Things That Matter

Today Marks the 100th Anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, Why It Still Matters

Photo via Hulton Archive/Getty Images

If you’ve been tuned into the news, you probably know that this year is the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. But all of the headlines might be confusing. After all, it’s not like this event has been widely covered in American history textbooks. But last year, HBO’s groundbreaking show “Watchmen” thrust this event to the forefront of public consciousness. And now, more than ever, America is being forced to reckon with our history of racial violence.

What is the Tulsa Race Massacre?

The Tulsa Race Massacre was happened on June 1st, 1921. On that day, white Americans burned the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma to the ground. Then known as “Black Wall Street”, this community was the wealthiest Black community in the U.S. Armed with weapons and unlimited power, white Americans slaughtered up to 300 Black people. Some historians consider the event “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history.”

The event started when white Oklahomans accused a 19-year-old Black shoe shiner of assaulting a 17-year-old white girl. A white mob gathered, planning to lynch the young man, who was being protected by a group of Black men. A fight broke out between the two groups, and 10 white people died. When White Oklahomans heard of this news, they stormed Black Wall Street, looting and burning stores to the ground.

In the end, 800 Black people were injured. 10,000 Black people were left homeless. None of the white rioters ever faced punishment. The massacre was largely left out of local and national historical record.

Why is the Tulsa Race Massacre important?

The Tulsa Race Massacre, and its aftermath, illustrates the insidious and insurmountable power of white supremacy. In 1996, Oklahoma’s state legislature created a commission to study the Tulsa Race Massacre. They found that the city of Tulsa conspired with the violent white rioters against the residents of Black Wall Street.

The Tulsa Race Massacre is important because it illustrates how difficult it has been for Black Americans to accumulate generational wealth in the U.S. Even when Black Americans were industrious enough to establish their own businesses and accumulate wealth within their own community, white supremacy prevented them from being successful. As Reuters wrote, “an entire community that had been seen as a symbol of what Black Americans could achieve was devastated.”

How is the 100th Anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre being recognized?

Candlelight vigil in Tulsa/Getty Images

Thanks to the work of dedicated Black and civil rights activists in Oklahoma and beyond, the Tulsa Race Massacre is finally being recognized in history books (after years of it being ignored). Because of this, most Oklahomans are aware of the shameful event in their state’s history.

In Tulsa, events were held to commemorate the loss of Black lives, opportunity, and hope due to the massacre. There will also be an unveiling of the museum, Greenwood Rising–a museum that will tell the story of Black Wall Street.

On Tuesday, President Biden traveled to Tulsa to commemorate the lives lost 100 years ago. He also acknowledged the ripple effect that steeling wealth from previous generations of Black people still has on the community today. “The federal government must reckon with and acknowledge the role that it has played in stripping wealth and opportunity from Black communities,” he said.

Will the government ever offer the descendants of the Tulsa Race Massacre victims reparations?

Photo of Viola Fletcher, 107 via Getty Images

Since the racial reckoning of 2020, the discussion about reparations to Black Americans has reached a fever pitch. Reparations is the practice of giving financial compensation to a group that has been wronged by another group. As the Tulsa Race Massacre shows, the racial wealth gap between whites and Blacks in the U.S. is no accident.

Some Black activists think it is the government’s responsibility to right the wrongs of state-sanctioned racial violence that has systematically contributed to the oppression of Black Americans and, thus, prevented them from accumulating wealth. In his Tulsa speech, President Biden promised to increase federal contracts to minority-owned businesses by 50%. But many Tulsa residents want cash reparations–not federal contracts.

There are three survivors are between 101 and 107-years-old. One of them, Viola Fletcher, 107, talked to Capitol Hill on Sunday about her memories of the event.

“I will never forget the violence of the white mob when we left our home,” she said. “I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams. I have lived through the massacre every day. Our country may forget this history, but I cannot.”

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