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The Worst Race Riot in U.S. History

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Today’s headlines are ablaze with news of rage and protests, which began with the savage killing of African-American George Floyd at the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer, while three other officers looked on; followed by displays of primarily peaceful protest marches; and a polarizing speech and photo op from the current U.S. President about Law and Order, ironically the very same thing protesters are demanding. Minutes earlier the irony had already been visualized when the U.S. Attorney General ordered the National Guard and U.S. Park Police to brutally attack the primarily peaceful protestors – many of whom singing and dancing – in Lafayette Square with rubber bullets, chemical gas, flash-bang grenades and clubs. Fox News reported that the attack was done in order to clear a walking path for the U.S. President to St. John’s Episcopal Church, where he held a bible like a prop while making a divisive rant, considered unconstitutional by numerous scholars. Business Insider stated that the President was enraged due to being mocked for hiding in the White House bunker, during the previous Friday night protests, contrary to his carefully orchestrated image as a ‘tough guy.’ And now our great nation holds its breathe as we attempt to defend our experiment in Jeffersonian Democracy.

Greenwood Cultural Center
Photo courtesy of Greenwood Cultural Center.

To give our harrowing current events perspective, let’s look back at one of the most bleak and secretive tragedies in our past. It is so secretive that my thoughtful guide in Oklahoma knew nothing about it, and I had to direct him to its site. It is the worst race riot in U.S. history.

The time and place: The 1921 Tulsa Race Riot

the Greenwood District was an affluent African-American community, nationally known as the Black Wall Street
Photo courtesy of Greenwood Cultural Center

Tulsa’s Greenwood District was once an affluent African-American community, nationally known as the Black Wall Street. During the segregated Jim Crow era of the 1920’s, most of Tulsa’s 10,000 African-American residents lived in Greenwood, which included 300 black-owned businesses, a thriving financial district, post office, churches, middle and upper-class homes, nationally-known doctors, lawyers, bankers, and, yes, millionaires.

It was a model self-contained city, where citizens conducted their lives in harmony; devoid of racism and harassment. Residents could no longer be denied patronizing movie theaters,  concerts, restaurants and stores. They had become a living example of what all Americans should be: first-class citizens.  All this took place in the affluent 300 black-owned businesses of Greenwood.

BUT, THINGS WERE ABOUT TO CHANGE

Due to a still dubious claim by a white female elevator operator that a black 19-year-old shoe shiner, Dick Rowland, did ‘something’ to offend her in the elevator (still a mystery today), Rowland was immediately arrested and sent to jail. Rumors of what had supposedly happened began to circulate throughout the city’s white community. That afternoon a front-page story in the Tulsa Tribune enraged some of the white populace with the report that the police had arrested a ‘Negro’ man for sexually assaulting a white woman.

crowd gathered outside the Tulsa courthouse, 1921
Photo courtesy of Greenwood Cultural Center

News spread like California wildfire. When a white mob gathered at the jail, Rowland was moved from the city jail to the more secure county lockup on the top floor of the city’s courthouse. Growing numbers of the white mob, now estimated at 2,000, marched to the courthouse, demanding Rowland to be lynched. When the mob attempted to storm the building, Sheriff Willard McCullough and his deputies heroically dispersed the crowd, protecting Dick Rowland from death. Later that night, there was a struggle between a member of the white lynch mob and an African-American man with a gun, who had arrived at the courthouse to protect Rowland from a presumed lynching. As they wrestled for the gun, it accidentally went off, killing the white man. This incensed the mob to a boiling point.

As one man observed, All hell is about to break loose!

fires raging during the 1921 race riot in Greenwood, Tulsa
Photo courtesy of Greenwood Cultural Center
burning neighborhood in Greenwood, Tulsa race riot 1921
Photo courtesy of Greenwood Cultural Center

In the following early morning hours of June 1, 1921, vigilante mobs of white rioters poured into the Greenwood District; killing, looting and burning all 35-blocks to the ground. The city government of Tulsa conspired with the mob, arresting more than 6,000 black residents and refusing to provide them with protection or assistance. Law enforcement officials used airplanes to drop firebombs on buildings, homes and fleeing families; stating they were protecting the city against a “Negro uprising.” An African-American World War l veteran put on his uniform in an attempt to show the white rioters that he was a loyal American, but received deadly bullet holes in his uniform as a reply. The nationally renowned physician, Dr. A.C. Jackson, was murdered when he approached the blood-thirsty mob with his arms raised.  Over 6,000 African-American citizens were imprisoned, and some historians believe as many as 300 African-Americans, including women and children, were massacred, while thousands were left homeless. News reports were largely squelched. You will hardly find any mention of the worst U.S. incident of racial violence in any national public school history books, Oklahoma classrooms or even in private conversations. In April 2002, a private religious charity, the Tulsa Metropolitan Ministry, paid a total of $28,000 to the known survivors, a little more than $200 each, using funds raised from private donations.

aftermath of the 1921 Tulsa race riot
Left: Photo courtesy of Greenwood Cultural Center. Right: Photo courtesy of Oklahoma Historical Society

The Tulsa Race Riot still remains the worst incident of racial violence in U.S. history. Thankfully, the modest Greenwood Cultural Center (formed in the late 1970s) is keeping this tragedy alive today. Their mission is to preserve African-American heritage and promote positive images of the African-American community by providing educational and cultural experiences promoting intercultural exchange, and encouraging cultural tourism. May God Bless Them.

Epilogue:

The irony continues with the U.S. President’s scheduled campaign rally on June 19 in Tulsa, Oklahoma – it’s venue just blocks away from the site of the Tula Race Riot. May we hope he refrains from using harsh polarizing words, and pays tribute to the families who died and suffered in the worst racist violence in American history.

The White House is already defending its decision to hold the rally on Juneteenth — a day considered to be Independence Day for black Americans. The president is also facing criticism over possible exposure of attendees to the coronavirus. The rally’s site, BOK Center, can hold about 19,000 people. A disclaimer at the bottom of the rally’s registration page reads, “By attending the Rally, you and any guests voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19 and agree to not hold Donald J. Trump for President… liable for any illness or injury.” Yes, a smart preemptive move; but a smarter one would be for him to address unity and healing, and, dare I say, justice for all.

Other Major U.S. Race Riots

New York City Draft Riots (July 13–16, 1863) began when the Union Army began conscripting citizens for military service, but if a payment of $300 could be made (worth about $9,000 now), then conscription could be avoided. Manhattan’s wealthy could buy their way out of military service, while the city’s poorer immigrant population, mostly from Ireland, could not. The protests exploded into a race riot, with primarily Irish immigrants focusing their rage on an easy target: Manhattan’s African-American citizens. The official toll was listed at 120 deaths. The military did not reach the city until the second day of rioting, by which time the mobs had ransacked or destroyed numerous public buildings, two Protestant churches, the homes of various abolitionists or sympathizers, many African-American homes, and the Colored Orphan Asylum, which was burned to the ground. Numerous black residents fled Manhattan permanently.

The Atlanta Race Riot (Sept. 22-24, 1906): The Atlanta Race Riot of 1906 made headline news throughout Europe and the Americas for its especially brutal character. The race riot was an attack by armed mobs of white Americans against African-Americans in Atlanta, Georgia. According to the Atlanta History Center, some black Americans were hanged from lampposts; others were shot, beaten or stabbed to death as white mobs invaded black neighborhoods, destroying homes and businesses. The immediate catalyst was newspaper reports of four white women raped in separate incidents, allegedly by African-American men. An underlying cause was the growing racial tension in a rapidly-changing city and economy, with competition for jobs, housing, and political power.

The Detroit  Race Riot of 1943 (June 20-22, 1943): Detroit’s three-days of rioting was the result of racial tensions between migrated blacks from the U.S. Rural South and migrated whites also from the U.S. Rural South, who had both arrived in the industrialized North for better opportunities. As they competed for jobs against one another, the situation intensified, leading to the bloodiest and costliest race riot of 1943. Thirty-four people died and about 1,800 were arrested. Detroit’s auto industry was, at the time of the riots, churning out machines for the Allies’ war effort, and while the riots didn’t affect production, the Japanese Imperial Empire used the incident as propaganda, and called on American blacks to not participate in the war effort against the Axis.

Los Angeles Rodney King Riots, (April 29-May 4, 1992): The brutal beating of African-American Rodney King, and the subsequent acquittal of the LAPD officers for that beating (which was caught on camera) led to the worst riot in the United States since the late 1960s. The reaction to the acquittal in South Central Los Angeles — now known as South Los Angeles — was then an area where more than half of the population were black. Tension had already been mounting in the neighborhood in the years leading up to the riots: the unemployment rate was about 50 percent, a drug epidemic was ravaging the area, and gang activity and violent crime were high.

Olivia Hooker: Tulsa Race Riot Survivor Dies Aged 103

Courtesy BBC World News

Olivia Hooker and Pres. Barack Obama in 2015
Photo by White House photographer Pete Souza

When Olivia Hooker was six years old, she was forced to hide under a table as a white mob destroyed the neighborhood around her. Later, she would recount how she struggled to stay silent as the torch-carrying men took an axe to the family piano. Outside, as many as 1,000 homes and businesses – including her father’s clothes store – were being reduced to rubble.

The 1921 Tulsa race riot would also leave as many as 300 black people dead. But the horrifying incident in Oklahoma would be far from the only distinguishing moment of Ms Hooker’s remarkable life.

In her 103 years, she would become the first African-American woman to join the US Coast Guard, go on to gain a PhD and eventually play a key role in pursuing justice for the victims of the race riot, more than 70 years after the fact. She would be praised as a “tireless voice for justice and equality” by America’s first black president, and called “a national treasure” by the head of the US Coast Guard.

Read her full story here
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