America is still honest after all? A powerful movement is dragging the consequences of the American original sin to the public. But that doesn’t really fit in with the self-image of the USA.
The week in Washington was marked by a gloomy anniversary. The Tulsa massacre marked the hundredth anniversary. Big documentation for days on all channels, festive events, the President was there.
Tulsa? Didn’t you know? Was this your first time hearing these days? Then you are like most Americans.
The greatest massacre of their black fellow citizens by a mob of white Americans has been erased from the collective memory of Americans. Just like from general historiography.
I myself once studied US history, for many semesters and at an excellent institute, but, if I remember correctly, I had never heard of the Tulsa massacre.
Photo of the massacre in Tulsa (1921): “We still have a long way to go” (Source: Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa / AP / dpa)
I only got into it a year and a half ago, triggered by the wicked and excellent HBO series Watchmen, which embeds the story of the massacre in an old comic superhero world (even if that’s as little your genre as mine: Recommendation! ). Tom Hanks, the Hollywood star and amateur historian, wrote in the “New York Times” that he only found out about the incident through an article a year ago.
The ways in which Messrs. Hanks and Reinbold came to know are typical: For some years now, it has been the entertainment industry that has made Americans aware of the pasted history of racist violence. And after the death of George Floyd, there was suddenly a lot of space in the media for such events from the past.
Every nation has its difficulties dealing with the dark side of the past. In the US, the problem is a little more dramatic for two reasons. For one, the original sin of slavery and its aftershocks have shaped the nation to this day. Anyone who walks through the country with open eyes cannot overlook this. On the other hand, many Americans see their country as an exception, as a force for good, as the “greatest country on earth”. Events like those in Tulsa don’t fit well into the self-image.
In a nutshell, the following happened there: Afro-Americans had built a business and residential area with enormous prosperity in the wake of the oil boom in Oklahoma at the beginning of the 20th century; they spoke of “Black Wall Street”. It was a rare place where the American Dream seemed a reality even to black people. Resentment and hatred erupted when a black man was suspected of molesting a white woman. A mob of whites looted the neighborhood, burned down houses, shops and even the hospital, and according to new estimates killed three hundred blacks. (Here I have described the incidents in more detail.) That is the historical truth.
Tulsa, Oklahoma on fire: outbreak of violence that has long been concealed. (Source: Alvin C. Krupnick Co./NAACP Records / Library of Congress / Reuters)
As is well known, the United States inherited its problems. The wonderful sentence of the Declaration of Independence that it was evident that “all human beings were created equal” and enjoyed certain inalienable rights, “including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” came from Thomas Jefferson, who denied this equality to his slaves and thanks to them Working on his Monticello plantation became a very wealthy man.
In the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Jefferson can therefore be seen in front of a wall with the names of many of his 609 slaves. The Black Museum is an important place for this issue. It has stood in the middle of Washington’s National Mall for five years and has presented some unpleasant truths like the one about Tulsa.
National Museum of African American History and Culture: “We still have a long way to go.” (Source: Francis Dean / Deanpictures / imago images)
I spoke to the curator of the museum after the visit. Before the museum opened, he had conducted many interviews as to how they could do justice to this story. “The number one thing people wanted to know about was slavery,” Paul Gardullo said on the phone. “And the number one topic they didn’t want to hear about was slavery, too.” That sums up America’s dilemma with its past well.
A few years ago Gardullo had already dedicated a small corner of the museum to the Tulsa massacre. Dealing with it is a symbol for him. “In America we have this broad impulse to suppress, circumnavigate and forget. That is not a strength of our country.”
Even on site in Tulsa, according to Gardullo, the topic would have simply been hushed up. Generations would not have known what had happened in their city if they had not been told about it in the family. It has only been material in history lessons since 2020.
The dark heart of the museum is in the basement, where concrete dominates and the paths are narrow: it is desirable that there be anxiety. The question of slavery was the most important of the young nation, there was constant haggling, in between slaves were counted to three fifths in order to give their masters more influence in elections.
Then after the civil war, slavery was officially over. Great ingenuity was now being developed, especially in the south, of how to keep the freed slaves small as second-class citizens. Knowledge tests were invented at the polling station to prevent voting. All conceivable facilities from schools to toilets were separated into white and black. Again and again men were lynched in order to punish individuals beyond justice and to intimidate the whole.
Which brings us back to Tulsa. Tulsa was special because of “Black Wall Street”, the many deaths and the enormous destruction, but showed the same logic as many other outbreaks of violence.
The origin was typical because, as is so often the case, the trigger was an accusation that a black man had molested a white woman, and a lynch mob then formed to practice vigilante justice. The point in time was typical, because the Ku Klux Klan was experiencing the height of its power in the 1920s and was solemnly marching down the boulevards of Washington over and over again. The consequences were also typical: none of the victims was compensated, none of the perpetrators harassed.
Incidentally, black World War II veterans opposed the white mob. They had fought in Europe to “make the world safe for democracy,” as then President Wilson had put it. Only her own democracy at home was not safe for her.
After the liberation of slaves, there were eight black people in the US Congress in 1875. Then those in power would come up with all sorts of things to vigorously curtail the right to vote and to be elected. There were eight blacks in the US Congress only after the civil rights movement and new electoral laws in 1969, almost a hundred years later.
At that time, many sat in the ranks of the Southern Democrats who tried with all their might to prevent blacks from becoming equal citizens. Today they are among the Republicans. Right now they are coming up with all sorts of rules in numerous states to make voting a little harder for certain groups. Everything in the sense of “security of choice” is understood.
Every change in the question of racism is followed by forces that want to push it back. That too is an American truth.
For decades, the liberation of slaves in the 1860s was followed by terror in the south, such as in Tulsa. After the civil rights movement and the electoral laws of the 1960s, there were soon again laws that made voting more difficult for blacks or imposed higher prison sentences on them than whites. After Barack Obama came Donald Trump.
Now we are experiencing a seemingly overpowering movement that is bringing to the fore parts of American reality that have long been hidden from view. You can no longer ignore it in the media, in politics or in entertainment. The nation, in which whites will soon no longer be in the majority, is changing. Many these days are certain: A change has come.
But the countermovement cannot be overheard either. While not a day goes by on the left-wing liberal National Public Radio that is not about structural racism, Fox News has the counter-program every day: We will not let the constant talk about racism ruin our proud history, they say .
It is the argument about what kind of nation America really was, is, and wants to be. It has always been there and it will stay.
Museum curator Gardullo said goodbye to me at least with these words: “We still have a long way to go.”