Without qualification or exaggeration, the single worst episode of unjust mob violence in our nation’s long history occurred in Tulsa, Oklahoma exactly 100 years ago this weekend. A mob of over 1,500 white men stormed the nearly all-black Greenwood section of Tulsa, killing hundreds and utterly annihilating entire city blocks. We cringe at the scale of the crime, but we owe it to our fellow Americans who suffered so egregiously and unjustly, to remember, in detail, what happened and to make sure nothing like that ever happens again.
As horrific as that day was, however, there remains, through the remarkable providence of God, three eyewitnesses to the tragedy – who testified before a Congressional panel last week – are not only able to convey first-hand accounts of what happened but serve as powerful, positive examples of how to overcome the tensions that fueled the racial attacks. Given the current state of racial tensions in America today, people with such courage, grace, and wisdom are desperately needed.
I admit that until about a year ago, I was unaware there had ever been such a large-scale violent attack in America. For those who may likewise have never heard about it, the issue started, like so many explosions seem to, by a small spark on May 31, 1921. The pressure for the explosion, however, had been building for many years.
Greenwood prior to the massacre represented the best of what race relations in America could have been. Barely 50 years after the devastation of the Civil War and the disaster that was Reconstruction, a substantial black community had sprung up in a suburb of Tulsa, Oklahoma that had become so modern, prosperous, and affluent that it came to be known as “the black Wall Street” in its day. There was a thriving business community, arts district, and high-quality living standards for the approximate 10,000 blacks living there.
But in the South, resentment for having lost the Civil War was still palpable, and many white Americans were bitter to the point of seething anger at the loss – and seeing an entire section of the city where blacks were prospering fed their substantial and growing bitterness. The confluence of growing white bitterness and black prosperity came to a violent and destructive head in late May 1921.
A black teenager named Dick Rowland entered an elevator operated by a young white woman in a downtown building. Rowland was accused of sexually assaulting the white girl, and was immediately taken into custody by the police. Without waiting for an investigation or trial, an armed group of white men formed that planned to forcibly take Roland from the police and lynch him. A group of 75 armed black men – many of whom had been World War I veterans – formed to defend the jail and prevent the lynching.
Hearing about the armed black defenders, word spread like wildfire in the city, and the 75 were opposed by a huge mob of 1,500 white men. At about 10 pm that night, in the high tensions and chaos of the moment, shots were fired (it was never conclusively proven who fired the first shots), and an all-out war ensued.
The white mob, eventually backed by police, national guard troops, and even planes that dropped bombs on blacks in Greenwood, went on what can only be described as a pogrom, killing 300 black men, women, and children, wounding hundreds more, and incarcerating a staggering 6,000. Greenwood, however, was literally burned to the ground. Photographs show the devastating aftermath that more closely resembled a World War I battlefield than an American city.
Ultimately, investigations concluded that Rowland’s only “sin” was to have accidentally have stepped on the white elevator operator’s toes. He was eventually released from prison, never having been charged, and left Tulsa. No white person was ever prosecuted with a crime, much less spent time in jail. All subsequent attempts by black victims to seek justice were blocked. No insurance claims were ever paid. History books were cleansed of any mention of the massacre.
The Whitewashing Aftermath
Had those Greenwood residents been allowed merely to continue living, working, and raising families, the arc of race relations in America might have developed substantially better today than it did. Instead, that hope was wiped out, setting the stage for decades more and deeper repression of black people around the country. As word spread of what happened in Tulsa – and how all the murderers got off scot-free – it seemed to embolden even more repression and violence against black Americans throughout the 1920s.
The Ku Klux Klan, established in 1866, saw an explosion of membership in the years following the Tulsa massacre, peaking in 1925 when up to 60,000 hooded klansmen marched publicly, proudly up Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC (their membership nationally allegedly approaching 6 million at that time). Not until a few years ago did the city of Tulsa begin to take action, systematically uncovering all the ugly truth. As we reach the centennial of that dark day, however, three points of light, of hope for eventual restoration, have made an appearance in Washington, DC.
At a Congressional hearing last week, the last three living survivors of the massacre gave painful, heartfelt, and at times anguishing statements about what they had seen and experienced. Viola Fletcher, 107 years old, her 100-year old brother Hughes Van Ellis, and by video call 106 year-old Leslie Benningfield each shared some of their most vivid, painful memories of that horrific event.
Fletcher told legislators how as a seven-year-old girl she had been totally at ease and felt very safe in Tulsa prior to the attack. But on that one day, her world was irreparably, horribly transformed. “I will never forget the violence of the white mob when we left our house,” she said. “I still see Black men being shot, and Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire.” Added Benningfield, “It was like a war. White men with guns came and destroyed my community. We couldn’t understand why. What did we do to them? … We were just living.”
Yet while both Fletcher and Benningfield were candid and direct in detailing the barbarity they had suffered and the need for justice, they were as much marked by their grace and nobility in still believing in the idea of America. Yet it was World War II-vet Hughes Van Ellis that left the hearing room – and everyone, like me, who watched online – in tears of admiration.
Even after the brutality suffered by his community in Tulsa and the dishonorable way he and other black men had been treated upon their return from fighting overseas, Van Ellis said “we still had faith things would get better. We still believed in the promise of America and in the cause of freedom.” He fought for freedom abroad, he said, “even though it was ripped away from me at home, even after my home and my community were destroyed. I did it because I believed, in the end, America would get it right.”
Where We Go from Here
Without any question, the world of racism that existed in the mid-1920s where tens of thousands of cloaked white supremacists could march down the street of the nation’s capitol is today much improved. But as the race riots over the past year have shown, we are far from being where we need to be. Fletcher, Benningfield, and Van Ellis – victims of the highest order in suffering from racial injustice – are also models for how we can reverse the negative trends of racism currently at play.
Racial inequality and injustice can never be rectified if we don’t acknowledge it exists in parts of America. Neither will it be improved if we cover the country in a blanket accusation that all white Americans are racist. It is objectively true that there remain some genuine pockets of racism in the country and that simultaneously large percentages of our countrymen are good people, not infected with the racism virus.
What we need, then, is for all people – black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Native Americans, or any other racial or ethnic identity – to commit to treating others as individuals, judged by the content of their character and not accused as being guilty of an assumed sin based on the color of their skin or manner of attire.
I have seen some people accuse “all blacks” of having certain characteristics even when they have never met a given black person. Likewise, I’ve seen other people see a white person and assume, again without having any knowledge of a given white individual, that they are racist, merely by the clothes they wear, the car they drive, or the house they live in. All such generalizations are dangerously mistaken, and at their core perpetuate inaccurate stereotypes, stunting any chance at improving race relations.
The Tulsa massacre of 1921 was a horrific, dark stain on our American heritage. But as the surviving victims of that tragedy heroically demonstrate, deepening hatred and revenge are not ordained. With the recent tragedies such as the George Floyd murder and subsequent riots that sprang from the aftermath, affirm that we still struggle with this racial affliction. Following the examples of heroes such as Fletcher, Benningfield, and Van Ellis can help reduce racial inequality and improve the fabric of our great country.
Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. The views of this article are those of the author alone and do not represent the opinions of any group. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.