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Tulsa wasn’t the first city to experience a race riot, and it would not be the last. Racial disturbances were commonplace at the time, as the nation struggled to grapple with its rapidly changing culture.
During the “Red Summer of 1919,” there were more than two dozen race riots across the country. In Chicago, tensions mounted over housing, job prospects and which race had use of certain recreational areas, resulting in a bloody riot. Washington, D.C., experienced its own unrest after a white woman fabricated a story of being raped by two black men, a common lie of the time that was then inflamed by the white press, kicking off yet another riot.
There were similar eruptions in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Omaha, Nebraska, that summer. And even after Tulsa, a rape accusation was the cause of a riot in Rosewood, a black community in Florida that was burned to the ground in 1923.
Olivia Hooker, 99, is one of the last survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. While her family home survived the destruction, the family lost everything else they had – including her father’s department store. She shared her memory of the experience with Al Jazeera America.
In Tulsa, it all started because of an incident between Dick Rowland, a black man, and Sarah Page, a young white woman, in an elevator at the Drexel Building. It’s not exactly clear what the chain of events was — even the state’s official report lists a variety of stories surrounding what happened — but most credible accounts agree on the basic facts.
On May 30, 19-year-old Rowland was riding in an elevator operated by 17-year-old Page. Rowland tripped as he was exiting the elevator and grabbed Page’s arm in an attempt to steady himself. She screamed, and he fled the elevator as a white clerk from a nearby store came to investigate the noise. He assumed Page, apparently distraught from the incident, had been assaulted by Rowland and called the police.
Like a game of telephone, the story became more inflammatory with each retelling, and spread rapidly. Rowland hid in Greenwood, terrified he’d be lynched for allegedly raping a white girl. He was arrested the next morning and taken to the courthouse, where a vigilante mob had arrived to demand that police turn him over to the crowd.
A group of black men, many of them World War I veterans, armed themselves and went to the courthouse to protect Rowland, determined that a black person would not be lynched in their town.
More than 75 of them twice arrived at the courthouse to offer their services to defend Rowland against a mob of thousands of angry whites. They were twice denied. Their departure from the courthouse the second time would be the tipping point.
According to the official report, a white man approached one of the black men, who was armed with a revolver.
“Nigger, what are you going to do with that pistol?” he said.
“I’m going to use it if I need to,” the black man replied.
The white man demanded he hand it over, and he refused. When the white man tried to disarm him, the gun went off and the riot began.
Over the course of 24 hours, Greenwood would be looted, set ablaze and literally burned off the map. All 35 blocks were gone.
When the smoke cleared on June 1, more than $1.5 million in damage (about $20 million in contemporary dollars) had been done; as many as 300 people, black and white, had been killed; and thousands of black families were left homeless, with nothing but rubble and ash to call home.
Even then, there were people who wanted to pay restitution.
According to a 1921 New York Times article, Judge Loyal J. Martin, a former mayor of Tulsa who chaired the first race riot committee — the Tulsa City Commission — just days after the attack, said in a mass meeting that the city could redeem itself and move forward only “by complete restitution and rehabilitation of the destroyed black belt.”
"The rest of the United States must know that the real citizenship of Tulsa weeps at this unspeakable crime and will make good the damage, so far as it can be done, to the last penny,” he said.
But that never happened. Insurance companies denied claims from African-Americans, leaving them with nothing but the clothes on their backs, forced to start over or leave. Blacks tried to sue the city and state for damages but had their claims blocked or denied, according to the official report.
On June 14, just two weeks after the riot, Mayor T.D. Evans addressed the commission, telling it that the incident was “inevitable” and that the victims “should receive such help as we can give them.”
But then he said something else: “Let us immediately get to the outside fact that everything is quiet in our city, that this menace has been fully conquered, and that we are going on in a normal condition.”
In other words: The city should move on. And for 90 years, that’s what happened.
After an initial flurry of reports, with articles appearing as far away as the London Times, news of the “troubles” in Tulsa vanished.
Greenwood did rebuild, bigger and better than it was before. But desegregation claimed Greenwood just as it did every black town in the United States; given the opportunity to spend money outside their own neighborhood for the first time, and the chance to live in areas previously off limits to them, African-Americans slowly but steadily moved away from the area, and the businesses left with them.
The Greenwood of today looks nothing like the once famous area. A highway overpass cuts right through the middle of the neighborhood. The sidewalks along Greenwood Avenue and Archer Street are lined with hundreds of plaques that each list the name of a business that was destroyed in the riot and whether or not it was rebuilt. Many were not.
But just behind the businesses on Greenwood Avenue is a shiny new baseball stadium, and across the street is a new luxury condominium building. A large chunk of Greenwood is now home to the Tulsa campuses of both Oklahoma State University and Langston University.
As the mob spread through Greenwood and the National Guard arrived to evacuate black residents from their homes, Hooker’s mother saw crowds of people standing on a nearby hillside watching the disaster – with their children in tow. Hooker describes the speech her mother gave to the onlookers of the destruction.'We thought we might live long enough to see something happen...'
After 93 years of fighting for restitution, Hooker admits it is not likely she’ll ever receive anything.
From the time of the riot, whole generations of Tulsans have grown up never hearing a word about the darkest moment in the city’s history.
Damario Solomon-Simmons, an African-American attorney in Tulsa, is one of them.
A native of North Tulsa, Solomon-Simmons attended Carver Middle School — on Greenwood Avenue — and still didn’t learn about Greenwood and the riots until he took an African-American studies course at the University of Oklahoma.
All of it — the business district and the homes, the sudden destruction — left him flabbergasted. He argued with his professor, telling him, “You’re wrong! I’m from Tulsa, I’m from North Tulsa, I’ve never seen or heard of anything like that.’’
Marc Carlson, a historian and archivist at the University of Tulsa who oversees the school’s race riot collection, said many of his students don’t know either, not even the ones from Tulsa.
“I don’t know why that is,” he said, adding that the state Legislature requires schools to include the riot in their curriculum.
Oddly, there is more awareness of the event in other countries than in the U.S.
Michelle Place, executive director of the Tulsa Historical Society, said requests for information about the riot are the society’s No. 1 inquiry.
"About a month ago I talked to someone in New Zealand. I’ve talked to Tokyo, I’ve talked to London,” said Place.
She can understand why city leaders might be reluctant to put it in school textbooks. But why, she wondered, didn’t the tale survive orally?
“The fact that it’s not just one of those things that we all knew took place,” she said and paused, “… takes my breath away, brings me up short.”
Despite suffering massive losses from the riot, many people in the black community did not and still do not know about it, said Mechelle Brown, program coordinator at the Greenwood Cultural Center.
Many whites were ashamed of the incident, she said, so it would make sense that they wouldn’t want to talk about it. But it was also hushed up in the black community. Why, she wondered, wouldn’t they want people to know what happened to them?
“But blacks, we asked years ago, ‘Why did you not talk about it?’ And they said that after the race riot, when they came back here and there was absolutely nothing to come home to, that they felt those same feelings of anger and resentment and bitterness and fear,” Brown said. “But they had to think about the next day, and the day after.”
Brown understands why they wouldn’t want to relive that pain, she said. At the same time, she sees it as a missed opportunity.
“It robbed us of something. It robbed us of our history. It robbed us of where we come from.”
In 2001, 80 years after the destruction of Greenwood, the Tulsa Race Riot Commission recommended in a 178-page report that survivors be paid reparations, calling it a “moral obligation.”
“Justice demands a closure as it did with Japanese Americans and Holocaust victims of Germany,” the report reads. The issue is not if reparations are to be paid, but “which government entity should provide financial repair to the survivors and the condemned community that suffered under vigilante violence?”
Paying reparations was just not something Oklahomans were interested in entertaining.
Brown said that almost as soon as word got out about the possibility of reparations, the Greenwood Cultural Center began to receive hate mail and angry, anonymous phone calls from people who did not support paying out. A lot of the calls were similar: “I wasn’t here, my parents weren’t involved in it.”
The Oklahoma state Legislature accepted the report and the “moral responsibility on behalf of the state and its citizens” but flatly refused to pay any type of reparations.
More than 200 people sued the state, seeking recourse for damages. The survivors weren’t asking for individual checks for themselves or their descendants; they wanted educational benefits such as scholarships for students in the area to attend historically black colleges and universities and health benefits for descendants who remained in Greenwood.
Unfortunately, Oklahoma law requires that civil rights lawsuits be filed within two years of an event, and District Judge James O. Ellison noted that the clock began ticking right after the riot. The U.S. Supreme Court said the same.
For Solomon-Simmons, an attorney who worked with the victims’ legal team, having the case denied by the nation’s highest court just added insult to injury.
“I felt like we were right. We had the facts on our side. I think we should have had the law on our side,” he said. “I still get exceedingly, if I’m frank, pissed off, just thinking about the fact that we were not able to get redress for the survivors and their descendants.”
Tulsa did construct the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park in the middle of Greenwood, a memorial to the destruction and a tribute to the survivors. It’s one of two monuments in the area — the other is in front of the Greenwood Cultural Center and was built with money raised exclusively by the center several years before the reconciliation park.
Despite articles appearing in publications over the years, most people in the U.S. still have no idea the event even occurred. There is a major push from the Tulsa Historical Society, the Greenwood Cultural Center and the University of Tulsa to fix that.
The historical society has digitized its riot archive and put the collection onto an app, hoping to satisfy the seemingly unyielding demand for information about the riot, and to reach new people.
The app launched in May for $9.99, and as more material comes in, it will update so people can see the latest information. UT is also digitizing the cultural center’s archives so the information can be shared online.
The survivors may not have won their case, but at least now people may finally learn about the prosperity they once had.
After they lost their appeals, not much has happened in the way of paying the few remaining survivors. Old age and time has claimed the lives of many of them, and more die every year without any restitution.
There are some efforts in Congress to try and help. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., introduces a bill every year on the floor of the House to remove the statute of limitations in the Greenwood case to allow the survivors’ lawsuit to go forward. But that bill — along with the one Conyers presents each year to study reparations for slavery — is not likely to ever get further than that introduction, especially in today’s divided Congress.
“We thought we might live long enough to see something happen, but even though I’ve lived 99 years, nothing of that sort has actually happened,” Hooker said. “You keep hoping, you keep hope alive, so to speak.”
After all, it did take 80 years before the survivors of the riot even got an official apology from the city of Tulsa. Mayor Kathy Taylor held a “celebration of conscience” and honored with a medal each of the survivors the city could contact.
But Hooker,who was the first African American woman to serve in the Coast Guard and went on to earn a doctorate's in psychology, remains optimistic.
“We’ll just keep right on trying, never giving up. Never, never giving up.”
Solomon-Simmons, on the other hand, isn’t nearly as hopeful.
The collective failure to act, to pay the victims, to set up a scholarship fund or make a real attempt at restitution is a “stain on our nation,” he said.
“And it’s sad to know that they’re probably all going to die without receiving anything,” he added. “Unfortunately, black life in America is still not worth that much.”
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