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The Tulsa Race Massacre: 100 Years of Denial and The Case for Reparations

Updated: Jul 20, 2022

It’s been exactly 100 years since a white mob descended on the Greenwood district in Tulsa, Oklahoma, known as Black Wall Street, and literally destroyed the entire thriving neighborhood and commercial district, killing hundreds of black citizens and looting, pillaging, and even dropping bombs on innocent victims from airplanes above.

Once described as a race riot, the deadly attack on May 31st, 1921 is now more accurately described as a massacre perpetrated by a “mob of over 2,000 Whites, under the protection of city and state law and direction of city and state officials,” and as the “worst domestic terrorist attack in U.S. history.” 36 square blocks were completely leveled, and upwards of 1,000 blacks were murdered, with another 10,000 left penniless and homeless.

From day one, the media was complicit in covering up the unthinkable racist crimes, with the Tulsa Daily World blaring the headline “TWO WHITES DEAD IN RACE RIOT,” completely ignoring the 1,000 plus black deaths and the widespread destruction of Greenwood.

To believe that the Tulsa Race Massacre was a spontaneous event triggered by a misunderstood encounter between a young black man and a white woman would be both naïve and wrong. Instead, it was the deadliest day of racist hatred that has festered in America for well over 300 years, culminating in 1919 in what later became known as Red Summer. The worst deadliest racist attack that year was in Elaine, Arkansas, where as many as over 100 blacks were murdered by angry white mobs supported by federal troops (requested by Governor Charles Hillman Brough) working hand in hand with the Ku Klux Klan.

And, just like in Tulsa two years later, the hatred was justified by the media, with the Arkansas Gazette proclaiming two days after the Elaine Massacre, “NEGROES PLAN TO KILL ALL WHITES,” painting the massacre as a preemptive strike that foiled an imaginary planned plot against white America.

After the Elaine Massacre, 73 blacks were charged with murder, with 12 being convicted by all white juries and sentenced to death. Their sentences were later reduced or overturned, but dozens of black defendants spent years in prison. Not a single white participant in the massacre was charged with a crime.

But even that tragedy paled in comparison to what happened in Tulsa two years later. Both events, as well as others across America including burnings and massacres in Rosewood, Florida and other cities across America, were part of an orchestrated effort to either eradicate, or at least marginalize black citizens who moved to mostly white communities during and after World War 1 to find employment in factories desperately in need of workers.

Incredibly, until recently even residents of Oklahoma were taught little or nothing about the Tulsa Race Massacre, as it was seemingly scrubbed from the annals of history. Even as we finally arrive at a reckoning when it comes to race relations in Tulsa and yes, across America, we still largely deny responsibility as a society. Discussions about reparations are dismissed by many politicians and elected officials, including current Tulsa Mayor GT Bynum, who ironically stated that reparations to the last survivors and descendants of victims who were murdered or lost everything would divide the city.

There is, however, recent historical precedent for reparations, especially when the government is complicit in depriving Americans of their right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Decades after another dark chapter in American history, Japanese Americans banded together and demanded reparations for over 100,000 Japanese who were rounded up, stripped of all their belongings and property, and sent to internment camps during World War II.

After a decade of pushing for reparations for the government sponsored atrocities, Japanese Americans, led by one of the survivors of the internment camps, convinced the federal government to disburse $1.6 billion (the equivalent of $3.5 billion today) to Japanese American descendants of those imprisoned during the war. The law, along a formal apology, was signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1988.

As is happening now, those efforts met with incredible resistance, with those opposed either denying that the events even happened, or seeing it as a justifiable act to protect America. Like the Tulsa Massacre, history was rewritten to turn racial atrocities into acts of necessity or self-defense.

Even as the 100-year commemoration of the destruction of life and generational wealth on Black Wall Street passes, the debate for reparations will continue. The last three survivors and their attorneys have courageously amplified demands for reparations, and even President Biden visited Tulsa today for the 100-year anniversary, saying that Americans need to "commit together to eradicate systemic racism and help to rebuild communities and lives that have been destroyed by it."

While there are many ways our government and citizens can help atone for our country’s sins by creating programs to lift Black Americans out of forced systemic poverty, that does not, and should not exonerate us from making direct reparations to those who lost everything in Greenwood Tulsa 100 years today. Even beyond that, it should trigger a serious discussion as to how we can as a nation can provide direct reparations to all Black Americans who have been systemically exploited, murdered, and marginalized since they set foot on our shores over 300 years ago.

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