Reflections Magazine June-July 2011
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Model African-American community destroyed

 

Remembering America's Black Wall Street

 

Established sometime between 1906 -1908 by O.W. Gurley, the son of former slaves, Greenwood, Oklahoma was once referred to as America’s Black Wall Street. Unfortunately, after what may be our nation’s most lethal race riot—resulting in as many as 300 deaths including both blacks and whites— the once-thriving Tulsa-area commercial and residential district was burned to the ground on May 31-June 1, 1921 just 14 years after Oklahoma gained statehood.

The existence and ultimate decimation of the thirty-five-square-block area, one of this country’s wealthiest, most successful black communities and home to approximately 10,000 during the early 20th century, is unbeknownst to many. It is an excruciating omission in both Oklahoma and U.S. History. For decades, it remained Tulsa’s dirty little secret—accounts of which emerged only episodically and briefly.

According to the Greenwood Cultural Center’s Onsite Program Coordinator Mechelle Brown, 1,000 to 1,500 homes were destroyed during the 18-hour rampage that left 8,000 homeless and 300 black-owned businesses in ruins. A hospital and library were razed as well. Sadly, but not surprisingly, Oklahoma Historical Society records show that although Greenwood was eventually rebuilt, its residents never fully recovered and the community was never fully restored.

A recent New York Times article called the lack of widespread awareness of this tragedy “collective amnesia” but it appears to be more of a conspiracy of silence—a defense mechanism motivated by shame, guilt and even fear. It is as if by not publicly acknowledging the rampage it did not occur and for almost a century, it has been an intentional erasure of history from which much could be learned.

Nowhere have accounts of the riot been more significantly absent than in Tulsa. For Tulsa residents, both black and white—the longer the riot and its impact were ignored, the easier it was to perpetuate the silence. No doubt a subject shared during hushed conversations, publicly and privately it was generally considered taboo and under many circumstances, banned.

That it has been little more than a footnote is unconscionable enough—but how is it that mere mention of this atrocity is rarely found in our history and textbooks and unbelievably, to date, according to Ms. Brown, has not been a mandatory part of the Tulsa public school system curriculum?

Reportedly however, that will change next fall when after 90 years, the riot will be taught in those schools. As a part of the teachings, it will be important to note that although racially motivated, not all white Tulsans joined the rioters. There are reports of whites and Hispanics from Greenwood’s adjacent neighborhoods who acted in defense of their black neighbors.

As the 2001 Oklahoma Commission to Study the 1921 Race Riot report concluded, the eruption of violence and hate that wiped out a community was “part of a message sent by not one person but many acting as one. Not a mob—it took forms too calculated and rational for that word. Not society—that word is only a mask to conceal responsibility within a fog of imprecision. Not whites—because this never spoke for all whites; some times it spoke for only a few.”

Almost a century later, the riot should not become the focal point of a blame game. At this late date, it must not be so much about culpability as the moral obligation to increase awareness of and draw lessons from this horrific event. Most of the principals are deceased—only 40 or so known survivors are living—and the oldest, Bishop Otis Clark is 108. Despite the existence of official records, evidence and personal accounts, attempts to award reparations to victims and their descendants have not succeeded.

One of the greatest tragedies of the riot might well be the lack of realization that before it burned to the ground, Greenwood was of great significance. It was a model of black success—a community of well-educated, savvy black business owners, physicians, attorneys and black women who impressively owned their own homes in an age when white women were still fighting for equal rights. The residents of Greenwood were “people of determination, strength and courage,” said Ms. Brown.

As an example of achievement, this is of particular importance because to kids in the black community, success means entertainers and athletes—those are their role models, Ms. Brown explained. “We should pass on a legacy that is not about money. They need a truer sense of who we are and where we’re from. The schools teach us about slavery and the civil rights movement but not about Greenwood and we are led to believe that is who we always were—poor, uneducated victims. We have been misled and robbed of the sense of what can be accomplished. Greenwood is a period in our history—a part of who we are. Knowing about and understanding that is about knowing where our community has been and were we can go. We want our kids to know that our history is more than about slavery and that we come from strong, tenacious and community-oriented ancestry,” Ms. Brown said.

The 1921 riot is certainly not the only infamous event that has slipped through the cracks—intentionally or otherwise. History—good or evil—is about remembering and learning. We can do neither if we forget, deny, ignore, or worse, never even know.

-Gayle S. Fixler has a Bachelor of Science degree in journalism from Arizona State University, is a Washington, DC freelance writer and a regular contributor to Reflections.

 

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