“Residents of Tulsa, Oklahoma, called it ‘Magic City.'”-Calvin Craig Miller

Buildings went up in flames during the riot of 1921 in Tulsa, Oklahoma

On Friday, April 6, two men, one white and one Native American, drove into north Tulsa and gunned down five black people, killing three and wounding two.

The two men responsible for Friday’s massacre, Jacob England and Alvin Watts, were arrested on Sunday and confessed to shooting the victims. Controversy on whether this was a hate crime has developed and created chaos among native Tulsans.

According to NPR, racial hostilities “whipped up overnight after the shootings…. In Tulsa, with its tortured racial history, old wounds can reopen easily.” Tulsa was the site of a terrible race riot of a terrible race riot at the start of the last century, and the aftershock of the riot is still present in the minds of many black Tulsans today.

Calvin Craig Miller wrote in Backlash: Race Riots in the Jim Crow Era, “In the decades following the end of the Civil War in 1865, African Americans sought to make their way forward as a free people…. But the rage of the Jim Crow era often followed in their footsteps. They faced antebellum racist stereotypes in the South, an invisible color line in the North, and mob violence in both…. Black populations would gain a foothold, only to face a backlash from the white majority.”

NPR reported, “The race riot of 1921, arguably the worst in U.S. history, occurred in Tulsa and destroyed one of the South’s most prosperous black neighborhoods, later known as Black Wall Street. Tulsans, black and white, refused to speak of that bloody chapter for decades…”

The riot was a face off between whites and blacks in Tulsa. A black man, Dick Rowland, was accused and arrested for raping a white girl in an elevator. A crowd of angry whites gathered around the courthouse where he was held, talking of lynching him. Throughout the evening, more and more black residents arrived at the courthouse, many of whom had been World War I veterans.

Miller wrote, “The idea of fighting for their country, only to come home to violence against their race, angered these former soldiers. Soon there were two crowds at the courthouse, one white and one black. It did not take long for the initial spark that triggered the riot. Someone fired a single shot. An eruption of gunfire lit up the faces in the crowd, and everyone cleared the streets to take cover.”

By the end of the riot, the black neighborhood of Greenwood, in north Tulsa, was completely demolished after having been looted and set on fire.

Today, Tulsa is still no stranger to hate. According to the Chicago Tribune, the city has seven “hate groups,” including the Ku Klux Klan, black separatist groups, a neo-Confederate ministry, a white nationalist organization, and a neo-Nazi group.

According to the Washington Post, “Oklahoma law enforcement agencies reported an average of 51 hate crimes per year from 2008 to 2010, according to the most recent data from the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. The most common hate crime during those years was anti-black vandalism committed by white offenders.”

During the riot of 1921, racial tensions were high, and, as the Chicago Tribune reported, “the Tulsa shootings… come at a time of rising racial passions in the wake of the shooting death of unarmed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida.” Will people separate into two groups as they did in 1921, or will they form a united front against hate?

Adrianne Loggins
Associate Editor

For more information on the Tulsa riot and other race riots of the time, check out Backlash: Race Riots in the Jim Crow Era by Calvin Craig Miller (ISBN 9781599351834)

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Published in: on April 11, 2012 at 4:48 pm  Leave a Comment  
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