As a black man in America, there are certain stories that you hear about when you're young that changes your view of the world and your place in it. The story about the destruction of black wall street in 1921 is one of the several stories. You can put Emmett Till's murder and the massacre in Rosewood up there too in all honesty. It is sadly a common theme throughout much of U.S. history to displace and outsource the success of the black community pre-Civil Rights to either whites who co-opted inventions/discoveries by Blacks or whites who simply destroyed what was built. This destruction happened all throughout the era of lynchings that America allowed to happen for some 60+ years after the failure of Reconstruction and the early development of the Civil Rights movement. This lynching era was the era of virulently fascistic white supremacy and of "race riots."
Before I get into the events of black wall street and the events of 1921, I want to first acknowledge that the term "race riot" is a misnomer. This is a term used back then by newspapers for sensational purposes. In just about every case, it was black people who came under attack by mobs of white men. I use the term in this article for purposes of understanding, but what we're really talking about are acts of domestic terrorism - preemptive, unprovoked and totally unnecessary.
The past creates the present, which sounds like a very captain obvious statement to make. However, you'd be surprised how many people don't truly understand that. The principle of causality, the nature of cause and effect, allows us to appreciate the past so that we can change our future. That is the whole point of studying history and why it is so important, especially as we live through the Trump era which no one would've thought possible in 2012 when Barack Obama was re-elected President of the United States.
It is my belief that the destruction of black wall street in 1921 and events throughout American history just like it have oscillated back and forth between extreme racial oppression (E.R.O.) and extreme racial liberty (E.R.L.). We are living in an oscillation (aka trend) towards extreme racial oppression right now after the previous oscillation towards extreme racial liberty under Barack Obama. I used the words 'extreme' loosely and I believe in most cases, we don't actually hit the extreme of either side...we simply trend towards it before society forces us in the opposite direction.
I would say though that slavery and the era of lynchings represents a prolonged oscillation towards extreme racial oppression. Black Wall Street represented a type of harmonious trend for Black people in America in the opposite direction. Sure, most Black people during that time never got to experience the black district and I've written about some of the flaws of capitalism in the past recently. Still though there were pockets of success, even during the era of lynchings black men and women were able to excel and could've been the source of racial liberty and freedom had their communities been allowed to thrive and grow.
Black Wall Street a.k.a. 'Little Africa'
Black Wall Street says a great many things about the tenacity and perseverance of black people. We survived slavery and even as black men and women were being lynched all over America without an inkling of aid from Congress or the federal government, we did great things anyway without their help. Black Wall Street was one of the wealthiest black towns in America pre-Civil Rights. There were businesses of all kinds, for instance there were banks, private and public physicians who owned medical schools. There were over 40+ pawn shops and restaurants combined. There were jewelry stores, a movie theater, a bus system, a hospital and 30 grocery stores. The documentary below described Black Wall Street and why it was so successful...and why it was destroyed.
It is said that the dollar circulated in Black Wall Street 30 - 100 times before actually leaving the community. The town has been compared to Las Vegas in terms of its appeal and wealth in the early 1900's. Black Wall Street had over 600 businesses total across 36 square blocks - to think that this was done with a small group of 15,000 Black people!
There is a history of Oklahoma as a state with lots of land set aside in the past for Black people and Native Americans. A third of those who were forced to walk the "trail of tears" were black people and Oklahoma was a final destination for many. There were some 28 black townships throughout the state in those early years and pretty soon there was an economic boom that occurred in towns like Tulsa due to the discovery of oil. A lot of black people owned farm land in the areas around Tulsa too and the typical Black farm family had 10 children! It is said that a man named Mason owned the largest potato farm west of the Mississippi. When he harvested, it is said he filled 100 boxcars per day!
Tulsa was so wealthy, there were many mansions and some of the people there like California Taylor did business globally. She was married to a black banker and it is said that she had her clothes custom made in Paris and would sail there periodically to retrieve them!
The 1921 Tulsa Race Riot
As the documentary explains, D.W. Griffith's film 'Birth of a Nation' was released in 1915 and half of the American population (so most Whites) saw the film. It inspired a resurgence in the Ku Klux Klan, an organization that had gone underground for a number of years. Tulsa, Oklahoma was ground zero for a massive KKK comeback and the documentary claims 'Birth of a Nation' was a big success in the white areas of the city. In the documentary, it is said that KKK ads played next to 'Birth of a Nation' ads in white movie theaters across America!
The 1921 Tulsa race riot has to be viewed in this context. It cannot be viewed as some accidental isolated misunderstanding. I believe it was organized, I believe it was planned and I believe it was completely premeditated - but they knew they were going to need an excuse. Even back in 1921 they knew they couldn't just say "we burned Tulsa to the ground because we wanted to." They needed Whites to be the victims and they needed Blacks to be the savages they were depicted as in D.W. Griffith's white supremacist pandering film.
On Memorial Day, May 30, 1921 they'd have their excuse. A 19-year old named Dick Rowland shoe shiner who worked for Main Street shine parlor. He needed to use the restroom upstairs and was making his way to the elevator which was conducted by a white girl named Sarah Page when it is said that he tripped and reached out and grabbed Sarah Page to prevent himself from falling. Page immediately screamed rape and Rowland fled to his mother's house in the Greenwood neighborhood.
Was the Elevator Incident a Carefully-Planned Setup?
What's interesting about all of this is that since this happened on Memorial Day, according to the 2001 Oklahoma Commission report, most of the local businesses were closed. So many have wondered why either Rowland or Page were working that day to begin with. Some have speculated they may have been lovers, but then why would she scream rape? That makes no sense. Perhaps the owner of the business had his shop open on a day everyone else was off to make extra money? Or perhaps Dick Rowland was lured onto the elevator by Sarah Page just for her to scream rape in what would amount to a set-up. If the Tulsa race riot was in any way planned - it's possible Sarah Page was put up to it and essentially in on it.
It is important to note that she did not press charges. Why would she need to since there would be a lynch mob formed the very next day. That brings her entire story into question even more and makes it seem like she screamed rape specifically to cause a scene.
The Role of the Tulsa Tribune in Inciting the Riot
A day later on May 31, Rowland was arrested and immediately white supremacist rhetoric dripped from the pages of local white-owned newspapers like the now defunct Tulsa Tribune which reportedly ran a headline that said 'Nab Negro For Attacking Girl In an Elevator.' The newspaper was integral to the riot itself and surprisingly didn't go out of business until 1992! Strangely though, no original copies of the article remains seemingly having been destroyed at some point in time and the microfilm copy for that particular article doesn't exist either. So there was definitely a cover-up at the Tulsa Tribune in an attempt to wash their hands of their role in inciting mass violence in their city. Especially since there were witnesses in the past who claimed the article carried an editorial note that said...'To Lynch Negro Tonight.'
It was not uncommon for local white-owned newspapers to advertise lynchings and even at times advocate for them! So it's not outside the realm of possibility that the Tulsa Tribune had blood on its corporate hands for all of those decades post-riot. It would appear based on what little information we have that the newspaper either completely fabricated the story itself...or got a tip from someone who did. How the Tulsa Tribune even heard about what happened in the elevator is not known, but could be the source of the entire plot.
Standoff at the Courthouse and the Subsequent Destruction of Black Wall Street
As the Tulsa Tribune article began circulating, white people began getting riled up and over the course of several hours began showing up at the Courthouse where Rowland was being held demanding his release so they could lynch him. News got around to the local black community in the Greenwood district about what was happening and a group of about 100 black men, some of them World War 1 veterans, took up arms to protect Rowland from extra-judicial murder.
At this point it was pretty late at night and someone tipped off the Whites amassed at the Courthouse that the blacks were arming themselves so many of them went home to get their guns too...soon there were roughly 2,000 armed white men at the Courthouse plotting to attack, burn and loot Black Wall Street. It is important to point out that according to the Tulsa Cultural Center, by 1921 Tulsa had 3,200 members of the KKK living in the city. So it's hard to imagine that a significant number of them weren't involved in this.
Around 10 p.m., after offering their services to the Sheriff to help protect Rowland from lynching (which was denied), shots were fired and a small gunfight ensued. 10 white men and 2 black men were killed and the armed blacks retreated back into the Greenwood district. To make matter worse, around 11 p.m. members of the Oklahoma National Guard began rounding up and arresting random Black people apparently siding with the white lynch mob!
Back and forth shooting took place for several hours between the blacks and whites, but the black defenders were grossly outnumbered. The white lynch mob had both the National Guard and a veteran's group known as the American Legion backing them up. The American Legion reportedly went on night patrols with the rioters as they destroyed Black Wall Street.
It was around 1 a.m. in the morning that the white lynch mob began setting the homes and businesses in Black Wall Street on fire. Eyewitnesses would later talk about seeing airplanes flying low over the district and dropping firebombs onto homes and businesses...making Black Wall Street the first place to be bombed from the air.
The next morning around 12 noon, more National Guard had shown up and martial law was declared. More than 6,000 black people had been rounded up throughout the night by the police and eventually National Guard and were held in 3 different internment camps (a.k.a. concentration camps)...two of which were baseball fields. They were forced to make sure they had their papers there while needing medical attention that likely was never given. Some are definitely known to have died in the makeshift internment camps, but the exact number is not known. Some have speculated that well over 1,000 black men and women may have lost their lives under the martial law curfew that was put into place as the black citizens were held for 8 days and the details of their detainment are murky at best. We know over 6,000 were detained, but it's unclear how many were actually released.
Legacy of the Riot
The Tulsa race riot was one of the greatest acts of terrorism ever committed on American soil until September 11, 2001, and is arguably the greatest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history. Only the perpetrators weren't Muslims, they were white supremacist extremists inspired by a make-believe, fictional, fantasy, pro-Confederate Hollywood retelling of the Civil War known as 'Birth of a Nation.'
How this so-called race riot played out is really telling. How the National Guard sided with the white lynch mob and as far as we know made no attempt to arrest nearly as many whites as they had blacks. How there was a cover-up for many years and even till this day, getting details about what occurred is difficult and is based too much on secondary accounts. Even among the survivors who lived to tell their tale, they were minors at the time. We may never know everything that happened, one thing is for certain though...I doubt the official death toll. One would have to assume that the Red Cross had access to everything (which they may not have) and their death toll number is the most liberal of all. Just about every other source from the time period downplays the number of people the white extremists killed and I suspect even the Red Cross numbers are off. The numbers vary so much, that it's almost certain there were bodies that weren't included in the final count and who exactly was giving out these numbers, to begin with, is also unknown.
The destruction of Black Wall Street represents the extent to which racists went in the past to suppress black achievement. The same sentiment that allowed Little Africa to be destroyed is the same mentality that gave rise to the "Silent Majority" after the Civil Rights movement. It's the same white-lash that we've seen occur post-Obama. It simply manifests itself in different ways and since that time period, there has been more of an emphasis on hiding acts of racial brutality and barbarism to effectively shield white society.
The Return of Fascistic Racial Extremism
As I explained above, I believe history occurs in various complex oscillations between, but never exactly touching, two extremes. I have called them extreme racial oppression (E.R.O.) and extreme racial liberty (E.R.L.). I believe that through learning history if enough of us in a democratic society learn from the mistakes of the past, we can make oscillations towards E.R.O. less destructive. The rise of the far-right and domestic terrorism along with it is more a return to old ways more than it is something we haven't seen before.
According to a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), only 27% (23 out of 85) of violent extremist actions were carried out by Muslims since 9/11. The other 73% have been done by far-right extremists and much like the past, the media and newspapers play this down (or ignore it altogether) and play up the threat from non-Whites.
It's natural for people to look at things like this and see them as current day problems, most don't realize that this has been going on for many decades. Just because you stop hearing about racist right-wing militias and armed hate groups for a few years doesn't mean they no longer exist.
Racist right-wing fascism is not just trending in America, but it's happening all over Europe as well. According to The Independent, in the U.K. 1 in 3 terror suspects are now white and in 2016 35% of those held on suspicion of terrorism were white...an increase of 20 from 2015 and the highest since 2003!
In France, something similar is going on with the rise of the far-right National Front and Marine Le Pen. When it comes to white supremacy, its proponents will always side in majority numbers with fascism over socialism.
Everyone should read Dr. Nafeez Ahmed's investigative research in a 7-part series entitled 'Return of the Reich - Mapping the Global Resurgence of Far-Right Power.' For most Americans, it'll shed light on what is happening across Europe and should be combined with other research. What's going on in Europe is not independent of what's happening in America and a lot of the driving forces are identical...historically and currently.
To end this article, one of the biggest mistakes that have been made post-Civil Rights has been the lulling to sleep of millions of America through this sentiment that racism was a thing of the past. Some of us in the black community, including many elders, have kept up the fight knowing better than that. Others have been slow to pick up on the trend, and even more, continue to play down white supremacy. Thanks to the democratization of news, those days are coming to an end.
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