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Tulsa, Oklahoma (CNN) — May 31 and June 1 mark 100 years since the Tulsa massacre. Here’s what you need to know about that dark day for the black community in America.
The shooting of Terence Crutcher, in 2016
When police shot unarmed father Terence Crutcher on September 16, 2016, in Tulsa, the city’s reaction was furious, but peaceful.
There were prayer vigils in black churches, and within a week, wrongful death charges were brought against the officer who shot him.
But the incident also shed new light on a dark moment in American history that has been largely forgotten, or never learned.
A century ago, on the very streets where protesters marched, shouting against the police killings of unarmed black men in America, hundreds of blacks died in a single terrible day.
It is also known as the Tulsa “race riot” of 1921. But that is not how the granddaughter of one of the survivors sees it.
“It really was a massacre”
‘It really was murder. It was a massacre, ”said Joi McCondishie. His grandmother survived the ordeal. Hundreds more did not.
“Some kind of confrontation between blacks and whites was unavoidable due to the racial climate at the time, due to the presence of the Ku Klux Klan in almost every aspect of our society,” said Mechelle Brown.
Brown is the director of programs for the Greenwood Cultural Center, which has collected and preserved Tulsa memorabilia, photographs, and memorabilia in 1921.
Tulsa also had something special that didn’t exist in much of the country in the 1920s. Blacks had nicknamed it Black Wall Street (“The Black Wall Street”).
In a segregated America, Tulsa’s Greenwood district was home to black millionaires, a group of black businessmen, doctors, pharmacists, and even a pilot who owned his own private plane.
“Black Wall Street” had 300 businesses
Black Wall Street it had more than 300 black-owned businesses, including two theaters.
According to Brown, the success of blacks was the source of friction in the city because it “caused some envy and anger among whites who questioned ‘how dare those blacks have a grand piano in their house, and I don’t have a piano in my house? ‘”, he says.
Not everyone was okay with it, but Tulsa was fast becoming a place of opportunity for blacks who wanted to make a living. What they didn’t know is that at the end of the night of June 1, 1921, their neighborhood would be decimated.
Historians say the spark was an encounter between a 17-year-old white minor named Sarah Page and a 19-year-old black man named Dick Rowland.
“Dick Rowland worked as a shoeshine in downtown Tulsa,” Brown said.
There was a lot of money to be made from rich white tankers who had cash to spend. It was the end of May.
Charges pressed after the elevator incident
Rowland, Brown said, had been given permission to enter the Drexel Building, a white establishment, to fetch water and use the bathroom when it was very hot.
Page worked in that building as an elevator operator. The two saw each other almost every day because Rowland used the elevator that Page operated. That day, the journey did not end as quietly as so many times before.
“On this particular day, after the elevator doors closed and Sarah Page and Dick Rowland were alone in the elevator for a few moments, there was a scream.”
The elevator doors opened. Roland ran and was later arrested. And Page initially claimed she was assaulted, Brown said. Other historical accounts say that Rowland tripped getting out of the elevator, grabbed Page by the arm, she screamed and a witness went to authorities.
Page never pressed charges. But the authorities did. And the damage was done. At the end of the day, the rumor mill said that Page had been raped.
An angry crowd demanded a lynching
The largely inaccurate press reports added to the furor. The photos show large crowds of white residents gathering at the courthouse. They had a demand: they wanted Rowland lynched.
Brown says the black community decided to protect him. No one believed that he had done such a thing and they came to his aid.
“They were willing to risk their lives, they knew they would risk their lives to help defend Dick Rowland,” Brown said.
By the time they reached the court, thousands of whites had also gathered at the front. They were angry and upset about what had happened. The whites were armed. One of the gunmen confronted a black resident who asked him why he was brandishing his gun.
Brown says historical records show the two men argued. There was a fight over the gun. It shot itself. The white resident was shot. All hell broke loose.
The whites decided to storm the black neighborhood. Some estimates put at 10,000 the number of people who broke into the railroad tracks that divide the north, from black Tulsa, and the south, from white Tulsa.
At least 300 lives of black people lost
“The blacks were so outnumbered and outgunned that the whites finally crossed the railroad tracks and invaded what was the home of Black Wall Street, Greenwood District, ”Brown said.
By the end of the night, 35 city blocks had been burned to the ground. Black Wall Street it had been erased. There are photos of the corpses of black residents lying in the streets. Some had been shot dead.
The historical account is that at least 300 black people were murdered.
“There really is no way to know exactly how many people died. We know there were several thousand missing, ”Brown said, citing survivor counts and population counts. Many simply fled the city.
Survivors reported that planes dropped bombs
Some of the survivors have said that they remember death not only in the streets, but also raining from the sky.
“Many of our survivors have commented that they remember seeing planes dropping bombs. Dropping nitroglycerin bombs. We know that at least one company allowed white rioters to use their planes to drop bombs, “Brown said.
There is no official account of the bombings, but attorney Buck Colbert Franklin, father of historian John Hope Franklin, described the airstrikes in a manuscript now in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Black History and Culture.
Franklin saw a dozen or more planes circling in the air and heard “something like hail falling on the top of my office building,” he wrote. Down the street, he saw the Midway Hotel and then other buildings burning from their roofs down.
“The sidewalks were literally covered with burning turpentine balls. I knew very well where they came from and I knew very well why each burning building caught fire from above first, ”he continues. “I paused and waited for the right moment to escape.”
A 2001 state commission report said, “Tulsa was probably the first city (in America) to be bombed from the air.”
In 2016, at least one survivor was left alive in Tulsa. Hazel Smith Jones is now 97 years old, but she was turning three when the attack occurred.
«My father was not at home, only the children and the mother. They came and looked for us, ”Smith Jones said. White men in a truck began rounding up residents and pulling them out of the neighborhood.
The survivors left with nothing
“They took us to the fairgrounds and we were there for two or three days,” Jones said. “We stayed there and my dad didn’t know where we were.”
He said his mother thought it would be the safest thing to do. Jones was one of 13 children. His mother was scared and thought that if the family was surrounded by other people in the same situation, everyone would be safer. They may be right, but the absence of owners also meant that it was easier for the white mob that roamed the streets to loot their property. And they did.
Black families who survived the fires, looting and shooting were left with nothing when they returned.
An opinion piece published in one of the local newspapers after the incident seemed to condone the actions of the mob saying: ‘A district like the old niggertown it should never be allowed in Tulsa again. “
Those words still hurt. The same is true of what happened when wealthy black business owners contacted their insurance companies.
All insurance claims were denied
All Greenwood neighborhood insurance claims were denied.
Claims totaled $ 2.7 million. Even so, Black Wall Street It was rebuilt but never returned to its former glory.
Since officials called the event a racial “riot,” its white residents were protected. While there is no prescription for murder, there is one for riots. And Brown says that black Tulsa residents were never compensated.
“They never received justice for losing their loved ones, their homes and the businesses they worked so hard for, that they built from scratch,” Brown said.
However, Black Wall Street it was rebuilt. Brown says that desegregation was actually the final blow.
“The dollar used to circulate 19 times in black-owned stores before leaving the neighborhood,” Brown said.
But once white establishments were forced to accept black money as well, money began to migrate. Black residents wanted to exercise their newfound freedoms, not realizing what that would do to businesses in their own neighborhood.
CNN’s Christopher Lett contributed to this report.
Editor’s note: This story was initially published in 2016 after Tulsa Police shot Terence Crutcher, an unarmed black man. In 2019, the HBO series “Watchmen” recreated the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot in its first episode. This is what happened that horrible day.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism