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Editorial: Why weren't we taught about Tulsa?

Editorial: Why weren't we taught about Tulsa?

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It could have begun with something as innocent as a stumble.

We don’t know why Sarah Page, the teenage elevator operator in a four-story building in downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma, screamed.

Some say the elevator didn’t stop level with the floors and Dick Rowland, a teenage shoeshiner, simply tripped and grabbed Page’s arm to steady himself. Or perhaps it was something more nefarious — we’ll never know.

What we do know is that is that a clerk for Renberg’s Department Store heard Page’s scream, called the police, and the front-page headline the next morning in the Tulsa Tribune declared, in the language of the times, “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator.”

By that night, Rowland was in jail, a mob of more than 2,000 white men intent on lynching him had gathered outside the courthouse, and some 75 Black men decided to arm themselves and go downtown to help deputies protect the courthouse.

Angry men with guns rarely lead to anything good, and this was no exception. According to a timeline compiled by the Tulsa World, a white man confronted a Black man in the crowd and apparently tried to seize his gun. A shot went off and, according to spectators, “all hell broke loose.”

Within hours — by then it was after midnight, so already June 1, 100 years ago today — the white mob rushed into Tulsa’s Black business district, started setting it ablaze and shooting anyone who resisted.

By the time another sunset came, the mob had torched 35 blocks of the Greenwood neighborhood, a section so prosperous that it was known as “the Black Wall Street.”

Businesses, churches, a school, a hospital — all gone, just like that.

Some 6,000 Black residents of Tulsa were rounded up and “interned” on the grounds that this was a “Negro uprising” when, of course, it was nothing of the sort.

The exact death toll remains in dispute — at the time state officials said there were 36 dead; a 2001 state commission that examined the massacre concluded there may have been as many as 100 dead.

Other estimates range as high as 300.

A century later, Tulsa is still investigating what happened, with a committee using ground-penetrating radar to locate mass graves, and then use DNA testing to identify the remains.

According to the city’s website, one such exhumation is scheduled to start today, the 100th anniversary of the massacre.

History casts a long shadow whether we want it to or not.

Even the summary you just read is far too antiseptic about the horror that unfolded in Tulsa that day.

Consider just one tragic block: Some desperate Black residents barricaded themselves in the bell tower of the Mount Zion Baptist Church and tried to shoot the marauding white rioters who were burning the homes all around them.

Then the Oklahoma National Guard arrived. The guardsmen responded not by defending the homeowners but opening fire on the church with a machine gun. Then the church was burned.

If you’re just now hearing about the Greenwood Massacre, that just goes to show how incompletely we know our own history. This has been called “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history” yet, until relatively recently, has been erased from our collective memory.

If you want to talk about “cancel culture,” here’s an example.

White Tulsa resolved never to talk about what happened. In 1946, when the Tulsa Tribune looked back on “Twenty Five Years Ago,” the massacre was never mentioned. In 1971, when it looked back on “Fifty Years Ago,” there was still no mention. It was never referenced in any textbook.

Not until the 1970s were there concerted efforts to piece together exactly what happened. Even today, historians are still trying — witness the attempts to find those mass graves.

Now Tulsa is a long way from Roanoke, but not that far historically speaking. There are parts of our own history — ugly, uncomfortable parts — that we have chosen to ignore. But that doesn’t mean they never existed. There’s a furor in some quarters about something called “critical race theory” but there’s nothing theoretical about the facts of history.

Virginia, like other Southern (and some non-Southern) states, has a history stained with blood.

The Equal Justice Institute, an Alabama nonprofit that has researched lynchings, has documented at least 84 mob murders in Virginia; other research puts the number somewhere north of 100.

Only a handful of localities, though, have taken steps to acknowledge those victims — Charles City County, Charlottesville, Harrisonburg and Loudoun County, that we know of. That leaves an awful lot of others who haven’t. Shouldn’t they?

We need not take down a single statue or write a single check of reparations to do this; we merely need to acknowledge our history. Furthermore, the means for this acknowledgement already exists.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, was built in the same spirit of remembrance as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

It’s won powerful reviews from across the political spectrum. Its centerpiece is, in the words of the National Review (a conservative publication), “800 plinths, suspended from the roof of the memorial like hanged men, each one engraved with details of the victim and his (or in a handful of cases, her) death.” The museum also had 800 duplicates that the museum will send to localities that request them.

Near as we can determine, none in Virginia have. Why not? There are at least 49 localities eligible, from Accomack County on the Eastern Shore to Wise County on the Kentucky line, including Roanoke in between.

The Virginia locality with the most number of recorded lynchings? Tazewell County, with seven — six of those in the same year (1893) and five of those in a single gruesome outburst of violence. Danville is second with five.

We can understand the desire not to reopen a painful part of our past, but ignoring something doesn’t make it go away. It might do us some good to acknowledge how some of those came before us were so easily overtaken by prejudice and primitive emotions.

We can read today about what happened in Tulsa and think that nothing like that ever happened here, yet it did, just on a much smaller scale — over and over again.

We can read today about what happened in Tulsa and think something like that could never happen today. Let’s hope that’s right. But that still doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to remember.

And if we never knew all this in the first place, then that should make us wonder what else we weren’t taught.

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