The Tulsa Massacre: A Reckoning of Blood and Memory

As Biden addresses the infamous racist massacre that occurred a hundred years ago, Americans struggle to come to terms with their history's dark side.

Joe Biden spoke in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Tuesday, memorializing the infamous Tulsa Race Massacre. The speech came on the 100-year-anniversary of one of the worst acts of racial violence in American history, a symbol of racial injustice. The speech, though largely symbolic, serves as a reminder of the administration’s attempts to bridge the divide and promote a progressive agenda to address inequality. But more than that, it is part of a larger battle over the nature of America in the past and present.

What happened at Tulsa?

Though not well-known today, the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 is perhaps one of the most ruthless examples of political and racial violence examples in American history. It lasted for several days and left 10,000 people homeless. IT also destroyed at least 1,400 homes and businesses. Before the massacre, the primarily Black neighborhood of Greenwood was one of the few areas in the country where Black Americans could flourish during the rise of the Klu Klux Klan. It was so successful that it was known as ‘Black Wall Street’ by many who observed it. W.E. B Dubois described pre-massacre Tulsa as “a happy new city.” But that happiness would not last.

In late May, Dick Rowland, a young Black shoeshiner, was arrested for allegedly raping a young White girl by the name of Sarah Page while in an elevator with her. Page reportedly shrieked, and Rowland fled the scene before being arrested. Local newspapers portrayed the confusing turn of events as a rapacious Black man assaulting an innocent White woman. Years later, Page wrote a letter exonerating Rowland, but at the time, that did not matter to the White denizens of Tulsa.

Marching to the building where Rowland was held, a crowd of White Tulsans clashed in the streets with a group of Black veterans who intended to defend Rowland from any potential lynchings. Outnumbered, the crowd of Black veterans became targets for the mob. Describing the violence in detail, the city’s 2001 commission explained that:

“As the whites moved north, they set fire to practically every building in the African American community, including a dozen churches, five hotels, thirty-one restaurants, four drug stores, eight doctor’s offices, more than two dozen grocery stores, and the Black public library…”

Excerpts from that report also confirmed that, despite the White populace’s denial, some planes did drop explosives on the city to destroy Greenwood, although not military grade. Tulsa burned for several days, and entire communities were lost after decades of hard work and determination being invested in building something beautiful.

By the end of the massacre, official counts stated that twenty-six Black Americans and ten White Americans were killed. However, experts now suspect that at least three hundred people were killed. What followed was a series of lies and obfuscation that either downplayed or outright denied the racist violence. Local and national newspapers emphasized the White death toll while ignoring the deaths of Black residents. Others attempted to equivocate between the levels of violence, treating it like a war rather than the mass murder it was.

While Black residents used photographs to remember the crime, others took the legacy completely differently. White rioters began promoting their violence with postcards stamped with images of the burning buildings and the murders they carried out. Whereas these postcards attempted to promote the violence, they now serve as a painful reminder of the attitudes of those who came before us.

Former residents of Black Wall Street were then subject to even further abuse, with many insurance companies refusing to provide coverage for the destroyed homes and businesses. To this day, these same companies refuse to pay the descendants of the victims one hundred years later.

Why It Matters, and What Biden Does About It

While it is tempting for some to dismiss the centennial anniversary of this racist massacre, it is important to consider the context in which we remember it. The United States has a long history of either downplaying or outright dismissing the severity of racism in the past and present. Tulsa is no exception to that trend. However, what is unique about Tulsa is its severity and how little people know about it.

Before the 1990s, very few Americans cared to learn about Tulsa, and many textbooks omitted it entirely from their curriculum. The event was covered so little that it took HBO’s Watchmen to draw attention to the 1921 mass murder. Before that point, Tulsa did not exist in the minds of many Americans. Indeed, the show's creators only heard about it thanks to an essay in The Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates, the creator of Black Panther and a prolific Marvel comic book writer.

Then there are the bodies. Despite attempts to determine the full death count at Tulsa, efforts have been complicated by the increasingly declining number of witnesses. Some of the survivors who testified about Tulsa noted that there were areas where Black victims were dumped, suggesting that Tulsa has at least one mass grave. One was found in Oaklawn Cemetery in October of last year, with eleven caskets being unearthed. To this day, it is unclear how many bodies remain buried without the knowledge of their families.

Into this painful memory marches President Joe Biden, whose election depended upon Black votes. From the primary to the general election, Black voters carried Biden to victory, and it shows. In his speech, the 46th president made sure to recognize and embrace the painful history that had long been ignored, saying: “My fellow Americans, this was not a riot…This was a massacre.” The recognition is sure to go a long way for many, especially those survivors who remain. But more than that, Biden’s speech speaks to a larger desire that continues to grow in the public to recognize and address much of the damage that still permeates through the Black community. Indeed, though not fully in favor of reparations, the Biden administration has announced new efforts to help minority communities. On Monday, the administration announced that it would allocate federal funds to minority businesses. Missing, however, is a plan to cancel student loan debt, which disproportionately affects Black Americans, prompting NAACP president, Derrick Johnson, to criticize the administration, saying:

“Student loan debt continues to suppress the economic prosperity of Black Americans across the nation…You cannot begin to address the racial wealth gap without addressing the student loan debt crisis.”

Still, the symbolism of the event is far from insignificant. President Biden visited and walked with several of the survivors to hear their stories. He is also the only American president to come to the city with the intent of recognizing that dark chapter in the city’s history.

The Opposition

Despite attempts to examine the darker chapters in American history, there are dissenting voices across the country, with multiple state legislatures attempting to restrict curriculum that talks about America’s racist history. Republicans across the country have locked onto what they see as the left’s indoctrination of children in public schools through Critical Race Theory, and it hits right at home in Tulsa.

Though promising to investigate the full history of the infamous massacre, Oklahoma’s governor, Kevin Stitt, has been a part of this effort. Last week, Stitt signed a bill into law that would prevent public schools from teaching about the long-term harms of racism in America, arguing that it portrays White Americans as inherently racist. In response, the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission cut ties with the governor, criticizing his decision to sign the bill. The conflict between the governor and the commission has also been exacerbated by the fact that Gov. Stitt didn’t attend a single commission meeting, although he alleges that the commission never informed him of the meeting time.

The battle over the school curriculum has reached the highest levels of government. In late April, Senator Mitch McConnell argued that programs such as the 1619 Project, which examines racism’s history in the United States, are divisive, showing that Republicans are increasingly hostile to attempts to address underrepresented elements of American history.

While Democrats are split along moderate and progressive lines, it is almost certain that they will continue to support these initiatives. In this context, it becomes that The Tulsa Race Massacre is likely to be a central piece of the battle for America’s legacy. How that will play out remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain: It is not going away.