year ago, brought lots of protest and hand wringing—but proposed solutions, and a perceived rise in crime, seems to have left us back in the same place.
We need to understand what it has meant to be Black in America even after slavery ended, in order to better understand the world we live in. Memorial Day exists as a way to honor the soldiers who defeated the Confederacy in the Civil War. Remembering that this year, along with this coinciding event, will help us figure out how to make addressing racism not be a means of reducing what is good in our City for white people and those of other races.
I pledge to do that as a member of NYC’s City Council..
Make sure to watch one of the shows. And while you watch, think about donating to get me elected. We have collected $2000 over the last few days, and have another $2000 to go to max out on matching funds. Thanks in advance!
Arthur Schwartz is an attorney and longtime activist currently running as a Democratic candidate for NYC Council District 3. The NYC Election 2021 primaries are on June 22. To visit Schwartz’s campaign website, click here. For voting information, click here.
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