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On the morning of May 31, 1921, the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was a thriving Black community. By noon on June 1, it wasn’t.
Over the course of roughly 24 hours, a White mob, set off by a dubious accusation and abetted by members of the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Department and the Oklahoma National Guard, obliterated the uniquely prosperous area beloved as Black Wall Street.
As many as 300 people were killed, according to the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum, and thousands were left homeless.
One century on, as the US engages in a fresh reckoning with its long history of racist violence, it makes sense to ask: What’s the state of the country’s collective memory of the events of 1921? And how does economic justice fit into that conversation?
For Phoebe Stubblefield, a University of Florida forensic anthropologist whose parents were born and raised in Tulsa, the pogrom was personal.
“It wasn’t until I told my parents that I’d been invited (in the late 1990s) to assist in the investigation of a possible unmarked mass grave that my mother said, ‘Your Aunt Anna lost her house (in the assault),’ ” Stubblefield told CNN. “So, my parents knew about it, but it wasn’t something they talked about. And actually, that might’ve been what got me looking into my family history in general.”
Since George Floyd’s murder last May, Black Americans across the country – including in Tulsa – have been demanding that the US confront past instances of racist violence that have been buried or forgotten.
Yet even at a moment of heightened attention to race – and even as depictions of the massacre figure prominently in recent pieces of pop culture, including HBO’s “Watchmen” and “Lovecraft Country” (CNN’s parent company owns HBO) – Stubblefield sees an ongoing need to nurture the country’s awareness of the attack.
“There’s more knowledge, but I don’t think that saying ‘Tulsa race massacre’ sparks knowledge the way that saying ‘Watts riots’ does,” she said, referring to the 1965 uprising that seized and shook Los Angeles for several days. “My work – and the work of many other people – is about elevating a suppressed history and reclaiming the Greenwood heroes who were discarded.”
A culture of silence
To understand the massacre fully, you have to understand its attendant trauma. Before the turn of the 21st century, there was a culture of silence in Tulsa.
“There are many different ways to respond to historical trauma. A culture of silence is one of them,” said Alicia Odewale, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Tulsa, and for some but not all Black people in the city, “that silence stemmed from the fact that there was never any justice or accountability. For a long time, there was a lingering fear that an attack could happen again at any moment because no one ever answered for the killing and looting and arson and bombing.”
Odewale added: “Black Tulsans were left with a feeling of, ‘We don’t know how to grapple with this. We don’t know how to talk about the massacre and not relive it and re-traumatize ourselves in the process.’ So the silence was also a kind of self-protection.”
Notably, many White Tulsans said nothing for a different reason.
The 1921 Tulsa race massacre
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“The White city fathers realized they had a big PR problem,” Scott Ellsworth, a historian and the author of the new book, “The Ground Breaking: An American City and Its Search for Justice,” told the Los Angeles Times in 1999. “So they very soon put out the notion: Tulsa is shamed by that event, and we’ll put it right. But what really occurred, for 50 or 75 years, was, if not a conspiracy of silence, a culture of silence” that sought to conceal guilt.
But if, on the whole, there’s now greater knowledge of the massacre and its bruising legacy, why does racial and economic inequality with roots in that devastating 24-hour period in 1921 continue to afflict parts of Tulsa?
“It’s not because we don’t talk about it. It’s not because we don’t have meetings to discuss it. What we don’t have is collective will. Giving voice to the issue and doing something about it are two different things,” Oklahoma state Rep. Regina Goodwin, whose great-grandfather was a well-known businessman in Greenwood at the time of the massacre, told CNN.
An uphill battle to restore economic prosperity
Today, Greenwood is just a sliver of the size it was before the assault, and the area’s once-celebrated economic prosperity is still a thing of the past.
A lawsuit filed in 2020 said that Greenwood residents suffered up to $100 million in property damage as a result of the massacre and that policies enacted in the ensuing decades contributed to the decline of Greenwood and North Tulsa.
Yet even in recent years, there’s been little meaningful effort to stimulate sustainable business growth in North Tulsa or support survivors. Last February, Tulsa Mayor GT Bynum, a Republican, dismissed reparations as divisive.
And just this month, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission ejected Oklahoma Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt from the group after he signed legislation that members saw as going against their ambition of openly and rigorously reexamining history.
“Everybody’s talking about tourism and saying, ‘Let’s remember what was,’ but that’s not economic development,” Goodwin said. “You’ve got folks collecting millions of dollars. You’ve got movies being made. You’ve got books being published. You’ve got facilities being built. But you’ve also got survivors. They’re not getting any millions.”
Testifying before members of a House Judiciary subcommittee last week, survivors made clear that economic justice has been kept beyond their reach.
“They owe us something. They owe me something. I have lived much of my life poor. My opportunities were taken from me and my community. North Tulsa, Black Tulsa, is still messed up today. They didn’t rebuild it. It’s empty. It’s a ghetto,” 106-year-old Lessie Benningfield Randle said.
And until there’s a deeper desire, specifically among White Tulsans, to restore Greenwood and North Tulsa to their former splendor and deliver reparations to survivors and their descendants, commemorating the massacre will register as little more than lip service.
“Folks blow into town and then blow out of town. In the meantime, you still have a community that’s struggling,” Goodwin said. “I don’t think that’s anything to celebrate.”