From ‘riot’ to ‘mas­sacre’

Re­defin­ing vi­o­lence in Tulsa in 1921

The Oklahoman - - NEWS - BY SAMUEL HARDI­MAN Tulsa World sam.hardi­man@ tul­saworld.com

TULSA — As the cen­ten­nial of the Tulsa Race Riot ap­proaches, some are now call­ing it the Tulsa Race Mas­sacre.

That new de­scrip­tion for the two-day event in 1921, which left at least 37 Tul­sans — most of whom were black — con­firmed dead, and de­stroyed what was known as Black Wall Street was on dis­play at a four-day Tulsa Pub­lic Schools sem­i­nar for more than 50 teach­ers this week. The pro­gram is ti­tled “Tulsa Race Mas­sacre In­sti­tute” and is aimed at help­ing teach­ers learn about the city’s dark­est days and how to teach it. That name re­flects the growing opin­ion that nearly 100-year-old event has been in­cor­rectly named. So why the change? The vi­o­lence brought by white Tul­sans against the black com­mu­nity was in­ten­tional and “race riot” is too gen­eral of a term to de­scribe it, said Kar­los Hill, the chair of the African-Amer­i­can stud­ies depart­ment at the Univer­sity of Oklahoma and a scholar who has stud­ied vi­o­lence against blacks in Amer­ica.

Hill is help­ing lead the four-day sem­i­nar at Wilson Teach­ing & Learn­ing Academy.

“What peo­ple in the com­mu­nity and his­to­ri­ans are try­ing to raise up is what hap­pened in Tulsa is a de­lib­er­ate, co­or­di­nated, sys­tem­atic as­sault on a com­mu­nity that re­sulted in that com­mu­nity be­ing com­pletely de­stroyed, and there are es­ti­mates that as many as 300 peo­ple were killed. That is not a race riot,” Hill said. “This was a mas­sacre.”

“Re­fer­ring to it as a “race riot” is a eu­phemism. It doesn’t re­ally get to what ac­tu­ally hap­pened, which I ar­gue was an at­tempted ex­pul­sion of the black com­mu­nity from Tulsa,” Hill said.

“I think blacks and whites have a dif­fer­ent re­la­tion­ship to this his­tory. There’s just no way around. It’s more com­mon for African-Amer­i­cans to re­fer to the race riot as a mas­sacre than as a race riot be­cause most of the vic­tims of it were African-Amer­i­cans. African-Amer­i­cans were the main tar­get of the vi­o­lence.”

Reuben Gant, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor at the John Hope Franklin Cen­ter for Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, said he too con­sid­ers what has been de­scribed as a riot a mas­sacre.

“I would think it’s con­sid­ered a mas­sacre be­cause there was no at­tempt on the black com­mu­nity to go into the white com­mu­nity and cre­ate the same dev­as­ta­tion and havoc. Whites took it upon them­selves to come into the black com­mu­nity and de­stroy, pil­lage and kill,” Gant said.

“What was the pur­pose of a white mob com­ing into a black com­mu­nity?”

The event be­gan on May 31 af­ter a black man was wrongly ac­cused of rap­ing a white woman. That man was held at the Tulsa County jail and, on two sep­a­rate oc­ca­sions, groups of armed black men of­fered to pro­tect him and were turned down. As the group of armed black men re­turned to the Greenwood district, a white man at­tempted to dis­arm one of them and a shot rang out, be­gin­ning the riot, ac­cord­ing to the Oklahoma His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety.

White mobs set fires on the edge of Greenwood dur­ing the night. On the morn­ing of June 1, thou­sands of whites de­scended into the district, loot­ing, set­ting fires and killing blacks who fought back but were de­scribed as out­num­bered and out­gunned. Au­thor­i­ties did lit­tle to quell the vi­o­lence.

The school district’s pur­pose in call­ing the event a mas­sacre is be­cause it doesn’t find the term riot “his­tor­i­cally ac­cu­rate,” said TPS Ex­ec­u­tive Direc­tor of Teach­ing and Learn­ing Danielle Neves.

She said the district is en­cour­ag­ing the use of that lan­guage.

Neves said the district put on the sem­i­nar be­cause it wants to broaden the num­ber of stu­dents who are learn­ing about Tulsa his­tory be­yond what’s re­quired to be taught about the event in high school.

She added that she thought the use of the word mas­sacre would broaden as time went on.

Two teach­ers at the sem­i­nar, Pat Lankster and Mandy John­ston, have adopted the term.

“I hadn’t made the dis­tinc­tion un­til yes­ter­day when we were first started,” Lankster said. “And now that I know that that term was ba­si­cally used to kind of muf­fle or kind of down­play what re­ally hap­pened, it’s be­com­ing of­fen­sive. I think mas­sacre is a much bet­ter word.”

John­ston said: “When you hear the word ‘mas­sacre,’ you think of de­struc­tion and tar­geted. And that’s what it was.”

Both teach­ers grew up in Tulsa and didn’t learn about the event in school.

“It wasn’t brought up,” Lankster said. “It was Tulsa’s dirty lit­tle se­cret and no­body wanted to re­ally take re­spon­si­bil­ity for it, so it’s just been muf­fled.”

Hill, for his part, sees mean­ing in chang­ing the lan­guage now. So does Gant.

“Be­cause ‘race riot’ doesn’t get to what ac­tu­ally hap­pened, if we, as a city, as a state, as a na­tion, be­gin to re­fer to the events of 1921 as the Tulsa Mas­sacre, that would be a huge leap,” Hill said. “Be­cause we would be­gin to be mov­ing to­ward, un­der­stand­ing this his­tory more au­then­ti­cally. And what I would want to em­pha­size is from the van­tage point of the vic­tims and the sur­vivors. That would be a huge, huge step in the right di­rec­tion.

“For the city to for­mally say this is a mas­sacre, that would be huge. It wouldn’t erase the gen­er­a­tions of con­ceal­ing or si­lence and so forth. But it would cre­ate a ba­sis upon which other di­a­logues could hap­pen.”

Gant said: “There should be an ef­fort to cor­rect the an­nals of his­tory. Cor­rect it. It wasn’t a riot. I’m sure it’s a con­tro­ver­sial topic, prob­a­bly some­thing that is un­doable. But it doesn’t negate the fact, that when talked about, it could be talked about in its purest, and truest form as a mas­sacre.”

[PHOTO PRO­VIDED BY THE GREENWOOD CUL­TURAL CEN­TER]

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