July 25, 2000 -- Vol.5, no.1
Conspiracies of Silence
To protect Rowland, a group of black men marched to the courthouse. Outgunned when a white mob showed up, they retreated into Greenwood, a black area outside the white city. The Tulsa police then deputized a number of men from the lynch mob, reportedly including members of the Ku Klux Klan. These men went out, killed, and set fire to the very homes and businesses they had been deputized to defend.
By June 1 when the Oklahoma National Guard arrived, about 1200 buildings, including 23 churches, had been burned, bombed, or looted, and as many as 300 people had been shot, burned alive, or dragged behind cars.(2) And so, a great drama triangle of persecutors, rescuers, and victims was played out in Tulsa. Some of those who posed as rescuers, however, were really wolves in sheep's clothing.
Karpman (4) made a significant contribution to understanding human problems, when he described the reciprocal roles of victims, persecutors, and rescuers. Switches in these roles and their related existential positions make for great drama, high emotion, surges of stress hormones-and much unhappiness. However, with the notable exceptions of Jacobs'(5) work on the Holocaust and the abuses of power, the correlates of the resulting drama triangle have not been well elucidated. It is our hope that this history of a few days at the end of May 1921, will add to this literature.
Built on oil fortunes and the Atlantic-Pacific Railroad, Tulsa had grown rapidly between 1910 and 1920. The Greenwood area grew up because blacks were forbidden by law to live or own businesses in the white city and were expected to be out of town by sunset. However, by 1921,the Greenwood area had grown to include 191 businesses and about 15,000 people, including lawyers, doctors and dentists, a movie theatre, hotel and newspaper.
Perhaps 10,000 whites crossed the railway tracks that separated Greenwood from the white city. Most of the 35 square blocks of Greenwood were destroyed, including the wealthy business district known nationally as "the Black Wall Street," and about 6,000 men, women, and children were marched at gunpoint to internment. (3) Survivors reported white families standing with their children around the borders of the area, watching the killing and burning in much the same way they would have watched a lynching. Then, all records of the event disappeared, and most civil discussion of it stopped. (6) It was as if the "riot," as it was termed, had never occurred.
Behind the Drama Triangle
Tulsa was not unique among American cities in terms of racial wars during the 1920's, but what were the causes? As in many other places (11) - Omaha, Nebraska; Kansas City, Kansas; Knoxville, Tennessee - rumors that a black man had harmed a white woman were the catalyst. However, it would seem highly unlikely that a black man would assault a white woman in a busy public building at the height of rush hour. Indeed, Miss Page refused to press charges. Behind this precipitant, however, lay a variety of less obvious psychological, political and economic factors.
In the name of decency and public morality, the Tulsa Tribune had long blamed blacks for all manner of vice, labeling "niggertown" as a "cesspool of inequity and corruption."(8) In reality, all of Tulsa at the time had a boom town atmosphere, much criminal activity, selective law enforcement and an active vigilante tradition. This was a period, it should be recalled, when the Ku Klux Klan was gaining strength. They became strong after the collapse of the Oklahoma Socialist Party, previously the strongest political group in the area.(7) Even before 1921, when Oklahoma was to be a Black-Indian state, the Kansas KKK had threatened to kill a black man who had been proposed as governor.
In the 1920's, Oklahoma had twenty-eight black townships and over forty black municipalities and was known as a capitol of black economic independence, a "promised land," and Greenwood was the most affluent all-black community in the United States.(2) However, on the other side of the tracks, in the white city, many young men had recently returned from World War I penniless.
Successful blacks were often considered "uppity" by the white community. One black community leader had sued a railroad for confining him to a Jim Crow car, and a black newspaper editor had led a group of black farmers to prevent the lynching of a black prisoner in a nearby town - and then wrote about it.
While Tulsa was expanding geographically, it had no place to grow for it was hemmed in by the Arkansas River to the west and Greenwood to the North. The city paid off whites who had lost property in the event and proposed a fund to rebuild the community, but the fund was never created, and all claims made by blacks were disallowed. In effect, the city commission was able to push the black area further north, and take its land for white Tulsa.
Thus, this drama triangle seems to have been fueled by fear, greed, jealousy, revenge, and a desire to keep the community status quo.
Conspiracies of Silence and the Co-construction of History
The police blotter soon disappeared, as did all copies of the fateful May 31 issue of the Tribune. Later, even microfilm copies of it also disappeared. Reference to the event dropped from most civil conversation, although there were weak, if differing, oral traditions in the black and white communities. By the 1970's, however, many locals and whites knew nothing of it, but the careful observer could see its aftermath. The author directed a community mental health center whose catchment area included Greenwood, but neither black families nor their therapists would discuss the event in terms of its effect on families in treatment. Real estate agents directed their white clients south and for many years, blacks were rarely seen south of 21st Street after 5 p.m., a phenomenon that changed only when the collapse of the oil boom left many South Tulsa condos vacant.
Why did this event almost disappear from history?
Avoidance is one of the characteristics of PTSD, and many of the victims certainly were exposed to threats of death and injury. However, it seems more likely that many blacks were afraid that the white men could come again if they talked. For their part, whites had acquired part of Greenwood, ended black economic independence, assured themselves of cheap labor, and rid themselves of "uppity" blacks who might challenge the status quo, and were willing "to let sleeping dogs lie."
Despite threats on his life, a local amateur historian, Ed Wheeler, eventually wrote a "Profile of a Race Riot" for the Oklahoma Impact Magazine in 1971.(10) The article had a major impact in Greenwood, but was largely ignored in the white Tulsa. Indeed, it had previously been rejected by the Chamber of Commerce and the Tulsa World, then a business partner of the Tribune. Fifty years after the "riot," there had been a commemorative service, but it took more than seventy years, the mid-1990's, for an outraged state representative from the Greenwood area, Don Ross, to shepherd the creation of the Tulsa Race Riot Commission by the Oklahoma legislature. Key items in the commission's deliberations have been debates about reparations and white guilt over the behavior of their forefathers. Only when the meetings were reported by the Tulsa World, however, did many younger Tulsans learn of their history.
What can we learn from this event about the misuse of power? What are the conditions and dynamics that led to both what seems to have been sanctioned murder and then to its later disappearance from history?
First, blacks were dehumanized and treated as different species. This is an extreme example of "I'm OK, you're not." The consequent development of two parallel cities exacerbated this problem, for members of neither group were able to know members of the other in their full humanness.
Second, on such a group of others, it is easy to project one's own unacceptable impulses and fantasies. This process was probably exacerbated by the fundamentalist Bible belt emphasis on good vs. evil and the Ku Klux Klan's rhetoric of hate and death. In subduing and destroying the blacks, whites could externalize and soothe their own internal Parent-Child conflicts, and temporarily restore internal psychic peace.
Third, growing black political and economic independence was a potential threat to the local white power structure and status quo. In destroying this threat, white Tulsa was successful. The dangers of being an "uppity" community leader was not lost on the black community, and Tulsa remained much the same in terms of segregation, class, power structure, and segregation for over half a century. Even today, the Greenwood area is usually described as "North Tulsa," as if its defining feature were geographic.
Fourth was the role of the "good citizens," the bystanders who chose to ignore and to forget the event but, at least covertly, gave permission for it through their inaction and many of them profited from it economically, politically, socially, and psychologically. The arsonists and killers did their "dirty work."
Fifth, some of the perpetrators may have planned the activity in a very Adult manner. It seems clear, for example, that the Tulsa Police could have done much more than they did to abort the event. Many black survivors certainly believed the event had been orchestrated. The Tulsa Tribune, for its part, however, blamed black radicals from Chicago and New York, and described the event as "the first fruits of discontent from Eastern propaganda" planted in the minds of southern blacks. (9)
Sixth was the power of the media and civic leaders in creating and promoting scenarios that influenced later understanding of the event.(1) The Tulsa Tribune and later the Tulsa World, its business partner at the time, and the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce were key in this process. It should be noted, however, that local newspapers are dependent on advertisers; that is, on companies with money to spend on advertising, and blacks had a history patronizing their own businesses in Greenwood rather than the white ones. It has not escaped Wheeler's notice that the leaders of the Chamber of Commerce who rejected his article in 1970 were young men in their 20's at the time of the riot, and may well have participated in it or known people who did.(6) However, probably even more important 50 years later when his article was rejected, was the fact that this event would tarnish the image of Tulsa they wished to project.
In summary, Tulsa offers a microcosm of factors which have been elucidated in a variety of other atrocities. There was, indeed, a drama triangle but underlying it was a seething cauldron of diverse psychological, economic, social, and political issues. However, the story of the Tulsa massacre is also the story of the power of two individuals. It is because of two men, Ed Wheeler and Don Ross, and one newspaper, the Black Oklahoma Eagle, that all groups can now talk openly of the event.
As survivors have emerged to tell their stories, estimates of the number of murdered have grown exponentially. Bodies were stuffed in tunnels, it seems, buried in mass graves, left to rot in the hot Oklahoma sun, or dumped in the Arkansas River. 1921 is not the date of a "race riot." It is the date of a massacre.
On September 30, 2000, the Indiana - based American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan held a rally in Tulsa. Civic and religious leaders urged people to stay away and without an audience to react, the rally quickly became a non-event. A few miles away, the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce had organized an alternative event, "Let my Light Shine Brotherhood Concert". The next day, over 300 Tulsa citizens of all colors symbolically cleansed the rally area with brooms, mops and sage and juniper smudge sticks.
11. Williams, L.E., and Williams, L.E. (1973) Anatomy of Four Race Riots: Racial Conflict in Elaine (Arkansas), Knoxville, Tulsa and Chicago 1919-1921. Hattiesburg: University and College Press of Mississippi.