Why learning about the 1921 Tulsa race massacre is not enough

One hundred years after the residents of a thriving black community in Oklahoma were massacred by their white neighbours, we need to offer more than regret. 

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In 1921, a massacre of black people in Tulsa, Oklahoma took place. I learned about it five years ago.

If, in school, I ever learned about the day when white residents in Tulsa, Oklahoma attacked the residents and businesses of the Greenwood District, known as “black Wall Street”, I do not remember. I try to recall whether I learned and forgot about it at some point during my education, or at any point in my adult life, and I draw a blank. I was 26 when I read about what happened in Tulsa at the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. It was there that I learned how there was a thriving community and then there wasn’t, after 300 black people were killed by their white neighbours. . 

On an upper floor of that museum is a small room dedicated to the Tulsa race massacre. What that room makes clear is that the mass of people killed were individuals who had families and thriving businesses. There was a vibrant community. There were people who took nothing and made it something, and then it was violently taken from them. All of this happened because a black shoe shiner was accused of “nabbing” a white elevator operator. In some accounts, he tripped and grabbed onto her arm. He was arrested. A group of black Tulsans were turned away by the sheriff when they offered to protect him from the lynch mob that gathered. They were themselves then confronted by white Tulsans, and then, eventually, their whole community was slaughtered by their white neighbours, in some cases with weapons provided to them by local officials. The whole museum is masterful, but that room, in my opinion, is the best.

[See also: George Floyd’s murder one year on: has the US changed?]

There are black Americans – even, or maybe especially, black Tulsans – who also have grown up unaware of the Tulsa massacre, perhaps because the historical trauma, suffering and lack of justice were managed through silence. White America, I suspect, didn’t learn about it for different reasons: white America does not like to admit it has done anything wrong. Still, many white Americans have, in recent years, become more conscious about the history of race and racism in this country. A culmination of a variety of factors, including the Black Lives Matter movement and Donald Trump’s openly racist rhetoric and politics, has brought race and racism into sharper focus. In 2020, the announcement that Trump was holding a rally in Tulsa on Juneteenth, the anniversary of the 19 June 1865 freeing of slaves in Texas, amid protests in response to the murder of George Floyd by a police officer, was met with outrage (Trump ended up delaying the rally by a day).

We will never know whether the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre would have been met with much reflection by mainstream white America if not for this particular sequence of recent events. But it is indeed being recognised and noted. The New York Times have created a virtual presentation of what was destroyed that day in Tulsa: businesses, restaurants, hotels, newspapers, dentist and lawyers offices, mostly black-owned, together, and thriving. US President Joe Biden will visit Tulsa to commemorate the massacre. America is commemorating.

But what is a commemoration? What does white America do with this knowledge now that we have it? What is awareness? What is a room in a museum? Survivors of the massacre and their descendants are suing for reparations – will they win? As Oklahoma Rep. Regina Goodwin, whose great-grandfather was a Greenwood businessman at the time of the massacre, told CNN, that there are people making money off the memory of the Tulsa massacre – from books and museum tours – but those people aren’t the survivors or their descendants. Life expectancy is shorter for black Tulsans and there is greater unemployment within the community. Will Tulsa, or Oklahoma, or the US do anything about the significant inequality? Will it give concrete, economic help to the community it destroyed? Or will we say that we now know what happened, that we’re sorry, and that’s all?

Emily Tamkin is the New Statesman’s US editor. 

She co-hosts our weekly global affairs podcast, World Review

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