Tulsa 1921: Quest for justice, reparations continues
Jun 3, 2010
The matter of reparations for African Americans is one that the U.S.
government has forever refused to address. Yet the condition of second-class
status of persons of color, particularly Black people, is a matter of record in
this country, ruled and dominated by white supremacy.
May 31 marked the anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa, Okla., race
“riot.” The so-called riot was actually an 18-hour massacre of
approximately 300 Black people, perpetrated by white residents in the
segregated section of Greenwood. It was accompanied by the displacement and
ethnic cleansing of 10,000 Black residents who were driven out of town.
The Black section was known as “Black Wall Street” because it
was a prosperous, self-sufficient example of active self-determination. The
community owned its own homes, property, banks, library, art house, stores,
movie theatres, schools, hospital and transportation. They built these
institutions during the 57 years after emancipation from slavery. Oklahoma was
then an oil-rich state, which helped make possible the harnessing of Black
Ironically, African Americans migrated from the Deep South to Oklahoma and
other states to escape white racist terrorism, to seek safe haven and a better
The May 31 pogrom-like attack, considered the worse race “riot”
in U.S. history, involved white deputized mobs, the Ku Klux Klan and government
officials. It was triggered by the commonplace “justification” and
accusation that a white woman’s “virtue” had been
The incident involved a Black teenage “shoeshine boy” in an
elevator in a busy building who stumbled and lost his balance. In the attempt
to regain his footing he inadvertently touched the white female elevator
operator. This occurred at a time when even looking at a white woman could cost
a Black male his life.
The boy was accused of sexual assault and taken to the courthouse jail,
where a white mob later gathered to lynch him. In the Jim Crow South, the
lynching of Black people was a form of “justice” practiced
frequently. Both white adults and children attended lynchings, and the
victim’s body parts were mutilated and then distributed as souvenirs.
When the Greenwood Black men, including World War I vets, went to town to
rescue the “shoeshine boy” they were shot at and killed, some while
wearing their army uniforms.
The violence didn’t end there. In the middle of the night while Blacks
slept, their homes and stores were broken into and looted. The homes were also
bombed by airplane and burned to the ground by lit torches. Black people were
killed by machine guns in their homes and while fleeing in the streets,
outnumbered 10-to -1 by the white population and unable to defend themselves or
Black survivors were rounded up by the National Guard, detained for several
days in the Convention Hall, and treated like criminals. When released, they
were forced out of town and left destitute. Their land and property that had
not been destroyed were stolen by white residents.
What Black Greenwood residents lost was not only their homes, land,
businesses and personal possessions. Future generations of their descendents
were denied, by deliberate acts of predatory bigotry and violence, the
inheritance of what their families had built. Losses by Blacks in Tulsa reflect
losses by all descendents of enslaved Africans, whose unpaid labor amounts
today to trillions of dollars. This amassed fortune has accounted for the
majority-white capitalists’ wealth, from which Black descendants still
have not benefited or received reparations. This situation has existed for
centuries, since the founding of the U.S., based also on the theft of
Indigenous lands and later of two-thirds of Mexico, in addition to slavery.
The legacy of white supremacy has helped create the disproportionate racial
gaps in wealth, health, education and employment; incalculable
intergenerational losses and damages; and continuing discrimination and
marginalization of Blacks. Following emancipation, African Americans were at
the bottom of the social, political and economic ladder, and have been
intentionally kept there by institutional and systemic racism.
Displacement of the Tulsa survivors was the country’s largest such
diaspora until Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when an estimated 1 million mostly
Black citizens lost their homes and property due to broken levees, and were
forced to resettle throughout the country. Similar to Tulsa, New Orleans
residents were “contained” in the New Orleans Superdome in
deplorable conditions, largely ignored by the government and criminalized by
the media. And having lost their homes, property, jobs and small businesses,
they are still fighting for the right to return home.
Blacks also continue to be slaughtered in their own homes, exemplified by
the May 16 terrorism by the Detroit police shooting, fire bombing and killing
of 7-year-old Aiyana Jones while she slept. May 13 was also the 25th
anniversary of the racist police helicopter bombing of the MOVE family house in
Philadelphia and the shootings by government authorities that resulted in the
deaths of 11 inhabitants, including children, and the destruction by fire of 61
To date, there are only 45 Tulsa “riot” survivors remaining,
ranging in age from their 90s to 107 years old. For years, they have been
seeking recognition of their humanity, justice and remuneration for damages
owed them. But their efforts have been thwarted or ignored with no apologies
given by the U.S. authorities.
For decades what happened in Greenwood was denied, whited out and covered
up. It was deliberately kept out of U.S. history and remained Tulsa’s
best kept secret. Federal, state and local officials, and townspeople refused
to acknowledge the atrocious event, and no individuals or agencies were ever
After uncovering concealed evidence in 2001 on the “riot,” a
lawsuit was filed by professor/attorney Charles Ogletree for justice and
reparations. A legal campaign called “One Day in May” was
established to right the long overdue wrongs done to the remaining survivors
while they are still alive. The urgency is obvious.