FILE - In this photo provided by Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa, two armed men walk away from burning buildings as others walk in the opposite direction during the June 1, 1921, Tulsa Race Massacre in Tulsa, Okla. (Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa via AP, File)

FILE - In this photo provided by Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa, two armed men walk away from burning buildings as others walk in the opposite direction during the June 1, 1921, Tulsa Race Massacre in Tulsa, Okla. (Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa via AP, File)

Tulsa Race Massacre long buried chapter of U.S. history

In Tulsa, word of unrest that started on May 31, 1921

When the smoke cleared in June 1921, the toll from the massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was catastrophic — scores of lives lost, homes and businesses burned to the ground, a thriving Black community gutted by a white mob.

The nightmare cried out for attention, as something to be investigated and memorialized, with speeches and statues and anniversary commemorations.

But the horror and violence visited upon Tulsa’s Black community didn’t become part of the American story. Instead, it was pushed down, unremembered and untaught until efforts decades later started bringing it into the light. And even this year, with the 100th anniversary of the massacre being recognized, it’s still an unfamiliar history to many — something historians say has broader repercussions.

“The consequences of that is a sort of a lie that we tell ourselves collectively about who we are as a society, who we have been historically, that’s set some of these things up as aberrations, as exceptions of what we understand society to be rather than endemic or intrinsic parts of American history,” said Joshua Guild, an associate professor of history and African American studies at Princeton University.

Indeed, U.S. history is filled with dark events — often involving racism and racial violence — that haven’t been made part of the national fabric. Many involved Black Americans, of which the Tulsa Race Massacre is considered among the most egregious in its absolute destruction, but other racial and ethnic communities have been impacted as well.

Americans not knowing about these events or not recognizing the full scope of the country’s conflict-ridden history has impacts that continue to reverberate, Guild said.

“If we don’t understand the nature of the harm … we can’t really have a full reckoning with the possibility of any kind of redress,” he said.

Manisha Sinha, a professor of American history at the University of Connecticut, agreed.

“It’s really important for Americans to learn from the past, because you really cannot even understand some of our current-day political divisions and ideas unless you realize that this conversation over both the nature and the parameters of American democracy is an ongoing and a really long one,” she said.

Terrible events that many Americans don’t know about include long-ago history, such as the Snake River attack in Oregon in 1887, where as many as 34 Chinese gold miners were killed, and the 1864 Sand Creek massacre of around 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho people by U.S. soldiers in Colorado. Others are within the lifetimes of many Americans living today, like the 1985 bombing by Philadelphia police of the house that headquartered the Black organization MOVE, killing 11 people.

As odd as it may sound, the mere fact that something happened isn’t enough for it to be remembered, said Robin Wagner-Pacifici, a professor teaching sociology at the New School for Social Research, who has written about the MOVE bombing.

“You can never assume, no matter how huge an event may be in terms of its literal impact on numbers of people, that it’s going to be framed and recognized and move forward in time, in memory, by future publics or state apparatuses or political forces,” she said.

In Oklahoma, the massacre largely wasn’t discussed until a commission was formed in 1997 to investigate the violence. For decades, the state’s public schools called it the Tulsa race riot, when it was discussed at all. Students now are urged to consider the differences between calling it a “massacre” or a “riot.”

How an event is presented can make a difference, Wagner-Pacifici said. That could include whether it’s connected to other historical moments and what parts are emphasized or downplayed.

“All sorts of political forces and actors will kind of move in, to try to name it and claim it, in order either to tamp it down in its impact or to elaborate it in its impact,” she said.

She pointed to a current example: the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection by a predominantly white mob at the U.S. Capitol. Democrats in Congress are pushing for a commission to take a deeper look and how to prevent it from happening again, while a small number of Republicans have taken to downplaying it.

In Tulsa, word of unrest that started on May 31, 1921, and ran through the night and the next day made it to news outlets. Front-page stories and accounts from The Associated Press spoke of a “race clash” and “armed conflict.” But the aftermath — of a community shattered —- was relegated to inside pages at best before being swept under the rug.

In one example, a story weeks later well inside the pages of The New York Times reported in passing that a grand jury in Oklahoma had determined the catastrophe was due to the actions of armed Black people and the white people who got involved were not at fault.

It just shows that remembering is never just actually about remembering, Wagner-Pacifici said.

“It’s always motivated,” she said. “Who remembers what about the past, who allows a past to be remembered, to be brought back to life and and in what ways … it’s absolutely fundamental to who you decide you want to be in the present.”

___

Hajela is a member of The Associated Press’ Race and Ethnicity team.

___

Deepti Hajela, The Associated Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

racismUSA

Just Posted

Jacqueline Pearce and Jean-Pierre Antonio received the BC Historical Federation Best Article Award on Saturday for their story about translating haiku written in the Tashme internment camp.
Article chronicling haiku in Japanese internment camp near Hope wins award

Tashme Haiku Club’s work was preserved and recently translated, authors write

Kindergarten kids from Evans elementary school in Chilliwack painted rocks with orange hearts and delivered them to Sto:lo Elders Lodge recently after learning about residential schools. (Laura Bridge photo)
Kindergarten class paints rocks with orange hearts in Chilliwack for local elders

‘Compassion and empathy’ being shown by kids learning about residential schools

Chilliwack potter Cathy Terepocki (left) and Indigenous enhancement teachers Val Tosoff (striped top) and Christine Seymour (fuchsia coat), along with students at Vedder middle school, look at some of the 500-plus pinch pots on Thursday, June 10 made by the kids to honour the 215 children found at Kamloops Indian Residential School. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
Chilliwack students make hundreds of tiny clay pots in honour of 215 Indigenous children

‘I think the healing process has begun,’ says teacher about Vedder middle school project

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay
Webinar looks at sexual abuse prevention among adolescents

Vancouver/Fraser Valley CoSA hosts free online session on June 15

Emergency services were on the scene of an apparent stabbing Friday afternoon (June 11) in the 2400 block of Countess Street in Abbotsford. (Photo: Kaytlin Harrison)
Two suspects arrested after apparent stabbing in Abbotsford

Incident occurs Friday afternoon in 2400 block of Countess Street

At an outdoor drive-in convocation ceremony, Mount Royal University bestows an honorary Doctor of Laws on Blackfoot Elder and residential school survivor Clarence Wolfleg in Calgary on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
‘You didn’t get the best of me’: Residential school survivor gets honorary doctorate

Clarence Wolfleg receives honorary doctorate from Mount Royal University, the highest honour the school gives out

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participates in a plenary session at the G7 Summit in Carbis Bay, England on Friday June 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada donating 13M surplus COVID-19 vaccine doses to poor countries

Trudeau says the government will pay for 87 million shots to be distributed to poor countries

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller is seen during a news conference, Wednesday May 19, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Indigenous child-welfare battle heads to court despite calls for Ottawa to drop cases

Feds are poised to argue against two Canadian Human Rights Tribunal rulings

The Great Ogopogo Bathtub Race has been held in Summerland as a fundraising event. Do you know which Canadian city introduced this sport? (Black Press file photo)
QUIZ: A summer’s day at the water

How much do you know about boats, lakes and water?

Two-year-old Ivy McLeod laughs while playing with Lucky the puppy outside their Chilliwack home on Thursday, June 10, 2021. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
VIDEO: B.C. family finds ‘perfect’ puppy with limb difference for 2-year-old Ivy

Ivy has special bond with Lucky the puppy who was also born with limb difference

A million-dollar ticket was sold to an individual in Vernon from the Lotto Max draw Friday, June 11, 2021. (Photo courtesy of BCLC)
Lottery ticket worth $1 million sold in Vernon

One lucky individual holds one of 20 tickets worth $1 million from Friday’s Lotto Max draw

“65 years, I’ve carried the stories in my mind and live it every day,” says Jack Kruger. (Athena Bonneau)
‘Maybe this time they will listen’: Survivor shares stories from B.C. residential school

Jack Kruger, living in Syilx territory, wasn’t surprised by news of 215 children’s remains found on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School

A logging truck carries its load down the Elaho Valley near in Squamish, B.C. in this file photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chuck Stoody
Squamish Nation calls for old-growth logging moratorium in its territory

The nation says 44% of old-growth forests in its 6,900-square kilometre territory are protected while the rest remain at risk

Most Read