A century after the massacre, black people struggle to be heard
TULSA, Oklahoma (AP) – In early Oklahoma state, an angry white mob, fanned by rumors of a black uprising, burned a thriving African-American community in the oil town of Tulsa. Although the neighborhood was quietly rebuilt and experienced a renaissance in the years following the racial massacre of 1921, the struggle between blacks for their place in the city has not ended.
This month, local and state leaders will officially recognize and atone for the massacre, which claimed the lives of several hundred people, with a series of ceremonies that will include a keynote address by national voting rights lawyer Stacey Abrams. President Joe Biden is also coming to the city, the White House has announced. But Black Tulsans say that amid the kind words, both direct and subtle efforts are always aimed at curbing their influence and retaining their fair share of power.
HISTORY OF OKLAHOMA
Before the creation of a state in 1907, Oklahoma was home to Native American tribes driven from other areas by the white expansion. Then the government decided to open up this land as well, and it became attractive to former slaves who were fleeing persecution in the South. It was also home to blacks who had been brought into the territory by slave tribes.
Some African Americans participated in land races in the late 1800s. They included EP McCabe, the leader of a movement that hoped to make Oklahoma a predominantly black state free from white oppression.
“(McCabe) actually recruited black people to come to Oklahoma on the theory that Oklahoma was the new promised land for these people,” said Oklahoma historian Hannibal Johnson, author of several books on the Oklahoma Black History. “Oklahoma hasn’t quite lived up to its billing, obviously.”
Instead, white settlers, many of whom came from surrounding Confederate states, flocked to the territory, bringing with them views of blacks as inferiors that needed to be kept in check. After Oklahoma became a state, the first law approved was a Jim Crow law requiring the separation of rail cars and depots.
âOklahoma, in many ways, while arguably not a Southern state in terms of racial politics, has started to emulate the Deep South,â Johnson said.
THE MASSACRE OF THE TULSA RACE
In the 1920s, during the so-called Harlem Renaissance, when African Americans emigrated from the South, Tulsa had a black community of nearly 10,000 people on the north side of the Frisco Railroad. The city was teeming with cash from the booming oil fields, and black residents held jobs as hotel porters, auto mechanics, laborers, and servants. The neighborhood of Greenwood, known as Black Wall Street, was the richest black community in the United States, with its own black-owned stores, restaurants, and other businesses.
On May 31, 1921, wagons full of black residents, some of them armed, rushed to the downtown sheriff’s office to confront white men who were apparently gathering to kidnap and lynch a black prisoner in the jail. Gunfire erupted and over the next 24 hours, a white crowd inflamed by rumors of a black insurgency stormed the neighborhood of Greenwood and burned it down, destroying all 35 square blocks. Estimates of those killed ranged from 50 to 300.
THE BLACK COMMUNITY NOW
One hundred years later, African Americans still live on the north side of town and make up about 16% of Tulsa’s population, or 400,000, which is double the proportion seen in Oklahoma as a whole. The median income of black households is $ 25,979, about half that of white households in Tulsa County.
For decades after the massacre, doctors, ministers, and lawyers, along with Booker T. Washington High School faculty and the editors of the Oklahoma Eagle newspaper, provided leadership. But black residents had little to say in city government because Tulsa generally voted for its city commission. A black person was not elected to the council until 1990, after the introduction of a parish system.
Tulsa’s black community is now more politically engaged than it once was, according to community activists. In 2020, a 34-year-old black man who came to Tulsa as part of the Teach for America program won the Democratic nomination in the Tulsa congressional seat race, and a 30-year-old black community organizer finished second in the race for mayor of the city. .
The murders of two unarmed black men by white law enforcement officers in Tulsa in recent years have spurred some young black voters, said Charles Wilkes, a 27-year-old community organizer.
In 2015, a White Reserve sheriff’s deputy shot dead Eric Harris, 44, during an arrest. A year later, policewoman Betty Shelby killed Terence Crutcher, who had her hands up. Shelby said she thought he was looking for a gun.
âWe’ve seen shootings time and time again,â Wilkes said.
The black community of Tulsa has seen an influx of funds from foundations and nonprofits, much of it to improve public schools and fight poverty. In 2018, readers of the Chronicle of Philanthropy dubbed the city at the top of the country for philanthropy, and black community organizations mushroomed.
State Representative Monroe Nichols, a Democrat from Tulsa, said the black community must now focus on increasing voter turnout – Oklahoma as a whole had the lowest voter turnout in the world. countries in 2020.
âI think the interest is there,â he said. “I just think the commitment isn’t there yet.”
The predominantly white and conservative Oklahoma rulers no longer deny the racial slaughter, which for decades received only brief mention in the state’s history books.
National and local authorities supported the celebration of the anniversary. A new multimedia museum was adopted as a step towards recognizing the lessons of the incident. Republican U.S. Senator James Lankford is a member of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission.
But atonement for the past did not mean the end of hostile movements in the present, members of the black community say. They cite Oklahoma Republicans’ support for the GOP’s national efforts to limit voting opportunities, and in particular Lankford’s plan to challenge the certification of the 2020 presidential election on ballots in high-pressure cities. black population.
Lankford canceled those plans after insurgents stormed the U.S. Capitol and then apologized to the Black Tulsans.
âI can assure you that my intention to give a voice to Oklahomans who had questions was never also an intention to diminish the voice of a black American,â he said.
Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt was also a member of the commission, but was removed from his post after signing a bill banning the teaching of certain concepts of race and racism in public schools.
Meanwhile, the GOP-dominated Legislature has responded to Black Lives Matter’s protests against social injustice by cracking down on protesters. A new law makes blocking a street an offense punishable by one year in prison. The measure also grants legal immunity in certain cases to motorists who encounter protesters on the road.
“If rioters surround someone’s car, threatening that person, they have a right to protect their family,” said Stitt, who was criticized on Twitter by Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter for signing the measure. .
Oklahoma’s election laws are also among the most restrictive in the country, with just 3.5 days of early in-person voting. Postal ballots must be notarized, which Nichols says can be especially difficult for the poor.
Although they have less political influence than blacks in the Old South states with large black populations, African Americans in Oklahoma show more potential by combining with more educated white voters to elect more. Democrats in the big cities. Tulsa and Oklahoma City are now increasingly democratic, with seven African-American lawmakers.
But the conservative Republican leadership in the Legislature keeps this group on the sidelines. Seventy-two of the 81 bills introduced by black lawmakers this year have never been heard by a committee, according to an Associated Press analysis. Only two of them made it to the governor’s office.
âThere is just no respect for the black experience or the black voices,â Nichols said.
Representative House Majority Leader Jon Echols, a Republican, said black members could be sidetracked because they push more liberal bills in a Tory legislature.
âIt’s not a function of race,â he said.
Find full AP coverage of the Tulsa Race Massacre Centenary at: https://apnews.com/hub/tulsa-race-massacre
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