A while back I came across this article about freeway removals. My first thought was – cool. My next thought was – I wonder what was there before the freeways. That got me thinking about Tulsa, Oklahoma.
For the Creeks, the trail of tears ended in what is now Tulsa. That tragedy of displacement is how Tulsa became part of Indian Territory. Some of those “Indians” who were driven to Oklahoma brought African descended slaves with them. Other black people came post reconstruction, trying to get a little land out from under the violence of the South. Some of those black immigrants were exodusters who set up entirely black communities in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Colorado. Mexican immigrants also arrived in larger numbers as the pre-civil war situation in Mexico became more dire.
The thing about small places with few riches and loose rules is that they tend to open up space for the kinds of relations that are forbidden and erased later. Our popular cultural narratives whiten everything so thoroughly. We think we are looking at the white supremacy of the past. And we are. But we are looking at it through the white supremacy of the present. When you actually read honest sources about “frontier towns” and early contact, you almost inevitably find that things were much more complicated and diverse than we are led to believe.
All of which is to say that early Tulsa wasn’t segregated. Several of the downtown businesses were owned by black people. But by the time Oklahoma got statehood in 1907, six years after oil was discovered and after an influx of white immigrants, Tulsa was on its way to becoming the most segregated city in America. Miscegenation was a felony. Blacks were required to take literacy tests before voting. Lynchings like that of Laura Nelson, who was gang raped before being hung with her young son, were photographed and advertised to terrify black people.
(Amazing what starts happening when somebody discovers oil and all the greedy shitbags in the world start descending on a place. I believe we are now referring to this as the “resource curse.”)
Two black men had purchased a bunch of Tulsa property at the turn of the century and sold parcels of it to other black people. The idea was to set up a black community that could provide some security and mutual support. That community became the Greenwood District. People referred to Greenwood as “The Black Wall Street.” But most people were far from rich. Many were dependent on the white families they worked for as domestics. Much like in poor, urban, black neighborhoods today; city services were nonexistent.
(If you want to see who a city cares about, see which neighborhoods get their trash picked up.)
In 1921 Tulsa, the Drexel Building had one of the only bathrooms that black people could use in the downtown area. The elevator of the building was operated by a white girl named Sarah Page. A shoe-shine boy named Dick Rowland got into the elevator. Stories differ on what happened next. But Rowland was accused of assaulting Page. And that is when all hell broke loose. Rowland was arrested and the Tulsa Tribune front page announced “Negro assaults a white girl!”
I won’t go into how often the black rapist lie has been used to justify atrocities. I’ve written about it before and probably will again. But I genuinely wonder if anyone has ever tried to compile a list of all the horrors that start out with some supposed violation of a white woman. That is never the real story, of course.
The real story is that Tulsa was a cesspool of racism. Also, by 1921, there was an active labor movement that was striking all over the place and powerful people were antsy. Black people who had served in WWI were coming home and expecting to be treated human. They were also armed and trained. In short, people were standing up for their rights.
So when rumors of a lynching started and a crowd of white people gathered in front of the courthouse and refused to disperse, the black community was not going to just hide. Black people in Greenwood, including veterans, got together to talk about how they could prevent a lynching. At 7:30, 30 armed black people went to the courthouse but were sent off by the black deputy. A couple hours later, 25 armed black people returned and demanded Rowland. By this time, Rowland’s innocence was confirmed by the accuser, but he supposedly couldn’t be released until a judge was available in the morning.
Later that night, white people started arming themselves and tried to break into an armory. Armed blacks followed. There was a struggle when a white man tried to get a black man’s gun from him. Black Tulsans retreated to the Greenwood District. There was fighting in the streets. The national guard was called in. “Deputized” white men roamed all over the city robbing stores and taking the law into their own hands. Greenwood was invaded. Homes were looted and set on fire. Airplanes few overhead. Many black witnesses say that those airplanes were dropping bombs on the city. Officials deny it to this day. Pictures of the aftermath speak for themselves.
Nobody has an accurate death toll from the riot. Some estimates go into the hundreds. But black Tulsans were not allowed to bury their dead. People don’t even know what happened to the bodies, though archeaologists have been trying to find out. Nobody faced consequences for the destruction. Donations were rejected by the city, which provided no help to those who tried to rebuild. Instead the city passed ordinances to make rebuilding difficult, worked on rezoning the area, and gave land away to whatever industry came along.
The history of the riots was completely erased by white Tulsa. School children knew nothing about it. No mention was made by officials. Then in the 1950s, as with so many other communities that the power structure found inconvenient, Greenwood was wiped out for an expressway.
Back when I was going to Tulsa quite often, I learned about the riots and decided to go see the area. That is how I found myself standing under a desolate highway overpass wondering how Oklahoma’s version of a pogrom could warrant so little attention. And that is why, when I hear about all these groovy projects for green spaces and bike lanes and farmers markets, I wonder what stood there before and how it was chased off.
Places change. People move on. Others move in. Buildings need to be replaced. Priorities change. But nobody should proceed as if the past never happened, much less actively work to erase it. All over, for as long as we have records and right up to the present, this violence and erasure keeps happening. Maybe you call it colonialism or gentrification or urban renewal or land grabbing. It’s all the same shit. People are killed. They are forced out. They are erased and their culture, history, and struggle is erased with them.
We always need to be asking what and who was there before. There is no hope of acting justly without understanding where we are now and how we got here.
Much of the info for this article came from James Hirsch’s book Riot and Remembrance: The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy. Bit of the background came from Danney Goble’s book Tulsa: Biography of the American City.