America’s worst race riot

by Chris Bertram on February 19, 2005

Today’s Financial Times has a remarkable article about the Tulsa riot of 1921 —essentially a bout of ethnic cleansing—its disappearance from official memory for over fifty years and the long struggle of the survivors and their descendants for recognition and compensation:

Historians call the firestorm that convulsed Tulsa from the evening of May 31 into the afternoon of June 1 the single worst event in the history of American race relations. To most Tulsans it is simply “the riot”. But the carnage had nothing in common with the mass protests of Chicago, Detroit and Newark in the 1960s or the urban violence that laid siege to Los Angeles in 1992 after the white police officers who assaulted Rodney King were acquitted. The 1921 Tulsa race riot owes its name to an older American tradition, to the days when white mobs, with the consent of local authorities, dared to rid themselves of their black neighbours. The endeavour was an opportunity “to run the Negro out of Tulsa”.

The whole thing is worth reading.

{ 35 comments }

1

Jake 02.19.05 at 10:08 am

Thanks for the article recommendation. I grew up in Tulsa and went to each of the magnet schools there Emerson Elementary, Caver Middle School, and Booker T. Washington, schools were there is a half-black/half-white quota in place. In 1991 my fifth grade class walked to Greenwood to tie black and white ribbons on the trees.

Overall the magnet school system seemed created simply a two separate societies. During elementary school it was pretty lax but high school there was a black and white side to the cafeteria, period. There might be a some black faces on the white side and some white faces on the black side, but by and large it was a pretty clear-cut division.

We learned about the riot, but the basic fact remained that most of the black students went home to north Tulsa, with a crumbling infrastructure and a high rate of crime, while most of the white students went home to south Tulsa or mid-town.

Until things like reparations happen, and initiatives to rebuild north Tulsa and the Greenwood area, things like magnet schools and tying ribbons on trees remain largely symbolic. Magnet schools can work, but while there’s a basic economic disparity between most of the black students and most of the white students, it doesn’t work as well as it should.

2

Jake 02.19.05 at 10:22 am

Er, to clear up, we walked down to Greenwood in 1991 in commeration of the 70th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Riots.

3

Brett Bellmore 02.19.05 at 2:09 pm

“Mass protests” in Detroit? Buddy, I lived at 9 mile at the time, and let’s not have any of that nonsense: Those were RIOTS, not “protests”. You can STILL see some of the burned out buildings, that they’ve never gotten around to tearing down. The city has never recovered from the it’s own citizens did it.

4

Oscar 02.19.05 at 3:27 pm

Weren’t most of the leaders in tulsa then Democrats? Interesting that Northern Democrats didn’t complain (wait, they were the main Copperheads during the Civil War).

Also interesting the the Republicans didn’t make noise either.

Guess it just didn’t matter much back then…..

5

cookie 02.19.05 at 4:40 pm

Even more interesting than political affiliation: Tulsa was Oil Capital of the World at the time, and oil/oil money fuelled the riot — hmmm, and who is it running the country now? Oilmen?

The Culture of Oil — there is such a thing. And it’s not pretty in any of its forms.

6

Dan Simon 02.19.05 at 5:14 pm

But the carnage had nothing in common with the mass protests of Chicago, Detroit and Newark in the 1960s or the urban violence that laid siege to Los Angeles in 1992 after the white police officers who assaulted Rodney King were acquitted.

Actually, the description sounds quite similar the 1992 LA riots, or the 1991 Crown Heights riots. In all of these cases, an alleged insufficiently-punished crime was used as an excuse for a local majority to rampage against a local minority that was resented for its economic success. Also, a major factor in all of these riots was the politically-motivated unwillingness of the police to step in forcefully to quell the violence, with the result that the mayhem was far worse and longer-lasting than it might have been.

I don’t believe in reparations for the descendants of such incidents, but direct victims of the authorities’ negligence is a different matter. Surely, though, the far more important legacy of the Tulsa riots is the memory of a time and place where African-American industry and prosperity–even in the face of terrible discrimination–was enough to inspire resentment among local whites. Since it has already happened (more than once, I might add), there is no reason to believe that it can’t happen again–indeed, I’m completely confident that it will happen again. Widespread understanding of that would be worth far more than any general reparations movement can ever do.

7

Sandals 02.19.05 at 5:16 pm

Oscar: Probably they were Democrats, but these’d be the Democrats who are all Republicans now.

8

Sandals 02.19.05 at 5:20 pm

That was a very interesting article. I had no idea anything like that took place.

9

roger 02.19.05 at 6:11 pm

Tulsa wasn’t that unusual. In Colfax, Louisiana, in 1875, 100 to 300 blacks were slaughtered — and when the Federal Government tried to intervene to enforce the 14th amendment, the Supreme court put its seal on American Apartheid by ruling that the federal government couldn’t interfere with the state. Then there is Rosewood, Florida, completely leveled by a white mob in the 1920s. By the way, the Lousiana government in the fifties put a commemorative marker in Colfax, celebrating white rule.
There was the Ocoee Florida massacre in 1920 — precipitated, like the Colfax massacre, by an African-American attempt to vote. This doesn’t count lynching – it is hard to live anywhere in the south and not live within 25, 30 miles of a lynch site. There’s a nice account of a typical American pogrom in East St. Louis here: http://www.exodusnews.com/
HISTORY/History010.htm

10

Matt 02.19.05 at 6:37 pm

Dan,
When you say the description sounds “quite similar” to the LA riots of ’92, are you using the British sense of “quite”? I’m about 99% certain that the deaths in that case, for example, were less than a dozen, there were no snipers, the national guard didn’t use machine guns against the victims of the rioting, there were not hundreds of deaths, and it’s not at all clear that people doing the rioting in LA were trying to ethnically cleans whites from LA. So, while the cases might be vaguely similar, it’s seems quite (american)a stretch to say the cases are “quite (american) similar”. Or, do you have something else in mind?

11

Doug 02.19.05 at 8:18 pm

Idly, I wonder what would count as the UK’s worst race riot? Anything undertaken in the rule of Ireland? Or would it be limited to the present UK? How far back into history would one want to look?

12

Matt Weiner 02.19.05 at 8:48 pm

Matt, I think that Dan is thinking of Koreans in LA (and Hasidic Jews in Crown Heights). That said, you’re right about the disanalogies; your list could be extended.

13

charlie 02.19.05 at 9:10 pm

Thanks for the post. There are a couple of books on the subject, which hasn’t really received the attention from historians that it deserves. (The Greenwood section of Tulsa was known as “The Black Wall Street.” It was, for black Americans, at least, a real financial and business center and a symbol for what blacks could achieve. White Tulsans knew that. It’s part of the reason they burned it down.)

Anyway, anyone who’s interested should check out “Reconstructing the Dreamland” by Alfred L. Brophy (Oxford University Press).

14

Yusuf Smith 02.19.05 at 10:47 pm

Overall the magnet school system seemed created simply a two separate societies. During elementary school it was pretty lax but high school there was a black and white side to the cafeteria, period. There might be a some black faces on the white side and some white faces on the black side, but by and large it was a pretty clear-cut division.

I’ve personally encountered this situation in a suburban sixth-form college in south London (Coulsdon College, Croydon). In my first year at that college (1993-4), there was a dining room and the adjacent “common room”, and the latter was used almost entirely by black and (some) Asian students from the north of the borough (Thornton Heath, Norbury) and was a place others avoided. It was also well-known for vandalism. The college went to the extent of demolishing the wall between the two rooms in an apparent attempt to cut out this problem.

15

roger 02.20.05 at 1:48 am

It is actually one of the touching ironies that the GOP grandstanded with their blue inked finggers, celebrating the Iraqi vote, when their president took advantage of the bloody history of suppressing black votes in Florida to achieve an illegitimate victory in 2000. Sorta makes you think that the angel of history really does fly backwards, her face fixed in a rictus of horror. Or that the angel of history is Harpo Marx, a practical joker non pareil.

16

RSN 02.20.05 at 3:07 am

Why is this news? I learned about this in my American high school in the 1970’s. Perhaps I was the only one listening…

17

joel turnipseed 02.20.05 at 4:54 am

Fascinating. It’s curious that no one in this thread has taken up the reparations question. A quick napkin calculation tells me that if we gave each black household in America (13M) a cash grant equal to 2K/acre of Sherman’s 40 acres, it would sum at about 1 trillion USD, or about 8% of GDP (or – half what it would take to make up deficit in Bush’s Social Security plan; also cf, State Tobacco Settlement at 246B). If a national apology and a reparation were made, along w/a sort of “truth and reconciliation” report on corporate/government involvement in slavery, is it really too much to ask? Doesn’t seem like it.

18

charlie 02.20.05 at 5:21 am

I’ve mentioned “Reconstructing the Dreamland.” Anybody know of any other good books/essays on the riot?

I’d appreciate any recommendations.

19

Movie Guy 02.20.05 at 7:17 am

Mob violence overlooked:

You left off the Baltimore riots during the late 1960s. A lot of buildings burned. A lot.

As for FT running the historical story and dredging up ugly American events, perhaps one should not overlook current events in the UK and elsewhere in Europe by British citizens.

British soccer games to mind. I’ve seen those thugs in action.

Moreover, I worked with the British for a period during the early 1980s in northern West Germany. Plenty of serious violence among that group after hours in German clubs. A very rough crowd.

Lastly, the way the British used battleships to shell cities in Ireland in the last century remains the biggest disgrace that comes to my mind. Hell, that was government mob violence.

Yes, America has had its share of disgraceful mob violence. But America is not alone. I don’t believe that America is leading the pack at the moment if we’re discussing citizen mob violence. Among the G-7 that dishonor goes to the UK, Japan, and South Korea I believe. Elsewhere, Africa should rank up there, followed by the youth in Berlin.

But thanks, indeed, for the historical article.

20

Ajax Bucky 02.20.05 at 7:51 am

“Mob violence” as a primary category is a concern of the comfortable.
Mob violence by the disenfranchised, as opposed to mob violence done to the disenfranchised, are so distinct from each other, to the uncomfortable rest of us, as to be separate categories entirely.

21

Yusuf Smith 02.20.05 at 8:29 am

As for FT running the historical story and dredging up ugly American events, perhaps one should not overlook current events in the UK and elsewhere in Europe by British citizens.

British soccer games to mind. I’ve seen those thugs in action.

And when was the last time British football hooligans launched armed attacks on definite racial targets in a city, and killed hundreds?

Britain’s had its share of racial problems, but mob riots by whites against blacks are not among them.

22

derek 02.20.05 at 10:30 am

Posted by Doug:

Idly, I wonder what would count as the UK’s worst race riot?

When  I read about the Tulsa riots, it immediately reminded me of The Gordon Riots in 1780, where the rioters were angry about legislation to reduce discrimination against Catholics.  700 people were killed and 12,000 troops had to be deployed to end the fighting.  The contrast that struck me is that whereas this event is taught in British classrooms (as far as History is taught at all, these days), while the Tulsa riots were just swept under the carpet in a typically American act of denial.  And on that note:

Posted by Movie Guy:
British soccer games to mind. I’ve seen those thugs in action.

Get over yourself.  The reason Americans have “seen” these things is because the UK media reports them as the disgraceful events they are.  You know nothing of the more frequent and more violent basketball riots in your own country (google on “basketball riot” to see what I mean).  US basketball riots are bigger, nastier, more likely to involve serious weaponry, and more likely to involve serious police response.  US basketball riots involve thousands of rioters, but they don’t get beyond local news in the USA, so you have to use Google to find out about them; but you only have to turn on the TV to hear about “Briddish soccer riots”.  Here are some URLs I gathered for the year 2000 a few years ago when this subject came up. 

http://www.lineone.net/express/00/06/21/news/n2320-d.html
http://www.sports.findlaw.com/basketball/tarnished/marchbadness/riots/
http://www.bouldernews.com/extra/riots/17awhat.html
http://www.freep.com/news/mich/qspfans28.htm
http://www.purdueexponent.org/2000/03/24/campus/riots.html
http://abcnews.go.com/sections/sports/DailyNews/purduer_riot000324.html
http://www.cnn.com/2000/US/06/20/violence6_20.a.tm/

That’s the result of a quick search of one year’s highlights, in response to an American claiming there was no American sports violence.  Even today, Americans do the equivalent of denying the Tulsa riots every year. 

23

Chris Bertram 02.20.05 at 11:10 am

Needless to say, I posted this because I thought it was an interesting article.

Non-Americans who take this as an opportunity for generalized America-bashing – grow up.

Oversensitive Americans who feel the need to point out that other nations have had bad moments – likewise.

(And if anyone whose commented above think I’m thinking of them in particular, they they are probably suffering from advanced Carly Simon syndrome.)

24

Kevin Donoghue 02.20.05 at 1:50 pm

I don’t want to encourage the sort of comment that Chris Bertram refers to, but is there any basis for movie guy’s claim about “the way the British used battleships to shell cities in Ireland in the last century….”?

Apart from the use of a gunboat during the 1916 insurrection I don’t know of anything remotely fitting this. (There is a very old joke about a cruiser being ordered to shell Galway.)

25

H.T. 02.20.05 at 2:55 pm

Non-Americans who take this as an opportunity for generalized America-bashing

Needless to say, Chris, we certainly knew where to come, eh?

26

Sally 02.20.05 at 3:58 pm

Well, 1916 was the last century, but it’s not really the same thing. Probably a better Irish analogy would be anti-Catholic violence in Belfast in 1920. I don’t think nearly as many people were killed, but more than 10,000 Catholics were driven from their jobs.

I’m not going to join the pro-American vs. anti-American argument here, so I will only point out that this was part of a larger pattern of post-World War I racial violence. It was the worst example, but in 1919 there were more than 25 race riots. The worst were in Chicago and Arkansas. After World War I, African Americans thought they’d proved their loyalty by fulfiling the obligations of citizenship and that they ought to get the rights that went along with that. That was W.E.B. DuBois’s rationale for urging black men to enlist. And white mobs were desperate to nip that in the bud. Any claims by black people to full citizenship could start a riot. (In this case it was the claim to have the right to a fair trial, rather than summary racial justice.) Just the sight of a black man in a U.S. military uniform was sometimes enough to provoke violence.

27

jet 02.20.05 at 4:45 pm

Derek,
I can’t help but believe your comments begin from a bias against the US, and continue in ignorance.

“while the Tulsa riots were just swept under the carpet in a typically American act of denial.”

Every student in Oklahoma is required to take Oklahoma State History. The curriculum for this class spends a decent amount of time covering the Tulsa Race Riot, its causes and aftermath.

28

Cryptic Ned 02.20.05 at 8:49 pm

Derek,
I can’t help but believe your comments begin from a bias against the US, and continue in ignorance.
“while the Tulsa riots were just swept under the carpet in a typically American act of denial.”
Every student in Oklahoma is required to take Oklahoma State History. The curriculum for this class spends a decent amount of time covering the Tulsa Race Riot, its causes and aftermath.

How about non-Oklahoma students? I think this is a pretty important historical event. I’m 22 and never heard of this before. It was not in my history books.

I don’t think that is evidence of any sort of bias though. We certainly spent a lot of time on civil rights issues, it’s just that everything from 1870 to Brown v. Board of Education was covered by the two words “Jim Crow”.

“Do you know what phrase they used to describe the anti-black laws passed after Reconstruction?”
“Jim Crow.”
“That is correct. And now, let’s see how Jay Gould and Cornelius Vanderbilt’s relationship is going.”

History books basically don’t contain any events that involved nobody of national importance.

29

james 02.21.05 at 3:47 pm

US Students take state history, World history (as pertaining to the US), American History, and US Government. Thats quite a bit of general knowledge to cover.

The nations past wrong doing is usually covered when addressing the greater failings: Slavery and the slaughter of the indians.

30

Cleve Blakemore 02.21.05 at 4:19 pm

I’ve always had a deep personal conviction that point of a liberal education is to indoctrinate people into the korrect attitudes to hold about minorities – and then to give them the financial means to live as far the hell away as possible upon graduation.

There’s nothing more morally offensive to me than the notion of whites trying to live somewhere that isn’t knee deep in discarded crack pipes, malt liquor cans and spent condoms. It’s that kind of elitism and undeserved privilege that heroes like Noel Ignatius is fighting against by making wise use of his own undeserved academic title and phoney elitist credentials.

I for one to forward to a day when all the races will be evenly interbred into a nice even tan and then processed for use as a food source like soylent green to feed the starving third world hordes.

I don’t think any of us want to go back to the unmitigated horror of American towns like Pleasantville, intact nuclear families, safe communities, clean streets, absymally low crime, zero unemployment and even worse, the ability to speak in complete sentences. I’d hate to think about a world where we’d watch more than fifteen minutes of popular culture without somebody grabbing their testicles and squealing about busting a cap.

I for one thank god we don’t live in that 1950’s saccharine hellhole any longer. Now, if you’ll forgive me, I have to dive behind the couch while somebody does a driveby in my neighborhood. Knowwhayimsayinhomes?

31

Cleve Blakemore 02.21.05 at 4:28 pm

I just wanted to add to this – when we discover that forcing racial proximity leads to rioting and social chaos, the single best cure we know of is to force even denser racial proximity, create more intolerance of intolerance and best of all, stoke that boiler until the bitch is whistling like a kettle. History teaches us that all ethnic disputes over territory are eventually settled through internal civil war, so we need to do everything in our power to create as much tension as we possibly can. The history books always seem to end for every civilization with the massive race war at the end – this proves that multiculturalism worked so well that historians concluded Francis Fukiyama style than no further history was needed. At least that’s what I think it means, anyway.

32

Why Riot When You Can Be Quiet? 02.21.05 at 11:55 pm

Why bother raising a big hubbub when you want to rid your country of undesirables when you can do it quietly and no one will care? Why do anything that could possibly end up on the news when you can do it away from the camera? Guantanamo, anyone?

And the lead orchastrator? Donald Rumsfeld – here’s an article about him:

http://bloogeyman.blogspot.com/2005/02/when-you-play-gin-rummy-with-this.html

And if anyone asks you questions you can just tell them to shove it!

33

Steve 02.22.05 at 12:43 am

At the courthouse downtown where Rowland was being held, a white mob squared off against armed black men. Veterans of the first world war, they had come from Greenwood to stave off a lynching. Shots broke out {fire came from both sides) and mayhem ensued. Officers of the Tulsa police and county sheriff’s department sided with the whites, hastily deputising hundreds and handing out weapons. National Guard troops were called in from neighbouring towns, arriving in trucks mounted with machine-guns. The guardsmen not only abetted the violence, but disarmed and rounded up hundreds of black defenders of Greenwood. As the whites fired at will, local biplanes circled above, scouting for blacks and – according to some reports – dropping incendiary explosives.

When I learned about it in Texas, it was pretty much a given that the planes had strafed people on the ground.

Though the armed conflict started with armed Blacks and people overresponding to them.

Many things converged there, but I’m sure that most places, if a large arab mob was armed with automatic weapons and opened fire in a confrontation with the police, would not respond with any violence or concern.

34

Cleve Blakemore 02.22.05 at 1:41 am

I like that part, where it starts with armed blacks attacking unarmed white strangers, but supposedly ends up an irrational response to that very initiative.

The fact is nowadays, when armed blacks fire on whites, white boys tend to drop to their knees and start fellating, sucking persistently right up to the moment the bullet pierces their forehead. That’s what I call progress towards better understanding between the races. At least we’ll never have to live in a world where whites actually return fire. You guys are an inspiration.

35

raver 02.22.05 at 10:45 pm

Sorry, I gotta say something here. I posted a comment about the article from FT on Chapati Mystery that deals a bit more with the issues of the riot itself and our memory of it. But I just have to say make an addendum to Jake’s comment. I also went to Booker T. and Carver and yeah it is pretty segregated, white kids and non-black non-white kids on one side, black kids on the other. I went to a magnet elementary school on the south side where all of the black kids in my classes were bussed in from the north side and yes it was much better integrated than the high school or middle school were. Nonetheless, I grew up hanging out in Greenwood and neighborhoods farther north in Tulsa against the desires of many of the adults around me (if you haven’t figure it out yet, I’m a cracker). And while there was a clear socio-economic disparity between white and black folks in Tulsa, I would say there is equal fault to be found in the attitudes of the people. I have met lots of old black men who categorically hate whites and vice versa. If people can’t have an open discussion about these issues, then they sure as hell can’t fix the economic problems that go along with them. We’re just now getting to the point where we can talk about the riot in a somewhat open manner. It would make more sense to think about this in a positive and constructive way than it would to just blame it on socio-economic disparity.
And please, let’s not call the Tulsa Race Riot “a bout of ethnic cleansing,” it’s much more complex than that.

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