How Tulsa Massacre Not Learned for Nearly 100 Years

01 June 2021

June 1 marks the 100th anniversary of the destruction of "Black Wall Street" in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

But that day — with hundreds of Blacks killed, and houses and businesses burned to the ground — did not become part of the American story.

Instead, it was ignored, unlearned and untaught until many years later. Even this year, the Tulsa massacre is still unknown to many Americans.

The massacre in Tulsa began when white anger built over a Black man accused of stepping on a white girl's foot. Blacks came with guns to the jail in Tulsa where the man was held to prevent his killing. White people answered with deadly force. For the next two days, on May 31 and June 1, mobs of white people terrorized and burned the Black neighborhood of Greenwood. The attackers killed up to 300 Black people and forced survivors into internment camps.

Understanding society

Joshua Guild is a professor of history and African American studies at Princeton University. He and other historians say racist attacks like Tulsa are very important in understanding the United States today. When an event like that is lost to memory, American society cannot be truly understood.

It is "sort of a lie that we tell ourselves collectively about who we are as a society," he said. "If we don't understand the nature of the harm ... we can't really have a full reckoning."

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," without knowing the country's full history, she said.

Viola Fletcher, center, the oldest living survivor of the Tulsa race massacre, holds a rose she received as she arrives for a luncheon honoring survivors Saturday, May 29, 2021, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Viola Fletcher, center, the oldest living survivor of the Tulsa race massacre, holds a rose she received as she arrives for a luncheon honoring survivors Saturday, May 29, 2021, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Some terrible events that many Americans do not remember were from long ago. For example, the 1887 Snake River attack in Oregon where 34 Chinese gold miners were killed. Or the Sand Creek massacre in 1864, where U.S. soldiers in Colorado killed around 230 Native American people.

But other forgotten events were within the lifetimes of Americans living today. In 1985, a bombing by the Philadelphia police killed 11 people. The police were targeting the Black organization MOVE.

Robin Wagner-Pacifici is a professor at the New School for Social Research, who has written about the MOVE bombing. She said that just because an event is important or impacted a large number of people does not mean it will be remembered.

Remembering the Tulsa massacre

In Oklahoma, the massacre mostly was not discussed until a committee was formed in 1997 to investigate the violence. For years, the state's public schools called it the Tulsa race riot. Students are now asked 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 is connected to other historical events and whether or not parts of the story are given importance.

In Tulsa, news of the violence that started on May 31, 1921 did make it to the papers. Front-page stories from The Associated Press spoke of a "race clash" and "armed conflict." But the stories of the aftermath — of a community destroyed— went mostly untold. Weeks later, The New York Times reported that a jury in Oklahoma had determined the violence was the fault of the armed Black people. It was off the front page and not major news.

"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," Wagner-Pacifici said.

She pointed to a current example: the deadly Jan. 6 attack at the U.S. Capitol. Some Republican lawmakers have blocked the Democratic-led attempt to investigate the attack.

A presidential visit

President Joe Biden visited Tulsa on Tuesday to honor the victims of the massacre. As the first president to do so, his visit will bring even more attention to the massacre.

Biden also met privately with survivors of the massacre. And his administration presented several new policies aiming to narrow the wealth gap between Black and White Americans.

Eddie Glaude is with the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University. He said Biden's visit "is so important because we have to recognize what we have done ..." It "has to be more than symbolic. To tell the truth is the precondition for reconciliation" and repair, he said.

I'm Dorothy Gundy.

And I'm Dan Friedell.

Deepti Hajela, Jonathan Lemire and Darlene Superville reported this story for The Associated Press. Dan Novak adapted it for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.


Words in This Story

massacre n. the violent killing of many people

internmentn the act of putting someone in a prison for political reasons or during a war

reckoning n. the time when your actions are judged as good or bad and you are rewarded or punished

tamp v. to press (something) down by hitting it lightly

elaborate v. to give more details about something : to discuss something more fully

precondition n. something that must exist or happen before something else can exist or happen

reconciliation n. the act of causing two people or groups to become friendly again after an argument or disagreement