Donald Trump recently announced that his next ‘Make American Great Again’ rally would be held in Tulsa, Oklahoma on June 19th. For many people outside the US, this didn’t seem to be particularly significant. However, after mass outrage across the pond, Brits and the world at large realised just how much of a provocation this actually was.
June 19th, known as Juneteenth, is celebrated amongst African Americans as the day the Emancipation Proclamation was read to the enslaved Black community in Texas in 1865, freeing all enslaved peoples held in Union territory. It is a day symbolic of the end of slavery, although they would not actually gain freedom until The Thirteen Amendment in December. The day is still not recognised as a national holiday in the US and is overshadowed by American Independence Day on 4th July, a day where a country may have been declared ‘free’ but all its people were certainly not. Holding a rally on such a date has been met with such outrage that Trump has since backed down, moving the date ‘out of respect’.
However, the site of his rally remains Tulsa, Oklahoma. Tulsa is place infamous for an incident widely recognised as the worst single incident of racial violence in US history, but one which is also the least publicised or well known internationally. This article seeks to raise awareness of the events of 1921 and direct readers to suitable resources.
In 1921, Tulsa, a booming oil city, was home to an affluent African American community but one which was highly segregated. The vast majority of the city’s 10,000 Black citizens lived in Greenwood, an area often referred to as ‘Black Wall Street’ because of its financial success and prosperity. It was seen by many whites at the time as a ‘threat’ to ‘white capitalism’. The end of the First World War saw a spike in racial violence, with black war veterans demanding their civil rights after serving their country. This was met with a huge backlash amongst whites and the Klu Klux Klan thrived. 27 African Americans are known to have been lynched in Oklahoma between 1907 and 1920.
On 31th May, 19-year-old African American Dick Rowland was arrested after an encounter in a lift with the 17-year-old elevator operator, Sarah Page the previous day. An inflammatory newspaper report incited fears that Rowland would be lynched, with a group of Black residents amassing outside the courthouse around 9 pm with the aim of protecting Rowland, along with an opposing group of white residents demanding that he be handed over to them. The Sheriff dismissed the group and a white mob tried (unsuccessfully) to break into the National Guard’s armoury. At 10 pm, a small group of Black men returned to try and protect Rowland again, but this time they were met with around 1500 white men. After shots were fired, the vastly outnumbered group fled back to Greenwood.
White public officials and civilians, armed with the aid of these same officials, entered Greenwood, systematically looting and torching homes, businesses and even hospitals, churches and schools across the district. Thousands of Black Greenwood residents were simultaneously rounded up and forcefully detained across the city, including later by the National Guard. By 2nd June over 6000 were being held; some were interned for up to 8 days. According to the American Red Cross, over 1200 homes were destroyed and 35 blocks of the once thriving and prosperous Greenwood were raised to the ground. Current estimates put the number of deaths at up to 300, although at the time official figures suppressed this to 36. Over 800 people were treated were in hospitals and over 8000 made homeless. In the days, months and years that followed the events of Tulsa were actively covered up. The Tulsa Tribune which published the article inciting the disturbance was retracted and state files went missing. No individuals or institution has ever been prosecuted for the events of 1921.
‘Make America ‘Great’ Again’? I think not.
Sources and Resources for Further Information:
The Greenwood cultural center: https://greenwoodculturalcenter.com/https://greenwoodculturalcenter.com/
The Disaster Relief Report from the American Red Cross: https://www.tulsahistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/1994.012.001_RedCrossReport.pdf
The 2001 Tulsa Race Riot Report: http://www.okhistory.org/research/forms/freport.pdf
James S. Hirsch, Riot and Remembrance: The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002).
Hannibal B. Johnson, ‘Black Wall Street’ (1998)