As Trump rallies, Black Tulsa revisits legacy of 1921 race riots

As Trump rallies, Black Tulsa revisits legacy of 1921 race riots

In 1921 Tulsa’s white residents and civil society leaders looted and burned Tulsa’s Black Greenwood district to the ground.US President Donald Trump’s choice to resume his rallies, starting in Tulsa, has brought a surge of national interest in the district.Tulsa’s mayor has formed a commission for marking the 100th anniversary of the massacre next year.

In the real world, 74-year-old Donald Shaw is walking on the empty, parched grass slope by Tulsa’s noisy crosstown expressway. He is on the other side of the city’s historical white-Black dividing line from where President Donald Trump will hold a rally on Saturday with his overwhelmingly white supporters.

But Shaw can conjure stories and images of so much more – the once-thriving Black community that stood on this same ground, destroyed nearly a century ago by white violence and ensuing decades of repression.

“Just imagine, in your mind, all these homes,” Shaw said one morning earlier this week, remembering the Black-built, Black-owned houses and churches that covered dozens of blocks where he is walking, the site of Tulsa’s 1921 race massacre. “Just picture that.”

“Hotels, movie theatre, roller rink,” said Shaw, a retired man who spends his mornings sitting in the shade of an engraved stone memorial to the Home Style Cafe, AS Newkirk photography studio, and literally hundreds of other African American-owned bakeries, barbershops, lawyers’ offices and businesses razed in the massacre.

Burned bricks and a fragment of a church basement are about all that survive today of the more than 30-block historically Black district. On May 31 and June 1 in 1921, white residents and civil society leaders looted and burned Tulsa’s Black Greenwood district to the ground, and used planes to drop projectiles on it.

The attackers killed up to 300 Black Tulsans, and forced survivors for a time to internment camps overseen by National Guard members.

Historians said the trouble began after a Tulsa newspaper drummed up a furore over a Black man who allegedly stepped on a white girl’s foot. When Black Tulsans showed up with guns to prevent the man’s lynching, white Tulsa responded with overwhelming force. A grand jury investigation at the time concluded, without evidence, that unidentified agitators had given Tulsa’s African Americans both their firearms and what was described as their mistaken belief “in equal rights, social equality and their ability to demand the same”.

“Everything they had downtown,” Shaw said of the white-owned business district where Trump will rally, “we had here.”

Trump’s choice to resume his giant rallies in Oklahoma, a loyal Republican state, and in Tulsa, an oil centre, has brought a surge of national interest in the Greenwood district once called Tulsa’s “Negro Wall Street”. His rally at the 19,000-seat BOK Center will be Trump’s first since the coronavirus pandemic shut down much of the US by late March.

Trump’s initial plan to hold the rally on Friday – Juneteenth, the anniversary of the emancipation of slaves in the US – also sparked interest in the turbulent racial legacy here, although he later pushed back the rally date to Saturday. So has a string of nationwide street protests over police killings of George Floyd and other Black Americans.

Despite the Oklahoma heat, visitors of all races drive up to the site of the destroyed Black community. They take photos of themselves in front of the inscribed memorials to what is now called Black Wall Street. They raise a defiant fist in the air for other photos in front of a mural to Black Wall Street painted on the side of the overpass.

For Shawn-Du Stackhouse, a barber from the Washington, DC area and one of those visiting the Tulsa massacre memorials, the proof that mobile phone videos provide of killings of African Americans today somehow make the killings of the past, like Tulsa’s, more real as well.

Published at Sat, 20 Jun 2020 18:11:29 +0000