100 years ago today, the Greenwood neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma was destroyed in one of the most violent racial attacks in our nation’s history. The immediate cause of the violence was the arrest of 19-year-old Dick Rowland. The Black teen was accused of assaulting a white girl. Such assaults, whether real or fictitious carried the penalty of death. Many Black men accused of assaulting white women found themselves lynched by an angry mob of whites. The mobs would storm the local jail, remove their victim, brutally assault them, and then hang them for all the spectators to see. To prevent this, an armed group of Black men, including some World War I veterans, went to jail to protect Rowland. The violence that followed ballooned into a day’s long state-sanctioned orgy of violence where the entire Black community of Tulsa including its famed “Black Wall Street” were almost destroyed. Around 300 African Americans were killed and another 8,000 left injured and homeless.
It is important to note that, this type of violence was common throughout the early twentieth century. Accusations of the assault of a white woman, or some other violation of racial etiquette often led to violence. This violence would initially begin with the accused and then spread to wholesale attacks on Black communities. This happened in Washington County, Texas in 1898, Wilmington, North Carolina in 1908, New Orleans in 1900, Atlanta in 1906, Springfield, Illinois in 1908, Chicago in 1919, and on and on. There were 26 race riots in 1919 alone. These outbursts of violence were often justified as natural. A statement in the Atlanta Constitution explained the violence stating, “There are places and occasions when the natural fury of men cannot be restrained by all the laws in Christendom.”
In the 100 years since the Tulsa Massacre and destruction of “Black Wall Street”, much has changed in American society. The long struggle for Civil Rights has borne much fruit including the breaking down of “Jim Crow” laws which allowed legal segregation and discrimination throughout the United States. The lives of African Americans and other people of color have improved dramatically. However, the wounds of the past, and the racial animosity that was used to justify the violence remain. While not as in your face and outwardly violent as in years past, racial discrimination and prejudice are still rampant in American society. It is often seen in a phenomenon known as “laissez-faire racism.” Studies have shown that this form of discrimination appears in many places. In healthcare, African Americans are not believed by their doctors when they express their pain. African American homes are devalued by appraisers. Produce from grocery stores located in predominately white neighborhoods being shipped to predominately Black and Latino neighborhoods once they are deemed too old. The list goes on and on.
Accusations of the assault of a white woman, or some other violation of racial etiquette often led to violence. This violence would initially begin with the accused and then spread to wholesale attacks on Black communities
However, hope remains. And this is one of the lasting lessons we can learn from the aftermath of the Tulsa race massacre 100 years later; To never give up. After each instance of racial violence, the African American community rallied itself and rebuilt. They refused to be deterred from creating a self-sustaining community. They refused to allow themselves to succumb to the daily indignities of racism and discrimination. They built and re-built institutions to serve their communities. They also continued to fight for racial justice, equity, and inclusion to make America live up to its ideals. The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others are a testament to this fact.
As we remember the Tulsa Massacre 100 years later, let’s not only remember the violence but the actions of those who fought with the hope that it would never be repeated. To quote the Honorable Barbara Jordan, “’We, the people.’ It is a very eloquent beginning. But when that document was completed on the seventeenth of September in 1787 I was not included in that “We, the people.” I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation, and court decision I have finally been included in ‘We, the people.’”
While it often is not articulated in this fashion, the protests that we continue to see are the ultimate sign of hope in the ideals and principles on which America was founded. Protest is one of the purest forms of patriotism because it means you believe in your country’s ability to change. If the system cannot be changed, why fight? If justice, cannot be found why organize and protest. There are many who advocate for burying our heads in the sand and pretending that these atrocities never happened. They believe that it only serves to destroy people’s sense of patriotism. However, it erases the work of those who used violence to push society to be better.
With their commitment to addressing racism and systematic oppression in America, the Biden-Harris Administration can do many things to support those fighting to make a better, more inclusive America. Through the Justice Department, they should continue to support efforts to combat violence against minorities. They should advocate for Congress to pass legislation specifically focused on fighting discrimination and systemic racism. They should support the efforts to create a Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Commission. They should also combat efforts to distort and whitewash American history. Understanding the development of this nation is essential to instilling a sense of ownership, and pride in its people, and this means telling the good and the bad.
Lopez D. Matthews is Manager of the Digital Production Center and Digital Production Librarian for the Howard University Libraries and the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center. He is also an adjunct professor in the Department of Humanities at Coppin State University, a member of the Board of Directors of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture and a commissioner on the Maryland State Commission on African American History and Culture.