- Beatriz Díez (@bbc_diez) *
- BBC News World
It was one of the worst massacres against the black community in the United States, but it is practically unknown.
“I am here to seek justice,” Viola Fletcher told the US Congress last week.
“I am here to ask my country to acknowledge what happened in Tulsa in 1921.”
Fletcher, 107, is the longest surviving survivor of the Tulsa, Oklahoma, massacre, one of the most tragic episodes in the city’s history.
It happened in 1921 and left a trail of death and destruction in a prosperous black neighborhood known as El “Wall Street negro”.
How the massacre took place
It all started with a rumor that a young black man had attacked a white girl in a hotel in downtown Tulsa.
It was the morning of May 30, 1921, and Dick Rowland met a woman named Sarah Page in an elevator. The details of what happened then vary by source.
Among the white community of the city accounts of the incident began to circulate They were exaggerating as they were shared with more people.
Tulsa police arrested Rowland the next day and opened an investigation.
An incendiary report in the May 31 edition of the newspaper Tulsa Tribune was the spur for a black-and-white confrontation to break out near the courthouse where the bailiff and his men had blocked the top floor to protect Rowland from possible lynching.
Shots were fired and African Americans, who were a minority, began to retreat into the Greenwood district, known as “Black Wall Street” by the abundance of businesses and their economic prosperity.
Early in the morning of June 1, Greenwood was looted and burned by white rioters.
The then Governor of Oklahoma, James Robertson, declared martial law and deployed the National Guard.
One day after the racial outbreak, the violence stopped.
During the riots, 35 blocks were left in ruins, which meant the destruction of more than 1,200 houses.
More than 800 people had to be treated for injuries and at first it was said that there were 39 deaths, but historians calculan that at least 300 people died.
More than 6,000 people – most of them African-Americans – were detained at the convention center and some stayed there for up to eight days.
Black Wall Street
In the early 1900s, the Greenwood District was a thriving community with movie theaters, restaurants, shops, and a photography studio.
It was a self-sufficient and buoyant neighborhood, separated from the rest of the city by railroad tracks.
The appellation of Black Wall Street (“Black Wall Street”) highlights its economic boom, which made the neighborhood considered one of the best in the country for the black community.
That boom was squandered in two days of fire and violence.
The Tulsa racial massacre did not come as an isolated and unexpected event.
To understand what happened you have to understand that two years earlier, when the American military returned from World War I, many black soldiers were lynched with their uniforms on.
In fact, the boreal summer of 1919 is known in the United States as the “Red Summer” for the number of lynchings and other crimes that were committed in different cities of the country against the African-American population.
“The Tulsa massacre arises from that context,” explains Ben Keppel, a professor in the Department of History at the University of Oklahoma to BBC Mundo.
“There is a lot of evidence that the neighborhood was a thriving economic center, which brings a envy element.
“The presence of that Wall Street in times of rigorous racial segregation upset the white supremacists, who could not allow that example of equality and that is why they felt they had to burn it“says Keppel.
“Also, right after the war, the US economy fell into a deep recession that affected the oil industry. There is a pre-existing racism that is buried and that comes to the surface when there are economic problems.
“You have to understand what was happening to fight against it, against the belief in the supremacy of whites,” says the historian.
A hidden tragedy
However, for a long time it was not possible to understand what was happening because simply it was not known.
Keppel himself didn’t hear about the Tulsa racial massacre until he came to the University of Oklahoma as a professor and was mentioned by a student in class. It was 1994. He had not studied it in school or in high school or during his university training.
That situation has changed. Tragic incidents are already part of the school curriculum, although much of the Americans still do not know the details.
From her position as program coordinator at the Greenwood Cultural Center, Michelle Brown tries to keep the memory alive and collects testimonies from the few survivors who are still alive.
“After the massacre both blacks and whites they hid what happened under the rugThey had to get ahead, “Brown tells BBC journalist Jane O’Brien.
“Talking about it was reviving it and it was too painful. There were mothers who did not hear from their children again, wives who lost their husbands, children who were left without fathers … they never heard from them“.
The around 300 dead were buried in mass graves and the bodies were never found.
Either nobody paid for what happened.
“In the 1990s legal action was taken to try to obtain justice for the survivors, but technically the crimes had prescribed and nothing was done,” says Professor Keppel.
Tulsa authorities launched a project in 2019 to locate the graves using underground penetrating radar and subsequently identify the victims.
“We have to talk about this as a community because the city is suffering, the city is divided because we haven’t dealt with this part of historyWe have to do it if we want to move forward as a united Tulsa, there has to be a discussion that leads to reparation and reconciliation, “stresses Brown.
The question of reparation is a delicate one. Railroad tracks still separate Greenwood from the rest of the city.
Beyond some historical points, there is almost no evidence of that “Wall Street negro“ in tulsa.
“My family used to live here in 1921, now it’s a dead end”, says Therese Aduni.
His grandfather made watches, his father was born a few months after the massacre.
“They just accepted the word massacre, for years they called it riots, so the insurance companies didn’t have to pay damages to homeowners or business owners who lost everything, “Aduni told the BBC.
“People want to give a closure to this, we heard about reparations to the Japanese, to the Holocaust survivors, why not us?”
For Aduni, reparation has to come in the form of economic development, something that – he claims – has been systematically denied to the community.
“We don’t have a supermarket! We need a supermarket, a shoe store, a laundry … we want all the businesses we had before, we want them restored, that would be repair for me.”
City officials say they are working to address racial inequality and that there has been some progress.
Keppel notes with satisfaction the growing number of documentaries, books and reports on what happened in Tulsa almost 100 years ago.
“I hope that as the centenary approaches not only will the institutional amnesia but change the way Americans see themselves as a society, “he says.
“We are immersed in a debate in which once you have recognized that this happened and that it was serious, the question is what we do, what are the implications for our public institutions.
“In all parts of the country there are stories that have been kept hidden and that must be exposed and discussed. We must ask ourselves what is happening now in Tulsa and other cities, what we need to learn, “he says.
Keppel reflects on the current debate on racism in the US.
“What happens now has been in the making for a long time. In the last 10 years, or five or one, this bad police behavior has happened repeatedly all over the country and people are fed up.
“There are few moments in history where circumstances meet emotions and catalyze a bigger conversation. I hope this is one of those moments,” he concludes.
* This article was originally published in June 2020 and was updated on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the massacre.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.