This month’s selection focuses on a little-known historical event in honor of Black History Month.
In recent months, I’ve become interested in events occurring in the few years after World War I in the U.S. We know much of that history, and some issues of that time, such as race, voting rights, and immigration, continue to play a large role in American society and politics a full century later. Other important cases have virtually vanished from known history, usually by attempts to hide the shocking ugliness and/or illegality of events.
Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann was the first account of this nature that I read. It brought to light the horrific story of the systematic murders of many Osage tribe members in 1920s Oklahoma for their oil wealth. That story led me to Prof. Alfred Brophy’s Reconstructing the Dreamland: The Tulsa Riot of 1921 published in 2002. Many sources have called the destruction of Greenwood, Oklahoma the worst riot in the 20th century. Knowing of many others that are more recent, I thought it must be an exaggeration…but after reading this book, I think it’s probably true.
Greenwood was a separate section of Tulsa, home to about 8,000 African-Americans. It was a vibrant community socially as well as economically, supporting successful businesses and services. In fact, many blacks had come to Greenwood for those reasons and to escape the restrictive Jim Crow Deep South where they had fewer opportunities and less freedom.
One horror they could not escape from, however, was the ever-present danger of lynching. In 1920 alone, there were 50 known lynchings–that’s one per week–several of which were near enough to Greenwood for its residents to be fully aware of the danger in which any black male could find himself at any time. Whites used mob lynching as a means of social control, of keeping the “natural” white hierarchy intact. [p. 11]
It’s no wonder that influential black newspapers such as Black Dispatch, the Chicago Defender, and others took on this issue. They pushed hard for rule of law and using the courts for change and resolution. Others, such as black veterans returning from the battlefields where they had fought for the freedom of others, supported a more immediate and direct approach: protect our own with weapons and skills we learned in the war.
On May 31, 1921, an incident occurred about which the details are still blurred. It involved a young black man in an elevator and a teenage white girl elevator operator. For a reason never known, when the elevator door opened, she screamed, and he ran. The minds of whites in those times and in that situation went straight to some sort of sexual misbehavior or attempted rape by the male. A black man surely knew that when a white female near you screams, even if the scream has nothing to do with you, you run. He did. He was caught and put in a jail cell on the top floor of the Tulsa courthouse.
News spread through both the black and white communities faster than the fire that consumed Greenwood hours later. Black men, mostly veterans, armed themselves and stood guard outside the courthouse. They succeeded in not allowing the growing white mob to capture and lynch that young man, but did not succeed in saving Greenwood.
A single gunshot fired by an unknown person changed everything. The scene shifted to Greenwood proper, setting off an episode of unspeakable violence including murder, looting, then burning of 35 blocks of black homes and businesses. City officials deputized every white man they could find, including prisoners, then badged and armed them. Some of those armed men acted as snipers, while others patrolled Greenwood’s streets. At 5 A.M., a whistle was heard, at which point the hunting—there can be no other word for it—of black men and women began in earnest. As people were flushed from their homes, they were shot at, and many killed. The homes were looted, then set on fire.
Even more chilling is the fact that a plane was used to strafe some people as they ran from the men on the streets. A few witnesses also reported seeing a dark cloud come from the plane. It was never determined if a chemical was dropped on the fleeing people as well. It’s unthinkable that an instrument and tactic used in the war would be used on American citizens in a purposeful and systematic attempt to kill them.
When the slaughter and fire died down later in the day, it was obvious that in just a few hours, Greenwood had been decimated. Pictures included in the book show that it looked as if a bomb had been dropped directly on it. No one knows the final death toll, or where all the bodies were buried. Witnesses saw trucks stacked with dead bodies driving away from town. Surely the dead number in the many hundreds, far more than in a similar 1923 attack in Rosewood, Florida.
In the aftermath, it wasn’t long before a black version and a white version of causes and events emerged. An all-white grand jury blamed the victims, causing the white version to prevail. As a result, insurance companies refused to compensate most blacks for their losses, citing the “riot exclusion” clause in their policies. Those who had their own means to rebuild did so. The owners of the Dreamland Theater reconstructed it (hence the book’s title), and it was functioning within a year.
City officials tried to use the opportunity of massive destruction to confiscate the Greenwood properties for the purpose of Tulsa expansion. One wonders if this had been the plan all along; if they had just waited for an opportunity to put it into action. Greenwood never did return to its earlier robust culture, and eventually the land was used for other purposes.
The black men standing guard at the courthouse door succeeded in their mission of protecting the young man from a white mob clearly bent on lynching him. The black guards were intent on peacefully ensuring that the law was followed. If elected law enforcement officials could not be trusted to do their job of enforcing the law, were perhaps even complicit in breaking the law by allowing the lynching, the men would protect their own. (The young man was not charged with any crime and later released.)
Slavery was two generations in the past by 1921. Many black men had been trained as soldiers and had risked their lives to defend or gain freedom for people in other countries. It was time to have what they were entitled to have for themselves in the U.S. By using the existing laws and going through the courts, blacks sought EQUAL PROTECTION. Blacks often found that the same laws were interpreted or implemented differently for and by whites. (Voting rights is a perfect example and a study on its own.) Blacks fought to have laws mean the same thing and be equally implemented without regard to one’s skin color.
Brophy discusses the reparations issue in his book, but I’ll not discuss that here except to say that around the year 2000, Tulsa made a few plans that sounded good, then never funded them.
I highly recommend this book or another on the same topic. Why? It’s important for Americans to know their history, including these hidden and horrific parts, to help us understand many of today’s events. We don’t always hear what REALLY happened. Sometimes we get sanitized versions or outright false ones based on someone’s particularly self-serving agenda. Sometimes history is suppressed altogether.
For me, the strong focus on LAW by those seeking EQUAL PROTECTION under it was a pleasant discovery. I particularly appreciated quotes from influential black newspapers of that time which Brophy included in his book. Nothing speaks truer than primary sources.