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Terrorism on American Soil: An American Holocaust  can be read sequentially by going to the first entry in the series:

Terrorism on American Soil: Introduction

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Recognition, Admission, Introspection, Repentance (TAS Pt. 10)

Terrorism on American Soil: TAS

Part 10: Recognition, Admission,
Introspection, Repentance

(Click here to go to the Introduction to this series.)

 

After the Tulsa Race Riot Commission was finished with its work of preparing a meticulously detailed report of the events of 1921, it discussed suggestions for what might be “done about” their findings. The final report recommended a number of acts, including establishing a relatively small fund to pay token reparations to the few remaining very elderly riot victims or their immediate (aging) survivors.

While discussions were beginning about how the government would respond to these recommendations, Commission founder, State Representative Don Ross (D) of the Oklahoma House of Representatives joined a fellow state congressman on an interview show in 2001 to debate this possibility. Representative Bill Graves (R) took the “against” position. A tiny excerpt from that discussion:

REP. DON ROSS: Well, I agree in theory with the findings [of the Commission]. We have to understand that a deputized white mob destroyed the black community. In doing so, it institutionalized hate in parts of the soul of the city, an evil of which neither race has fully recovered. And I think reparations of some kind repairs that inhumanity and brings some closure to this sordid, hard affair of some eighty years ago.

REP. BILL GRAVES: Well, I — you know, what Representative Ross has described is an outrage and a disgrace to the city of Tulsa, and I sure could never ever condone any kind of action like that. I think it’s terrible, a terrible injustice on the black community up there. And one thing that makes it even worse, in my mind, is that these people were working hard to pull themselves up and become productive citizens and working hard. And as they called it, Black Wall Street there, they were following the philosophy of Booker T. Washington, who was one of my heroes. [I’ve recently read enough about Booker T to understand why he is very popular among southern white conservatives such as Graves…in the late 1890s and early 1900s he advocated that “negroes” be very, very careful not to demand anything of whites in the way of racial equality. They should humbly submit to segregation and all that implies, and settle for just being allowed to do “skilled labor” as part of the US industrial base, to make themselves so valuable that the whites would be willing to support their—segregated—efforts at improvement of the race’s future prospects.]

And then they had an outlaw element up there that came in and destroyed what they were doing. I think it’s a terrible injustice. At the same time, I think it would be an injustice on people now, eighty years later, to ask them to pay reparations for something they were not responsible for, which is what would be happening here. And that’s why I would — I oppose reparations being paid now. And, you know, it was a wrong occurred in 1921, but two wrongs don’t make a right. And so I would oppose reparations only we — you know, if we pay them now based on a sense of guilt, which I think is a sense of false guilt, since the people now alive are not responsible for what occurred in 1921, and that’s kind of my position on it.

REP. DON ROSS: The state had nothing to do with the Oklahoma City bombing, nothing. However, the state took full knowledge the summer its citizens were unjustly killed in that notorious and horrific event. I voted and the legislature voted to put $5 million dollars in that memorial. We have disasters here, particularly tornados, had one a couple of years ago. All the resources available from the state goes into repair that damage from tornados or hurricane or flood.

So it seems to me if we do it for a national disaster routinely, why can’t we do it for a human disaster, a disaster provoked by hate, whenever it happened? Bill well knows that the spirit of racism at that time and now, and that a full cover-up that this is — this is — eighty years it’s taken. It’s taken eighty years for those citizens to petition their government to reconcile this good state with its history.

REP. BILL GRAVES: Well, let me — if I can say, I agree with Don, it was a spirit of hate back then. Fortunately, that’s an age that’s dead and gone, and we Americans and Oklahomans moved forward and granted a great deal of equality to blacks.

By the way, in this same interview, Rep. Graves commented that he was against the US legislation…actually approved by the US Congress in 1988 and signed into law by President Reagan…that gave reparations to the American citizens of Japanese descent who were unjustly interned during World War 2.

Something like 120,000 had been removed from their homes practically over night in 1942, only allowed to take the possessions they could actually carry, and beyond that many lost everything…their jobs, homes, cherished family mementos, everything.

jap family

It was VERY much like the situation that led to the Trail of Tears for the Cherokee described in a previous series in this blog. Notice the same kind of “soldiers with bayonets” who drove out the Cherokee, in this description of the situation from a former “internee”…George Takei, “Sulu” from the Star Trek franchise.

sulu

George:

Seventy years ago, US soldiers bearing bayoneted rifles came marching up to the front door of our family’s home in Los Angeles, ordering us out. Our crime was looking like the people who had bombed Pearl Harbor a few months before. I’ll never forget that day, nor the tears streaming down my mother’s face as we were forcibly removed, herded off like animals, to a nearby race track. There, for weeks, we would live in a filthy horse stable while our “permanent” relocation camp was being constructed thousands of miles away in Arkansas, in a place called Rohwer.  [Source]

George at four:

takei1942at4

I recently revisited Rohwer. Gone were the sentry towers, armed guards, barbed wire and crudely constructed barracks that defined our lives for many years. The swamp had been drained, the trees chopped down. Only miles and miles of cotton fields. The only thing remaining was the cemetery with two tall monuments.

takei

It was never shown that any of these people hastily shoved in concentration camps were an actual threat to the US, and many of the young men sent there subsequently fought valiantly on the US side on the European front of the war.

20,000 Japanese American men and many Japanese American women served in the U.S. Army during World War II.

The 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which was composed primarily of Japanese Americans, served with uncommon distinction in the European Theatre of World War II. Many of the U.S. soldiers serving in the unit had their families interned at home while they fought abroad.

The famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which fought in Europe, was formed from those Japanese Americans who did agree to serve. This unit was the most highly decorated U.S. military unit of its size and duration. Most notably, the 442nd was known for saving the 141st (or the “lost battalion”) from the Germans. The 1951 film Go For Broke! was a fairly accurate portrayal of the 442nd, and starred several of the RCT’s veterans.

In January 1945, with no fanfare:

The freed internees were given $25 and a train ticket to their former homes. [Source]

If their homes still existed. If you and your family were suddenly snatched from your home next week and sent away for three years, with no one to look out for your interests “back home,” no one to care for a house if you owned it, no one to personally store your possessions that were left in your apartment or house…how much do you think you’d “come home to”? And what would be the chances that your “old job” was still there waiting for you?

But Rep. Graves thought that it was foolish to think that “the country” should do anything about this grave injustice. After all, that was long ago, and Japanese Americans now have rights. The US congress and some presidents who signed reparations bills, offered official apologies, and so on (including Gerald Ford and George HW Bush) disagreed with him. (But being honest, I am quite sure that a significant proportion of the “white population” of the US have agreed all along with Graves, and resented any attempts at somehow “making right” what was so wrong.)

When pressed about the Japanese situation, Graves added, “In the matter of the Japanese Americans that were relocated, or interned, as some people say, that was the federal government that did the relocation or internment. In Tulsa, it was the private citizens that instigated the riot.”   This, of course, ignores totally the reality that the “private citizens” didn’t just “instigate” a simple “riot.” They systematically burned down over a thousand homes and hundreds of businesses without any evident interference from the duly constituted civil authorities of Tulsa. In fact, in numerous instances, they were aided and abetted by those very authorities. In other words, instead of protecting the lives and property of the black citizens, the authorities were complicit in the destruction.

I think Representative Graves could use a good vocabulary lesson. There are two “legal” terms he seems to be mixing up in his mind: De Jure and De Facto.

At the time of the Tulsa riots, the truth is that black citizens had all sorts of “rights” that were de jure—a term that means “concerning the law.” They really DID have the right to safety of their persons and property according to both US law and Oklahoma law. But out in the real world, rather than in theory, they were subject to the de facto—a term that means “concerning fact”—reality that these rights were ignored.

Yes, in many parts of the US at that time in 1921, there were de jure situations that left blacks with unequal rights. Including segregated schools and public facilities such as buses and water fountains. State governments had the right under the US governmental system of the time to establish such “laws” that made blacks second-class citizens. But the Tulsa Holocaust wasn’t ever a matter of the blacks needing “equality” in terms of the later issues of Civil Rights. It was a matter of protecting the de jure rights they did have at the time. It was a matter of thousands upon thousands of white men flouting the law and indulging in totally illegal terrorist acts—without interference from the police at the time, and without ever having to face trial for any of them later. They were “outside the law.” For the reality—the de facto situation—in Tulsa in 1921 was that the law didn’t apply “in fact” to whites who wanted to “Run the Negro out of Tulsa.”

Rep. Graves seemed to think that the Civil Rights acts passed in the US at the national level in the 1950s and later somehow “changed” the de facto reality in the hearts of men. It did not. Not in Tulsa, not in anywhere else. There is no question at all that racial prejudice is a wide-spread problem in Tulsa to this day—otherwise there is no reason at all that the black citizens should be still primarily de facto segregated!

The thousands upon thousands of men who perpetrated the Tulsa holocaust never offered an apology, never offered to pay reparations for the losses suffered by thousands upon thousands of blacks. The government of the city never offered an apology for the failure of its police department to protect the innocent. Nor did it pay any reparations either, or get around to prosecuting the thousands of those involved in the terrorism—even though there were even photos of many of the men in action.  Decades went by, and there had not been the slightest PUBLIC evidence of any change of heart at all. Indeed, there were no doubt at the time of the holocaust and in the ensuing decades many white Tulsans who did not harbor hatred in their hearts for blacks. There were no doubt many who felt embarrassment and shame at what “the City” had done to its black citizens. At the time of the immediate aftermath of the riot, many did try to help out homeless blacks. But these people of good will never affected the de facto reality of a public cover up on a large scale.

An age that’s dead and gone,” Rep. Graves termed it. I beg to differ with him.

As evidence I offer the current phenomenon of the Sundown Town.

What, you’ve never heard the term?  I hadn’t either until recently. But after studying into it, I realized that actually I had heard of the reality behind the term over two decades ago.

I used to live in the capital of Michigan, Lansing. The small town of Charlotte, Michigan, was nearby. In 1989 my family became involved with a small Christian outreach program in Charlotte. A congregation there had established sort of a “Christian Coffee House” setting for Friday and Saturday nights in their informal church building. They built a stage and a sound booth, set up seating at banquet tables for up to 200 people or so, provided free refreshments, and invited Christian musical performers from around the state to come and perform on a “donation” basis.

“Abba’s, the Alternative Entertainment Center” had been in operation for a couple of years by the time we discovered it, and had developed quite a reputation around the state as an uplifting and wholesome place for families to come. A wide variety of groups performed. There were people who played old-timey instruments like dulcimers. There were Southern Gospel singers. There were Hispanic Gospel bands, CCM  (Contemporary Christian Music) bands, Country Music Bands. And then there was the Black Gospel band.

I was chatting with the pastor of the congregation one day several months after we began attending these gatherings when he said something that really startled me. He admitted that the congregation was taking a risk inviting the black group to play at Abba’s…because it was “common knowledge” around the area that blacks were not welcome “after dark” in Charlotte. And that it would be dangerous for them to flout this custom. And dangerous for anyone to encourage them to do so. The church pushed back against the custom, and the band bravely came on various Friday and Saturday nights. And while I was involved there, no one was ever directly threatened. I’m not sure now, but I think the pastor may actually have “escorted” the group out of town when the performances were over late at night, when they first started coming to town.

“HEY,” I thought … “this isn’t the 1960s in the Deep South. This is pushing up close to the beginning of the New Millennium, and in the far north state of Michigan. Often a destination of the Underground Railroad back in ante-bellum days! How could this situation exist??”

I was later to discover that Michigan had long been a hot spot for the KKK in its heyday, and that the Charlotte area was a notable Klan center…Klan meetings were even openly held in the basement of the local county courthouse in earlier decades, perhaps up into the 1970s. We moved to Charlotte in 1992, and I was soon to discover that the Klan was still a force in the area. We lived in a home just a block away from that county courthouse—and I became very nervous in 1994 when the national Klan leadership announced a planned “rally” for the Courthouse lawn in Charlotte, Michigan!

For some reason, before it came to pass, the plans were changed to have the rally at the Capitol lawn in Lansing instead. I looked it up just now. Online records show that the Lansing Public Works department paid $200,000 that year to build a fence around the demonstration and provide security. And ended up using tear gas to subdue the nearby counter-demonstrators.

Only recently did I discover that the situation “after dark” in Charlotte was a common phenomenon throughout both South and North in the US, so common it had a name. Such communities are dubbed “Sundown Towns.”

booksundown

Yes, a Sundown Town is one where blacks know not to be caught inside the city limits after sundown. Although this is an “unspoken custom” these days, back before the current national Civil Rights laws were put in place, such policies were even openly advertised on signs at the edge of some towns.

whites only

Hawthorne, California, was even more blunt on its city limit sign: “Nigger, Don’t Let the Sun Set on You in Hawthorne.”

The local racial reality was often openly advertised in real estate offerings for towns, such as this public service ad of the 1920s issued by the town of Mena, Arkansas.

mena

One of the most notorious current Sundown Towns is Anna, Illinois.

Anna, Illinois, is a chicken-splat wide spot in the road in Union County that was notorious nationally as a Sundown Town.  Anna’s 1954 signs prohibiting blacks were commented upon in the national press.  Furthermore, the residents of Anna used to, and still will, tell newcomers a not very funny “joke”: the town’s name “Anna” stood for “Ain’t No Niggers Allowed”.  [Source]

And not much has changed in Anna for the past sixty years. For instance, here’s a little 2001 vignette:

“Is it true that ’Anna’ stands for ‘Ain’t No Niggers Allowed’?” I asked at the convenience store in Anna, Illinois, where I stopped to buy coffee.

“Yes,” the store clerk replied. “That’s sad, isn’t it?” she added, distancing herself from the policy. And she went on to assure me, “That all happened a long time ago.”

“I understand racial exclusion is still going on?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied.
“That’s sad.”

-conversation with clerk, Anna, Illinois, October 2001 [Source]

Another blatantly obvious current Sundown Town (or County, in this case) is in Kentucky.

McLean County, Kentucky, is one such Sundown County.  It has been blissfully (to it) white for longer than anyone can remember.  There are two African-American families that have been allowed to live in peace there.  They are not embraced, but are merely tolerated (they have lived there for many decades).  The populace of the county treats these blacks as tokens, and they use them to congratulate themselves about their forward-thinking and to show publicly they are not racist. (“See?  There’s our black people, right over there – both of ’em!”)

Yet, without having a sign that clearly says “Whites Only”, McLean County (and more onerously its county seat of Calhoun) is a Sundown community.  The word “nigger” can be heard off-handedly any day of the week in Calhoun.  Racist jokes that the denizens think are funny are told and retold.  Livermore, Kentucky (a town in McLean County), hosted a lynching in the mid 20th Century.  The mere handfuls of token blacks who live in the area of Calhoun do not live in the midst of concentrated white populations.

Not one of the “good” Christians who live in the county would openly admit they discriminate or are racists.  In 2010, the local Catholic Church (the only one in Calhoun) was sent its new priest after the older one retired.  He happened to be African (from Kenya).  The priest moved into the church rectory – after settling into his new digs, he made the mistake of going out to walk around his new town.  Police response was immediate, and he was detained on the street unnecessarily while he tried to explain (in his heavily accented English) who he was and why he was walking around Calhoun.  He lives there and conducts his Church services.  But, unfortunately, the community does not embrace him, and they quietly resent his presence as both a black man and as a “foreigner” (of whom they are all suspicious).

As proof of Calhoun’s (and McLean County’s) Sundown status a look at the most recent 2010 US Census data bears out the claim.  In 2010, McLean County’s roughly 60 black Americans accounted for 0.6% of the county’s total population.  Unlike the counties in northern Idaho [mentioned earlier in this article as having few blacks just because of historical settlement patterns that didn’t include black migration], however, this is no accident of demography – the counties surrounding McLean County had black populations ranging from 4.5% up to 6.6% of their populace.  The Commonwealth of Kentucky in the 2010 US Census reported over 9% of its population as African-American or black.

McLean County’s paltry 0.6% black population (when compared to its neighbors and the Commonwealth at large) is proof of its racist Sundown status. [Source]

The author of another blog post on Sundown Towns eloquently addressed the history and present reality of Sundown Towns this way:

There is no need to utter the word nigger, post signs, or blow a whistle as the Sun sets, when the borg mentality of a sundown community shows in word and deed the hatred and contempt it has for its fellow Black American citizens. When that hatred is condoned, accepted, and not challenged. Some say that only a few bad apples live in sundown communities, but, if there were “good people” who lived in these communities, they would rise up and challenge the wrongs perpetuated by sundown societies—therefore, these “good people” do not exist. Their silence is acceptance of the cruelty and venom of sundown communities.

In contemporary Germany, Hitler’s rise brought anti-Semitism to a frothing boil.  Germany had many Sundown Towns with signs reading “No Jews Allowed”.  Surprisingly, when the 1936 Olympics came to Germany, Hitler ordered these signs removed to avoid embarrassment in the face of the international community that would soon be in his country.

Hitler’s order is in direct contrast to Southern California’s response during the 1932 Olympics.  Apparently, it was okay to not welcome blacks in California towns, because the City of Los Angeles, the County of Los Angeles, the State of California, and the United States Government did not require any of the communities surrounding the Olympic Games venue to remove their Sundown billboards and signs.  It is amazing that even Hitler recognized the importance of downplaying such racism under global scrutiny when Los Angeles (and America) could not. 

Yes, all these US towns finally took down the signs, under pressure from newly-minted Federal laws that were finally put in place in the 1960s and later. But taking down the signs didn’t change the hearts of those who put up the signs, and those who wish they could put them up again. Nor, in many cases, did it change the de facto practices of many communities. Sundown Towns (and cities) small and large exist across this nation, both north and south, to this day.

No, Rep. Graves, “that age” is NOT “dead and gone.” The Spirit of the Age has just gone under cover. Yes, we no longer have public lynchings where children receive token toes from the burned bodies for souvenirs like they did in my parents’ lifetime. Yes, we no longer have any towns with blatant billboards advertising their rabid racism. Nor do we have city paper editors writing headlines glorying in the violent routing of negroes from the community. There are strong legal sanctions about such things now, particularly on the national level. So most of the time racists and bigots of all sorts are forced to “sublimate” their disdain for those who don’t look like themselves. And they are forced to restrain their natural tendencies to want to engage in violent acts to protect their environment from encroachment by racially inferior folks.

But sometimes it surely bubbles VERY shallowly below the surface of our “civilized” communities. For most of my life I have admired pictures of the period of the early 20th century. Everyone looks soooo civilized.  Think of the impression given by this scene below in the Music Man movie, which is set in 1912… just seven years before the “Red Summer” that saw the US wracked with at least 25 major white-on-black race riots, and numerous lynchings—including eleven in which men were burned alive. In public settings, while white men, women—and sometimes children—looked on…with many having their pictures taken for postcards commemorating the event.

music man

Who’d ever think huge crowds of people who looked pretty much like this could be capable of such heathen barbarism?

Below are some pics from catalogs of 1927. Who would think that some people who could have ordered from these very catalogs, full of the “best that civilization has to offer,” could have just six years earlier taken part in acts of barbaric civic terrorism in Tulsa (and elsewhere)? In fact, I’ll bet that some of the hats, suits, and ladies’ frocks that showed up in even later postcards of lynchings came from these very catalogs or later versions of them.

1927sears

1927mens

1927women

No, thinking that the vast majority of folks in the US are deep down inside now so much “more civilized” than those who lived in the era depicted above, are all far less “prejudiced” than their parents or grandparents or great grandparents were, do not harbor any racism or bigotry in their hearts…is extremely naïve. The evidence of such factors as the perpetuation of Sundown Towns belies this extreme optimism.

Getting to the Biblical Bottom of the Story

So what are we left to conclude about this whole matter? This blog series has chronicled an amazing litany of hellishly vicious acts perpetrated by US citizens, against US citizens in their midst, merely because of the genetic makeup of those being victimized. This hasn’t been a description of one or two isolated freak circumstances. It has been details of a few examples of a pattern of evil that was widespread through every part of the country, and lasted over many decades—and which has had repercussions clear down to the present.

What does the Bible have to say about a “civilization,” a “nation,” a “people” who have such a historical record?

At the beginning of the history of the “Nation of Israel,” when God was about to take them to their “Promised Land” where they had a “manifest destiny” to be a light to the world and eventually even bring the truths of God to the nations of the world, God told them the following in no uncertain terms, recorded in the Book of Leviticus:

Leviticus 19:33-34 (Message version)

“When a foreigner lives with you in your land, don’t take advantage of him. Treat the foreigner the same as a native. Love him like one of your own. Remember that you were once foreigners in Egypt. I am God, your God.

By the time we reach the book of Jeremiah, it becomes pretty obvious that, as a nation, they failed in obeying this command throughout their history. The portion of the “people of Israel” known as the House of Israel—the northern tribes—had already gone into captivity as a result of ignoring this and many other biblical commands. So God gives the remaining tribes, the House of Judah, one more chance to have a change of heart and “get it right this time.”

Jeremiah 22: 1-4

This is what the Lord says: “Go down to the palace of the king of Judah and proclaim this message there: ‘Hear the word of the Lord to you, king of Judah, you who sit on David’s throne—you, your officials and your people who come through these gates. This is what the Lord says:

Do what is just and right.

Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed.

Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.

For if you are careful to carry out these commands, then kings who sit on David’s throne will come through the gates of this palace, riding in chariots and on horses, accompanied by their officials and their people.

But if you do not obey these commands, declares the Lord, I swear by myself that this palace will become a ruin.’”

That “palace” did become a ruin, though, because there was never any heartfelt, permanent national repentance by the people and their leaders.

The New Testament tells us why all these details of the Old Testament are relevant to us today. The Message paraphrase really drives home the point…

1 Corinthians 10:11

These are all warning markers—danger!—in our history books, written down so that we don’t repeat their mistakes. Our positions in the story are parallel—they at the beginning, we at the end—and we are just as capable of messing it up as they were.

There are many 21st century Christians who are absolutely adamant that the USA was literally founded as a “Christian nation.” They are convinced it was established by God Himself as a direct parallel to the ancient nation of Israel. They feel that through most of its history it was marching forward with a manifest destiny to be a “shining city on a hill” to light the way of the world. They feel that the evidence of astonishing military might and an ever-burgeoning gross national product compared to the rest of the nations of the world—starting  particularly at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries—is evidence that the US was God’s Favored Nation. And that it continued in that state of grace through the Glory Days of the 1950s.

And they are now chagrined that we as a nation seem to be slipping from that high pinnacle. This they blame on current and recent social trends, in particular gay marriage and acceptance of abortion. “If only” we can somehow vote in the right leaders, we can push back those trends and “get back to” the level of “righteousness” we had in 1900, and 1920, and 1940 … and once again recapture our role as that beautiful City on a Hill.

I would submit that this “closed narrative” of US national history is deeply in error. I offer as evidence the tip of the iceberg I’ve shared of the incredible level of institutionalized, totally unreasoning hatred toward and violence done to … our version of the Bible’s mention of “the foreigner among you.”

We allowed, from the very beginning of the US with its Constitution in 1789 (in spite of our claims that “All men are created equal…), for “our” citizens to acquire other human beings as slaves and bring them into permanent residence in our nation. Most folks are willing to admit that those who were slave owners at the time did NOT treat these foreigners “the same as the native,” nor did they “love him like one of their own.” We like to excuse those back in ante-bellum days as just not “enlightened” enough to know better. They just needed a bit more time for the country to become more “modern” in its thinking.

But most will not admit … or perhaps do not even know…that once we eliminated de jure slavery as an option in the country, we NEVER, “as a people,” replaced it with the biblically-mandated treatment. Never. Not in 1900, not in 1921 at the time of the Tulsa holocaust, not any time from then to now. In recent decades the federal government finally limited some unfair treatment of blacks (and other despised minorities among us) with some legislation, but there is no indication that this changed hearts. It’s good the laws are in place, but they don’t indicate that the vast majority of the white population of this “Christian nation” treats minorities “the same as the native” nor that they “love them like their own.” Far from it. Many just grudgingly “put up with” the laws related to Civil Rights. And in many places, they navigate around them with all sorts of subterfuges…and revel in their Sundown Towns.

So let’s look at just two more admonitions by the ancient prophets, line up our record as a nation, and see what we might be in for…

Zechariah 7:8-12

And the word of the Lord came again to Zechariah: “This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’

“But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and covered their ears. They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the Lord Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets. So the Lord Almighty was very angry.

Ezekiel 22:1-4,6-7 (NIV)

The word of the Lord came to me:

“Son of man, will you judge her? Will you judge this city of bloodshed? Then confront her with all her detestable practices  and say: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: You city that brings on herself doom by shedding blood in her midst and defiles herself by making idols…See how each of the princes of Israel who are in you uses his power to shed blood. In you they have treated father and mother with contempt; in you they have oppressed the foreigner and mistreated the fatherless and the widow…

To those Christians who are convinced that “who” needs to repent to “turn back the anger of God” from our nation is solely “people unlike themselves” who support gay marriage and abortion, I say that they may find some day that God has a much bigger laundry list than they do of what in our national historical record cries out for recognition, admission, introspection, and repentance.


 

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The Disneyfication of American History (TAS Pt. 9)

Terrorism on American Soil: TAS

Part 9: The Disneyfication of American History

(Click here to go to the Introduction to this series.)

A few years back, through mutual friends, I met an interesting couple. They were both died-in-the-wool, card-carrying Disney Geeks. Both absolutely loved the classic Disney animated movies and the Disney theme parks. They first met at Disneyland in California, carried on their courtship there, and held their wedding right at the park.

By the time I met them, they were living near Walt Disney World in Florida, had their first child, a little boy who is about three now, and had carved out for themselves a joint Dream Job: They have built a cottage industry around their Disney fandom. They spend almost all their time at the Florida Disney parks, and research and write free-lance articles about everything Disney for publication.  They have a major Disney-themed website that brings in income also.

My Facebook feed includes family chit-chat from them, mostly covering the latest adorable thing their cute little one has done at a Disney park. By the time most little kids are three, you may notice them in the back seat of the car on the way to the store spontaneously breaking out into the lyrics of the latest ad jingle for McDonald’s or some breakfast cereal they heard on TV. Not this little one. He breaks out into… the COMPLETE narration for the Catastrophe Canyon attraction at Disney Hollywood Studios! He’s been on the ride so many times that he has just “internalized” the patter of the guide. I’m sure he can do this for multiple rides and attractions.

For each Disney attraction has a “narrative” that plays out exactly the same every time. If you go to the Carousel of Progress at Magic Kingdom, you will see a typical American Dad, who is going to talk about the never-ending improvements that electricity has provided to the lifestyle of the average American since the turn of the last century.

carousel 1900

This is because the attraction was originally created for the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, paid for by General Electric as an “infotainment” attraction promoting its electrical appliances. The audio-animatronic Dad has his standard patter that he does in each scene of the attraction, followed by belting out the tune to the attraction’s theme song—“There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow”—as the audience seating room revolves around the center stage to encounter the same Dad in his ever-improving electrical home.

carousel 1920

As you continue on around the stage’s pie-shaped sections to other eras, you hear a super-abbreviated narrative about the ways that electricity has made the American Dream of ultimate home convenience come true.

carousel 1940

carousel mod

I say all that to say this … it’s a “closed narrative.” If you visit the attraction over a period of years, you will hear the same thing every time. You will not go there and suddenly encounter a scene outside the ideal home where 1900s Dad lives. There will never be a hint, for instance, of what “modern living” was like for the millions in the slums of New York and other American cities in 1900.

ny slum 1900

There will never be a peek inside the dark coal mines where horribly dangerous and abusive child labor is allowing cheap prices for the coal that fires the electrical plants of the time to power the conveniences of Dad and his family.

coal

No, it’s a bright, colorful, neat, tidy, cheerful little closed narrative that allows the viewer to join Dad in singing praises for the Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow that “all Americans” have always enjoyed.

Now mind you, I’m not complaining! I love the Disney parks, and the Disney attractions. I expect to hear and see the same thing every time I go in a certain attraction. Like many geeky Disney park fans, I’m irritated when they retire one of my favorite attractions, like Horizons at EPCOT, that was discontinued in 1999.

horizons

Or World of Motion, that was retired in 1996.

motion

I even balk at them tinkering with scenes or narration in attractions. I was shocked—shocked I say!—when  they pulled the authoritative voice of Walter Cronkite from its job guiding me through the Spaceship Earth depiction of the history of communication, and replaced it with a totally unfamiliar voice. I like to become familiar with the narrative…and then keep it permanently!

sphere

spaceship

Yes, I don’t mind that the audio-animatronic white-washed version of history at the Disney parks plays out to a closed narrative. But I AM concerned that it seems “real” history out in the “real” world is mostly treated the same way. I am convinced that what almost everyone does… me included, in the past… with what they learn about American history over the early years of their life is subconsciously construct a cohesive “narrative,” that very early becomes set in concrete. It starts with their earliest memories of historic tidbits in kindergarten such as making “handprint turkey” pictures to go along with the Indian feather headdresses and Pilgrim hats that they make out of construction paper for the class Thanksgiving Play and luncheon.

thanksgiving

The cast of the 5th grade Thanksgiving play at
Santa Ana, CA, Franklin Elementary School in 1931.

It continues as they read simplified stories in their grade school American history textbooks that skim rapidly over the “high points” of “how our country grew.” They may make little Pioneer dioramas with Conestoga Wagons, and read Little House books.

little house

And do projects to help them remember the names and order of the Presidents.

fdr

Woven into all of this is an underlying current of a set of Ideals expressed in our early founding documents, and in such later pronouncements as FDR’s Four Freedoms—Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, equality, the brotherhood of man, freedom from want and fear, freedom of speech and religion. And among it all, the notion that Americans have all been “free to be all that they could be” throughout our history. (Well, at least after the slaves were set free in 1865.) That all it took was strong desire and hard work, and, why, any shoeshine boy might become a titan of industry!

(Which of course reminds me of the Tulsa Riot … which traces back to a story of a shoeshine boy. But doesn’t end up being a success story.)

This closed narrative that we each create in our subconscious, and the snippets of events that go into its construction, is reinforced for most of us throughout our lives by what you might call Civic Public Relations.  Popularized Patriotism. You see it in the attraction “American Aventure” at EPCOT.

american adventure

You see it on floats in Fourth of July parades.

float

If you were around in WW2 you were utterly inundated with patriotic government posters. I even collect (digitally) the old WW1 and WW2 patriotic/propaganda posters and get all misty as I see the stirring messages on them designed to rally the American populace to sacrifice.

poster3

poster2

poster1

(See my growing collection of over 400 posters at this link on Pinterest.)

Yes, don’t get me wrong again …this kind of sentimental patriotism grabs at my heartstrings too. My dad was a WW2 Marine in the South Pacific–Guadalcanal and all that. I boo-hoo when a Marine Corps marching band goes by in a parade stirringly playing some patriotic song like “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”

marines

But in recent years I’ve come to understand that TRUE patriotism does not consist of feelings of pride for everything my country has ever done. It doesn’t consist of a desire to sweep under the carpet all the unpleasant truths about the less noble things that have been done.

My feelings of patriotism, of love of my country, doesn’t rely on me creating an artificial, stunted, closed narrative. My own personal extended family has had all sorts of good guys and bad guys in it. A comprehensive picture album of all of its history would include moments of triumph and moments of ignominy. It didn’t quit being my family when “bad stuff happened.” But neither would I gain any more “love” of my family if I would be able to fool myself that it had nothing but good and glory in its history. What I would do if I tried that would be to lose the integrity and honesty that makes me who I am.

Why should I treat my “American family” and its history any differently? Yet this is what most people do. Including me in the past. I built my understanding of the flow of American history out of a hodgepodge of class lessons, TV shows—anybody remember “You Are There” from the mid-1950s?…

you are there

…museum exhibits, magazine articles, even pop music songs… like “Battle of New Orleans” by Johnny Horton!

I bought into, essentially, an “American mythology.” It was a closed narrative about an America that never really was, outside of on Main Street in Disneyland and WDW Magic Kingdom. And it had given me a warped interpretation about what is going on in America today.

It also gave me a warped perspective on facing any information that I ran across that conflicted with my mythology. This is where the concept of “cognitive dissonance” comes into play. (For a detailed explanation of this psychological theory see the material on my Field Guide to the Wild World of Religion website on the topic.) Basically, this theory explains that when we try to hold two opposing concepts in our mind…when a piece of evidence conflicts with an assumption we have accepted…we experience “dissonance” in our brain. A jangling feeling that something isn’t quite right. It makes us uncomfortable, and we do whatever is necessary to make it stop.

Because our “Prime Directive” is usually to hold on to all of our long-held assumptions, most folks have a couple of main solutions they usually rely on to deal with Cognitive Dissonance. We can “discount” the new information and literally cast it aside, refusing to consider it any more. Or, if we are unable to do that because of some outside pressure forcing us to look at it, we can “make it over” …carving off pieces of it, reshaping it, until it will fit into our assumption system.

Very seldom are people willing to reconsider and make changes directly to one of their assumption systems…whether it is the one about their religious beliefs, about their political beliefs, or any other topic they hold near and dear.  This is either too painful…or too much work.

But there is another solution, and I think it is one that many American citizens who pride themselves on their level of patriotism use when confronted with very unpleasant information about a factor in American History. They quarantine it. We don’t see quarantine used much any longer in our everyday life. But back in the 1940s and before it was quite common to walk along a neighborhood street and see a sign like this on a window or door of a home.

quarantine

The idea was that most of the neighborhood was disease-free. When one person cropped up with a disease, you could take that one person who had the problem and isolate them until they either recovered … or died… from the disease. And everyone else would be just fine.

I believe this may well be how there could have been so much hubbub in the public press around the year 2000 about the Tulsa Riot, and yet a decade later it has gone back into the shadows. I’m pretty sure that if even I had seen one of the History Channel or BBC specials about it, I would have looked at it in fascination—but would have considered it a “historical fluke.” A single, isolated incident of inexplicable violence—horrific, and fascinating in its details. But unrelated to my own “personal narrative” of the history of America.

Oh, I knew about slavery, but that was stopped at the end of the Civil War. I just “assumed” that from then on black people had lots of options in America. Well, yes, from a quite early age I had come to discover that lots of white people were “prejudiced” against black people, especially in the South. I knew they didn’t want to drink out of the same drinking fountain, and insisted that they be segregated into their own schools. But that was all. It seemed unfair to me, but it was just “the way things were.”  Since I grew up in a town in far north Michigan that didn’t even have a single black family, considering the state of racial relations in our country just wasn’t something that came up in daily life. Ever. Not only regarding race relations in the past, but in the present.

Until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s came to national attention in the news because of riots and marches and such, I was pretty much blissfully unaware of the reality of what it REALLY meant to be a “person of color” in America throughout our post-Civil-War history.

By then I had my “narrative” very strongly established. Whatever was going on in Selma or Birmingham seemed to me as a teenager to be just some “current event,” based on some current grievances in limited sections of the country.

And I am convinced that’s how most outsiders may look at the story of the Tulsa Riot/Holocaust of 1921 when they hear of it. They admit it was awful. They declare that the white people involved were cruel. But they blithely assume it was a single event, in a single city in the US, during a single 24 hour period. An anomaly, not a symptom. And one that happened long ago. So it doesn’t really affect the narratives inside most people’s heads about the Land of the Free, the land where everyone has had, ever since the Civil War at least, the right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. And if anyone tried to interfere with those rights, the Good People of America would Put a Stop to It posthaste.

So I’m suspicious that the average American watching a documentary on the History Channel of that infamous day would very quickly “quarantine” the event in their mind. It was a totally unexpected “outbreak” of craziness that was inexplicable. It didn’t connect in any significant way with the flow of America’s history—it was just an isolated incident. Those bad people of Tulsa didn’t reflect on “America” of the time…it was still the America of Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post covers.

dining car

Uh, yeah …Covers that never, ever portrayed a black person, except in a subservient position, clear up into the 1960s. By decree of the publisher.

This is the reason that I have placed the story of the Tulsa Holocaust, this series I’ve titled “Ground Zero,” AFTER several stories of the United States of Lyncherdom. I want to establish beyond a doubt that Tulsa wasn’t a single outbreak of a sickness, that you can safely quarantine in your mind’s history narrative as “not relevant,” that you can place in the dusty museum room of your mind that you label “freaks of history,” just like in P.T. Barnum’s American Museum of the mid-1800s had displays of people and things that were commonly referred to as “freaks of nature.”

barnum

It was a symptom of a plague that was already raging. It wasn’t unique at all. (It was just a bigger outbreak than usual.) And the plague didn’t stop with it at all. And the after effects of that plague still exist to this day. But few are paying any attention, because they are looking at all the wrong symptoms.

The researchers and writers of the Tulsa Riot Commission had great hopes that their efforts would make a difference. Here’s how they expressed it in the end of their report:

To paraphrase Maya Angelou: Our history, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived; but, if faced with courage, it need not be lived again. No matter what else we may do, we will not be whole unless and until we own our past, process it, and integrate its lessons into our present and our vision for the future. Teaching and learning are essential to this process.  So, so true.  This quote needs to be on billboards all over the city of Tulsa.

They had a number of hopes for their efforts. They really did have hope that the government of the city of Tulsa and the State of Oklahoma would realize that MAYBE the few living survivors of the Tulsa Holocaust might merit at least a tiny bit of “reparations,” just a token of the regrets of the community—since, after all, there had been a huge outpouring of civic financial generosity—in the millions of dollars—related to the Oklahoma City bombing. It wouldn’t have cost much to extend such a token.

As the commission submits its report [2001], 118 persons have been identified, contacted, and registered as living survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. (Another 176 persons also have been registered as descendants of riot victims.)

But no, too many in positions of authority decided ANY reparations of any kind might set an unwanted precedent among others with grievances from the past. The number of survivors has no doubt decreased drastically since that time. A baby born that year would now be 92. Any adults would be in their 100s. It would seem that to just extend a hand to the handful left would be a noble deed. But no, it appears that it is not to be, and that all the survivors will just quietly die off.

The authorities have offered a few crumbs of “good will.” Some metal plaques have been installed on sidewalks in the Greenwood area where riot events occurred. (In a black area, where few whites ever go to this day.) A “reconciliation park” has been created connected to a new semi-pro ball park in Tulsa. Although I’m not sure that most people who just go there for a nice picnic connect its existence to an effort at reconciliation between whites and blacks in Tulsa. Especially since most blacks in Tulsa STILL live “across the tracks” in the old Greenwood area, which has been rebuilt—but with none of the pride of its glory days.

One of the only homes remaining in the Greenwood community from the era of the 1920s is the John and Lucy Mackey home. Their wood frame home was burned to the ground during the riot, but they were able to rebound from the loss and build this fine brick home on the same lot in 1926. Amazingly, the Mackey’s were not “wealthy” people at all…they did domestic and yard work for white Tulsans. The home was for decades a source of pride for the local black community.  In 1995, it was incorporated into the plans for a new cultural center located in Greenwood.

john and lucy mackey home

The Greenwood Cultural Center, dedicated on October 22, 1995, was created as a tribute to Greenwood’s history and as a symbol of hope for the community’s future. The center has a museum, an African American art gallery, a large banquet hall, and housed the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame until 2007. The total cost of the center was almost $3 million. [Paid for by a federal “Model Cities” program grant.] The cultural center is a very important part of the reconstruction and unity of the Greenwood Historical District.

The Greenwood Cultural Center sponsors and promotes education and cultural events preserving African American heritage. It also provides positive images of North Tulsa to the community, attracting a wide variety of visitors, not only to the center itself, but also to the city of Tulsa as a whole.

In 2011, the Greenwood Cultural Center lost 100% of its funding from the State of Oklahoma. As a result, the center may be forced to close its doors. A fundraising campaign is now underway to try to raise private funds to keep the educational and cultural facility open. [Source]

The center has provided programs in drama, dancing, music, and the arts for disadvantaged youth in the area for many years. It’s one of the main places preserving in a museum setting the story of the Tulsa Riot—and telling the inspiring story of how much the black community HAD accomplished against the odds back in the period before the Riot. It has served as a gathering place for current residents. But from what I’ve seen on the Internet, it looks like they may lose their battle to remain open.

The flurry of activity around the time of the Riot Commission’s report that led to so much publicity also led to a couple of the main textbook publishers in America adding at least a perfunctory mention of the Riot in their high school history texts. And a number of groups have produced educational resources and materials for teachers who would like to include a “unit” in their social studies or history classes on the topic.

Other than that, I’m convinced that the story of the Riot is mostly going to just slip into the mists of history in the coming years. It doesn’t fit with the standard patriotic narrative.

The patriotic narrative *I* would like to see is one where the noble citizens of our country own up to the darkness in parts of our corporate past, truly and publically repent of the factors that caused the darkness… and the factors that caused the “cover ups.” And then seek true reconciliation among all races as we move together to create the noble nation envisioned by our founders. Where all men truly ARE able to live in a way that reflects their “inalienable rights.” Where FDR’s “Four Freedoms” (from want and fear, for religion and speech) were actually a reality, and we didn’t have to make excuses why… they haven’t been.

I still have hopes that this country could come much closer to living up to the aspirations of its founders.

But if we keep ignoring our past, keep lying to ourselves and others about that past, keep mis-diagnosing our current maladies as having nothing to do with that past, I certainly can’t judge how much hope I ought to have in … those hopes.

For a deeper examination of all of these issues in the light of the Bible, check out the final entry in this Ground Zero series:

Recognition, Admission,
Introspection, and Repentance

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Hidden in Plain Sight (TAS Pt. 8)

Terrorism on American Soil: TAS

Part 8: Hidden in Plain Sight

(Click here to go to the Introduction to this series.)

In 1970, with the fiftieth anniversary of the horrific 1921 Tulsa Holocaust just one year away …

…Larry Silvey, the publications manager at the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce, decided that on the fiftieth anniversary of the riot, the chamber’s magazine should run a story on what had happened. Silvey then contacted Ed Wheeler, the host of ‘The Gilcrease Story,” a popular history program which aired on local radio. Wheeler — who, like Silvey, was white — agreed to research and write the article. Thus, during the winter of 1970-71, Wheeler went to work, interviewing dozens of elderly black and white riot eyewitnesses, and searching through archives in both Tulsa and Oklahoma City for documents pertaining to the riot.

Wheeler received anonymous threats related to his work on this article, but ignored them and finished it. Silvey began preparations to publish it in spring 1971, but once the management within the Chamber of Commerce realized just how pointed the article was going to be—including photographs never before published—they balked and killed the article. Silvey appealed to the board of directors, but they too nixed his plans.

Determined that his efforts should not have been in vain, Wheeler then tried to take his story to Tulsa’s two daily newspapers, but was rebuffed.

In the end, his article — called “Profile of a Race Riot” — was published in Impact Magazine, a new, black-oriented publication edited by a young African American journalist named Don Ross. [Source]

Don Ross was born in Tulsa in 1941. After high school he did a stint in the Air Force, and returned home to a job as a baker. He became involved in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and was at the 1963 “I have a dream” March on Washington. In the early 1970s he helped establish a regional magazine called Impact, modeled on Ebony magazine.

And when Ross published Wheeler’s article…

Ross was quoted in a Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service story, “Both blacks and whites got on my case for causing trouble. I had violated the conspiracy of silence going on for 50 years.”

Ross continued a career and studies in Journalism, and eventually got a master’s degree in Political Science. In 1982 he won a seat in the Tulsa House of Representatives and served there for many terms. He helped push through various civil rights laws. And he led the fight to get the Confederate flag down from its spot flying above the legislature’s building. In 1989 Oklahoma became the first state to take that flag over its government buildings down.

And then there was his central role in bringing the history of the Tulsa Riot to state, national, and international attention:

Ross was the principal organizer of the 75th anniversary commemorations [1996] of the 1921 riot. The ceremony included the dedication of “The Wall Street Memorial,” a ten-foot granite monument inscribed with the names of more than 200 black-owned businesses that were destroyed by the flames.

In 1997, Ross cosponsored legislation to establish the Tulsa Race Riot Commission. “Four years ago, if I had proposed a Tulsa Race Riot Commission, I would have been laughed off the House floor,” Ross commented in the newspaper Tulsa World at the time. “Even though the legislature is more conservative today, there are more people on all sides–including the governor and the mayor–who are pushing for this project and others that would benefit the citizens of north Tulsa [evidently STILL the area where most blacks are centralized in Tulsa, where Greenwood used to stand].” The Tulsa Race Riot Commission, an eleven-member group, was charged with studying the events of the riot, and making recommendations about reparations.

Here is Don Ross, standing at the corner of Archer and Greenwood Streets in North Tulsa, in the heart of what used to be “Black Wallstreet”—before it was burned to the ground by rioters in 1921.

don ross

And that brings us to the details of the Tulsa Race Riot Commission’s work, which has been the source of most of the information in this Ground Zero series. That report was completed in 2001. Here is the preamble to that report:

The 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Commission originated in 1997 with House Joint Resolution No. 1035. … and became law with Governor Frank Keating’s signature on April 6, 2000.

…The statute also charged the commission to produce …”a final report of its findings and recommendations” and to submit that report “in writing to the Governor, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, and the Mayor and each member of the City Council of the City of Tulsa, Oklahoma.” This is that report. It accounts for and completes the work of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Commission.

A series of papers accompanies the report. Some are written by scholars of national stature, others by experts of international acclaim. Each addresses at length and in depth issues of expressed legislative interest and matters of enormous public consequence. As a group, they comprise a uniquely special and a uniquely significant contribution that must be attached to this report and must be studied carefully along with it. [http://www.tulsareparations.org/FinalReport.htm ]

The history of the Tulsa Riot was shrouded in secrecy for so long, that there was considerable concern that the Commission not just do a cursory job, leaving much to continued speculation. If it was to be a document that would speak authoritatively on this event, which has national import as arguably the most vicious act of racial terrorism on American Soil in our history, it needed to be researched and written by scholars with impeccable credentials, with input and oversight by representatives of the Oklahoma government. It was.

…The governor was to appoint six members…Two state officials – the directors of the Oklahoma Human Rights Commission (OHRC) and of the Oklahoma Historical Society (OHS) – also were to serve as ex officio members, either personally or through their designees.

[The Tulsa mayor] was to select the commission’s final three members. … One of the mayor’s appointees had to be “a survivor of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot incident”; two had to be current residents of the historic Greenwood community, the area once devastated by the “incident.”

Governor Frank Keating’s six appointees included two legislators, each from a different chamber, each from an opposite party, each a former history teacher.

The Commission was also granted funds to hire a few expert consultants. The two main ones they chose who worked from a broad perspective were John Hope Franklin and Scott Ellsworth.

… John Hope Franklin is the son of Greenwood attorney B. C. Franklin, a graduate of Tulsa’s Booker T. Washington High School (Fisk and Harvard, too), and James B. Duke Professor of History Emeritus at Duke University. Recipient of scores of academic and literary awards, not to mention more than a hundred honorary doctorates…

[Franklin recommended they include] Dr. Scott Ellsworth, a native Tulsan now living in Oregon…a Duke graduate who already had written a highly regarded study of the riot. [Ellsworth was the author of the extremely detailed description of the Riot that has been quoted throughout this Ground Zero series.]

In addition, they engaged the services of more focused researchers:

Legal scholars, archeologists, anthropologists, forensic specialists, geophysicists – all of these and more blessed this commission with technical expertise impossible to match and unimaginable otherwise. As a research group, they brought a breadth of vision and a depth of training that made Oklahoma’s commission a model of state inquiry.

The reason I take the time to include the information above, which may seem kind of pedantic, is this:

The Tulsa Holocaust was the subject of one of the most thorough, meticulous, scholarly studies done in recent times on a modern historical US event. The resulting reports leave no doubt about the heinous nature of this terrorist act aimed at a whole racial community (not aimed just at a few men with guns who were trying to protect a young man from a lynching!)

This event is not just an historical oddity, a unique situation that exploded “out of nowhere” and whose aftermath was irrelevant. The factors that led to it remain profoundly important in the Tulsa of today. And it was not an event that happened in isolation—it was just the worst of many such events that occurred over decades in the late 1800s and first half of the 20th century, in communities throughout the country. Events which I’m willing to bet most Americans are as unaware of as they have been of the Tulsa Holocaust.

Sample:

Wilmington [NC] Massacre of 1898

Originally labeled a race riot, it is now termed a coup d’etat, as white Democratic insurrectionists overthrew the legitimately elected local government, the only such event in United States history.

In the Wilmington Insurrection, two days after the election of a Fusionist white mayor and biracial city council, Democratic white supremacists illegally seized power from the elected government. More than 1500 white men participated in an attack on the black newspaper, burning down the building. They ran officials and community leaders out of the city, and killed many blacks in widespread attacks, but especially destroyed the [black] Brooklyn neighborhood. They took photographs of each other during the events. The Wilmington Light Infantry (WLI) and federal Naval Reserves, told to quell the riot, used rapid-fire weapons and killed several black men in the Brooklyn neighborhood. Both black and white residents later appealed for help after the riot to President William McKinley, who did not respond. More than 2,000 blacks left the city permanently, turning it from a black-majority to a white-majority city. [Wiki]

wilmington 1898

Armed crowd of white men posing among the ruins

wilmington press fire

Destruction of the Manly printing press for the Wilmington Record on November 10, 1898. Destruction of the printing press was the first violent act by a mob of white supremacists. This newly discovered photograph provides more insight into the day’s activity and an up-close analysis of the men shows a large number of guns, pistols, and the clear destruction of the building. [Source]

wilmington redshirts

Group of Red Shirts, a white paramilitary group, posing at the polls.

And here is a first-person account of that event.

What appears below is a rare eyewitness account provided by Rev. Charles S. Morris who became one of the refugees from the city. Morris provided the account in a speech in January 1899 before the International Association of Colored Clergymen meeting in Boston.

Nine Negroes massacred outright; a score wounded and hunted like partridges on the mountain; one man, brave enough to fight against such odds would be hailed as a hero anywhere else, was given the privilege of running the gauntlet up a broad street, where he sank ankle deep in the sand, while crowds of men lined the sidewalks and riddled him with a pint of bullets as he ran bleeding past their doors; another Negro shot twenty times in the back as he scrambled empty handed over a fence; thousands of women and children fleeing in terror from their humble homes in the darkness of the night, out under a gray and angry sky, from which falls a cold and bone chilling rain, out to the dark and tangled ooze of the swamp amid the crawling things of night, fearing to light a fire, startled at every footstep, cowering, shivering, shuddering, trembling, praying in gloom and terror: half clad and barefooted mothers, with their babies wrapped only in a shawl, whimpering with cold and hunger at their icy breasts, crouched in terror from the vengeance of those who, in the name of civilization, and with the benediction of the ministers of the Prince of Peace, inaugurated the reformation of the city of Wilmington the day after the election by driving out one set of white office holders and filling their places with another set of white office holders—the one being Republican and the other Democrat.

All this happened, not in Turkey, nor in Russia, nor in Spain, not in the gardens of Nero, nor in the dungeons of Torquemada, but within three hundred miles of the White House, in the best State in the South, within a year of the twentieth century, while the nation was on its knees thanking God for having enabled it to break the Spanish yoke from the neck of Cuba. This is our civilization. This is Cuba’s kindergarten of ethics and good government. This is Protestant religion in the United States, that is planning a wholesale missionary crusade against Catholic Cuba. This is the golden rule as interpreted by the white pulpit of Wilmington. [Source]

Or how about a few years later in East St. Louis, Illinois:

The East St. Louis Riot (May and July 1917) was an outbreak of labor- and race-related violence that caused between 40 and 200 deaths and extensive property damage. East St. Louis, Illinois, is an industrial city on the east bank of the Mississippi River across from St. Louis, Missouri. It was the worst incidence of labor-related violence in 20th-century American history, and one of the worst race riots in U.S. history. [Source]

In the East St Louis Riot over 300 homes and buildings were destroyed, 6000 blacks left homeless, many dead or injured.

east st louis 1917

east st louis2

east st louis3And two years later there was the Chicago Riot:

The Chicago Race Riot of 1919 was a major racial conflict that began in Chicago, Illinois on July 27, 1919 and ended on August 3.During the riot, dozens died and hundreds were injured. It is considered the worst of the approximately 25 riots during the Red Summer, so named because of the violence and fatalities across the nation. The combination of prolonged [white on black] arson, looting and murder was the worst race rioting in the history of Illinois. [Source]

chicago1919

A white gang looking for African Americans during the Chicago Race Riot of 1919.

chicago19192

Black Victim Stoned to Death, Chicago Race Riots, July 1919

chicago19193

A group of white men and boys standing on the sidewalk in front of a house vandalized in the race riots of July-August, 1919, in Chicago, Illinois. The windows of the house are broken and the front steps are torn off.

Yes, the Tulsa Holocaust was by no means unique, just more wide-ranging in its destruction than most of the others.

The lessons the Tulsa event offers are relevant to the whole United States of America, of both the present and the future.

As the Commission’s final report noted:

Many have questioned why or even if anyone would be interested now in events that happened in one city, one time, one day, long ago. What business did today’s state lawmakers have in something so old, so local, and so deservedly forgotten? Surely no one cares, not anymore.

An answer comes from hundreds and hundreds of voices. They tell us that what happened in 1921 in Tulsa is as alive today as it was back then. What happened in Tulsa stays as important and remains as unresolved today as in 1921. What happened there still exerts its power over people who never lived in Tulsa at all.

How else can one explain the thousands of hours volunteered by hundreds of people, all to get this story told and get it told right? How else can one explain the regional, national, even international attention that has been concentrated on a few short hours of a mid-sized city’s history? As the introductory paper by Drs. Franklin and Ellsworth recounts, the Tulsa disaster went largely unacknowledged for a half-century or more. After a while, it was largely forgotten.

Eventually it became largely unknown. So hushed was mention of the subject that many pronounced it the final victim of a conspiracy, this a conspiracy of silence.

That silence is shattered, utterly and permanently shattered. What ever else this commission has achieved or will achieve, it already has made that possible. Regional, national, and international media made it certain. The Dallas Morning News, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, National Public Radio (NPR), every American broadcast television network, cable outlets delivering Cinemax and the History Channel to North America, the British Broadcasting Corporation – this merely begins the attention that the media focused upon this commission and its inquiry. Many approached it in depth (NPR twice has made it the featured daily broadcast). Most returned to it repeatedly (the New York Times had carried at least ten articles as of February 2000). All considered it vital public information.

…Here is the point: The 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Commission is pleased to report that this past tragedy has been extensively aired, that it is now remembered, and that it will never again be unknown.

What I find profoundly sad is that, in spite of that flurry of media attention during a brief period around the year 2000, I personally STILL never heard of the event until stumbling across information about it when looking up a related topic a few weeks ago. Nor had any of my friends whom I have asked about it ever heard about it. They are all educated people, some of them avid history fans. They watch the history channel. Some tune in NPR.

So the reality is, although the information is now “out there in plain sight” all over the Internet IF you know where to look…I’m pretty sure the vast majority of the populace still are utterly unaware. Not unaware of just this single event, but of the whole sickening, wide-spread pattern of rabid racial hatred, public terrorism against blacks, and the whole litany of hideous, vicious public lynchings—including multiple burnings alive at the stake!—that characterized a whole swath of many decades of our history long after the end of the institution of slavery.

How can this be? I have a theory to answer that question. It’s related to a concept I’ve mentioned before in this blog. And you can read about it in the next entry in this series:

Disneyfication of History

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Cold Case File (TAS Pt. 7)

Terrorism on American Soil: TAS

Part 7: Cold Case File

(Click here to go to the Introduction to this series.)

okc bombing

For many Oklahomans, there has never been a darker day than April 19, 1995. At two minutes past nine o’clock that morning, when the northern face of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City was blown inward by the deadliest act of terrorism ever to take place on American soil, lives were shattered, lives were lost, and the history of the state would never again be the same.

One-hundred-sixty-eight Oklahomans died that day. They were black and white, Native American and Hispanic, young and old. And during the weeks that followed, we began to learn a little about who they were. We learned about Colton and Chase Smith, brothers aged two and three, and how they loved their playmates at the daycare center. We learned about Captain Randy Guzman, U.S.M.C., and how he had commanded troops during Operation Desert Storm, and we learned about Wanda Lee Howell, who always kept a Bible in her purse. And we learned about Cartney Jean McRaven, a nineteen-year-old Air Force enlistee who had been married only four days earlier.

The Murrah Building bombing is, without any question, one of the great tragedies of Oklahoma history. And well before the last memorial service was held for the last victim, thousands of Oklahomans made it clear that they wanted what happened on that dark day to be remembered. For upon the chain-link fence surrounding the bomb site there soon appeared a makeshift memorial of the heart — of teddy bears and handwritten children’s prayers, key rings and dreamcatchers, flowers and flags.

okcfence1

Now, with the construction and dedication of the Oklahoma City National Memorial, there is no doubt but that both the victims and the lessons of April 19, 1995 will not be forgotten.  [Source: History Knows No Fences; this is the source for most of the quotations in this blog entry, except when otherwise noted. It will be abbreviated HKNF.]

Wikipedia describes the elaborate and expensive Memorial:

okc1

For two years after the bombing the only memorials to the victims were plush toys, crucifixes, letters, and other personal items left by thousands of people at a security fence surrounding the site of the building. [That fence, as seen below, was moved and is  now part of the permanent memorial.]

okcfence

Many suggestions for suitable memorials were sent to Oklahoma City, but an official memorial planning committee was not set up until early 1996, when the Murrah Federal Building Memorial Task Force, composed of 350 members, was set up to formulate plans for a memorial to commemorate the victims of the bombing.On July 1, 1997 the winning design was chosen unanimously by a 15-member panel from 624 submissions. The memorial was designed at a cost of $29 million, which was raised by public and private funds. The memorial is part of the National Park Service and was designed by Oklahoma City architects Hans and Torrey Butzer and Sven Berg. It was dedicated by President Clinton on April 19, 2000, exactly five years after the bombing.Within the first year, it had 700,000 visitors.

.. An observance is held each year to remember the victims of the bombing. An annual marathon draws thousands, and allows runners to sponsor a victim of the bombing. For the tenth anniversary of the bombing, the city held 24 days of activities, including a week-long series of events known as the National Week of Hope from April 17 to April 24, 2005.As in previous years, the tenth anniversary of the bombing observances began with a service at 9:02 am CST, marking the moment the bomb went off, with the traditional 168 seconds of silence—one second for each person who was killed as a result of the blast. The service also included the traditional reading of the names, read by children to symbolize the future of Oklahoma City.

okc2

Vice President Dick Cheney, former president Clinton, Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry, Frank Keating, Governor of Oklahoma at the time of the bombing, and other political dignitaries attended the service and gave speeches in which they emphasized that “goodness overcame evil”. The relatives of the victims and the survivors of the blast also made note of it during the service at First United Methodist Church in Oklahoma City.

President George W. Bush made note of the anniversary in a written statement, part of which echoed his remarks on the execution of Timothy McVeigh in 2001: “For the survivors of the crime and for the families of the dead the pain goes on.”

Yes, the Oklahoma City bombing put Oklahoma “on the map” as one of the icons of American History from then on. It was allegedly the Ground Zero of the “first terrorist act on American soil.” And words at the Memorial site insist it must not and will not be forgotten

okcjustice

okc3

Of course, if you’ve been following this blog series, you realize this “first terrorist act” is a mis-nomer. (If you have NOT been following it, you REALLY need to start with the Introduction before you read this entry! REALLY. Seriously.)

But what would have come as a surprise to most of the state’s citizens during the sad spring of 1995 was that there were, among them, other Oklahomans who carried within their hearts the painful memories of an equally dark, though long ignored, day in our past. For seventy-three years before the Murrah Building was bombed, the city of Tulsa erupted into a firestorm of hatred and violence that is perhaps unequaled in the peacetime history of the United States. [HKNF]

crop hiroshima like

Not just one building went up in flames on that day, but 1,256 homes, a hospital, a library, a whole business district, and more. And likely as many or more people were injured or died that day (conservative estimates are close to 100 dead, some documentation indicates it may have been closer to 300, with numerous injured) as on the day of the Oklahoma City bombing.

By any standard, the Tulsa race riot of 1921 is one of the great tragedies of Oklahoma history. Walter White, one of the nation’s foremost experts on racial violence, who visited Tulsa during the week after the riot, was shocked by what had taken place. “I am able to state,” he said, “that the Tulsa riot, in sheer brutality and willful destruction of life and property, stands without parallel in America.”

But the aftermath of this act of terror and hatred yielded no “makeshift memorial of the heart — of teddy bears and handwritten children’s prayers, key rings and dreamcatchers, flowers and flags.” It merited no $29 million “memorial.”  No presidential visits, no annual memorial marathon.

And, in fact, it didn’t even merit public mention locally or nationally, after the short burst of news reports at the time, for almost 75 years after the event. It was as if it had never happened. The protestations at the Oklahoma City Memorial that justice for such heinous acts is “required by the Courts, the Victims seek it, God demands it”  ring hollow, for evidently justice is “required” for only a certain class of heinous acts.

For decades afterwards, Oklahoma newspapers rarely mentioned the riot, the state’s historical establishment essentially ignored it, and entire generations of Oklahoma school children were taught little or nothing about what had happened. To be sure, the riot was still a topic of conversation, particularly in Tulsa. But these discussions — whether among family or friends, in barber shops or on the front porch — were private affairs. And once the riot slipped from the headlines, its public memory also began to fade.

I suppose at least on the national “popular news media” level this was entirely understandable. Even today, yesterday’s “biggest news story ever” becomes “stale news” by next week. And thus it was with the Tulsa Holocaust. At first it was even an international story:

The riot, when it happened, was front-page news across America. “85 WHITES AND NEGROES DIE IN TULSA RIOTS” ran the headline in the June 2, 1921 edition of the New York Times, while dozens of other newspapers across the country published lead stories about the riot. Indeed, the riot was even news overseas, “FIERCE OUTBREAK IN OKLAHOMA” declared The Times of London.

But something else happened as well. For in the days and weeks that followed the riot, editorial writers from coast-to-coast unleashed a torrent of stinging condemnations of what had taken place. “The bloody scenes at Tulsa, Oklahoma,” declared the Philadelphia Bulletin, “are hardly conceivable as happening in American civilization of the present day.” For the Kentucky State Journal, the riot was nothing short of “An Oklahoma Disgrace,” while the Kansas City Journal was revolted at what it called the “Tulsa Horror”. From both big-city dailies and small town newspapers — from the Houston Post and Nashville Tennessean to the tiny Times of Gloucester, Massachusetts — came a chorus of criticism. The Christian Recorder even went so far as to declare that “Tulsa has become a name of shame upon America.”

Of course it is logical that this news would quickly fade in New York and London as soon as other news stories of interest to the locals there became “hot.” But how—and why—was it seemingly so quickly forgotten even in Tulsa, where the skyline of “Black Wall Street,” of the community of Greenwood, which had been just down the street from Main Street Tulsa for many years, was suddenly gone? I guess the local view of the charred landscape of crumbling buildings and missing homes was somewhat like the proverbial “elephant in the living room” that everyone knows is there, but all pretend it ISN’T.

elephant

For many Oklahomans, and particularly for whites in positions of civic responsibility, such sentiments [as those expressed in the screaming headlines of June 1921] were most unwelcome. For regardless of what they felt personally about the riot, in a young state [statehood had come in 1907] where attracting new businesses and new settlers was a top priority, it soon became evident that the riot was a public relations nightmare. Nowhere was this felt more acutely than in Tulsa. “I suppose Tulsa will get a lot of unpleasant publicity from this affair,” wrote one Tulsa-based petroleum geologist to family members back East. [“This affair” … what a mind-bogglingly shallow term to use for a holocaust…] Reverend Charles W. Kerr, of the city’s all-white First Presbyterian Church, added his own assessment. “For 22 years I have been boosting Tulsa,” he said, “and we have all been boosters and boasters about our buildings, bank accounts and other assets, but the events of the past week will put a stop to the bragging for a while.” For some, and particularly for Tulsa’s white business and political leaders, the riot soon became something best to be forgotten, something to be swept well beneath history’s carpet.

What is remarkable, in retrospect, is the degree to which this nearly happened.

… Nowhere was this historical amnesia more startling than in Tulsa itself, especially in the city’s white neighborhoods. “For a while,” noted former Tulsa oilman Osborn Campbell, “picture postcards of the victims in awful poses were sold on the streets,” while more than one white ex-rioter “boasted about how many notches he had on his gun.” But the riot, which some whites saw as a source of local pride, in time more generally came to be regarded as a local embarrassment. Eventually, Osborn added, “the talk stopped.”

Part of it was that white Tulsans “passively” quit talking about it, hoping it would fade away on its own. This included the local paper:

During the mid-1930s, the Tulsa Tribune — the city’s afternoon daily newspaper — ran a regular feature on it editorial page called “Fifteen Years Ago.” Drawn from back issues of the newspaper, the column highlighted events which had happened in Tulsa on the same date fifteen years earlier, including local news stories, political tidbits, and society gossip. But when the fifteenth anniversary of the race riot arrived in early June, 1936, the Tribune ignored it completely.

Instead they listed “news stories” such as:

“FIFTEEN YEARS AGO

Miss Carolyn Skelly was a charming young hostess of the past week, having entertained at a luncheon and theater party for Miss Kathleen Sinclair and her guest, Miss Julia Morley of Saginaw, Mich. Corsage bouquets of Cecil roses and sweet peas were presented to the guests, who were Misses Claudine Miller, Martha Sharpe, Elizabeth Cook, Jane Robinson, Pauline Wood, Marie Constantin, Irene Buel, Thelma Kennedy, Ann Kennedy, Naomi Brown, Jane Wallace and Edith Smith.

…Central high school’s crowning social event of the term just closed was the senior prom in the gymnasium with about 200 guests in attendance. The grand march was led by Miss Sara Little and Seth Hughes.

Miss Vera Gwynne will leave next week for Chicago to enter the University of Chicago where she will take a course in kindergarten study.”

And by ten years later the amnesia was evidently complete.

Ten years later, in 1946, by which time the Tribune had added a “Twenty-Five Years Ago” feature, the newspaper once again avoided mentioning the riot. It was as if the greatest catastrophe in the city’s history simply had not happened at all.

But the “circle of silence” wasn’t all exactly “passive”…

When Nancy Feldman moved to Tulsa during the spring of 1946, she had never heard of the Tulsa race riot. A Chicagoan, and a new bride, she accepted a position teaching sociology at the University of Tulsa. But trained in social work, she also began working with the City Health Department, where she came into contact with Robert Fairchild, a recreation specialist who was also one of Tulsa’s handful of African American municipal employees. A riot survivor, Fairchild told Feldman of his experiences during the disaster, which made a deep impression on the young sociologist, who decided to share her discovery with her students.

But as it turned out, Feldman also soon learned something else, namely, that learning about the riot, and teaching about it, were two entirely different propositions. “During my first months at TU,” she later recalled:

“I mentioned the race riot in class one day and was surprised at the universal surprise among my students. No one in this all- white classroom of both [World War 2] veterans, who were older, and standard 18-year-old freshmen, had ever heard of it, and some stoutly denied it and questioned my facts.”

“I invited Mr. Fairchild to come to class and tell of his experience, walking along the railroad tracks to Turley with his brothers and sister. Again, there was stout denial and, even more surprising, many students asked their parents and were told, no, there was no race riot at all. I was called to the Dean’s office and advised to drop the whole subject.”

“The next semester, I invited Mr. Fairchild to come to class. Several times the Dean warned me about this. I do not believe I ever suffered from this exercise of my freedom of speech . . . but as a very young and new instructor, I certainly felt threatened.”

For Feldman, such behavior amounted to nothing less than “Purposeful blindness and memory blocking.” Moreover, she discovered, it was not limited to the classroom. “When I would mention the riot to my white friends, few would talk about it. And they certainly didn’t want to.”

There were no doubt many incidents like this. Here’s one other:

When Nancy Dodson, a Kansas native who later taught at Tulsa Junior College, moved to Tulsa in 1950, she too discovered that, at least in some parts of the white community, the riot was a taboo subject. “I was admonished not to mention the riot almost upon our arrival,” she later recalled, “Because of shame, I thought. But the explanation was ‘you don’t want to start another.’ ”

And on the more “official level” …

… during the summer of 1957, when the city celebrated its “Tulsarama” – a week-long festival commemorating the semi-centennial of Oklahoma statehood — the riot was, once again, ignored. … the Tulsa race riot was fast becoming little more than a historical inconvenience, something, perhaps, that ought not be discussed at all.

As would be naturally expected, the discussion of the events never really died out among those remnants of Tulsa’s black population who decided to stay and try to rebuild some semblance of a black community in the old area where thriving Greenwood had once been. And over the years, there were efforts by independent researchers to tap into the memories of those folks, as well as dig into the paper trail of the 1921 event itself. They never got widespread attention for their work, but they did manage to amass an amazing collection of photos, interviews with survivors, and documentation from police, Red Cross, National Guard, and other records. A few scholarly papers and even a book or two were produced, but none that caught public attention.

Things began changing just a tiny bit in the 1950s and beyond.

For as the national debate over race relations intensified with the emergence of the modem civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Tulsa’s own racial customs were far from static. As the city began to address issues arising out of school desegregation, sit-ins, job bias, housing discrimination, urban renewal, and white flight, there were those who believed that Tulsa’s racial past — and particularly the race riot — needed to be openly confronted.

Few felt this as strongly as those who had survived the tragedy itself, and on the evening of June 1, 1971, dozens of African American riot survivors gathered at Mount Zion Baptist Church for a program commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the riot. Led by W.D. Williams, a longtime Booker T. Washington High School history teacher, whose family had suffered immense property loss during the violence, the other speakers that evening included fellow riot survivors Mable B. Little, who had lost both her home and her beauty shop during the conflagration, and E.L. Goodwin, Sr., the publisher of the Oklahoma Eagle, the city’s black newspaper. Although the audience at the ceremony — which included a handful of whites — was not large, the event represented the first public acknowledgment of the riot in decades.

Yes, it took fifty years for even the tiniest squeak of a “public acknowledgment.” But even that was overshadowed by the continuing conspiracy of silence. Which took a nasty turn that same year, 1971.

But another episode that same spring also revealed just how far that Tulsa, when it came to owning up to the race riot, still had to go. The previous autumn, Larry Silvey, the publications manager at the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce, decided that on the fiftieth anniversary of the riot, the chamber’s magazine should run a story on what had happened. Silvey then contacted Ed Wheeler, the host of ‘The Gilcrease Story,” a popular history program which aired on local radio. Wheeler — who, like Silvey, was white — agreed to research and write the article. Thus, during the winter of 1970-71, Wheeler went to work, interviewing dozens of elderly black and white riot eyewitnesses, and searching through archives in both Tulsa and Oklahoma City for documents pertaining to the riot.

But something else happened as well. For on two separate occasions that winter, Wheeler was approached by white men, unknown to him, who warned him, “Don’t write that story.” Not long thereafter, Wheeler’s home telephone began ringing at all hours of the day and night, and one morning he awoke to find that someone had taken a bar of soap and scrawled across the front windshield of his car, “Best check under your hood from now on.”

But Ed Wheeler was a poor candidate for such scare tactics. A former United States Army infantry officer, the incidents only angered him. Moreover, he was now deep into trying to piece together the history of the riot, and was not about to be deterred. But to be on the safe side, he sent his wife and young son to live with his mother-in-law.

Despite the harassment, Wheeler completed his article and Larry Silvey was pleased with the results. However, when Silvey began to lay out the story — complete with never-before- published photographs of both the riot and its aftermath chamber of commerce management killed the article. Silvey appealed to the chamber’s board of directors, but they, too, refused to allow the story to be published.

Determined that his efforts should not have been in vain, Wheeler then tried to take his story to Tulsa’s two daily newspapers, but was rebuffed.

So once again, “white Tulsa” was protected from having to face its ugly past. Wheeler finally got his major article published, but not by the white establishment.

In the end, his article — called “Profile of a Race Riot” — was published in Impact Magazine, a new, black-oriented publication edited by a young African American journalist named Don Ross.

This Don Ross was eventually to change the history of history in Tulsa. But it took another 25 years to pull that off. Read the details in the next entry in the Ground Zero blog series.

Hidden in Plain Sight

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Holocaust (TAS Pt. 6)

Terrorism on American Soil: TAS

Part 6: Holocaust

(Click here to go to the Introduction to this series.)

fires rage

It is now mid-morning on June 1, 1921, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. A massive number of armed white male citizens of Tulsa, numbering likely somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000, have stormed the African American community of Greenwood in North Tulsa. They are systematically driving people from their homes, pillaging items of value from each house and then setting it aflame, to burn to the ground. Virtually all buildings in the business district have been torched, and around the city churches, a hospital, and more are destroyed. Young and old men and women, along with children, are fleeing when possible amid gunfire from every direction. Many are being taken into custody and marched to “internment centers” to the south in Tulsa. Many are injured or dead from the gunfire.

As the morning wore on, and the fighting moved northward across Greenwood, there was a startling new development. On the heels of their brief gun battle with African American riflemen to their north, the guardsmen who were positioned along the crest of Sunset Hill then joined in the invasion of black Tulsa, with one detachment heading north, the other to the northeast. As later described by Captain John W. McCuen in the after action report he submitted to the commander of Tulsa’s National Guard units:

“We advanced to the crest of Sunset Hill in skirmish line and then a little further north to the military crest of the hill where our men were ordered to lie down because of the intense fire of the blacks who had formed a good skirmish line at the foot of the hill to the northeast among the out-buildings of the Negro settlement which stops at the foot of the hill. After about 20 minutes “fire at will” at the armed groups of blacks the latter began falling back to the northeast, thus getting good cover among the frame buildings of the Negro settlement. Immediately we moved forward, “B” Company advancing directly north and the Service company in a north-easterly direction.

More remarkable, the guardsmen came upon a group of African Americans barricaded inside a store, who were attempting to hold off a mob of armed white rioters. Rather than attempt to get the white invaders and the black defenders to disengage, the guardsmen joined in on the attack. Again, as described by Captain McCuen:

“At the northeast corner of the Negro settlement 10 or more Negroes barricaded themselves in a concrete store and dwelling and a stiff fight ensued between these Negroes on one side and guardsmen and civilians on the other. Several whites and blacks were wounded and killed at this point. We captured, arrested and disarmed a great many Negro men in this settlement and then sent them under guard to the convention hall and other points where they were being concentrated.

No longer remotely impartial, the men of “B” Company, Third Infantry, Oklahoma National Guard, had now joined in on the assault on black Tulsa.

As African Americans fled the city, new dangers sometimes appeared. Mary Parrish later reported that as the group of refugees she was with “had traveled many miles into the country and were turning to find our way to Claremore,” they were warned to stay clear of a nearby town, where whites were “treating our people awfully mean as they passed through”. Similar stories have persisted for decades. [SOURCE: unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this entry are from this source.].

But right in the middle of all of this psychopathic insanity, there were angels of mercy arising!  Here are just a few of their stories.

Not all white Tulsans, however, shared the racial views of the white rioters. Mary Korte, a white maid who worked for a wealthy Tulsa family, hid African American refugees at her family’s farm east of the city.

Along the road to Sand Springs, a white couple named Merrill and Ruth Phelps hid and fed black riot victims in the basement of their home for days. The Phelps home, which still stands, became something of a “safe house” for black Tulsans who had managed not to be imprisoned by the white authorities. Traveling through the woods and along creek beds at night, dozens of African American refugees were apparently hidden by the Phelpses during the daylight hours.

Other white Tulsans also hid blacks, or directly confronted the white rioters. Mary Jo Erhardt, a young stenographer who roomed at the Y.W.C.A. Building at Fifth and Cheyenne, did both. After a sleepless night, punctuated by the sounds of gunfire, Erhardt arose early on the morning of June 1. Heading downstairs, she then heard a voice she recognized as belonging to the African American porter who worked there. “Miss Mary! Oh, Miss Mary!” he said, “Let me in quick.” Armed whites, he told her, were chasing him. Quickly secreting the man inside the building’s walk-in refrigerator, Erhardt later recalled,

“Hardly had I hidden him behind the beef carcasses and returned to the hall door when a loud pounding at the service entrance drew me there. A large man was trying to open the door, fortunately securely locked, and there on the stoop stood three very rough-looking middle-aged white men, each pointing a revolver in my general direction!”

“What do you want?” I asked sharply. Strangely, those guns frightened me not at all. I was so angry I could have torn those ruffians apart-three armed white men chasing one lone, harmless Negro. I cannot recall in all my life feeling hatred toward any person, until then. Apparently my feelings did not show, for one answered, “Where did he go?” “Where did WHO go?”, I responded.

“That nigger,” one demanded, “did you let him in here?”

“Mister,” I said, “I’m not letting ANYBODY in here!,” which was perfectly true. I had already let in all I intended.

“It was at least ten minutes before I felt secure enough to release Jack,” Erhardt added, “He was nearly frozen, dressed thinly as he was for the hot summer night, but he was ALIVE!”

Shown below are the Zarrow family, owners of a grocery store in the riot-torn area. It was spared because they were white. They hid many of the fleeing blacks in their building.

zarrow

Some whites, in their efforts to protect black Tulsans from harm put themselves at risk. None, perhaps, more so than a young Hispanic woman named Maria Morales Gutierrez. A recent immigrant from Mexico, she and her husband were living, at the time of the riot, in a small house off Peoria Avenue, near Independence Street. Hearing a great deal of noise and commotion on the morning of June 1, Morales ventured outside, where she saw two small African American children, who had evidently been separated from their parents, walking along the street. Suddenly, an airplane appeared on the horizon, bearing down on the two frightened youngsters. Morales ran out into the street, and scooped the little ones into her arms, and out of danger.

A group of armed whites later demanded that Morales hand the two terrified children over to them. “In her English, she told them ‘No’,” her daughter Gloria Lough, later recalled. “Somehow or other,” she added, “they didn’t shoot her.” The youngsters were safe.

But unfortunately, these angels of mercy seem to have been few and far between.

As the battle for black Tulsa continued to rage, it soon became evident, even in neighborhoods far removed from the fighting, that on June 1, 1921, there would be very little business as usual in the city of Tulsa. When Guy Ashby, a young white employee at Cooper’s Grocery on Fourteenth Street, showed up for work that morning, his boss was on his way out the door. “The boss told me there would be no work that day as he was declaring it ‘Nigger Day’ and he was going hunting niggers,” Ashby later remembered, “He took a rifle and told me to lock up the store and go home.”

You would think that since there is no evidence at all of negroes entering white neighborhoods or the business district of Tulsa armed and hostile on June 1, that all “rounding up” of blacks was going on in Greenwood. You would be mistaken.

The riot was felt along the southern edge of the city as well, particularly in the well-to- do white neighborhoods off of 21st Street, as carloads of armed white vigilantes went door to door, rounding up live-in African American cooks, maids, and butlers at gunpoint, and then hauling them off toward downtown. A number of white homeowners, however, fearing for the safety of their black employees, stood in the way of this forced evacuation. When Charles and Amy Arnold refused to hand over their housekeeper, cries of being “nigger lovers” were followed by a brick being thrown through their front window.

Finally, at 9:15 AM the REAL National Guard arrived.

state troops

The soldiers, who arrived armed and in uniform, were all-members of an Oklahoma City based National Guard unit. In Tulsa, they soon became known, by both blacks and whites, as the “State Troops,” a term which had the intrinsic benefit of helping to distinguish the out-of-towners from the local National Guard units. Like the local guardsmen, the State Troops were also all-white.

…By the time the State Troops arrived, Tulsa’s devastating racial conflagration was already ten and one-half hours old. Dozens of blacks and whites had been killed, while the wards of the city’s four remaining hospitals — the all-black Frissell Memorial Hospital had already been burned to the ground by white rioters — were filled with the wounded. Most of the city’s African American district had already been torched, while looting continued in those black homes and businesses that were still standing.

And it was too late for them to stop many of the atrocities that had occurred, such as this one reported later by E.W. “Gene” Maxey of the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Department:

“About 8 a.m. on the morning of June 1, 1921,” Maxey told riot chronicler Ruth Avery, “I was downtown with a friend when they killed that good, old, colored man that was blind. He had amputated legs. His body was attached at the hips to a small wooden platform with wheels. One leg stub was longer than the other, and hung slightly over the edge of the platform, dragging along the street. He scooted his body around by shoving and pushing with his hands covered with baseball catcher mitts. He supported himself by selling pencils to passersby, or accepting their donations for his singing of songs.”

How was he killed?  Some public psychopaths put a rope around the old man’s stump and tied the other end to their car.

“They went on all the speed that the car could make,” Maxey added, “. . . a new car, with the top down, and 3 or 4 of them in it, dragging him behind the car in broad daylight on June 1, right through the center of town on Main Street.”

The police and “local” National Guard couldn’t be expected to intervene in such insanity, of course … they were busy in Greenwood.

When the State Troops arrived in Tulsa, the majority of the city’s black citizenry had either fled to the countryside, or were being held — allegedly for their own protection — against their will in one of a handful of hastily set-up internment centers, including Convention Hall, the fairgrounds, and McNulty baseball park. There were still, however, some pockets of armed black resistance to the remnants of the white invasion, especially along the northern reaches of the African American district. In certain borderline areas such as the residential neighborhood that lay just to the east of the Santa Fe tracks where the Jim Crow line ran right down the center of the street, a number of African American homes had escaped destruction, sometimes through the efforts of sympathetic white neighbors.

wealthy home
“Remarkably, a handful of Tulsa’s finest African-American homes were still standing when the State Troops arrived in town. But about one-hour later, a small group of white men were seen entering the houses, and setting them on fire. By the time the State Troops marched up Standpipe Hill, it was too late, the homes were gone (Courtesy Tulsa Historical Society).”

As it turned out, while the State Troops were occupied downtown [dealing with “legal” issues involved in declaring martial law], not far away, some of the finest African American homes in the city were still standing. Located along North Detroit Avenue, near Easton, they included the homes of some of Tulsa’s most prominent black citizens, among them the residences of Tulsa Star editor A.J. Smitherman, Booker T. Washington High School principal Ellis W. Woods, and businessman Thomas R. Gently and his wife, Lottie.

For several hours that morning, John A. Oliphant a white attorney who lived nearby, had been telephoning police headquarters in an effort to save these homes, that had been looted but not burned. Oliphant believed that a handful of officers, if sent over immediately, could see to it that the homes were spared. As he later recounted in sworn testimony:

Q. …when you phoned the police station what reply did you get?

A. …somebody in there, I thought I knew the voice but I am not certain, he said, I will do the best I can for you.” I told him who I was, I wanted some policemen, I says, “If you will send me ten policemen I will protect all this property and save a million dollars worth of stuff they were burning down and looting.” I asked the fire department for the fire department to be sent over to help protect my property and they said they couldn’t come, they wouldn’t let them.

Oliphant’s hopes were raised, however, when he observed the arrival of the State Troops, figuring that they might be able to save the homes along North Detroit. “I sent for them,” he testified, “I sent for the militia to come, send over fifteen or twenty of them, that is all I wanted.” But, instead, at around 10:15 a.m. or 10:30 a.m., a party of three or four white men, probably so-called “Special Deputies,” each wearing badges arrived, and then set fire to one of the very homes that Oliphant had been trying to protect. By the time the State Troops arrived in the neighborhood later that morning, it was too late. Most of the homes were already on fire.

There were a few, very few, that actually did escape burning. Although I doubt any escaped pillaging.

One of the few that was not [burned] belonged to Dr. Robert Bridgewater and his wife, Mattie, at 507 N. Detroit. Returning to his home — after being held at Convention Hall — in order to retrieve his medicine cases, Dr. Bridgewater later wrote,

“On reaching the house, I saw my piano and all of my elegant furniture piled in the street. My safe had been broken open, all of the money stolen, also my silverware, cut glass, all of the family clothes, and everything of value had been removed, even my family Bible. My electric light fixtures were broken, all of the window lights and glass in the doors were broken, the dishes that were not stolen were broken, the floors were covered (literally speaking) with glass, even the phone was torn from the wall.”

The Bridgewaters, as they well knew, were among the fortunate few. Most black Tulsans no longer had homes anymore.

all that was left

Martial law was finally declared in Tulsa County on June 1 at 11:29 AM.

Following the declaration of martial law, the State Troops began to move into what little remained of Tulsa’s African American neighborhoods, disarming whites and sending them away from the district. After the riot, a number of black Tulsans strongly condemned, in no uncertain terms, the actions of both the Tulsa Police Department and the local National Guard units during the conflict. However, the State Troops were largely praised. “Everyone with whom I met was loud in praise of the State Troops who so gallantly came to the rescue of stricken Tulsa,” wrote Mary Parrish, “They used no partiality in quieting the disorder. It is the general belief that if they had reached the scene sooner, many lives and valuable property would have been saved.”

But they hadn’t. Greenwood was gone.

Additional detachments of State Troops from other Oklahoma cities and towns arrived in Tulsa throughout June 1, and with their help, the streets were eventually cleared. All businesses were ordered to close by 6:00 p.m. One hour later, only members of the military or civil authorities, physicians, or relief workers were allowed on the streets. It was later claimed that by 8:00 p.m. on the evening of June 1, order had been restored. The Tulsa race riot was over.

But the suffering of the survivors was just beginning. When the blacks straggled back to the neighborhoods of Greenwood after being released from “protective custody” in the concentration camps…

What they found was a blackened landscape of vacant lots and empty streets, charred timbers and melted metal, ashes and broken dreams. Where the African American commercial district once stood was now a ghost town of crumbling brick storefronts and the burned-out hulks of automobiles. Gone was the Dreamland and the Dixie [theaters], gone was the Tulsa Star and the black public library, gone was the Liberty Cafe and Elliott & Hooker’s clothing store, H.L. Byars’ cleaners and Mabel Little’s beauty salon. Gone were literal lifetimes of sweat and hard work, and hard-won rungs on the ladder of the American Dream.

… Nearly ten-thousand Tulsans, practically the entire black community, was now homeless.

Across the tracks and across town, in Tulsa’s white neighborhoods, no homes had been looted and no churches had been burned. From the outside, life looked much the same as it had been prior to the riot, but even here, beneath the surface, there was little normalcy.

In one way or another, white Tulsans had been stunned by what had happened in their city. More than a few whites, including those whose homes now featured stolen goods, had undeniably, taken great joy in what had occurred, particularly the destruction of Greenwood. Some whites had even applauded as black families had been led through the streets, at gunpoint, toward the various internment centers. Some would soon find a new outlet for their racial views in the hooded order [the KKK] that was about to sweep across the white community. [Picture below is of the KKK in Tulsa in 1923.]

tulsa kkk 1923

But thankfully, there were others who felt differently. God bless their memory:

Other white Tulsans were horrified by what had taken place. Immediately following the riot, Clara Kimble, a white teacher at Central High School opened up her home to her black counterparts at Booker T. Washington High School, as did other white families.Others donated food, clothing, money, and other forms of assistance. For many whites, the riot was a horror never to be forgotten, a mark of shame upon the city that would endure forevermore.

But in spite of the kindness of some, the indignities didn’t end.

However, for black Tulsans, the trials and tribulations had only just begun. Six days after the riot, on June 7, the Tulsa City Commission passed a fire ordinance designed to prevent the rebuilding of the African American commercial district where it had formerly stood, while the so-called Reconstruction Commission, an organization of white business and political leaders, had been fuming away offers of outside aid.

In the end, black Tulsans did rebuild their community, and the fire ordinance was declared unconstitutional by the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Yet, the damage had been done, and the tone of the official local response to the disaster had already been set. Despite the Herculean efforts of the American Red Cross, thousands of black Tulsans were forced to spend the winter of 1921- 22 living in tents.

tentOthers simply left. They had had enough of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

For some, staying was not an option. It soon became clear, both in the grand jury that had been impaneled to look into the riot, and in various other legal actions that, by and large, languished in the courts, that African Americans would be blamed for causing the riot. Nowhere, perhaps, was this stated more forcefully than in the June 25, final report of the grand jury, which stated:

“We find that the recent race riot was the direct result of an effort on the part of a certain group of colored men who appeared at the courthouse on the night of May 31, 1921, for the purpose of protecting one Dick Rowland then and now in the custody of the Sheriff of Tulsa Country for an alleged assault upon a young white woman. We have not been able to find any evidence either from white or colored citizens that any organized attempt was made or planned to take from the Sheriff’s custody any prisoner; the crowd assembled about the courthouse being purely spectators and curiosity seekers resulting from rumors circulated about the city.”

“There was no mob spirit among the whites, no talk of lynching and no arms,” the report added, “The assembly [all 2,000 or so of them, milling about in front of the Courthouse…] was quiet until the arrival of armed Negroes, which precipitated and was the direct cause of the entire affair.”

The bottom line?

no white Tulsan was ever sent to prison for the murders and burnings of May 31, and June 1, 1921. In the 1920s Oklahoma courtrooms and halls of government, there would be no day of reckoning for either the perpetrators or the victims of the Tulsa race riot.

Over a thousand buildings, including a hospital and more than half a dozen churches, were burned to the ground by arsonists—all of them white—in less than one 24 hour period…but it seems that the only folks to blame were those black men who went to the Courthouse at 10 PM on May 31 to try to make sure a 19 year old boy wasn’t lynched. Like so many other citizens had been across America for decades…

But no, the story doesn’t end here. As mentioned earlier, in 1997 what you might call the “cold case files” related to those crimes of 1921 were opened up for scrutiny again. Read about that surprising development in the next entry in this series:

Cold Case File

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“Is the whole world on fire?” (TAS Pt. 5)

Terrorism on American Soil: TAS

Part 5: “Is the whole world on fire?”

(Click here to go to the Introduction to this series.)

At the end of the previous entry in this series, masses of white Tulsans began gathering and making plans to “storm” the negro community of Greenwood “at daybreak” on June 1, 1921.

     residentialSweeping past the black business district, now aflame, the white rioters entered the heart of Tulsa’s African-American residential area (Courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society).

An officer in the local “Tulsa Guard” contacted the head of the Oklahoma National Guard at 12:35 AM and requested troops be sent to deal with the situation. Unfortunately, the request needed to be signed by the chief of police, the county sheriff, and a local judge. It wasn’t easy to fulfill this legal requirement…Sheriff McCullough was still barricaded with his men and Rowland on the top floor of the Courthouse! Somehow this roadblock was solved, and:

… at 1:46 a.m., the needed telegram arrived at the state capital. It read:

WESTERN UNION TELEGRAM

Tulsa, Okla

June l, 1921

Governor J.B.A. Robertson Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Race riot developed here. Several killed. Unable handle situation. Request that National Guard forces be sent by special train. Situation serious.

Twenty-nine minutes later, at 2:15 a.m., Major Kirkpatrick spoke again by phone with Adjutant General Barrett, who informed him that the governor had authorized the calling out of the state troops. A special train, carrying approximately one-hundred National Guard soldiers would leave Oklahoma City, bound for Tulsa, at 5:00 a.m. that morning.

Tulsa’s longest night would finally be ending, but its longest day would have only begun.
[SOURCE: unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this entry are from this source.].

Actually, there were “local” National Guard troops stationed in Tulsa. As you will see below, from the point of view of the citizens of Greenwood, they quickly became among their tormentors, rather than in any sense guarding their safety or their rights. The request above was for “State Troops” of the Oklahoma National Guard to be sent in, men who would be much more highly trained and professional—and impartial. Once they arrived, the game totally changed…but they didn’t arrive for many hours.

The train wasn’t even leaving Oklahoma City until 5 AM. By the time it arrived at 9:15 AM…it was far too late in the game to change the outcome, other than that they likely prevented more deaths, and helped restore some semblance of order to the area.

But I’m getting ahead of the story…

In the pre-dawn hours of June l, thousands of armed whites had gathered in three main clusters along the northern fringes of downtown, opposite Greenwood. … While it is unclear how many people were in each group, some contemporary observers estimated the total number of armed whites who had gathered as high as five or ten thousand.

Smaller bands of whites also had been active. One group hauled a machine gun to the top of the Middle States Milling Company’s grain elevator off of First Street, and set it up to fire to the north of Greenwood Avenue. Shortly before daybreak, five white men in a green Franklin automobile pulled up alongside the crowd of whites who were massed behind the Frisco freight depot. “What the hell are you waitin’ on?,” one of the men hollered, “let’s go get ’em.” But the crowd would not budge, and the men in the car set off alone toward Deep Greenwood. Their bodies, and the bullet-ridden Franklin, were later seen in the middle of Archer Street, near Frankfort.

Across the tracks in Greenwood, considerable activity also had been taking place. While some black Tulsans prepared themselves to face the onslaught, others decided that it was time to go. “About this time officers Pack and Lewis pushed up to us and said it would not be safe for us to remain any longer,” recalled Mrs. Dimple Bush, who was with her husband at the Red Wing Hotel. “So,” she added, “We rushed out and found a taxi which took us straight north on Greenwood.”

Not far away, along North Elgin, Julia Duff, a teacher at Booker T. Washington High School, faced a similar crisis. Awakened by loud voices outside of her rented room shortly before dawn, the young teacher was soon nearly overcome with fear. As later described in a letter published in the Chicago Defender:

“Mrs. S. came into her room and told her to dress-there was something wrong for soldiers were all around, and she looked out the window and saw them driving the men out of the houses on Detroit. Saw Mr. Woods running with both hands in the air and their 3-month-old baby in one hand and three brutes behind him with guns.”

“She said her legs gave way from under her,” the letter continued, “and she had to crawl about the room, taking things from her closet, putting them in her trunk, for she thought if anything happened she’d have her trunk packed, and before she got everything in they heard footsteps on their steps and there were six out there and they ordered Mr. Smart to march, hands up, out of the house.

And finally the attack began in earnest.

Several eyewitnesses later recalled that when dawn came at 5:08 a.m. that morning, an unusual whistle or siren sounded, perhaps as a signal for the mass assault on Greenwood to begin. Although the source of this whistle or siren is still unknown, moments later, the white mobs made their move. While the machine gun in the grain elevator opened fire, crowds of armed whites poured across the Frisco tracks, headed straight for the African American commercial district. As later described by one eyewitness:

“With wild frenzied shouts, men began pouring from behind the freight depot and the long string of boxcars and evidently from behind the piles of oil well easing which was at the other end and on the north side of the building. From every place of shelter up and down the tracks came screaming, shouting men to join in the rush toward the Negro section. Mingled with the shouting were a few rebel-yells and Indian gobblings as the great wave of humanity rushed forward totally absorbed in thoughts of destruction.

Many first-person descriptions by victims have survived. Here’s one from Mary Parrish who…

…had sat up much of the night, uncertain of what to do. “Finally,” she later wrote,

“My friend, Mrs. Jones, called her husband, who was trying to take a little rest. They decided to try to make for a place of safety, so called to me that they were leaving. By this time the enemy was close upon us, so they ran out of the south door, which led out onto Archer Street, and went east toward Lansing. I took my little girl, Florence Mary, by the hand and fled out of the west door on Greenwood. I did not take time to get a hat for myself or Baby, but started out north on Greenwood, running amidst showers of bullets from the machine gun located in the granary and from men who were quickly surrounding our district. Seeing that they were fighting at a disadvantage, our men had taken shelter in the buildings and in other places out of sight of the enemy. When my daughter, Florence Mary, and I ran into the street, it was vacant for a block or more. Someone called to me to “Get out of the street with that child or you both will be killed.” I felt that it was suicide to remain in the building, for it would surely be destroyed and death in the street was preferred, for we expected to be shot down at any moment. So we placed our trust in God, our Heavenly Father, who seeth and knoweth all things, and ran out of Greenwood in the hope of reaching a friend’s home who lived over the Standpipe Hill in Greenwood Addition.

A lady named Dimple Bush described her experience in fleeing from Greenwood:

“It was just dawn; the machine guns were sweeping the valley with their murderous fire and my heart was filled with dread as we sped along,” she recalled, “Old women and men, children were running and screaming everywhere.”

And then the situation took a surreal turn. Up in the sky… not a bird…not Superman…no, World War I biplanes! For there were at least a dozen or so such planes, owned by companies and by individuals, at the local airport. And some of these were pressed into service for the situation.

biplane

Soon, however, new perils developed. As the mobs of armed whites rushed into the southern end of the African American district, airplanes — manned by whites — also appeared overhead. As Dr. R.T. Bridgewater, a well-respected black Tulsa physician, later described what happened:

“Shortly after we left a whistle blew. The shots rang from a machine gun located on Standpipe Hill near my residence and aeroplanes began to fly over us, in some instances very low to the ground. A cry was heard from the women saying, “Look out for the aeroplanes, they are shooting upon us.”

Numerous other eyewitnesses –both black and white — confirm the presence of an unknown number of airplanes flying over Greenwood during the early daylight hours of June 1. … there is little doubt but that some of the occupants of the airplanes fired upon black Tulsans with pistols and rifles. Moreover, there is evidence, to suggest that men in at least one airplane dropped some form of explosives, probably sticks of dynamite, upon a group of African American refugees as they were fleeing the city.

Surreality continued. Concentration camps were set up! Yes, that word was actually used. Although some referred to them as “internment centers” and implied their purpose was to keep negroes in “protective custody” for their own safety, the descriptions of events surely belie that:

As the waves of white rioters descended upon the African American district, a deadly pattern soon emerged. First, the armed whites broke into the black homes and businesses, forcing the occupants out into the street, where they were led away at gunpoint to one of a growing number of internment centers.

One of the main centers was Convention Hall in the north part of Tulsa, not far south of Greenwood.

hall

at convention hall

Anyone who resisted was shot. Moreover, African American men in homes where firearms were discovered met the same fate. Next, the whites looted the homes and businesses, pocketing small items, and hauling away larger items either on foot or by car or truck. Finally, the white rioters then set the homes and other buildings on fire, using torches and oil-soaked rags. House by house, block by block, the wall of flame crept northward, engulfing the city’s black neighborhoods.

neighborhood

The looting and burning of African -American homes was indiscriminate, both poor and wealthy families lost their homes (Courtesy Greenwood Cultural Center).

As if that was not enough…

Atrocities occurred along the way. According to one account, published ten days after the riot in a Chicago newspaper,

“Another cruel instance was when they [white rioters] went to the home of an old couple and the old man, 80 years old, was paralyzed and sat in a chair and they told him to march and he told them he was crippled, but he’d go if someone would take him, and they told his wife (old, too) to go, but she didn’t want to leave him, and he told her to go on anyway. As she left one of the damn dogs shot the old man and then they fired the house.

And of course no one of any age escaped the atrocities:

After armed whites had led his mother away at gunpoint, five-year-old George Monroe was hiding beneath his parents’ bed with his two older sisters and his one older brother when white men suddenly entered the room. After rifling through the dresser, the men set the curtains on fire. As the men began to leave, one of them stepped on George’s hand. George started to cry out, but his sister Lottie threw her hand over his mouth, preventing their discovery. A few minutes later, the children were able to escape from their home before it burst into flame.

It wasn’t just civilian marauders involved in the atrocities.

According to black Deputy Sheriff V.B. Bostic, a white Tulsa police officer “drove him and his wife from his home,”‘ and then “poured oil on the floor and set a lighted match to it.”

Deputy Sheriff Bostic was not, however, the only eyewitness to report acts of criminal misconduct by Tulsa police officers during the course of the riot. According to one white eyewitness, a “uniformed [white] policeman on East Second Street went home, changed his uniform to plainclothes, and went to the Negro district and led a bunch of whites into Negro, houses, some of the bunch pilfering, never offered to protect men, women or children, or property.” This particular account was buttressed by the testimony of an African American witness, who reported that he had seen the same officer in question “on the morning of the riot, June 1, kicking in doors of Negro homes, and assisting in the destruction of property.”

The black men didn’t go down without a fight, of course, trying to defend their homes, families, businesses, and community. But obviously the odds were totally, completely, unalterably against them.

Despite the daunting odds against them, black Tulsans valiantly fought back. African American riflemen had positioned themselves in the belfry of the newly-built Mount Zion Baptist Church, whose commanding view of the area just below Standpipe Hill allowed them to temporarily stem the tide of the white invasion. When white rioters set up a machine gun-probably the same weapon that had been used earlier that morning at the grain elevator, and unleashed its deadly fire on the church belfry, the black defenders were quickly overwhelmed. As “Choc” Phillips later described what happened:

“In a couple of minutes pieces of brick started falling, then whole bricks began tumbling from the narrow slits in the cupola. Within five or six minutes the openings were large jagged holes with so many bricks flying from that side of the cupola wall that it seemed ready to fall.

“The men stopped firing the machine gun and almost immediately the houses on the outer rim of the area that had been protected by the snipers, became victims of the arsonists. We watched the men take the machine gun from the tripod, wrap it in a canvas cover then lay it on the bed of the truck. They rolled up the belts with the empty shell casings, put away those that were still unused, and in what seemed less than ten minutes from the time the truck was parked at the location, drove away.”

“While standing on the high ground where the machine gun had been firing, we watched the activity below for a few minutes. Most of the houses were beginning to burn and smoke ascended slowly in to the air while people flitted around as busy as bees down there. From the number that ran in and out of the houses and the church, there had evidently been a couple of hundred who remained behind when the mob bypassed the area.”

A short while later, Mount Zion was torched.

mt zion

Dedicated only weeks before the riot, the Mount Zion Baptist Church was a great source of pride for many black Tulsans. But after a prolonged battle, the white rioters burned it- as well as more than a half dozen other African American churches-to the ground (Courtesy Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, University of Tulsa).

And then there were the “local” Guardsmen.

Attempts by black Tulsans to defend their homes and property were undercut by the actions of both the Tulsa police and the local National Guard units, who, rather than focus on disarming and arresting the white rioters, took steps that led to the eventual imprisonment of practically all of the city’s African American citizens. Guardsmen deployed on Standpipe Hill made at least one eastward march in the early hours of June 1, rounding up African Americans along the way, before they were fired upon, apparently by whites as well as blacks, near Greenwood Avenue. The guardsmen then marched to Sunset Hill, where they handed over their black prisoners to local police officers.

An arrest by a white officer was not a guarantee of safety for black Tulsans. According to Thomas Higgins, a white resident of Wichita, Kansas who happened to be visiting Tulsa when the riot broke out, “I saw men of my own race, sworn officers, on three occasions search Negroes while their hands were up, and not finding weapons, extracted what money they found on them. If the Negro protested, he was shot.”

And not just crooked “officers of the law” took prisoners:

White civilians also took black prisoners. When the invasion began, Carrie Kinlaw, an African American woman who lived out toward the Section Line, had to run toward the fighting in order to help her sisters retrieve their invalid mother. Reaching the elderly woman in a “rain of bullets”, Kinlaw later wrote:

“My sisters and I gathered her up, placed her on a cot, and three of us carried the cot and the other one carried a bundle of clothes; thus we carried Mother about six blocks, with bullets falling on all sides. About six squads of rioters overtook us, asked for men and guns, made us hold up our hands.”

Not all of her captors, however, were adults. “There were boys in that bunch,” she added, “from about 10 years upward, all armed with guns.”

Below is a description by another victim of “civilian captors.” (Let us make this perfectly clear—instances such as these are not whites “arresting” armed insurgents who had been battling with them. They are white men taking into custody totally innocent, unarmed black men from their own homes and marching them away.)

James T. West a teacher at Booker T. Washington High School, was arrested by whites at his home on Easton Street that morning. “Some men appeared with drawn guns and ordered all of the men out of the house,” he recalled immediately after the riot.

“I went out immediately. They ordered me to raise my hands, after which three or four men searched me. They told me to line up in the street. I requested them to let me get my hat and best shoes, but they refused and abusively ordered me to line up. They refused to let one of the men put on any kind of shoes. After lining up some 30 or 40 of us men, they ran us through the streets to Convention Hall, forcing us to keep our hands in the air all the while. While we were running, some of the ruffians would shoot at our heels and swore at those who had difficulty keeping up. They actually drove a car into the bunch and knocked down two or three men.”

Harold M. Parker, a white bookkeeper for the Oklahoma Producing and Refining Corporation at the time of the riot, later corroborated how armed whites sometimes shot at the heels of their black prisoners. “Sometimes they missed and shot their legs,” Parker recalled a half century later, “It was sheer cruelty coming out.”

on way to convention hallAs the white mobs continued to move northward, into the heart of the black residential district, some of the worst violence of the riot appears to have taken place. “Negro men, women and children were killed in great numbers as they ran, trying to flee to safety,” one unidentified informant later told Mary E. Parrish, “. . . the most horrible scenes of this occurrence was to see women dragging their children while running to safety, and the dirty white rascals firing at them as they ran.”

The most tragic picture I have seen while researching this sordid incident was a close-up of a small black child, about five years old, staring into the camera, eyes wide with bewilderment, standing in front of a huge pile of rubble with no one around him, smoke billowing behind the rubble. Clutched in his arms is what appears to be the lifeless body of another child, almost as big as he.

In the wake of the invasion came a wall of flame, steadily moving northward. “Is the whole world on fire?” asked a young playmate of eight-year-old Kinney Booker, who was fleeing with his family from their home on North Frankfort.

Yes, sadly, that young child’s whole world was indeed on fire.

stopping fleeingAny fleeing families were denied freedom by whites positioned on escape routes. (Courtesy Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, University of Tulsa).

See the next entry in the series to read the conclusion to this ignominious saga in the history of America, The Sometimes Not So Beautiful:

Holocaust

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