From ‘riot’ to ‘massacre’
Redefining violence in Tulsa in 1921
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.”