Racial Violence: How the Painful History Evolved
It’s the question everyone seems to be asking: how did the death of one man spark a global call for reform? The truth is, George Floyd’s death, along with the death of many others, is not the first time the black community has cried out against an unjust system. The reality of systemic racism is only now becoming apparent to the majority of people, though if one looks closely, they’d see that history is repeating itself. One racially charged crime leads to something bigger; a nationwide, worldwide, revolution. It’s happened before, and it’s happening again.
In today’s world, we seek acceptance and equality for all people, and it’s easy for us to say that we have upheld that value. However, when observing recurring racial injustice based upon faulty systems and harmful stereotypes, it is important to be educated on what this issue looked like in the past. Through this, we realize the truth, that racial justice might not have improved as much as we have been led to believe.
Setting the Stage
Many people falsely assume that the black community did not truly thrive in North America until recent decades. In 1921, the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was a prosperous financial district full of black-owned businesses; such as pharmacies, movie theatres, and convenience stores. What was unusual about the Greenwood District, also known as Black Wall Street, was the level of success it carried, especially in a time when white supremacist groups, most notably the Ku Klux Klan, were extremely active in the state.
Despite the prosperity of the black community of the Greenwood District, one particular incident triggered the unleash of pent-up racially motivated resentment. On May 30th of 1921, Dick Rowland, a black 19-year-old young man, entered the elevator of the Drexel building (located on 319 S. Main) with Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white woman. When it opened, Page ran out of the elevator screaming, Rowland following behind her. Details of what exactly happened between them are speculated but unknown, though an evening editorial released by Tulsa Tribune claimed that Page was assaulted. Despite her refusal to press charges, Rowland was arrested a day later and taken to the courthouse. This event was seen as the breaking point for the local white community, who’s act of revenge would become a textbook example of an extreme hate crime.
When Dick Rowland was sent to jail on the 31st of June, a mob of white people marched to the courthouse with the intent to attack him. A struggle occurred between a small group of black people there to protect Rowland and a larger group of white people. After that, hundreds of white people approached Black Wall Street armed with weapons, so Greenwood’s black residents withdrew to hide behind the railroad tracks bordering the district.
Some of them were similarly armed and tried to fight back, but they were outnumbered by the white mob, who shot their way through and looted Black Wall Street. For two days, from May 31st to June 1st, the attack continued and the district burned. Over 1200 homes and 35 blocks were destroyed by the end of the massacre, and the number of black casualties was speculated to be approximately 300 people. Adding to the tragedy, some newspapers only reported white deaths, glossing over the damage done to the black community completely.
In the days following the government attempted to cover up the event entirely. Records and city files started mysteriously vanishing, which is the reason why photos of the event serve an especially important historical significance today. Making matters worse, the photos were used as souvenirs and a symbol of white supremacy, even making it onto postcards shortly after the tragedy. They were labelled the “Tulsa Race Riot”, a subtle way to erase and rewrite what took place.
In 1997, the investigation was officially reopened. Using eye witness accounts from survivors, 3 locations have been pinpointed alluding to where the bodies could be, including Oaklawn Cemetery. The last step was the actual excavation, however, many Tulsa residents were reluctant to look into what could be considered the darkest chapter in their history, instead preferring to leave the past in the past. Unfortunately, these ideals are still present today.
More recently, the city has become more open to facing its disturbing history, and many of its residents believe they must give closure and justice to those haunted by the massacre.
Correlation and Causation
There is a selection of shared themes between the Black Wall Street tragedy and the events of today. It is harrowing to see how the white mob raided, murdered and looted a community of minorities, and yet were labelled saviours at the time. Observe how people now are getting angry at protestors for looting and becoming “violent”, while in past and present these acts of violence were carried out largely by white supremacists. Note also that in both past and present the media has misrepresented events, portraying a narrative saying that the police have “no choice” but to use force against protestors who are presented as violent, whereas in reality violence was only resorted to after unnecessary use of power was enforced by the police.
If the massacre of Black Wall Street, labelled as one of the worst cases of mass racial violence in American history, managed to be swept under the rug, one can only imagine the number of racial injustices that are similarly brushed off. Unfortunately, significant parts of the past are absent from history textbooks and classes. Knowledge of these events is especially relevant now, yet is largely unknown. It has become more apparent that we must rethink what is considered essential historical education.
Using available resources to educate yourself and the people around you and utilizing it to amplify black voices are all good steps forward towards confronting racial injustice. Below is a list of links to charities, funds and initiatives to donate to, as well as people and organizations to follow, books and articles to read, and petitions to sign. Recognizing your privilege, whether you belong to a minority or not, may be the hardest step of the process, but is necessary to make a significant change. Believe that you are part of something much bigger than yourself and, most importantly, believe in the difference that you as an individual can make. The fight is not over. Find out more here: LINK