Tulsa had a painful racial past before Good Friday

Updated

Five people were shot, and three were killed last Friday in Tulsa, Oklahoma – and not only have police announced that the two men arrested and charged have confessed to the crimes, but they also know specifically who did which shootings:

Mr. England told the police that he shot three of the victims and Mr. Watts admitted to shooting two of them, said Officer Jason Willingham, a spokesman for the Tulsa police. Mr. England said he drove the pickup during all the shootings, Officer Willingham said.

The victims may have been “chosen randomly,” but all five were black. The Tulsa World found that the younger of the two shooters, Jake England, had publicly aired some racial grievances on his Facebook page last Thursday, writing, “Today is two years that my dad has been gone shot by a f—— n—– it’s hard not to go off between that and sheran I’m gone in the head.” (Sheran referred to England’s recently deceased girlfriend.) While that may not prove to be ironclad evidence in a court of law of these shootings being hate crimes, it adds a layer to what many already suspect is a story primarily about race.

Another layer, buried deep in Tulsa’s memory, is that of the the 1921 riots in the Greenwood section town then known to its residents as “Negro Wall Street.” That thriving and moneyed Tulsa neighborhood is described in the Al Jazeera English report above, the NPR segment embedded at right, and in a New York Times feature from last summer marking its 90th anniversary. Interesting the amount of detail provided, given that the Times wrote that the riots “may be the deadliest occurrence of racial violence in United States history — an episode so brutal that this city, in a bout of collective amnesia that extended more than a half-century, simply chose to forget it ever happened.” 

So what did happen, exactly?

On May 31, 1921, hundreds of armed white men gathered outside the courthouse where the man was being held, and a group of armed black men arrived to prevent a lynching. A shot was fired. The black men fled to Greenwood, and the white men gave chase.

The battle that ensued, enabled by the Tulsa police chief, who deputized hundreds of white men and commandeered gun shops to arm them, lasted through the night and well into the next day.

About 40 blocks were destroyed, including 1,256 homes, many of which had been looted before they were set alight. The death toll, most likely never to be fully determined, was estimated in the state report at 100 to 300. Survivors were rounded up and interned by the National Guard. Many of the homeless spent the following year living in tents pitched in the ruins of the neighborhood.

A grand jury at the time blamed the black community for the riot. No one was convicted of participating in the riot; no one was compensated for lost property. Soon after, the story essentially disappeared — buried so deeply that people who lived their entire lives here, including prominent leaders like mayors and district attorneys, said they had never heard of the riot until recent decades.

Considering that the history of the riots is just now being taught in local schools – and that had to be mandated by a state law – it seems that Tulsa has yet another opportunity to grow from (what may have been) racial violence. Even if it’s judged that the shooters weren’t motivated by race, there are some who, haunted by and still scarred by the past, won’t care what a court of law has to say.

I hope those people listen to what one of the Good Friday shooting victims had to say to those who might be inclined to seek the kind of retaliation for him that Jake England may have been seeking for his murdered father:

And don’t be trying to shoot at white people…just leave it alone. Because it ain’t going to fix nothing.

Nothing to add.

Tulsa had a painful racial past before Good Friday

Updated