One hundred years ago today

Today marks the hundredth anniversary of the invasion and burning of the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma by an army of white citizens who had been frustrated in their attempt to lynch a black man the night before. By the time state troops arrived to quell the violence, hundreds of people were dead or wounded, and 35 square blocks of the formerly prosperous black neighborhood had been destroyed by arson.

I have a more detailed description of what is now known as the Tulsa Massacre in my Lovecraft Country readers’ guide. The “for further reading” section of the guide lists additional sources of information about the massacre, including this official 2001 report commissioned by the Oklahoma state legislature.

I also want to recommend, yet again, James W. Loewen’s book Sundown Towns, which makes the important point that the Tulsa Massacre was just one incident among many:

In town after town in the United States, especially between 1890 and the 1930s, whites forced out their African American neighbors violently, as they had the Chinese in the West. Decatur, in northeastern Indiana, went sundown in 1902… Adams County, of which Decatur is the county seat, wound up without a single black household; a century later, it still had only five. Decatur exemplifies a widespread phenomenon: little riots, most of which have never been written about, even by local historians… Towns with successful riots wound up all-white, of course, or almost so, and therefore had an ideological interest in suppressing any memory of a black population in the first place, let alone of an unseemly riot that drove them out.

Whites also tried to “cleanse” at least fifteen larger cities of their more substantial nonwhite populations: Denver (of Chinese) in 1880; Seattle (of Chinese) in 1886; Akron in 1900; Evansville, Indiana, and Joplin, Missouri, in 1903; Springfield, Ohio, in 1904, 1906, and again in 1908; Springfield, Missouri, in 1906; Springfield, Illinois, in 1908; Youngstown, Ohio, and East St. Louis, Illinois, in 1917; Omaha and Knoxville in 1919; Tulsa in 1921; Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 1923; and Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1929… Some of these larger riots have received some attention, including books and historical markers. Since they were unsuccessful—in that they failed to drive out all African Americans—they have left fuller records of the process… But most of the little riots have gone entirely overlooked, and as a result, the pattern of widespread “ethnic cleansings,” of which these failed larger attempts represent the tip of the iceberg, is not generally understood.

Collectively, these incidents of violence helped shape America’s demographic landscape, where even today, there are large portions of the country where you don’t expect to see anyone who isn’t white. If you grew up not knowing the history, this can seem totally natural. But it isn’t.

Viola Ford Fletcher, 107, the oldest living survivor of the Tulsa Massacre

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