Tulsa, Okla., 1921: Justice continues to be denied
By Dolores Cox
May 31, 2012
May 31 is the 91st anniversary of the “Race Riot” tragedy in Tulsa, Okla. It “was almost left out of history, not documented, passed over, wiped out!” stated Rep. Maxine Waters, of the Congressional Black Caucus.
On that date in 1921, a rampage by white supremacists caused the destruction of the Greenwood Black neighborhood and the massacre of 300 people. Yet, the so-called race riot and its survivors were conveniently forgotten about for decades, the “best-kept secret” in Tulsa. City, state and federal officials as well as white residents denied it.
The racist siege caused ethnic cleansing of African Americans living in Tulsa’s segregated Greenwood section, known as “Black Wall Street” because of the community’s prosperity. Less than 57 years after their emancipation from slavery, African Americans had established self-sufficient social, political and economic institutions and systems. They owned their own homes, property and businesses.
On that day, Dick Rowland, 19-year-old, orphaned Black shoe shiner, was accused of sexually assaulting a white female elevator operator, when he stumbled and inadvertently touched her while trying to regain his footing. He was arrested and taken to jail. A white lynch mob gathered outside. Black men from Greenwood, even some World War I vets wearing their uniforms, tried to rescue the youth and were shot dead.
During the night, a racist mob, which included deputized vigilantes, KKK members and government officials, burglarized Black homes and businesses. They torched houses, destroying 1,200. Airplanes firebombed the buildings. Men, women and children were machine-gunned as they fled into the streets. Ambulances were prevented from reaching casualties. The Black population was outnumbered 10 to one, unable to defend themselves or protect their possessions or their property from their well-armed attackers.
Survivors were rounded up and herded by the National Guard into the Convention Hall and two other venues where they were treated as criminals. The massacre left 10,000 Black residents homeless and displaced. They were forced out of town and left destitute, with no right of return. White residents confiscated the land and any property they didn’t destroy.
Using 1921 figures, an estimated $5 million was lost in Greenwood property, says Reginald Turner, attorney and documentary producer of “Before They Die: The Road to Reparations for the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Survivors.” Using 2012 figures, Greenwood businesses lost an estimated $50 million in oil sales. Heirs and descendants lost their inheritances of all their families achieved and acquired. Oklahoma state legislators have shown no interest in supporting the survivors.
White supremacy was the law of the land in 1921, and it remains so. City, state and federal officials deliberately covered up the assault until 2001, when concealed evidence surfaced in a report.
Justice & reparations demanded for survivors
Harvard Law Professor Charles J. Ogletree filed a lawsuit in 2003 calling for justice and reparations for the surviving victims. A “One Day in May” campaign was established and continues. White perpetrators of the terrorism have been exonerated, and Black victims blamed. Claims for damages have been dismissed or ignored. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal.
A waiting game is being played out regarding justice and reparations for the remaining 45 or so survivors. Sadly, Otis Clark, the oldest known survivor, just died at age 109 in Seattle. He had been a tireless fighter in the quest for justice. Clark’s stepfather’s body was never found after the attack. For years afterwards, Clark’s family and others lived in shanties and tents. He then moved to California and later Dallas and Seattle.
On this year’s anniversary, there will be a meeting in Washington, D.C., with the Black Congressional Caucus and a public hearing on Resolution HR5593. On May 8, the bill was forwarded to the House Judicial Committee.
The late Harvard Law Professor and historian Dr. John Hope Franklin introduced this bill, which is officially called the “John Hope Franklin Tulsa-Greenwood Race Riot Claims Accountability Act of 2012.” His father was in Greenwood during the “riot” and was detained in the Convention Hall. He had planned to move his family to Tulsa.
Survivors who are physically able are expected to attend the hearing. Among them are Dr. Olivia Hooker, 96, and 95-year-old Wes Young. They will testify before Congress and lobby for passage of the resolution, which will provide redress, restitution, compensation and closure.
Given the racism in this system, will any of the survivors receive justice before they die?