FILE - In this photo provided by Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa, two armed men walk away from burning buildings as others walk in the opposite direction during the June 1, 1921, Tulsa Race Massacre in Tulsa, Okla. (Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa via AP, File)

FILE - In this photo provided by Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa, two armed men walk away from burning buildings as others walk in the opposite direction during the June 1, 1921, Tulsa Race Massacre in Tulsa, Okla. (Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa via AP, File)

Tulsa Race Massacre long buried chapter of U.S. history

In Tulsa, word of unrest that started on May 31, 1921

When the smoke cleared in June 1921, the toll from the massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was catastrophic — scores of lives lost, homes and businesses burned to the ground, a thriving Black community gutted by a white mob.

The nightmare cried out for attention, as something to be investigated and memorialized, with speeches and statues and anniversary commemorations.

But the horror and violence visited upon Tulsa’s Black community didn’t become part of the American story. Instead, it was pushed down, unremembered and untaught until efforts decades later started bringing it into the light. And even this year, with the 100th anniversary of the massacre being recognized, it’s still an unfamiliar history to many — something historians say has broader repercussions.

“The consequences of that is a sort of a lie that we tell ourselves collectively about who we are as a society, who we have been historically, that’s set some of these things up as aberrations, as exceptions of what we understand society to be rather than endemic or intrinsic parts of American history,” said Joshua Guild, an associate professor of history and African American studies at Princeton University.

Indeed, U.S. history is filled with dark events — often involving racism and racial violence — that haven’t been made part of the national fabric. Many involved Black Americans, of which the Tulsa Race Massacre is considered among the most egregious in its absolute destruction, but other racial and ethnic communities have been impacted as well.

Americans not knowing about these events or not recognizing the full scope of the country’s conflict-ridden history has impacts that continue to reverberate, Guild said.

“If we don’t understand the nature of the harm … we can’t really have a full reckoning with the possibility of any kind of redress,” he said.

Manisha Sinha, a professor of American history at the University of Connecticut, agreed.

“It’s really important for Americans to learn from the past, because you really cannot even understand some of our current-day political divisions and ideas unless you realize that this conversation over both the nature and the parameters of American democracy is an ongoing and a really long one,” she said.

Terrible events that many Americans don’t know about include long-ago history, such as the Snake River attack in Oregon in 1887, where as many as 34 Chinese gold miners were killed, and the 1864 Sand Creek massacre of around 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho people by U.S. soldiers in Colorado. Others are within the lifetimes of many Americans living today, like the 1985 bombing by Philadelphia police of the house that headquartered the Black organization MOVE, killing 11 people.

As odd as it may sound, the mere fact that something happened isn’t enough for it to be remembered, said Robin Wagner-Pacifici, a professor teaching sociology at the New School for Social Research, who has written about the MOVE bombing.

“You can never assume, no matter how huge an event may be in terms of its literal impact on numbers of people, that it’s going to be framed and recognized and move forward in time, in memory, by future publics or state apparatuses or political forces,” she said.

In Oklahoma, the massacre largely wasn’t discussed until a commission was formed in 1997 to investigate the violence. For decades, the state’s public schools called it the Tulsa race riot, when it was discussed at all. Students now are urged to consider the differences between calling it a “massacre” or a “riot.”

How an event is presented can make a difference, Wagner-Pacifici said. That could include whether it’s connected to other historical moments and what parts are emphasized or downplayed.

“All sorts of political forces and actors will kind of move in, to try to name it and claim it, in order either to tamp it down in its impact or to elaborate it in its impact,” she said.

She pointed to a current example: the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection by a predominantly white mob at the U.S. Capitol. Democrats in Congress are pushing for a commission to take a deeper look and how to prevent it from happening again, while a small number of Republicans have taken to downplaying it.

In Tulsa, word of unrest that started on May 31, 1921, and ran through the night and the next day made it to news outlets. Front-page stories and accounts from The Associated Press spoke of a “race clash” and “armed conflict.” But the aftermath — of a community shattered —- was relegated to inside pages at best before being swept under the rug.

In one example, a story weeks later well inside the pages of The New York Times reported in passing that a grand jury in Oklahoma had determined the catastrophe was due to the actions of armed Black people and the white people who got involved were not at fault.

It just shows that remembering is never just actually about remembering, Wagner-Pacifici said.

“It’s always motivated,” she said. “Who remembers what about the past, who allows a past to be remembered, to be brought back to life and and in what ways … it’s absolutely fundamental to who you decide you want to be in the present.”

___

Hajela is a member of The Associated Press’ Race and Ethnicity team.

___

Deepti Hajela, The Associated Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

racismUSA

Just Posted

A person receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic run by Vancouver Coastal Health, in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward)
Local youth vaccination clinics underway

Pfizer vaccine will be used

Priya Sharma. (Submitted)
Column: Why ultimatums don’t work

By Priya Sharma It is a common misconception that people can choose… Continue reading

People had a chance to interact with different animals at the petting zoo, participate in mutton busting, and buy everything local during the Fall Fair held in 2019. (Aman Parhar/Omineca Express)
55th Fall Fair in Vanderhoof cancelled

Alternative events eyed once again

People line up to get their COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre, Thursday, June 10, 2021 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Vaccines, low COVID case counts increase Father’s Day hope, but risk is still there

Expert says people will have to do their own risk calculus before popping in on Papa

Queen’s counsel Paul Doroshenko, a Vancouver lawyer, has been suspended from practice for two months after admitting that his firm mismanaged $44,353.19 in client trust funds. (Acumen Law)
High-profile B.C. lawyer suspended over $44K in mismanaged client trust funds

Queen’s counsel Paul Doroshenko admits to failing to supervise his staff and find, report the shortage

House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., center left, reaches over to Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., joined by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., center, and members of the Congressional Black Caucus as they celebrate the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act that creates a new federal holiday to commemorate June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to enslaved Black people after the Civil War, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, June 17, 2021. It’s the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was created in 1983. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Biden to sign bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday

New American stat marks the nation’s end of slavery

Athena and Venus, ready to ride. (Zoe Ducklow - Sooke News Mirror)
Goggling double-dog motorcycle sidecar brings smiles to B.C. commuters

Athena and Venus are all teeth and smiles from their Harley-Davidson sidecar

Kimberly Bussiere and other laid-off employees of Casino Nanaimo have launched a class-action lawsuit against the Great Canadian Gaming Corporation. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
B.C. casino workers laid off during pandemic launch class-action lawsuit

Notice of civil claim filed in Supreme Court of B.C. in Nanaimo against Great Canadian Gaming

A Photo from Sept. 2020, when First Nations and wild salmon advocates took to the streets in Campbell River to protest against open-pen fish farms in B.C.’s waters. On Dec. 17, federal fisheries minister Bernadette Jordan announced her decision to phase out 19 fish farms from Discovery Islands. Cermaq’s application to extend leases and transfer smolts was denied. (Marc Kitteringham/Campbell River Mirror)
Feds deny B.C.’s Discovery Island fish farm application to restock

Transfer of 1.5 million juvenile salmon, licence extension denied as farms phased out

John Kromhoff with some of the many birthday cards he received from ‘pretty near every place in the world’ after the family of the Langley centenarian let it be known that he wasn’t expecting many cards for his 100th birthday. (Special to Langley Advance Times)
Cards from all over the world flood in for B.C. man’s 100th birthday

An online invitation by his family produced a flood of cards to mark his 100th birthday

FILE – Nurse Iciar Bercian prepares a shot at a vaccine clinic for the homeless in Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, June 2, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
B.C. scientists to study effectiveness of COVID vaccines in people with HIV

People living with HIV often require higher doses of other vaccines

Most Read