The stories we tell ourselves about who and what we are have immense power. In the case of the Tulsa Massacre, the false story that has become the mainstream recollection of this event has held back reparations, healing, and the trust of Black residents of Tulsa in their representatives. Blessedly, some people and documents survived to provide an alternative story — the truth.
Warning: This article contains language that may be offensive to some.
by Michael Harriot
On the 100th Anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre, let’s acknowledge that what happened in Greenwood was not a spontaneous eruption of hatred.
That’s the narrative that America likes to portray, but what happened on May 31, 1921 is an example of systemic racism.
First of all, we have a false notion that Tulsa was an oasis of exceptional Black people. It wasn’t even the most popular “Black Wall Street.” Look up the Hayti neighborhood in Durham. Look up Boley, Oklahoma. Look up Richmond’s Black Wall Street. And this is not to dismiss Tulsa. I’m just saying that we shouldn’t feed into the narrative that Black ownership and success is extraordinary. Every time Black people are left to their own devices, excellence emerges.
In fact, the Black section of Tulsa was originally known as “Little Africa.” But in 1906, Booker T. Washington visited and saw the community. He told them about a district he had started in Tuskegee, Ala. filled with Black-owned businesses. He named Tuskegee’s “Black Wall Street” after Tuskegee Institute’s first agricultural teacher, C.W. Greene.
He called it “Greenwood.”
Secondly, we have this notion that Greenwood was filled with business owners. Not true. The vast majority of Black people in Tulsa worked for white people, but (and this is the whole point) they spent their money in their own community. They built their own schools and community centers.
Maybe the best example of this is John W. Williams. Williams worked for a white-owned ice cream company. But because he was so good at maintaining and repairing the refrigeration equipment he was paid well. John and his wife Loula owned the first car in Greenwood. Of course, there were no mechanics, so John fixed his own car. Then white folks started bringing their cars to John. So John opened his own shop at 420 Archer Street in Greenwood. He was the only person in Tulsa some people trusted to fix their automobiles.
So he was bringing white dollars to Greenwood.
What was his next move? John’s wife Loula quit her job as a teacher and opened HER OWN ice cream shop and bakery. And since Loula was always interested in theater, she opened her own theater. And it was so successful, she opened her own movie theater. The movie thing was just starting to pop, so her theater, “Dreamland,” was so dope that white people were sneaking into the Black movie theater. But Dreamland, Loula’s, the theater, and John’s shop were burned down on May 31st.
Let’s get back to why. If you listen to the white version, this started when 19-year-old Dick Rowland bumped into a white girl on an elevator in the Drexel Building, which caused outrage. That happened, but it was only part of the story. See, the Tulsa police knew Rowland was innocent. But all the Black folks knew there was going to be trouble. Why? Because white folks in Tulsa had a habit of lynching Black people. And Black people were tired of that shit, so they started speaking out.
But this wasn’t a Tulsa thing. It wasn’t an Oklahoma thing. It was a white thing. Seriously, lynching Black people was an American pastime. White people really believed that Black men were unable to control themselves around white women and lynching was the only solution.
Now here is where it gets uncomfortable. See, white people believe shit like this despite the facts. It’s the same thing that they say about “Black-on-black crime,” Critical Race Theory, the war on drugs… The NAACP & Ida B. Wells were like Oh, that’s what y’all think? After they asked Congress to pass a bill against lynching, the NAACP did a study proving that less than one-sixth of lynching victims were accused of rape. And MOST of those accusations were unfounded. Unfortunately, the study did not include statistics on white-on-white crime.
When faced with actual facts, what did the white people say? Basically, their response was But they do be raping, tho… That’s not my opinion. You can look it up in the proceedings of this obscure organization called Congrsess. The Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill failed in 1918. The next summer was one of the worst years of white terrorism in modern history. It failed again the next year. How was it defeated? Southern conservatives used this thing called the “filibuster.” I’m sure no one does that anymore.
But let’s go back to Tulsa. The white cops knew Rowland was innocent but all the black folks knew shit was about to hit the fan so they called Barney Cleaver.
Who was Barney Cleaver? He was Tulsa’s first Black police officer. But, because he wouldn’t go along with the white supremacist lynching agenda, he was fired. As soon as he was fired, he was hired as a Sheriff’s deputy.
Now here is why they called it a “riot.” White folks started gathering at the courthouse and they were gonna lynch Dick Rowland. All of the Black folks grabbed their guns and went TO THE POLICE and said:
“Bruh, we live here. We know the white folks are gonna go apeshit and lynch this young boy. We’re not finna let that happen.”
Cleaver told the Black folks he got this but the Black folks were like “nah”
John McQueen, a white deputy, approached Johnny Cole, a black veteran holding an army issue Colt 45 automatic
McQueen: Nigger, What are you doing with that pistol?
Cody: I am going to use it, if I need to
McQueen: No, you’ll give it to me.
Cole: Like Hell I will.
They fought over the gun and it went off, shooting a Black man in the chest. Everyone scattered. The Black folks ran back to Greenwood and the white men planned “reprisals.”
But that’s not when the violence started. The white mob didn’t chase the Black crowd. It wasn’t even a “mob.” They ORGANIZED. The cops gathered all the white men together, broke into hardware stores and started arming whites. Then they DRILLED. Then they split into companies.
The police commissioner and the Inspector of police formed two companies of 50 each. Their job was not to kill Black people. Their job was to stop Black people from leaving Greenwood. They posted a machine gun atop a tower. They used 6 “spotter planes” to spot people fleeing.
Do you know how much planning and labor it takes to destroy thirty-four square blocks? Do you think it’s a coincidence that all that property just happens to be white-owned now? White people aren’t magic. It was not a lynch mob. It was an organized paramilitary mini-genocide.
Here’s the last story. J.B. Stradford, the richest Black man in Oklahoma, owned the Stratford Hotel – the largest black-owned, operated hotel for African Americans in the country. There are no reports of him killing anyone. But he was arrested for inciting the riot. His son bailed him out, and he fled to Cincinnati. He eventually settled in Chicago. He was known for refusing to sell property to whites and was a fugitive for the rest of his life. He never duplicated his financial success. Imagine what kind of wealth the descendants of Stradford could have built. They probably could have led Black-owned major corporations. They could have united to stop voter suppression. They could have taught Black children financial literacy and funded college HBCUs
This is not to say that Black people aren’t doing it now. There is a community academy in Chicago that teaches financial literacy to elementary children. There are Black millionaires that fund the fight to stop voter suppression. Some fund Black political candidates. Black millionaires have funded college educations for entire graduating classes and others have invested funds for white corporations and given the profits to HBCUs.
But there’s not a lot.
OK, I’mma be real. There’s one guy who has done all of those things: John W. Rogers. To be fair, he was raised by a Tuskegee Airman and Jewel Lafontant, the first Black female deputy solicitor General of the US. Jewel’s Dad STARTED the National Bar Association, the all-Black legal organization. Jewel changed her name after she married. Her grandfather, the great-grandfather of John W. Rogers, is J.B. Stradford, who lost most of his fortune in Tulsa. He was finally exonerated…In 1996
Mobs are not that thorough. America is, though.
Here’s absolute proof that the narrative of the Tulsa Massacre is wrong. In all that looting, murdering, killing and burning over the rape that incited the riots, one person did manage to escape the mobs and the airplanes and the machine guns and the death squads:
This article was originally a Twitter thread published by @michaelharriot.