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Remembering the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre with Author Tim Madigan

Tim Madigan, author of The Burning, discusses historic details of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and explains why the event is still relevant today. 

By
Tim Madigan
6-minute read
the burning: massacre, destruction, and the tulsa race riot of 1921

On June 1, 1921, a mob made up of thousands of white people descended on Tulsa, Oklahoma's Greenwood community, then known as the Negro Wall Street of America, home to thriving black Americans. The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (recently renamed the Tulsa Race Massacre) turned 35 square blocks into smoldering rubble, leaving an estimated 300 people dead—the vast majority of them African Americans—and 10,000 homeless. 

What do we understand about the circumstances and rising tensions leading up to this event?

I think it’s vitally important to remember that what happened in Tulsa was completely consistent with what was going on in the nation at the time, unique only in its terrible scope.

During that moment of the Jim Crow era, lynching was a spectator sport of sorts, reported in Southern newspapers. The KKK had become one of the most celebrated fraternal orders in the United States, popular in the North and South alike.

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The first blockbuster movie, released in 1915, was Birth of a Nation, which celebrated the Klan and invoked the most odious racial stereotypes. The film was endorsed by President Woodrow Wilson and the chief justice of the US Supreme Court.

Thousands of African American men had fought and died for their country in World War I, expecting that because of their sacrifice, they would return to a different world.

Places like Greenwood, where black Americans prospered, inspired resentment among many white Americans. Meanwhile, thousands of African American men had fought and died for their country in World War I, expecting that because of their sacrifice, they would return to a different world. Instead, the dehumanizing nature of segregation and racial violence had gotten worse in the United States, not better.

All these tensions came into play in Tulsa. The place was a pile of dry straw, just waiting for a match.

Who was Richard Lloyd Jones and what role did he play in the massacre?

It could be argued that if not for Jones, the publisher of the Tulsa Tribune, the massacre would never have happened. Having arrived in Tulsa just the year before, Jones found himself in a newspaper war against the Tulsa World and fanned racial flames in an attempt to boost circulation.

In late May 1921, an African American shoeshine boy named Dick Rowland was arrested for allegedly assaulting a white elevator operator named Sarah Page. (The two had known each other and were probably romantically involved.) Local police had more or less determined there was no validity to the assault accusation. They kept Rowland behind bars mostly for his own protection.

But on May 31, the Tulsa Tribune published a front-page article with inflammatory and largely inaccurate information about the Rowland case. And on the same front page, Jones himself weighed in with an editorial that ran under the headline, “To Lynch Negro Tonight.”

At 5 a.m. [on June 1, 1921], a mob of thousands began an organized assault on Greenwood that didn’t end until the district was completely destroyed.

Within minutes, hundreds of white people had gathered outside the courthouse where Rowland was being held. Copies of the paper also made their way to Greenwood, where scores of African American men, many of them veterans, armed themselves, determined to protect Rowland at all costs. On one of their trips to the courthouse, a shot was fired, precipitating the first bloodshed. At 5 a.m. the next morning, a mob of thousands began an organized assault on Greenwood that didn’t end until the district was completely destroyed.

Recent news events have brought the Tulsa Massacre to the forefront of the national discussion, but many Americans seem to have been previously unaware of it. Is there evidence that the event was kept quiet or that American history has been sanitized? Why is that?

The Tulsa Massacre is just one example of willful cultural amnesia in the United States where our history of race is concerned. In Tulsa, white local leaders were contrite and promised atonement in the days after the massacre, when members of the national media were still in town.

That changed quickly. The city settled into a conspiracy of silence that lasted decades. You could have moved to Tulsa three years after the massacre and never known that it had happened.

Don Ross, the black state legislator from Tulsa who did more to restore the massacre to history than any other person, first learned of it as a teenager in the 1950s. One of his teachers, Bill Williams, had been a teenager himself in 1921. He showed Ross a scrapbook full of photos of charred bodies and burned out buildings and introduced Ross to other survivors. At the time, Ross asked his teacher why anything so terrible would have been kept secret. Williams’ reply is the best explanation I’ve heard.

"The killers are still in charge in this town, boy,” Williams said. “Now you understand why anyone who lived through that once damn sure doesn’t want to live through it again."

“Because the killers are still in charge in this town, boy,” Williams said. “Now you understand why anyone who lived through that once damn sure doesn’t want to live through it again. You ask a Negro about the riot, he’ll tell you what happened if he knows who you are. But everyone is real careful about what they say. I hear the same is true for white folks, though I suspect their reasons are different. They’re not afraid, just embarrassed. Or if they are afraid, it’s not of dying, it’s of going to jail.”

A version of the same dynamic was repeated across the country. The truth of our racial past was too horrible to look at, so the nation turned away. The failure of our schools to teach the truth of the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow is astounding. Today, we see the inevitable consequences of that national conspiracy of silence. The pain and shame that festered just below the surface were bound to come out. 

Your book, The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, depicts the events surrounding the riot with narrative storytelling. Is there a particular story that haunts you more than the others?

It’s hard to pinpoint one because there is so much that haunts. An elderly black couple, kneeling in prayer, shot dead when the mob burst through the front door. Black men fleeing burning buildings shot dead, their bodies hurled back into the flames. A black beggar and double amputee in Tulsa's white area, a rope attached to one of his limbs, the other to the bumper of a car, dragged through the streets of the city. White women with shopping bags, coming behind the men, stealing anything of value before another black home was set aflame. For years thereafter, Greenwood residents looked for their clothes on the backs of Tulsa whites. And on and on.

What did you learn that you didn’t know before? What impact did this work have on you personally?

To me, that is one of the most important facets of writing this book. I was born and raised in the Upper Midwest, and almost completely oblivious to our race history until I first learned about Tulsa twenty years ago.

The year is spent researching and writing The Burning changed my life. For the first time, I became truly curious about the experiences of people different than me, and, hopefully, I also became more compassionate. I also came to understand that there was a deep, unhealed wound—a chasm between the races that few people were talking about when the book was first published in 2001. So I understood the outrage after Ferguson, Baltimore, the death of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and others, and I understood the passion behind Black Lives Matter. Just as I am not at all surprised by the movement that has sprung up after the death of George Floyd.

I believe now, more strongly than ever, that there are millions of whites like me, people of goodwill whose hearts would be changed if they knew our race history. That needs to happen on a large scale. I think it would be impossible to achieve meaningful systemic reform without a hard look back. This is what I wrote in a preface to The Burning.

Early in the process, (of researching and writing the book) I began to suspect that a crucial piece remained missing from America’s long attempts at racial reconciliation. Too many in this country remained as ignorant as I was. Too many were just as oblivious to some of the darkest moments in our history, a legacy of which Tulsa is both a tragic example and a shameful metaphor. How can we heal when we don’t know what we’re healing from? I hope this book contributes in some small way to that broader understanding.

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