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This Monday (May 31) marks 100 years since the Tulsa Race Massacre, in which the prominent Black business community known as the Greenwood District, as well as the surrounding residential areas, was targeted by an angry white mob and left in ruins.
In the U.S., the years following World War I brought about the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, and a spike in racially motivated domestic terrorism, including numerous lynchings and other gruesome acts. The majority of Tulsa’s Black residents lived in a neighborhood called Greenwood. Often referred to as the Black Wall Street, the area was the home to the private practices of Black doctors and attorneys, and Black-owned grocers, retail shops, hotels and libraries.
Though we will never know the true extent of the carnage that day, due in large part to the intentional suppression of news reports, the day-long massacre is believed to have killed up to 300 mostly Black Tulsans and left thousands homeless in addition to completely leveling the once thriving area.
Ahead of the grisly 100-year anniversary of the attack, Democratic politicians, from President Biden down, are preparing their tributes to victims of one of the worst incidences of racial violence in our nation’s history.
The assault on the Black residents and businesses of Greenwood, now commonly and more accurately referred to as a massacre versus its historical characterization as a riot, has seen increased visibility in the last year. This month, 107-year-old Viola Fletcher, one of the last known survivors of the massacre, testified before members of a House Judiciary subcommittee, calling on the government to officially acknowledge the events that took place in Tulsa on May 31, 1921.
“I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street,” Fletcher testified. “I still smell smoke and see fire.”
This comes on the heels of what is considered the U.S.’s largest civil rights movement, Black Lives Matter, following the 2020 deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
Likely in anticipation of the centennial, HBO depicted the savage attack in both the DC superhero limited series “Watchmen” and the horror drama “Lovecraft Country.”
At a time where the violence and racism of our prison and justice systems are under a magnifying glass, the country is ripe for a real reckoning about its violent, racist past and present.
Exacerbated by Donald Trump’s presidency, which encouraged a resurgence in overt white nationalist rhetoric, the roots of the deep racial divide in this country are being laid bare. Last year, Black authors and books focused on race entered the best-sellers lists, companies were forced to address systemic racism, and conversations about police brutality and the country’s history of racist policing took center stage in an unprecedented manner. Even though support for the movement appeared to dwindle off as 2020 came to a close, it indicated a heightened consciousness amongst the American public.
This shift, as well as the growing interest in the Tulsa Race Massacre, can be attributed in large part to the power of social media with a specific credit to Black Twitter. Black activists and historians continue to synthesize the complicated, incomplete and often sordid Black stories and data, making our history more accessible than ever before.
The abysmal Black history curriculum offered by public schools across the country has been and continues to be widely discussed. The general overview tends to be that slavery happened, it was bad, Lincoln freed the slaves, at which point the narrative typically jumps straight to Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of the bus and Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.
The extreme backlash currently being displayed by Republican politicians, in response to Nikole Hannah-Jones’ the 1619 Project, underlines the reality that the whitewashed, fragmented, unacceptably minute version of Black history that we’re spoon fed in school is not an innocent oversight, but rather part of an insidious agenda.
But, as our systems continue to fail us, social media has proven time and time again its — among other things — effectiveness at expanding what’s considered common knowledge. In 2021, more people have a general understanding of COINTELPRO and the Philadelphia MOVE bombing, which killed 11 people including five children and left behind the charred remains of Black-owned residences, is more widely recognized.
Social media, particularly Twitter, is where many people have learned in recent years that a community called Seneca Village, made up predominantly of Black home-owning families, was destroyed to make way for Central Park.
Piecing together these bits of the past brings us closer to a more full picture of our history in this country and unlocking the history better equips us with the ability to articulate our oppression and subsequently address our needs. It also highlights cycles and patterns of systemic racism. The current anti-police brutality and abolition movements seek to educate the masses about our nation’s history of racist policing. The Tulsa Race Massacre, in which civil officials selected and deputized a horde of white men and supplied them with weapons and ammunition to take part in the violence against Black Tulsans, is further evidence of the police having always functioned to uphold white supremacy.
Studying the history of Greenwood itself also illuminates the potential of a strong Black community. Many economists have concluded that discrimination and segregation, which forced Black Tulsans to both build their own businesses and patronize the businesses of their community members, was what ultimately allowed the area to flourish. Understanding this will help drive the discourse on the ways in which we’ve been hurt by integration and how to overcome this.
Today is a day to recognize the dark and significant details of the Tulsa Race Massacre, and honor the survivors and the descendants of those who lost their lives and livelihoods. The lessons of this deadly attack should be seared into the American psyche — from the whitelash that tends to follow perceived Black progress to the parallels of the complicity of law enforcement and media in the subjugation of Black folks between 1921 and present day.
But tomorrow, let this be the motivation to more urgently reject the ahistorical, mainstream history we’re expected to settle for. This recent emphasis on the Tulsa Race Massacre after all these years serves as a reminder of all of the Black history that has yet to be unearthed. The more truths of the Black experience are forced to the forefront, the better positioned we’ll be to rectify these egregious wrongs.