John Colson: From Tulsa to Capitol Hill, ’round we go
Hit & Run
It was 100 years ago today — June 1, 1921 — that an outraged Black populace awoke to the aftermath of violence and murder that occurred when a huge mob of angry white supremacists (though they weren’t known by that moniker at the time) burned down the mostly Black-owned and occupied Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma, including a commercial area long characterized as the Black Wall Street of America.
No one is sure how many white Tulsans took part in the Tulsa Race Massacre, as it has been called in numerous recent news stories, nor how many Black Tulsans died over the course of those two days of mayhem, May 31 and June 1.
What is certain is that hundreds of people are believed to have died in the conflagration, an unknown number of whom were dumped in at least one mass grave.
What also is known is that, in spite of promised reparations for those whose lives were upended (or merely ended) in the massacre, no reparation payments, no official word of apology from the governments complicit in the violence, and not one iota of reconstruction of the destroyed homes and businesses has ever been forthcoming.
Oh, that’s not quite correct.
According to an article in the New York Times Magazine about the massacre and its repercussions, despite promises from local and state officials, the only compensation paid by the government went to the white owner of a gun shop in the Greenwood area. He claimed that nearly $4,000 worth of guns were stolen from his shop during the riot (reportedly that is equal to about $60,000 in today’s dollars), though the article did not give details about who the alleged gun thieves were.
And according to multiple accounts of the atrocities committed in Tulsa that spring, the local governments did everything they could to cover up the massacre, to “black-wash” it by claiming it was all an uprising of Black agitators that lead to the destruction and deaths.
In the ensuing decades, whites and Blacks alike did not speak of the 1921 tragedy — whites because they would rather not acknowledge it at all, and Blacks because they were afraid the violence could erupt again if they were known to be raising questions about what happened.
The lack of any real investigation into the causes and perpetrators of the outrage has left us with the haziest of notions about exactly what prompted the outburst of racist violence.
But, to my mind, it could easily be deemed an outburst of pent-up jealousy and frustration over the successes and accomplishments of Black residents and business owners, which came about despite the oppression of the Jim Crow laws that had dominated the South for decades following the Civil War.
I’ve been reading (slowly, I must admit) the 2020 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Caste, The Origins of Our Discontents,” by Isabel Wilkerson.
Among other things, she argues that the United States’ rather unique system of systemic cultural oppression is much better described as a caste system than a racist one, partly because all people, regardless of color or creed, are part of the same collection of beings known as the “human race,” which happens to be the same way I have long viewed the questions revolving around race and racism.
And maintaining the supremacy of white citizens over those who are Black, brown, yellow or red (just to stick to the color scheme of our twisted culture) is of deep importance to the dominant (white) caste, as any crack in the facade could lead to unthinkable consequences culturally, economically and morally.
So the proud white citizens of Tulsa, tired of being forced to observe the kinds of accomplishment represented by Greenwood, used the trumped-up excuse of accusing a Black teenager of accosting a white woman in a public place (charges against the teen were later, quietly dropped) as justification for destroying Greenwood and killing as many of its inhabitants as possible in a short burst of shameful violence.
Fast forward to 2021, a century after the event, and there has yet to be any financial or moral reckoning for those two days of violence in Tulsa.
And on top of that, in the eyes of at least two descendants of survivors of the massacre, we have just lived through an event that brought back painful memories of the 1921massacre — the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 of this year.
In different articles, two women — one living in Washington, D.C., the other in Tulsa — said that watching the attack on the Capitol left them feeling what they imagined could have been the emotions of observers of the 1921 debacle; a deep fear about the future of this country and whether democracy can survive a national surge in white supremacist, authoritarian dogma that has been embraced by former President Donald Trump, who is making noises about trying to get his old job back in 2024.
Philosopher George Santayana once wrote that “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it,” and this could be a good example of how right he was.
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I find myself feeling overly tired these days, which I don’t think it’s simply a consequence of nearing the beginning of my seventh decade of existence on this planet.