The upcoming centennial of the Tulsa race massacre brings a grim reminder of America’s troubled history with African Americans with a particular resonance, given the current national reckoning sparked by the unjust police killing of George Floyd and other people of color. In a virtual event this week sponsored by the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, a panel of academics and human rights activists discussed the past and focused on the work that remains.
On May 31, 1921, armed white mobs began a deadly assault on Tulsa’s affluent Greenwood district, popularly known as the Black Wall Street. It was sparked by an accusation that a young Black man named Dick Rowland had threatened or possibly assaulted a white woman on an elevator. Charges against Rowland would eventually be dropped. But the rumor was enough that rioting whites descended on the Black district, killing as many as 300 African Americans, injuring hundreds, leaving thousands homeless, and burning hundreds of businesses, homes, churches, schools, and other buildings to the ground.
In the wake of the massacre, the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan continued to flourish; police and many other records of the event vanished; and no public memorials or commemorative events occurred in Tulsa for decades.
The anniversary held special personal meaning for Wednesday’s first speaker, Regina Goodwin, an Oklahoma state representative and Black Caucus chair. Born and raised in the Greenwood area, she had a great-grandmother and great-grandfather who survived the massacre. “The history and the lessons of that period are with me every day. You can talk about a new kind of massacre if you will, when it comes to the erasing of a culture and the particular kinds of businesses that once were,” she said, referring to gentrification in and around Greenwood that threatens to rob the district of its historic identity.
Her ancestors, she said, were among the first to call for reparations after the assault, and she said that battle continues in the efforts to pass federal H.R.40 (an act that would establish a Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans). “That’s where we are: We’re at a crossroads in America where racism has been amplified, the same racism that triggered the total devastation of Greenwood,” she said. “We have to grapple today with the question of race. When are we going to stop just hearing the remedies and start enacting good policy?”