While the New York City neighborhood of Harlem, which the late Dr. Clement Alexander Price referred to as “that most brilliantly lit terrain,” has been rightly celebrated as the focal point of the Harlem Renaissance, there were a number of other communities where African Africans managed to thrive during the “Jazz Age” of the 1920s. One such community was in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and May/June 2021 marks the 100th anniversary of its racially-motivated destruction.
This commemoration is in honor of those Black strivers whose lives and homes were demolished by hate but whose legacy still inspires.
Revelation of a Tragedy
What is now described as the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 is something I knew nothing about until I began conducting research on an article about Tulsa for Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance. In the course of that research, I was fortunate to connect and correspond with one Dr. Gregory E. Brown. At the time, Dr. Brown was director of an organization called the Black Holocaust Society and described himself as “The Angry Black Man.” He made me aware of America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, founded in 1984 by lynching survivor Dr. James Cameron.
He also pointed me towards a cache of images in the public domain which had been culled from “movie reels in the National Archives” and other photographs previously collected by Bob Hower, author of Angels of Mercy (a book on the Red Cross’s response to the riots).
Visiting Dr. Brown’s Black Holocaust Society website while working on the encyclopedia in 2002, I was stunned to read this statement: “Between 1824 and 1951 there were over 300 events classified as ‘White Race Riots’ in which entire white communities turned on Black Americans and destroyed entire Black communities and murdered Blacks in mass. There were 26 such major events in major cities across the US during the summer of 1919 alone. This period has been tagged by historians as ‘The Red Summer of 1919’ because the events all happened from May to October of that year and the blood of their victims literally painted the streets of America.”
No less stunning were the images he sent me of charred bodies, bombed buildings, and Black people standing or sitting outside as they wondered what to do next. How could something so monumental have been omitted from the classes on American history I had taken in high school and college?
That I had been selected to co-author (with Sandra L. West) Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, and the article on Tulsa fallen into a section for which I was responsible, made me feel obligated to make sure the massacre could never be forgotten again. This is a short excerpt on what made the community so exceptional:
“Prior to the massive waves of African Americans exiting the South to head North, many had been lured to the state of Oklahoma as early as the end of the 19th century in hopes of cashing in on its growing oil industry. By 1921, the state could boast the distinction of having more than two dozen towns populated and governed by blacks. Within Tulsa, approximately 15,000 African Americans made up the city’s district of Greenwood. Forced by segregation to rely upon their own means and resources, the citizens of the community became so successful that the district became known as ‘Black Wall Street.’
“Despite the active presence of the Ku Klux Klan, frequent lynchings and regular ‘whipping parties’ during which Blacks were assaulted for sport, Greenwood maintained 600 businesses, a post office, a hospital, 21 restaurants, a library, a line of buses, a bank, two movie theaters, 21 churches and 30 grocery stores. Jazz and other forms of African American music was a strong part of the community’s culture…” (Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, Facts on File/Infobase Publishing)
An Expanding Black Wall Street Film Archive
Since the publication of the first edition of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance in 2003, a number of important completed and projected film projects have helped raise awareness about the destruction of Black Wall Street. Among the most acclaimed is the HBO TV mini-series The Watchmen (2019), for which actress/director Regina King won a 2018 Emmy Award.
Other film projects ensuring the massacre and its consequences are never forgotten are: Resurrecting Black Wall Street (2015), Greenwood: 13 Hours (2017 short film), Black Wall Street Burning (2020), Dreamland: The Rise and Fall of Black Wall Street (documentary announced in 2020), and Black Wall Street: An American Nightmare (2021).
A thorough documentation of the 1921 Tulsa riots is only one benefit of the media now devoted to them. Another is the opportunity they provide to study how and why residents of an American city reached such an explosive deadly boiling point. Much of it, we know, had to do with both fear and envy of the economic progress which African Americans were making in Tulsa at the time.
It matters because even though we cannot, in 2021, point to the destruction of a single community of African Americans spanning blocks within a specific US city, the world has borne witness repeatedly to African Americans killed by White police officers in situations which did not have to end with their deaths. Similar hate-fueled incidents have happened in regard to Latinos/Latinxs and Asian Americans as America transitions from a country dominated by a White population to one with a larger population of diverse “minority” groups. The change, clearly, is not one to which many Whites have been adjusting calmly.
Just as the social customs and official laws of the Jim Crow segregation era contributed to the violence of The Red Summer of 1919 and the Black Wall Street massacre two years later, so have various legislative policies and racial biases contributed to the violent deaths of African Americans over the past two decades. Bearing that in mind, it may be that this 100th anniversary of Tulsa’s deadly riot should commemorate something more than the pain and horror of what occurred. Maybe it could serve as a renewed commitment to making good on America’s promise to provide equal opportunities for all its increasingly-diverse citizens. It might also help us to remember, during this time when wars and rumors of wars once again dominate news headlines, we can gain a lot more striving for harmonious coexistence than we can by giving in to hate-filled rage and fear-driven ignorance.
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.