Advocate for reparations for the Tulsa Race Massacre survivors.

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In 1921, a white mob rampaged through Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Black Wall Street, burning, killing, and looting until they destroyed one of the few contemporary centers of Black wealth in the United States. This May, after a century, the Tulsa City Council finally acknowledged the horrifying massacre and announced it would investigate paying reparations to Tulsa’s Black citizens. We have five days to pressure Tulsa City Council to adopt a reparations resolution that would go beyond mere acknowledgement and begin to make right past harm, discrimination, and violence that continue to effect Black communities.

On May 19th, 2021, the Tulsa City Council announced a proclamation in acknowledgement of the Race Massacre. Then, on May 28th, they proposed a resolution that would establish a commission to study the necessity for economic reparations for Black Tulsa citizens. Now, we have just five days to pressure the city council into adopting a reparations resolution that would instill tangibility and practicable next steps for Tulsa residents beyond the platitudes of the proclamation. While it remains a controversial policy option, organizing our pursuit of racial equity around a reparative justice framework allows us to acknowledge and factor past harm, discrimination, and violence that will continue to have contemporary ramifications on Black communities around the world.

Black Wall Street – otherwise known as Greenwood – was a thriving economic mecca for Black Americans in the early 1900’s. The creation of Black Wall Street was primarily led by O.W. Gurley, who purchased 40 acres of land that he intentionally sold to Black people migrating “from the harsh oppression of Mississippi.” Gurley also gave loans to help other Black people start their own businesses. After O.W. Gurley, other Black entrepreneurs like J. B. Stradford who opened the largest Black-owned hotel in the country, and A.J. Smitherman, who was a publisher of the Tulsa Star and had an instrumental part in establishing the district’s socially conscious mindset. While the socioeconomic status of residents ranged from affluent to low-income, the money earned outside of the town would reinforce the community. Within Greenwood every dollar would change hands 19 times before it left. This town was a beacon of Black self-sufficiency and sustainability during a time for which both of those concepts were largely inaccessible to Black Americans.

On May 30th, 1921, Dick Rowland, a Black teenage shoe shiner from Greenwood, was arrested for an alleged assault on Sarah Page, a white woman. It was later determined that Rowland either tripped in the elevator or bumped into Page who then screamed which prompted the white store clerk to report the incident as “assault.”

Rowland was detained in a jail cell by a sheriff who had previously allowed a lynch mob to kidnap another Black man. The Tulsa Tribune printed an article calling for the lynching of Rowland. Upon hearing the news, a group of local Black men, many WWI veterans, came armed to protect Rowland from the steadily growing lynch mob outside the jail. The mob had swelled to over 2,000 people, intent on capturing Rowland. The veterans were outnumbered 100 to 1. Shooting broke out when a member of the mob attempted to disarm a Black veteran.

The next day a mob of white men and boys, including police and members of the national guard, rushed into Greenwood. They shot Black people on sight and looted and burned homes and businesses. As many as thirteen planes flew overhead dropping bombs and shooting from the sky. The mob destroyed 35 square blocks, including — 1,200 homes, 60 businesses, a school, a hospital, a library, and a dozen churches. Over 800 people were admitted to the hospital. The mob stopped firefighters from fighting the flames and the National Guard arrested any Black people attempting to flee.

Some reports estimate that over 300 Black people died during these events, but it is impossible to know for certain because, as part of the local cover-up of the massacre, the sheriff banned funerals from taking place. Multiple sources saw large trucks carrying Black corpses out of town and there is currently an ongoing investigation to discover and identify mass graves. While some Black people were charged with rioting-related offenses, none of the estimated 1,500 white officials and citizens who participated were prosecuted for violent criminal acts.

City officials cleansed all evidence from records, including the Tribune article calling for a lynching and an article afterward saying, “the old N*****town must never be allowed in Tulsa again.” Not long after the event, the Tulsa Police Chief banned photos from being taken of the carnage as “a precaution against the influx here of Negros and other critics seeking propaganda for their organizations.” In the aftermath, the KKK used the massacre as a recruiting tool, sending postcards of the massacre all over the country. In the months following the massacre, the local KKK chapter grew to be one of the largest chapters in the country.

In the decades that followed, Greenwood residents would go on to rebuild a thriving Black community in Tulsa. This community would later be destabilized by eminent domain claims that stripped the town of infrastructure and resources. At The Amendment Project, we firmly believe that acknowledgement of harm is a fundamental prerequisite to necessary rectification and reconciliation. While one of the deadliest, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre is not a unique phenomenon of racial violence against Black individuals and communities, and the coverup tactics have similarly been utilized to prevent genuine accountability for a century.

Reparations for Black Americans have long been relegated to the status of a political infeasibility, but the movement for reparations is on the rise both in the United States and globally. We ask for your support in encouraging/pressuring the Tulsa City Council to pass a reparations resolution that will acknowledge complicity and active participation in the 1921 Race Massacre and invest in the Black Tulsa community today.

Sydni Scott (she/her) is a 21-year-old student at Columbia University studying political science and African American studies. She is the founder and director of The Amendment Project, a grassroots, student-led organization that seeks to mobilize young people in the movement for reparations.

Key Takeaways

  • The Race Massacre of 1921 leveled a thriving Black community to the ground in just 48 hours. That town and its residents have since been the victim of racially discriminatory policies for the past century.

  • We currently have the opportunity to invest care and resources back into that community through a reparations bill being voted on by the Tulsa City council on June 2nd.

  • The movement for reparations is gaining momentum, and exists as a critical component of our conversation about racial equality.

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