By Dr. Alan Singer
Memorial Day in the United States honors men and women who died in the nation’s wars. It originated as Remembrance Day and Decoration Day commemorations by both sides during the American Civil War. From 1868 until 1970, it was observed on May 30, when it was made a federal holiday on the last Monday of May. Today it is also considered the start of the summer season.
If Black Lives Matter finally, this Memorial Day the United States should have remembered the deaths in this country’s race war against African Americans. One hundred years ago, Memorial Day was the start of perhaps the worst anti-Black racist violence in the history of the United States in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Okla. Thirty-five blocks were burned to the ground, 10,000 Black Tulsans needed emergency relief, over 800 people were treated for serious injuries and as many as 300 people, almost all African American, died during the Memorial Day Tulsa Massacre. The Red Cross provided about 200 tents to survivors of the massacre who had lost homes and were displaced by the violence.
On the morning of Memorial Day, May 30, 1921, Dick Rowland, a young Black man who worked at the Drexel Building in downtown Tulsa as either a shoe shiner or delivery man, rode in the elevator with a 17-year-old white woman who was the elevator operator. The next day, Tulsa police arrested Rowland and charged him with assaulting her. An inflammatory article in the Tulsa Tribune led to a confrontation between Black and white armed groups outside the courthouse where Rowland was held. Blacks gathered there because they feared Rowland would be lynched. The white mob probably included over 2,000 men, many of whom were armed. After shots were fired, the outnumbered African American group retreated to the largely black Greenwood District.
That night, white rioters looted and burned over 1,200 buildings in the Greenwood District, which at the time was a prosperous Black business and residential neighborhood known as “Black Wall Street.” White mobs bombed, looted, and set fire to buildings and opened fire on Black residents who tried to defend their homes and businesses. A report in the Tulsa Tribune described that “machine guns were set up and for 20 minutes poured a stream of lead on the negroes who sought refuge behind buildings, telephone poles, and in ditches.”
Tulsa municipal and police officials were complicit in the attack on the African American community. They deputized and armed white men who then participated in the riot and massacre. The Governor of Oklahoma declared martial law and National Guard troops were sent to the city where they proceeded to intern Black Tulsans, supposedly for their own protection. Many Black Tulsans were held captive for over a week.
After the massacre, a local African American lawyer, Buck Colbert Franklin, wrote a 10-page typewritten manuscript documenting the events. “I could see planes circling in mid-air. They grew in number and hummed, darted and dipped low. I could hear something like hail falling upon the top of my office building. Down East Archer, I saw the old Mid-Way hotel on fire, burning from its top, and then another and another and another building began to burn from their top . . . Lurid flames roared and belched and licked their forked tongues into the air. 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 . . . The side-walks were literally covered with burning turpentine balls. I knew all too well where they came from, and I knew all too well why every burning building first caught from the top. I paused and waited for an opportune time to escape. ‘Where oh where is our splendid fire department with its half dozen stations?’ I asked myself. ‘Is the city in conspiracy with the mob?’”
Charges against Dick Rowland were dismissed when the woman he was supposed to have assaulted refused to make a statement to police. No whites were ever prosecuted for the massacre of Tulsa’s Black citizens. Black victims of the massacre were buried in unmarked mass graves, and post cards were distributed with photographs celebrating the anti-Black violence. Local officials destroyed documentation of the event and pretended the massacre did not take place.
A sub-committee of the United States House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary is holding hearings on a proposal to provide financial reparations to the remaining survivors of the massacre and the Tulsa African American community as a whole. Survivors and descendants of people injured during the massacre have filed a lawsuit in Tulsa County District Court demanding payment for damages from the Tulsa County sheriff, the Oklahoma National Guard and the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce.
One hundred years after the Tulsa Massacre, the United States needs to stop pretending that racism ended with the American Civil War and take steps to address the lingering impact of slavery and systemic racism on American society.
Dr. Alan Singer is a professor of teaching, learning and technology and the director of social studies education programs at Hofstra University. He is a former New York City high school social studies teacher, and the editor of Social Science Docket, a joint publication of the New York and New Jersey Councils for the Social Studies. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/AlanJSinger1.