This week marks the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre. In 1921, exactly one hundred years ago, a race war broke out in Tulsa between a white mob that wanted to lynch a young black man and African-American citizens who were going to protect him. After two days of violence, there were at least 36 deaths (mostly blacks) and one of the most prosperous black communities in America was left in smoldering ruins. I grew up about 10 miles from where this occurred.

The Greenwood District in Tulsa was nicknamed “Black Wall Street” because of its middle-class and upper-middle class prosperity. Dick Rowland was a teenage shoeshiner who was well known and well-liked even by the wealthy white business leaders. There was some kind of incident between 19-year-old Rowland and a white teenager named Sarah Page. The “incident” was never definitively defined but Page said later that she thought it was nothing but a huge misunderstanding. What matters is that Dick Rowland was placed under arrest and rumors swirled through Greenwood that Rowland was going to be lynched. A mob of white men hundreds-strong gathered, armed, at the jail where Rowland was held. A group of about 75 black men, some of them also armed, gathered to make sure Rowland was safe.

A gun battle, which turned into an aerial battle (they brought in bi-planes to drop bombs on Greenwood) and eventually into a massacre took place. Black Wall Street was burned to the ground along with hundreds of black-owned homes, businesses, schools, and churches. It was an almost total loss. Thousands of people in the community who survived left the area, never to return.

So, here’s how much I learned about this startling event in 12 years of public education:

Not a single thing. We had plenty of classes about Oklahoma history but, mysteriously, this major event was left out. It’s like we went from the land rush, memorized the name of every county, then skipped right to Barry Switzer being the greatest genius in a generation.

I only learned about the Tulsa Race Massacre when reading a Tulsa Tribune coffee table book that someone got me for Christmas…in 2004! If it wasn’t for that, my knowledge of the ’21 massacre would have been nonexistent.

Oh, and also “Watchmen” on HBO.

 

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