the tale of the lost city
Posted: January 22, 2000

The boy came to the man and sat at his knee. "Tell me a story, Scriptor."

The man opened his book. "Once upon a time, there was a city. Many people lived there, and they were of many different races and creeds and colors. And they lived together, not always comfortably, not always peaceably, but for the most part, quietly.

"And then one day, part of the city died. It died because of greed and jealousy and misunderstanding. And the survivors were afraid, and they hid the truth for many years."

The worst race riot in the history of the United States was in Tulsa, Oklahoma, of all places, in 1921.

Many people were killed. Official accounts say that it was about 30; unofficial counts, from people who's husbands, sons, fathers, mothers, daughters didn't come home, range around 300.

The entire black section of Tulsa burned to the ground.

Aircraft were used to bomb the rioters. According, apparently, to a book called Death in a Promised Land by Scott Ellsworth, it was the first use of American air power in any sort of combat; it hadn't yet been approved by president or congress for use in war.

The proximate cause of the riots was the arrest of a young black man for the apparent assault on a white woman in an elevator in downtown Tulsa. The overall cause of the riots, in part, seems to have been that the price of oil collapsed about that time--after the war, demand dropped precipitously. That placed whites in direct competition with blacks for jobs at the lower end of the economic scale. Since there were fewer jobs, there was, consequently, more crime. The police department then started harrassing the black community, producing a situation which could be predicted to cause a riot--in fact, the police department seems to have been warned about this very possibility.

To give Tulsa its due, whatever it may be owed, it did have black members of its police department, which would have been a rarity in those days for a city with a majority white population. In the end, it doesn't seem to have mattered.

Several blacks came to the police station to protect Rowland, the accused, from being lynched, but were convinced that the police had the situation under control and talked into going home. They left. A group of whites arrived and lurked outside the station, and later, another group of blacks arrived and there seems to have been a lot of yelling. And then, of course, the actual riot was started pretty much by accident; a deputy was trying to disarm one of the blacks when the gun discharged by accident. In the end, apparently most of the actual rioting was done by poor whites, who resented the blacks in north Tulsa, who had, as blacks go, become relatively successful by doing exactly what the whites had told them to do in those segregationist days.

In point of actual fact, the police actually armed the white rioters.

In any event, when it was all over, most of the black population of Tulsa (which didn't have all that many people of any sort in those days) was dead, what wasn't dead was dispossessed and in "protective custody". One wonders how well protected they felt, having to depend on those who had been killing their friends and neighbors for their lives.

What I find interesting is that knowledge of the worst race riot in this country's history was so utterly and completely suppressed. It's not taught in the schools, it's not mentioned in history books. Nobody knows about it. Partly because it's Tulsa, of course --- but then, Birmingham can't be much bigger, and Selma is smaller. Partly, it's that most of what we know of race riots and the like happened during the modern media age, or in larger cities. Mostly, however, it seems to be a conflation of those facts, plus the fact that Tulsa's city fathers made a concerted and successful effort to suppress the news of it.

Still, somehow, you'd think that the news would have been more broadly disseminated by now. How could something so major have been hidden so deeply for so long, and never discussed?

And then you think.


No Gun Ree.

My Lai.

But, you protest, the last two occurred during wartime! Surely that can't be the same thing.


When you teach people to think of someone as "other", as less than human, as often happens in war, then such things are inevitable.

Atrocities happened during the Indian wars in this country, and nobody cared, because, after all, they were but ignorant savages.

Tulsa's black community is decimated, but nobody cares, because, after all, they were but ignorant blacks.

Women, children, the elderly are killed in No Gun Ree and My Lai, but nobody cares because, after all, they were gooks.

It will always be easier to kill the "other".

It's much more difficult to stop.

And even more difficult to admit.

CNN recently reported that archaeologists have been given permission to dig up some graves in Tulsa's Oaklawn cemetery. It seems that there may be mass graves underneath some of the known individual graves underneath those known to have died in the riots.

The commission is also looking into questions of compensation. I don't know how you could compensate, what would ever be enough. Most of the survivors are dead by now in any event, and you can't really compensate the dead.

I suppose ... I don't live in Tulsa, so my wishes clearly don't matter, but the one thing I can think of to request, that would seem, if not sufficient, then reasonable, is that the history of the race riot be taught. That people learn of those who died. That their names be listed, be included in the lessons.

That isn't much to ask, and it's well within Oklahoma's power to give.

The boy frowned as the man closed his book. "That was not a pretty story."

The man shook his head. "No. Not all stories are pretty."

"And they didn't live happily ever after."

"No. Many did not live at all."

"But ... what is the lesson? Surely in a story like that, there must be a lesson."

The man reached out and touched the boy's face gently. "Of course there is. There are many lessons in this story. But the ones you take with you are yours. Others may see different lessons in this story. Go home, and think on this story, and maybe someday, you can tell me what lessons you took from it."

(NOTE: the content of this essay first appeared, in somewhat different form, as the June 1, 1999 entry in my online journal.)

Links of further interest - each link opens in a new window:

1921 Tulsa Race Riot (book site), by Robert Hower

1921 Tulsa Race Riot and the American Red Cross "Angels of Mercy" (previous edition? of the above mentioned book)

Tulsa Race Riot Commision -- "The Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 is searching for a copy of the May 31, 1921, Tulsa Tribune newspaper which contains a front page article entitled “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator,” and a back page editorial entitled “To Lynch Negro Tonight.” "

The Tulsa Race Riot - June 1, 1921 (Tulsa Historical Society)

Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (illustrated brief account)

The Death of "Black Wall Street" (Davey D's Hip Hop Corner) - a not remotely neutral account of the riot, noting the Tulsa Greenwood community's then-role as one of the most affluent black communities in the country; essentially, it's an announcement/advertisement for a book called "Black Wallstreet".

CNN - Archaeologists to search for mass graves from 1921 Tulsa riot (January 20, 2000)

CNN - Tulsa panel seeks truth from 1921 race riot (August 3, 1999)

Historians: 300 died in 1921 race riot (Amarillo [TX] Globe-News)

1921 Tulsa Race Riot - A Brief Overview (Tulsa City-County Public Library, African American Resource Center)

J.B. Stratford cleared of inciting Tulsa Race Riot (New York Times, October 26, 2996) - it seems that for 75 years, the official verdict was to blame one black man for starting the whole thing.

Britannica/Civilization - Tulsa Burning by Jonathan Z Larsen, February 1, 1997.

Afro-American Almanac - Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1921 Riot

Tulsa Race Riot, 1921


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