Historians, public officials and forensic anthropologists are searching for unmarked mass burial sites. Not in Bosnia or Syria but in the United States of America: in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to be precise. The on-again, off-again effort to locate the remains of the victims of the 1921 Tulsa Riot – now known as the Tulsa Race Massacre – is a central theme of The Ground Breaking, a riveting book by Scott Ellsworth, who has spent most of his adult life piecing together the story of perhaps the deadliest instance of racial violence in the country’s history. (I say perhaps because the exact number of victims remains unknown.)
Ellsworth, who teaches at the University of Michigan, grew up in a whites-only neighbourhood in segregated Tulsa. He became an award-winning journalist, writing on everything from mountain climbing to the history of basketball. But ever since setting out half a century ago to investigate rumours about a racial pogrom that had taken place in his city, he has worked diligently to uncover a piece of history obscured, in both white and Black Tulsa, by silence. Whites did not wish to be reminded of a terrible crime; Blacks talked about the massacre at home for years but perhaps feared that public discussion might trigger some kind of repetition. Ellsworth was astonished, as a high-school student, to find references in old Tulsa newspapers on microfilm to a ‘race war’ he knew nothing about. He pursued the subject in a senior thesis at Reed College in faraway Oregon and in graduate school at Duke in not much closer North Carolina. In 1982 he published Death in a Promised Land, a pioneering account that remains the starting point for anyone learning about the massacre. The work did not gain a large readership, though Ellsworth tells us that it was among the books most frequently stolen from Tulsa libraries.
In The Ground Breaking, he takes the story of his quest to document the massacre to the present day. Although it opens with a vivid account of what happened in 1921, the book is not primarily about those events. Part memoir, part meditation on memory and forgetting, it is a primer in which Ellsworth shows how to do research when locals do not want the past to be recovered, and build on survivors’ recollections of decades-old history while checking against contemporary documents. The discussion is particularly relevant as battles over the teaching of history have moved centre stage in America’s ongoing culture wars.
In the years leading up to 1921, Tulsa, once a sleepy village, was transformed into a thriving metropolis by the discovery of the Glenn Pool oilfield nearby. The self-proclaimed Oil Capital of the World, where J. Paul Getty began the career that made him the world’s richest man, had seen its population grow 300 per cent over the previous decade, from 18,000 to 72,000 people. Around 10,000 residents were African Americans living in Greenwood, a flourishing neighbourhood known as Black Wall Street, a title given by Booker T. Washington, who promoted the idea that racial progress would come through the accumulation of wealth, not political agitation. (Whites, however, referred to Greenwood as ‘Little Africa’.)
One of the paradoxical effects of racial segregation was that economic exclusion opened the door for Black entrepreneurship. Downtown hotels refused to accommodate Black guests, so Blacks built four of their own in Greenwood, including the largest Black-owned hotel in the country. Downtown shops would not serve Black customers, so Black businessmen filled the gap. Greenwood ran to dozens of city blocks. It boasted lawyers and physicians (there were more Black doctors than there are in Tulsa today), movie theatres and restaurants, grocery and clothing stores, churches, civic associations, two newspapers and all sorts of other enterprises and institutions, all run by and serving African Americans. To be sure, as the Black historian John Hope Franklin, who spent his early years in Tulsa, pointed out in his memoirs, the label ‘Black Wall Street’ was a bit of a misnomer. Most of the residents worked as cooks and maids in the homes of white Tulsans and many lived in rented rooms or shacks that lacked running water. Moreover, there were no financial institutions comparable to the Black-owned banks and insurance companies that existed in cities like Richmond, Virginia and Raleigh, North Carolina. But Greenwood did have a solid middle class. The neighbourhood may have been separate and unequal, but it was proudly Black-controlled.
The tragic events of 1921 began with a minor encounter between two teenagers that, in a normal country, would hardly have become a catalyst for violence. Dick Rowland, a Black 19-year-old who worked shining shoes, bumped into an elevator operator, a 17-year-old white woman. Perhaps he tripped. In any event she screamed and rumours spread that a Black youth had assaulted a white woman in downtown Tulsa. Rowland was arrested and lodged in jail inside the local courthouse. A crowd bent on immediate punishment assembled and a local newspaper published an editorial with the headline ‘To Lynch Negro Tonight’. (Throughout the South, lynchings were frequently advertised in advance; sometimes extra trains were put on to accommodate those who enjoyed witnessing extra-judicial murders.) Twice, armed Blacks, including First World War veterans, turned up at the courthouse to protect Rowland, only to be turned away by the sheriff. In the 1920s, Tulsa was what Ellsworth calls a ‘lawless boom town’. A young white man accused of murdering a white taxi driver had recently been lynched. It was not difficult to imagine this happening to Rowland.
As the armed Blacks were departing for the second time, a shot rang out and the all-white police force began distributing weapons to members of the rapidly growing mob. Around midnight, groups of gun-toting whites tried to enter Greenwood, a few blocks away from the courthouse, only to be repelled by gunfire. Hundreds of white residents began to plan for a full-scale invasion of the Black neighbourhood. Early the next morning, strategically deployed mobs began a co-ordinated attack. Blacks offered resistance but were overwhelmed by the attackers, who now numbered in the thousands. Not satisfied with handguns and rifles, they deployed machine guns, including one manned by members of the Oklahoma National Guard, and dropped incendiary devices from aircraft provided by Sinclair Oil Company. In the long history of racial violence in the United States, Tulsa is one of only two instances in which a Black community was assaulted from the air. The other took place in 1985 when Philadelphia police dropped a military-grade bomb on a townhouse occupied by members of the Black group MOVE, resulting in the death of eleven people and a fire that consumed more than sixty buildings.
The carnage in Tulsa continued for hours. Homes, churches, businesses, as well as a hospital, school and library, were looted and set ablaze. Black men, women and children were gunned down in the street. Thousands of people – a considerable majority of Tulsa’s Black population – were rounded up and interned at the city’s baseball stadium, convention hall and other sites. Others fled the city on foot. Only the arrival of state police dispatched by the governor in Oklahoma City, a hundred miles away, brought the massacre to an end. The police arrested any Blacks still on the streets and told whites to go home. By the time the carnage ended, some 1500 buildings had been destroyed and most of Greenwood’s residents were homeless. Photographs of the community after the assault bring to mind images of Columbia, South Carolina towards the end of the Civil War after General William T. Sherman’s troops passed through, or portions of Berlin at the end of World War Two. As for the death toll, current estimates range between one hundred and three hundred. The head of a Red Cross unit which distributed relief in Greenwood (the first time the organisation had acted in response to a man-made rather than a natural disaster) recorded more than 10,000 people homeless, 183 hospitalised with gunshot wounds or burns, 222 families with the father ‘missing or dead’ and 87 now ‘with no mother’. Survivors later recalled seeing trucks loaded with bodies heading out of the city, presumably to burial sites in unknown locations. Rowland was not one of the victims. Somehow, he escaped during the chaos.
One might think it impossible to erase an event of this magnitude from historical memory. But Tulsa tried its best. Ellsworth discovered that police reports and National Guard records had been systematically destroyed; other documents were removed from the state archives. News articles were cut out of surviving copies of local newspapers in the University of Tulsa library. Shortly after the violence ended, Ellsworth learned, the city’s police chief ordered his men to confiscate any images of the destruction in the possession of Tulsa’s photography studios. Years passed, and yet Oklahoma history textbooks made no mention of the massacre. A teacher who moved to the city in 1950 was warned on pain of dismissal not to mention the events of 1921 in class.
Most of The Ground Breaking deals with Ellsworth’s efforts to bring this history to light. He is careful to give credit to Black survivors who shared their experiences, and to a younger generation, such as the Black journalist turned politician Don Ross, whose newspaper articles published in the wake of the 1960s civil rights revolution helped break the silence. Ross was instrumental in the legislature’s creation, in 1997, of the Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot, for which Ellsworth and John Hope Franklin served as consultants. Ellsworth notes how eagerly white residents sought to avoid any imputation of blame as the story of the massacre emerged from obscurity. The president of the Tulsa County Historical Society told him there had been no white rioters – they were all ‘Mexicans and Indians’.
Ellsworth’s personal story is compelling. But there is a cost to focusing so intently on his own experience. He mentions only in passing that Tulsa was not the only city to experience a ‘race riot’ in the years during and immediately following the First World War – among other places, there were violent racial confrontations in East St Louis, Chicago and Washington. These years also witnessed radical uprisings inspired in part by the Russian Revolution – the Seattle general strike of 1919, for example – and an ensuing Red Scare, when the full force of the federal government was brought to bear on the IWW, Socialist Party and other groups deemed ‘un-American’. Repression and lack of respect for judicial processes were part of the zeitgeist.
Given the scale and destructiveness, the Tulsa massacre may defy rational explanation. But it needs to be placed in the context of Oklahoma’s history and long tradition of racism. Before becoming a state in 1907, Oklahoma was known as Indian Territory, inhabited by Native American tribes of long standing as well as those removed from the East in the 1830s in the notorious Trail of Tears, when the federal government forcibly relocated some eighty thousand Native Americans in order to open their land to whites eager to grow cotton with slave labour. Western Indigenous peoples were later forced to resettle there too. Racial dynamics were complicated. Some tribes owned slaves and sided with the South during the Civil War. After the conflict ended, the federal government required them to abolish slavery and to recognise the freed people as equal tribal citizens. This was bitterly resisted by some Native American groups; to this day they continue to fight to exclude Black members. Indian nations were also forced to provide their former slaves with land, the only slave owners required to do so.
The late 19th century brought thousands of white settlers, large numbers of them from the South, in the famous Oklahoma ‘land rush’ that followed passage of the Dawes Act of 1887. This broke up Native Americans’ collective tribal landholdings into plots allocated to individual families, with the rest opened to white newcomers. Indians’ former slaves were eligible for allotments. They chose land near other Blacks, forming the basis for the emergence of numerous small all-Black towns in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. To the consternation of many white Oklahomans these towns attracted growing numbers of refugees from the Jim Crow South, where Blacks were being systematically stripped of their rights.
Today, Oklahoma is one of the nation’s most solidly Republican states, the only one in which Democrats failed to win a single county in the past five presidential elections. Donald Trump carried it twice by more than thirty percentage points. The state capital, Oklahoma City, is where Timothy McVeigh detonated a bomb at the federal office building in 1995, killing 168 people and alerting the country to the danger of right-wing terrorism. It was not always so. In the years after 1907, Oklahoma was home to a vibrant socialist movement. Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party’s presidential candidate, received one-sixth of the vote in the state in 1912, a percentage exceeded only in Nevada. (In 1920, when Debs ran again, he came in first in a straw poll of inmates in the Oklahoma state penitentiary.)
Statehood seemed to give free rein to anti-Black sentiment. The first law enacted by the new state legislature imposed racial segregation on railroads and public accommodations. Oklahoma also moved to disenfranchise Black voters through literacy tests and other requirements, the only state to do so that had not been part of the Confederacy. This history forms the background to the events of 1921. Then there was old-fashioned greed. Many whites resented the fact that Greenwood, adjoining burgeoning downtown Tulsa, occupied valuable real estate that, in their opinion, should not belong to Blacks. The ‘Negro settlement’, the mayor declared after the massacre, should be moved further away. But one gets the impression that what really infuriated whites was the neighbourhood’s prosperity and Blacks’ willingness to defend it. As has often been the case with lynchings and ‘race riots’, white violence was inspired by Black success, rather than Black poverty or supposed criminality. The presence of armed Black men seems to have infuriated white Tulsans. Many white Americans have never accepted the idea that the Constitution’s Second Amendment, guaranteeing the right to bear arms, applies to Blacks as well as to themselves.
Some white Tulsans gave refuge to Blacks fleeing the massacre. But in general, few appear to have experienced second thoughts. No one was punished for riot, arson or murder. Insurance companies refused to pay claims for property destruction on the grounds that their policies did not cover losses caused by riots. The city enacted an ordinance, later invalidated by the state Supreme Court, that aimed to prevent Blacks from rebuilding Greenwood. In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan grew rapidly in Oklahoma; for a time, it controlled the state government. Yet against all odds, Greenwood rose from the ashes – by the 1940s its business district was larger than before the massacre. But it entered a period of decline in the 1960s, caused by adversaries as devastating in the long run as white mobs: modern capitalism and federal highway construction. When racial integration finally came to Tulsa’s downtown shopping district, small Black-owned neighbourhood businesses found it impossible to compete with national chain stores. Then, in a pattern repeated in other cities, the federal government routed an eight-lane interstate highway right through the centre of Greenwood, bifurcating the community. (Biden’s recently proposed federal budget includes funds to ‘reconnect’ neighbourhoods severed by such highways throughout the country.) Many African Americans still live in Greenwood, but a recent report by Human Rights Watch details stark racial inequalities in life expectancy and employment in the city. Meanwhile, Greenwood is now home to an independent bookstore, restaurants and a museum celebrating the life of the (white) songwriter Woody Guthrie – harbingers, perhaps, of impending gentrification. It has also perhaps the only public space in the nation named for a Black historian, the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park.
Reconciliation, however, remains hard to come by. The Riot Commission, established in 1997, began the search for unmarked graves and, in its final report, advocated that both the city of Tulsa and state of Oklahoma pay reparations to surviving victims and establish college scholarships for Black Tulsans. But both the city and state refused to consider such expenditures. Whatever one’s view of the now hotly debated idea of reparations for slavery, in Tulsa the case for tangible public accountability seems overwhelming, given that city officials, police and the state’s National Guard either took part in the massacre or did nothing to stop it. Almost all the wealth accumulated by a generation of Blacks was wiped away, with consequences that affect their descendants to this day.
Today, thanks in large measure to Ellsworth, the Tulsa Race Massacre is not only widely known but has become embedded in popular culture. In 2019, the Alvin Ailey dance company premiered Greenwood by the prominent Black choreographer Donald Byrd; more recently, the television series Watchmen included a recreation of the events of 1921. Amazon lists more than two dozen books about the massacre and one can buy T-shirts with the words ‘Black Wall Street – Never Forget’. The massacre’s one hundredth anniversary in May was marked by a visit to the city by Biden and testimony before a congressional committee by the three living survivors.
Oklahoma’s public schools have begun teaching the 1921 massacre. How long this will last is anyone’s guess, as Oklahoma is among the states that have recently approved laws and regulations designed to prevent teaching about racism. Having realised that no political advantage is to be gained by railing against Biden’s popular policies for economic relief and infrastructure development, Republicans have sought other ways to fire up their base. First, they mobilised against a supposed influx of transgender athletes in women’s sports. Then they took aim at critical race theory, a discipline that seeks to identify the ways racism is embedded in American institutions. In the past few months, the supposed need to prevent students from being indoctrinated by it has become an all-purpose excuse for efforts by Republican lawmakers to prevent teachers from discussing racism at all. Florida, for example, has banned teaching the idea that ‘racism is not merely the product of prejudice, but … is embedded in American society.’ Teachers in Oklahoma and elsewhere may soon be breaking the law if they talk about the history of American racism. Perhaps we will witness an updated version of the Scopes Trial of 1925, when a Tennessee instructor was convicted of violating state law by teaching the theory of evolution. What the authors of these measures are really after is not jails full of schoolteachers but educational self-censorship. Who wants to become the protagonist in a modern-day Scopes Trial? It is a lot simpler to teach a sanitised version of the American past.
Gore Vidal famously called the country the United States of Amnesia. But even he could hardly have imagined that amnesia would one day become legally mandated. Ellsworth deserves our thanks for his patient efforts to bring to light the history of the Tulsa Race Massacre. Meanwhile, the search for unmarked graves continues.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.