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Learning from Tulsa

Riot and Remembrance: America’s Worst Race Riot and Its Legacy
by James S. Hirsch (Mariner Books, 2003)

Reconstructing the Dreamland: The Riot of 1921
by Alfred L. Brophy (Oxford University Press, 2002)

The enemy is not always without, but often within, aided and abetted by elements of the home government. Such was the case of the 1921 Tulsa Riot that was sparked by the unsubstantiated accusation of sexual assault on white female purity by a black Tulsan. During the riot, the Greenwood District, an African American neighborhood, was physically and psychologically destroyed over the course of sixteen hours, and further over the succeeding eighty-two years. In Riot and Remembrance, James S. Hirsch recreates the climate of Jim Crow Tulsa, before paying particular attention to the systematic humiliation endured by the Greenwood community and the local government’s continued refusal to provide financial assistance. Alfred L. Brophy’s Reconstructing the Dreamland reviews the same event, but focuses primarily on the legitimacy of reparations in light of the local government’s active involvement in the obliteration of the African American district. As both works amply demonstrate, this pivotal episode in the history of racial terror lacks closure in the form of justice through both public acknowledgement of past wrongs as well as the dispensation of reparations.

Riot and Remembrance’s initial section “Beginnings” illustrates and dissects the cultural, socioeconomic and political atmosphere of Tulsa prior to the 1921 riot. Hirsch explores the increasing efforts of the black community to resist lynch mob justice, the routine humiliation caused by Jim Crow laws, and the coded language utilized to express the feared assault on white female purity by African American men. “Beginnings” chronicles Tulsa history from the city’s founding to its rise to prominence as an oil capital, and details its history of mob justice: in addition to turning prisoners over to lynch mobs, local police in some cases actively participated in such activities as directing traffic for the lynching crowd. Hirsch also surveys the history of the Greenwood District, which originated in land speculation by black and white entrepreneurs but was sold almost exclusively to blacks, and he then documents Greenwood residents’ eyewitness accounts of the riot.

In Hirsch’s brief section, “The Riot” — which consists of two chapters, “When Hell Broke Loose” and “The Invasion”— Hirsch depicts the events leading directly up to and the early morning invasion of the black neighborhood, which would result in horrible atrocities, the flight of black residents, and the systematic round-up and internment of the armed and unarmed. In these few pages, the author vividly portrays the destruction of some thirty-five city blocks, the demolition of over 1200 homes, the looting of another 215 houses that were not burned, the decimation of twenty-three Greenwood churches and two movie theaters, and the killing of between tens and hundreds of Tulsans—all of which occurred within a staggering sixteen hours.

Though charges in the case were later dropped, the May 30, 1921 accusation of assault by Sarah Page, a white elevator operator, against Dick Rowland, an African American deliveryman, galvanized white Tulsa after Richard Lloyd Jones, editor of Tulsa Tribune, published a front-page article titled “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator.” The article’s imprudent language and factual inaccuracies combined with the city’s racial/sexual environment to ignite tensions. When black Greenwood residents entered Tulsa to verify that law enforcement would not hand Dick Rowland over to potential lynchers, they were assured that he was safe within the county jail. Later another contingent of Greenwood men visited the jail. With guns visible, their presence angered elements of the white crowd. Words were exchanged; shots were fired. Regardless of whether this was intentional or accidental, the result, in the words of the chapter’s title, was that “All Hell Broke Loose.”

As the Greenwood men endeavored to return to the presumed safety of their neighborhood, they were hunted and murdered by white Tulsans. Fearing a Negro uprising, white Tulsans sought to arm themselves: looting gun stores as well as attempting to break into the Armory. In the ensuing confusion of the riot, approximately five hundred whites were deputized, issued weapons and an apparent license to kill. The haphazard nature of the deputizing process is evidenced in subsequent advertisements requesting the return of weapons to the police department; the department had no record of whom it had deputized. The aim of those deputized was not the safety of Greenwood residents, but rather to defend white Tulsa from black Tulsa. Hirsch further discusses the local government’s efforts to keep blacks from Muskogee, Mohawk and Sand Springs from providing Greenwood with armed black reinforcements.

This vigorous defense against marauding white rioters unfortunately ended up with the massacre of countless Greenwood men, many of whom were World War I veterans. Hirsch employs terms like “ethnic cleansing,” “ homicide,” “race war,” and “holocaust” to describe an assault on civilians largely by deputized civilians. During the riot, whites strove to reassert their autonomy through murder, fire, looting and the “physical/spiritual destruction of a community.” The goal of post-riot activities was Humiliation; for example those Greenwood men that were not murdered were taken into custody and run through the city. Hirsch notes one case in which six men were roped together and forced to run behind an officer’s motorcycle. In most reported cases, men were run or walked through town with their hands in the air. There were incidents of guards shooting at the men’s heels. These men as well as other Greenwood residents, totaling six thousand refugees, were “consolidated” at the fairgrounds by June 2. Countless black Tulsans fled Tulsa during the riot never to return; among them were some of the most prominent Greenwood citizens.

The core of Hirsch’s book, though, resides in “The Legacy,” the chapter that explores the myriad attempts by the local government to further decimate the African American community through legislation, empty promises of financial assistance, the refusal of outside assistance, and the destruction of records. “The Legacy” begins with a discussion of the initial humiliation of the African American community: which instantly became homeless and penniless, and was forced to reside in detention camps located at the city’s ballpark, convention center, and fairgrounds, among other places. Hirsch describes the system of forced labor, in which men were required to work or were subject to arrest. No longer independent, they were now dependent upon the white populace for their very sustenance. The only way that they could leave the concentration points was to obtain and wear a green Police Protection badge— and in order to acquire said badge, the signature of a white employer was required.

Immediately after the riot, as citizens searched for loved ones often in vain, the dead were denied a proper burial with the prohibition of funerals. This made the validation of the death toll and the locating of friends, relatives, and neighbors impossible. Eighty years later, with the death toll still in question and the case for reparations looming, Hirsch portrays the search to locate mass graves. Despite eyewitness accounts of such graves as well as carts with bodies piled “like cordwood,” recovery efforts were suspended. Riot and Remembrance closes with a picture of a contemporary Tulsa making fledging attempts to break generations of denial, separation, and silence.

In Reconstructing the Dreamland: the Tulsa Riot of 1921: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation, the term dreamland denotes not only the regal Greenwood movie theater of the same name that was destroyed by rioters and later rebuilt, but also the sense of many early twentieth century African Americans that the new Oklahoma territory was a land in which their dreams for themselves and families could be realized. The dreamland seemed a land brimming with socioeconomic prospects. Brophy emphasizes the strong belief in justice and the law held by Oklahoma blacks; their indignation grew exponentially when lynch mobs flouted the law, taking “justice” into their own hands, segregating and attempting to continuously disenfranchise their African American neighbors. Brophy draws on contemporary newspaper commentary and cartoons along with myriad accounts from Tulsa residents in order to recreate the hostile climate.

Dreamland’s argument is that the Greenwood residents are a prime example of historic victims requiring governmental redress in the form of reparations. His thesis, though, would have been buoyed by more extensive discussion of the actual losses— human, economic, social— and the scars inflicted by the brutal battle and subsequent demoralization of the community. First came internment and forced labor, and subsequent legislative attempts to marginalize the neighborhood were followed by final blows struck in the name of urban renewal. Since Brophy’s book is more specifically a study of reparations, it is best read as a companion to Hirsch’s more detailed study of Tulsa itself. In his epilogue, Brophy argues the case for reparations in its complex and American context, which by definition implies slave reparations. In the end, he nobly sketches a “blueprint for justice.”

Tulsa’s avoidance of analysis and recollection of the riot has largely been premised upon the belief that to open such dialogue would rekindle the same racial animosity that initially ignited and divided Tulsans eighty years earlier. Hirsch scrutinizes the Greenwood community’s efforts to heal itself by acknowledging and threading the tale of the Greenwood District triumphs and great agony into Tulsa written and oral history. In addition, Hirsch carefully explores the continued relevance and varied effects that the riot and its subsequent depredations had not only upon the African American population but also on white Tulsans. No segment of the city appears to have escaped the riot’s devastating effects, whether social, psychological, financial, or a debilitating combination thereof.

In distinct voices, one literary and the other scholarly, Hirsch and Brophy chronicle distinct avenues of discourse about a terrible chapter in Tulsan and American history. In the process, both ask a fundamental question: Who deserves justice? Does the passage of time mean that apologies and acknowledgement and compensation for personal and property loss are irrelevant, undeserved? Without past and present wrongdoers and complacent governments held accountable by our legal system, injustice will endure. As both the 1992 Los Angeles Riots and the more recent racial conflicts in Cincinnati have shown, angers that simmer below the surface will eventually boil over, with brutal consequences for white and black Americans alike.


Tia Blassingame


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2003

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