A gruesome massacre occurred 100 years ago in Tulsa, Oklahoma – which until recently was hushed up in the United States. While US President Joe Biden comes by, bodies are searched again.
It took less than 24 hours for blacks to shatter their American dream. The so-called “Black Wall Street” in Greenwood was a remarkable neighborhood, one of the richest African American in the whole country: a vibrant business and residential district in the north of the booming oil city Tulsa in Oklahoma.
There were few places where so many black doctors, lawyers and business owners came so close to the “American Dream” a hundred years ago.
But on May 31 and June 1, 1921, a mob of white residents roamed the streets of Greenwood. They ransacked the homes and businesses of their black neighbors, burned them down, and shot at random African Americans in the streets.
In the end, 35 street blocks were razed to the ground, leaving up to 10,000 African Americans homeless overnight. Anyone who did not leave the city was sent to a detention center. “Black Wall Street” was wiped out.
Dead bodies are being digged again
The Tulsa massacre a hundred years ago was long hushed up and finally forgotten. But for the past few years it has been drawing the nation’s attention. America’s legacy of slavery and racism is back on the agenda – as is how to deal with it. For the anniversary of the massacre on Tuesday, US President Joe Biden is coming to Tulsa.
New excavations are also starting there to find more victims. In the past year, investigations revealed new indications of grave sites. Because many of the victims were simply buried, without records, without a tombstone. Others were thrown from the bank into the Arkansas River. How many were there? For a long time there was talk of 20 to 40, then a hundred. Experts now assume that up to 300 blacks were killed.
A fateful elevator ride
The outbreak of violence began on May 30th. A 19-year-old black shoeshine boy named Dick Rowland was riding an elevator in the city center with elevator operator Sarah Page, 17 years old and white. What exactly happened is still unclear. Most of the reports – as well as one testimony from the woman herself – say that he stumbled and grabbed the woman’s arm as he fell.
Tulsa, Oklahoma on fire: outbreak of violence that has long been concealed. (Source: Alvin C. Krupnick Co./NAACP Records / Library of Congress / Reuters)
At that time, he was sent to prison without hesitation. Sensational reports of sexual assault promptly appeared in the local newspapers – and within hours a mob formed in front of the prison.
Lynchings were the order of the day in the southern United States at the time, triggered particularly quickly by the allegation that a black man had touched a white woman. And because that is exactly what the Greenwood blacks wanted to prevent, men from their ranks who had served in World War I positioned themselves outside the prison to protect Rowland’s life. A shot was fired in a scuffle with the white mob, and then the horror took its course.
“I still hear the screams”
Not only were the whites outnumbered, they were provided with weapons by the police and even received assistance from planes that were used to throw incendiary bombs on Greenwood. 1,470 houses were looted and burned down. Many wealthy residents left the city and went back to work as simple farm workers.
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One of the last survivors testified to the US Congress about the massacre two weeks ago. “I still see black men being shot, black bodies in the streets,” said 107-year-old Tulsa survivor Viola Fletcher. “I still see black shops being burned down. I still hear the screams.”
Survivor Viola Fletcher: “I still hear the screams.” (Source: Sue Ogrocki / AP / dpa)
Fletcher wants compensation to be paid to survivors and their descendants. A commission in Tulsa, which should deal with the injustice, disputes this question. An anniversary concert with pop star John Legend was canceled due to hiccups over how much money should go to survivors. The activists on site are eagerly awaiting whether the US president will take a position on this issue.
The subject of reparations, however, is only one of many unresolved chapters a hundred years after the Tulsa massacre. There is also the question of guilt: Of the perpetrators who robbed, expelled or shot their black neighbors, not a single one was charged, let alone punished.