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Tulsa 1921: Quest for justice, reparations continues

Jun 3, 2010

The matter of reparations for African Americans is one that the U.S. government has forever refused to address. Yet the condition of second-class status of persons of color, particularly Black people, is a matter of record in this country, ruled and dominated by white supremacy.

May 31 marked the anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa, Okla., race “riot.” The so-called riot was actually an 18-hour massacre of approximately 300 Black people, perpetrated by white residents in the segregated section of Greenwood. It was accompanied by the displacement and ethnic cleansing of 10,000 Black residents who were driven out of town.

The Black section was known as “Black Wall Street” because it was a prosperous, self-sufficient example of active self-determination. The community owned its own homes, property, banks, library, art house, stores, movie theatres, schools, hospital and transportation. They built these institutions during the 57 years after emancipation from slavery. Oklahoma was then an oil-rich state, which helped make possible the harnessing of Black entrepreneurial spirit.

Ironically, African Americans migrated from the Deep South to Oklahoma and other states to escape white racist terrorism, to seek safe haven and a better life.

The May 31 pogrom-like attack, considered the worse race “riot” in U.S. history, involved white deputized mobs, the Ku Klux Klan and government officials. It was triggered by the commonplace “justification” and accusation that a white woman’s “virtue” had been violated.

The incident involved a Black teenage “shoeshine boy” in an elevator in a busy building who stumbled and lost his balance. In the attempt to regain his footing he inadvertently touched the white female elevator operator. This occurred at a time when even looking at a white woman could cost a Black male his life.

The boy was accused of sexual assault and taken to the courthouse jail, where a white mob later gathered to lynch him. In the Jim Crow South, the lynching of Black people was a form of “justice” practiced frequently. Both white adults and children attended lynchings, and the victim’s body parts were mutilated and then distributed as souvenirs. When the Greenwood Black men, including World War I vets, went to town to rescue the “shoeshine boy” they were shot at and killed, some while wearing their army uniforms.

The violence didn’t end there. In the middle of the night while Blacks slept, their homes and stores were broken into and looted. The homes were also bombed by airplane and burned to the ground by lit torches. Black people were killed by machine guns in their homes and while fleeing in the streets, outnumbered 10-to -1 by the white population and unable to defend themselves or their property.

Black survivors were rounded up by the National Guard, detained for several days in the Convention Hall, and treated like criminals. When released, they were forced out of town and left destitute. Their land and property that had not been destroyed were stolen by white residents.

What Black Greenwood residents lost was not only their homes, land, businesses and personal possessions. Future generations of their descendents were denied, by deliberate acts of predatory bigotry and violence, the inheritance of what their families had built. Losses by Blacks in Tulsa reflect losses by all descendents of enslaved Africans, whose unpaid labor amounts today to trillions of dollars. This amassed fortune has accounted for the majority-white capitalists’ wealth, from which Black descendants still have not benefited or received reparations. This situation has existed for centuries, since the founding of the U.S., based also on the theft of Indigenous lands and later of two-thirds of Mexico, in addition to slavery.

The legacy of white supremacy has helped create the disproportionate racial gaps in wealth, health, education and employment; incalculable intergenerational losses and damages; and continuing discrimination and marginalization of Blacks. Following emancipation, African Americans were at the bottom of the social, political and economic ladder, and have been intentionally kept there by institutional and systemic racism.

Displacement of the Tulsa survivors was the country’s largest such diaspora until Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when an estimated 1 million mostly Black citizens lost their homes and property due to broken levees, and were forced to resettle throughout the country. Similar to Tulsa, New Orleans residents were “contained” in the New Orleans Superdome in deplorable conditions, largely ignored by the government and criminalized by the media. And having lost their homes, property, jobs and small businesses, they are still fighting for the right to return home.

Blacks also continue to be slaughtered in their own homes, exemplified by the May 16 terrorism by the Detroit police shooting, fire bombing and killing of 7-year-old Aiyana Jones while she slept. May 13 was also the 25th anniversary of the racist police helicopter bombing of the MOVE family house in Philadelphia and the shootings by government authorities that resulted in the deaths of 11 inhabitants, including children, and the destruction by fire of 61 adjacent homes.

To date, there are only 45 Tulsa “riot” survivors remaining, ranging in age from their 90s to 107 years old. For years, they have been seeking recognition of their humanity, justice and remuneration for damages owed them. But their efforts have been thwarted or ignored with no apologies given by the U.S. authorities.

For decades what happened in Greenwood was denied, whited out and covered up. It was deliberately kept out of U.S. history and remained Tulsa’s best kept secret. Federal, state and local officials, and townspeople refused to acknowledge the atrocious event, and no individuals or agencies were ever held accountable.

After uncovering concealed evidence in 2001 on the “riot,” a lawsuit was filed by professor/attorney Charles Ogletree for justice and reparations. A legal campaign called “One Day in May” was established to right the long overdue wrongs done to the remaining survivors while they are still alive. The urgency is obvious.

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UPDATED Jun 5, 2010 8:00 PM
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