Sunday, May 31, 2015

Never Forget Tulsa

Today, May 31st, marks the 94th anniversary of the destruction of Greenwood; the African-American suburb of Tulsa, Oklahoma reportedly destroyed by a mob of some 10,000. 

Living in Tulsa, and going to North Tulsa (the black side of town known as Greenwood) to church and to get my haircut, I couldn't fathom North Tulsa being anything but what it truly was: A desolate, lifeless area that sorely needed some sort of economic development in the worse kind of way—a far cry from the hustle, bustle, and wealth of South Tulsa. So imagine my surprise (and bewilderment) when I heard people talk about, and compare, Greenwood to the glitz and glamour of Beverly Hills, California. What? I kept asking myself as I looked around at the small, unassuming, delapitated houses and buildings. "Are you lying to me?" I asked, everyone, with a raised brow. Because never in a million years could I (or anyone else for that matter) imagine that this modern-day Greenwood could have EVER been anywhere, close, to the likes of any part of Beverly Hills. But in 1921, it truly was the African American version—Negro Wall Street as they called it because of its wealth and prosperity.

"In the North, whites don't care how high you climb as long as you don't get too close. In the South, whites don't care how close you get as long as you don't climb too high." — Unknown 

And that's exactly what Greenwood had done—climbed too high. It was the wealthiest black community in the United States, primarily as a result of the oil boom, and it was loathed and hated because of it. Accounts have it boasting:

15 Grocery Stores
  2 News Papers
  2 Public School Systems
  4 Drug Stores
  2 Movie Theaters
A Bus system
A Central Business District along the Greenwood corridor touting legal, medical and various professional offices, retail shops, and hotels.

which came to an abrupt end when a white female accused a 19-year old black male of rape. And on May 31, 1921, the jealousy, hostility, and Tulsa's racially charged atmosphere came to a boiling point when the deadliest race riot in the United States began; and Greenwood burned to the ground. Walter White's account "The Eruption of Tulsa": An NAACP official investigates the Tulsa Race Riot published in the Nation, on June 29, 1921, chronicles the history of what led up to the riot, the riot itself, and some of the atrocities committed against innocent black civilians. Reports have the destruction (real estate and property losses) estimated at $1,800,000; which today is estimated at close to 30 million. Of special note: None of the survivors, or their descendents, were compensated by insurance companies, the city of Tulsa, or the state of Oklahoma.

In the continual efforts to ensure we never forget Tulsa, Oprah Winfrey's network, OWN, as reported by the Tulsa World, is scheduled to produce a mini-series about the event, starring Octavia Spencer as journalist Mattie Clay (the race riots told from her perspective). 

For a visual narrative of the Tulsa Race Riots, take a look at the two-part Youtube series by reporter Tim Estiloz, told by survivors and descendents of the riots.

Part 1 - Tulsa Race Riots: Survivors and Descendents Recall

Part 2 - Tulsa Race Riots: Survivors and Descendents Recall

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." — George Santayana

And although we should never forget the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, we should also not forget the many other racially charged riots, including:

Wilmington, NC Race Riot of 1898
Springfield, IL (1908)
East St. Louis, IL (1917)
Red Summer Race Riots of 1919, involving 26 cities, with hundreds of deaths and thousands left homeless and wounded.
Rosewood, FL (1923)
Detroit, MI (1943)

Author, R.L. Byrd

Part of the Project H.U.S.H initiative. To find out more, visit HUSH

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