44. Toxic history

Friday June 19 2020

Today is Juneteenth, a day memorialized as the day of emancipation of enslaved people. NPR started with this factoid, then followed up with a story about the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921, a horrific event that is not generally taught on school curriculum nor included in American History textbooks. When did I first learn about the horrors of “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history”?


I’d learned of the event, which has come into focus with the latest race protests and the President planning to start his re-election campaign in Tulsa on Juneteenth. But it wasn’t until listening to the most recent podcast of This American Life that I learned more about of what happened.

Following the Great War, an affluent black community built an empire in the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, which included a business district known as Black Wall Street. According to history.com, news reports were discouraged despite the hundreds who were killed and thousands left homeless. Racial tensions had spiked after the war and white supremacy was rapidly gaining in strength.

It might not matter what started this event, because any reason would do. But historically it’s claimed that a black teenager entered an elevator operated by a white girl. He went in, she screamed, and he quickly left. Some say he accidentally stepped on her foot; others say he tried to rape her.

A white mob tried to reach the teenager, who was being held in the courthouse. When they couldn’t get to the kid to lynch him, they gained in force and took to the Greenwood neighborhood, where they shot and killed and looted and burned. Official reports claimed 36 were killed, including 10 whites. A study performed too many effing years later in 2001 moved the death toll to 100 to 300, along with more than 8,000 people left homeless. Apparently, mass graves were later discovered and are now known to be yet another thing that was hidden from historical records.

The black teenager wasn’t charged with any crime and so was released. The authorities believed he did accidentally stumble into the elevator operator and meant her no harm. Instead they could have let the mob have at him. If the boy were sacrificed to the wolves at the door, would that have sated them and Greenwood have been saved? Likely not. If it didn’t happen that day, it would just be another. Because they only needed a black boy to step on a white girl’s foot as a call to action.

Any American history event involving mass graves is horrific enough, but of course this isn’t the only racially based riot that happened during the period after WWI. A wave of race riots affected the country. Chicago was notable with the Red Summer of 1919 that was sparked by a black teenager who crossed an arbitrary line separating the black beach from the white on the shores of Lake Michigan. That same summer saw similar events in Washington DC, Knoxville TN, Longview TX, Phillips County AR, and Omaha NB. I would have to research each of these to understand the catalyst, because this wasn’t something we covered in my small town, and very WASP, high school in the 1970’s.

I asked Derek when he first learned about either Juneteenth or the Tulsa Massacre; he says it was recent for him as well. He agreed black history is not normally on public school curriculums.

But why do we categorize the Tulsa Massacre as black history? The way it went down was genocide. One class of people destroying the lives of another. We learned about the Trail of Tears and don’t classify that as something only for native American history textbooks. I don’t get it.

I was an adult in my late twenties before I knew we had internment camps for Japanese citizens living in the U.S. during World War II. This seems incredible to me now, that I was lacking this knowledge. Every time I learn something like this, I feel like I’m missing important connections. I don’t want to be a passive learner.

Comparing the post-WWI race riots, along with the social unrest of the sixties, to today’s conditions, where are we on the scale of racial tension today?

A question that’s being asked now by many is Why Now? We’ve had the ability to record live events on our smart phones over the past few years. Accusations of police brutality are now shared online for the public to hold trial. There’s been no shortage of these, unfortunately. And we add the other cases of wrongful death that weren’t recorded, yet well publicized, such as cops entering the wrong home and shooting an innocent young woman seven times. Time and again, it’s all “somebody needs to do something.” And now somebody did.

But why now after the tragic Minneapolis death? It’s not about that man or the cop who killed him. Not really. They’re offered to personify the issue of racial inequality; putting a name to the face. Is it as simple as the “final straw” as some have said? Is related to the stress of living through the weeks of quarantine with the swinging pendulum of COVID over our heads? Or is there an organized underground movement that has finally reached momentum to confirm the conspiracy theories?

Why now? And the follow-up question of “What’s next?”

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