Last October HBO’s series, ”Watchmen” began its run. The opening scene in the first episode was part archived film and part re-enactment of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, which is now called the Tulsa Race Massacre.
As a longtime Tulsa resident, I only learned about the TRM in the early 2000s. And then it was only because the state established a commission to inform the public of the tragedy that took place on May 31, and June 1, 1921, in an area of town known as the Black Wall Street, or the Greenwood District.
The TRM started when a black man, Dick Rowland, reportedly touched a female elevator, who then complained to police, no doubt with some exaggeration. Mr. Rowland was arrested and put in jail. Fearing he would be lynched without a trial– as was common in those days – men from the Greenwood District armed themselves and proceeded to the jail house in hopes freeing Rowland before it was too late. A gun fight broke out and the blacks retreated. Meanwhile, as news of the event spread, many whites joined the fight, some deputized, some not. It was mob violence.
At the end of 18 hours of terror, Whites had gone through the 35 square blocks of the Greenwood District killing men, women and children, and destroying property. The Red Cross estimated that 1,256 homes had been burned down. And the 215 houses that survived were looted. Two newspapers, a school, a library, a hospital, churches, hotels, stores and many other black-owned buildings were destroyed or damaged by fire. More than 800 people were admitted to hospitals and more than 6,000 black residents were arrested and detained. About 10,000 were left homeless. The exact number of deaths is unknown, but it was guessed to range from 200 to 300. Mass graves from the event are being discovered even as this is written.
A witness later reported aerial assaults of planes dropping incendiary bombs. “Lurid flames roared and belched and licked their forked tongues into the air,” the witness wrote. “Smoke ascended the sky in thick, black volumes and amid it all, the planes — now a dozen or more in number — still hummed and darted here and there with the agility of natural birds of the air.”
Even though the whites destroyed property and killed and injured hundreds, none were never arrested or put on trial. The event was so bad that there was a virtual blackout in newspapers around the country. And it was never taught in schools, even today. Understandably, Tulsa’s leaders didn’t want their city – then called the “Oil Capital of the World” – to become known as the site of one of the worst episodes of racial violence in U.S. history.
Of course, race riots continued for decades after the Tulsa Race Massacre – Rosewood, Detroit, Harlem, Watts, Chicago, Milwaukee, Charlottesville and many others. The Civil Rights era of the 1960’s saw the worst of it with 30 riots. There were 10 in 1967 alone.
Beginning in the 1970’s, the frequency, duration, and the impact on lives and property brought about by race riots have dropped considerably. The reasons vary but they include a greater diaspora of African Americans into mixed race and ethnic neighborhoods, better enforcement of civil rights laws and the development of quasi-military police forces.
Members of the Ku Klux Klan no doubt participated in the Tulsa Race Massacre. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which keeps track of extremist and hate groups,has estimated that during the 1920’s the Klan’s nation-wide membership was estimated to be anywhere from 2 million to 5 million. Today, however. Klan membership has dropped to somewhere around 5,000 and 8,000.
But even if the Klan has declined over the years, many other hate groups have emerged, including white nationalists, the neo-Nazi movement, and anti-government militias. The SPLC says there were 594 such groups in 2000 and 1,020 in 2018, an increase of 58 percent.
Most hate crimes these days are carried out by individuals through mass shootings who are inspired by malevolent ideologies. Hate groups have also expanded their targets from African-Americans to include Jews, Muslims, hispanics, immigrants, the LGBT community and others.
Riots are now few and far between. These days they are called revolts, or protests, or demonstrations, or civil disobedience. The violence is mostly limited to some broken windows and burning a car or two. And, as we’ve seen just recently, such events are world wide – Iran, Iraq, Hong Kong, Moscow, France, Latin America and others. They are more about change in their country’s government or other institutions and less about race.
Fortunately, none of these events, so far at least, have turned into a night of extreme terror like the one in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma in the summer of 1921.
Billy Holiday — Strange Fruit
This is a revised and expanded version of an Op-Ed that was published on January 20, 2020