Growing From History: Remembering the Tulsa Race Massacre
I was born in Oklahoma. My parents and my sister were also born there. Most of my relatives still live there and I just returned from a trip to Oklahoma.
As a child, I was always so excited to drive from the suburbs of Chicago to Oklahoma to visit my cousins, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. It was so different from where we lived.
I never knew much about the history of Oklahoma. I knew we were of Native American descent, as I heard stories from my parents about their grandparents and great-grandparents. I knew they grew up in a segregated society where they could not go to school with whites. I knew my parents didn’t have all the advantages I took for granted like a television, private telephone, indoor bathroom and a washer and dryer. Despite the challenges, they were happy and content and didn’t feel like they were missing out unless it was pointed out.
On this last visit to Oklahoma, my focus was on my parents. They have moved back to Oklahoma to retire. They are getting older, so I wanted to hear everything about what they remember about growing up in Oklahoma. I wanted to see for myself where they grew up and how they lived.
One of the trips we made was to a town called Rentiesville. My Grandma Wedgeworth was a Rentie. Rentiesville was one of 50 All-Black towns in Oklahoma and one of 13 that still survives. When the land run of 1889 opened more land to non-native Americans, Black people came from the Old South to Oklahoma to get some of this free land and make a better life. By 1920, Oklahoma had more than 30 towns that were considered All-Black. So much history here that I never heard about or learned about.
While I was there, I saw on television advertisements about the upcoming 100-year anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa massacre. One of the worst massacres in the history of the United States. What? One of the worst in the USA, right here in Greenwood, Oklahoma, 1 1/2 hours away?
How did I never hear about this? My parents grew up in Oklahoma, so I asked them about this. In fact, their history teacher was a famous Civil Rights Activist, Clara Luper. I was sure they knew all about this and it was taught to them in their All-Black school, yet they knew nothing about it. They told me it was never discussed or even mentioned. My Mother said she first heard about it when they moved to Chicago. They heard of a place in Tulsa called the Black Wall Street, where Blacks were entrepreneurs and the community prospered. They were told that everyone in the town was killed but did not have clarity on exactly what happened in Greenwood. No one talked about it, just like no one talked about the 50 All-Black towns in Oklahoma; more than any other U.S. state.
So, what happened? According to the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum, on the morning of May 30, 1921 a young black man named Dick Rowland, age 19, was riding in the elevator in the Drexel Building at Third and Main with a young white woman named Sarah Page, age 17. The details of what followed vary from person to person. Accounts of an incident circulated among the city’s white community during the day and became more exaggerated with each telling.
Tulsa police arrested Rowland the following day and began an investigation. An inflammatory report in the May 31 edition of the Tulsa Tribune spurred a confrontation between blacks, many of which being WWI veterans, and white armed mobs around the courthouse where the sheriff and his men had barricaded the top floor to protect Rowland. Shots were fired and the outnumbered African Americans began retreating to the Greenwood District. In the early morning hours of June 1, 1921 Greenwood was looted and burned by white rioters. Governor Robertson declared martial law, and National Guard troops arrived in Tulsa. Guardsmen assisted firemen in putting out fires, took African Americans out of the hands of vigilantes and imprisoned all Black Tulsans not already interned. Over 6,000 people were held at the Convention Hall and the Fairgrounds, some for as long as eight days. They were threatened and told to never speak of this or there would be consequences.
Twenty-four hours after the violence erupted, it ceased. In the wake of the violence, 35 city blocks lay in charred ruins, more than 800 people were treated for injuries and contemporary reports of deaths began at 36. Historians now believe as many as 300 people may have died.
In order to understand the Tulsa Race Massacre, it is important to understand the complexities of the times. Dick Rowland, Sarah Page and an unknown gunman were the sparks that ignited a long smoldering fire. Jim Crow, jealousy, white supremacy, and land lust, all played roles in leading up to the destruction and loss of life on May 31 and June 1, 1921. 1
We have to know history to grow from history. Educate yourself, your friends, your family, your children, your spouses, your community and let these conversations happen. Get comfortable with the uncomfortable conversations and help reveal the truths that lie within our elders.
I firmly believe that this history should be taught in schools. The more exposure we have to the truth, the faster we can heal as a nation. Together, we can lift up one another and Allies can truly understand what needs to be done and why. We can’t rely on schools to teach everything. I hope the marking of this horrible anniversary begins a renaissance of uncovering more truths of Blacks in America. Creating a ripple effect of unconditional love for one another. Opening the doors to equity, repair, and healing. As our President Joe Biden stated earlier this week in Tulsa, Oklahoma, “With silence wounds deepen.” Let’s break the silence!
- Image source: https://www.loc.gov/item/95517018/
February 1 marked the beginning of Black History Month, which brings back memories of being in high school February 1986 and getting kicked out of history class. Why, you’re wondering? What did I do? It was more what I said than what I did. I was being a typical teen, passing notes, talking to my friends, and being disruptive. This is before cell phones and text messages so note passing was what we did. My history teacher, of course, noticed my disruptive behavior and asked me a question about the lesson he was conducting. I was intentionally not paying attention and obviously didn’t know the answer.
My reasoning for not paying attention was not your typical teen just being a teen reason. It was not because I hated history—in fact, I love history. It was not my dislike for school either, because I thoroughly enjoy learning and have always been a copious notetaker. I was the student everyone came to for a copy of my notes. Was I a bit of a class clown? No. I hung around the class clowns and actively encouraged their rebellious behaviors, but I usually wasn’t the instigator. So why wasn’t I listening and paying attention to my history teacher, taking great notes, and avidly learning like I normally did?
Well, here’s why. It was the subject matter being discussed and not being discussed. It was February, Black History Month, and no Black history was being taught. No lessons of 1739, when the Stono Rebellion in South Carolina became the largest slave revolt in colonial America. (Greendyk, 2021) No discussions of the first Black US senator, Hiram Revels, in 1870. We were not talking about how one in four cowboys was Black; which is not widely known, since most stories told in popular books and movies never mention that. (Greendyk, 2021) Did we talk about Thurgood Marshall, the first African American appointed to the United States Supreme Court? Did we learn about Jack Johnson, the first African-American man to hold the World Heavyweight Champion boxing title in 1908? (Greendyk, 2021) No. Not even the lessons of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement were mentioned. None of this was being discussed. We were talking about the same dusty history stories I had been hearing about since junior high; Christopher Columbus discovering America, Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves and George Washington cutting down a cherry tree.
So when my history teacher asked me to answer his question, I couldn’t. I wasn’t listening. I did what teens do best; deflected with grand attitude. When I quickly told him I wasn’t listening, he didn’t like my answer. This was no surprise to him—he had been watching me pass notes and act disruptive. He snapped back and said that if I had been paying attention, I would have been able to answer.
My response back to my underpaid, overworked, and very brave (for even teaching high school) teacher was not thought out or methodical. It was a response from my soul, from my heart, and from my hurt. I just couldn’t understand why in 1986, in an integrated school in the suburbs of Chicago, with multiple nationalities and a significant Black population—why were we not talking about Black history at all in February? These were the feelings and thoughts rapidly swirling in my mind and resulted in me saying to my history teacher that if he was teaching something interesting to me, like my history, I would listen. I went on to say that it is February, Black History Month, and we should be discussing Black history, the history important to me. I asked him why he wasn’t teaching that.
Ok, 52-year-old Stephanie realizes there was a much better way to express my concerns, and maybe saying his lesson plans were uninteresting wasn’t kind; but remember, this was 16-year-old me.
Sixteen-year-old Stephanie had a valid point. My history teacher could have considered February as an excellent opportunity to introduce and then educate his students about Black history. There is so much history that is inaccurate, untold, and ignored. For far too long, our stories and our history went untold. Thanks to significantly rising racial pride, the 1920s was the decade of the New Negro for the Post-World War I generation. Carter G. Woodson, a noted African American historian, scholar, educator, and publisher created Negro History Week in 1926 commemorating the Black past to extend the public’s study of Black history. (Greendyk, 2021)
These efforts continued to increase in the 1940s within the Black community to expand the study of Black history in the schools. During the Civil Rights Movement in the South, some schools incorporated Black history into the curriculum, hoping to advance social change. (Greendyk, 2021)
So, 60 years after Carter G. Woodson created Negro history week, there I was in Bolingbrook High School expecting this history teacher to teach Black history. Well, it didn’t happen. Instead the teacher gave me a not so kind option of listening or leaving, so I of course made the only choice I felt would solidify my stance—and I left, in a very grand fashion. (Remember, I was 16.)
Twenty-one years later, for my 20th year class reunion, I returned with my high school best friend and her teenage son. To my surprise, murals of famous and prominent Black people were painted on the walls. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Tears welled up and I fought back an ugly cry as I gasped. I am sure my grand exit out of my history class did not result in this change, but it felt good knowing that I stood up for what should have been. I was proud of Bolingbrook High School and excited that young, impressionable minds were going to see important, significant Black faces that formed Black History. They were celebrating the achievements and lives of Blacks, not just in February, but every day.