Bobby Clark, 54, Dannaer Fields, 49, and William Allen, 31, were all laid to rest by then, as the two wounded victims of the murderous, racially-driven rampage that terrorized the Tulsa, Oklahoma Black community on Good Friday continue their painful recovery.
I wrote “racially-driven” deliberately. Tulsa law enforcement officials have refused yet to define what drove 32-year-old Alvin L. Watts and 19-year-old Jacob C. England, who have been arrested and have confessed to the crime, to do it.
The two defendants were charged on Friday with three counts of first-degree murder, each charge carrying a maximum life sentence or the death penalty; two counts of shooting with intent to kill, which carries a maximum life sentence, and five count of malicious intimidation of harassment (hate crimes), each carrying a sentence of one year and a $1,00 fine.
Authorities are being properly cautious because their investigation isn’t complete.
But, for me, given that the five victims – none of whom Watts or England knew – are Black; that Watts is White; that England is a Native American who is said to have described himself as White; and that England used racial invective on his Facebook page to refer to the Black man he said killed his father two years ago, I’m willing to make that assertion.
One ironic facet of this tragedy is that Oklahoma authorities did not charge the man alleged to have killed England’s father because they determined that according to Oklahoma law he was justified in using deadly force to defend himself.
What has caught my attention in equal measure as the victims’ personal tragedies of this crime is the stunning historical event it recalls that 90 years ago destroyed the heart of Tulsa’s Black community and from which it has never recovered: the Greenwood race riot of 1921.
Over a day and a half at the cusp of May and June that year, White Tulsans used the pretext of a Black man being accused of the attempted rape of a White woman to lay waste to Greenwood. Some 10,000 Whites, abetted by Tulsa’s police force, shot, looted and burned their way through the 35-block district that had been so stuffed with businesses, hotels, restaurants and other entrepreneurial activity that among Blacks it was widely regarded as the “Black Wall Street.”
Indeed, Tulsa’s Negro Quarter, whose population comprised about 10 percent of the city as a whole, exemplified the zeal with which African Americans had rushed down all the pathways to success they could find in the decades after what many of them called The War for Negro Freedom. Its residents – which included the family of attorney B.C. Franklin, father of the famed historian John Hope Franklin – had shown themselves to be shrewd and resourceful in building a place that bustled with restaurants, hotels and shops of all sorts.
It was just that, however – success writ large and small – which provoked a venomous reaction. “the black prosperity caused resentment among poorer Whites,” wrote Jonathan Z. Larsen in the February 1997 issue of Civilization, “and the city elders worried that it was bad for the city’s image.”
In the turn-of-the-century America, in a city where, as Larsen noted, the Ku Klux Klan “had somewhat of a stranglehold,” on the city power structure, a prosperous Black community was not going to be long tolerated.
That May 31 to June 1, Greenwood’s prosperity, its life as the symbol and reality of Black Americans’ post-Civil War potential fulfilled, was extinguished: As many as 300 Black residents were killed (two Whites died; one from a heart attack watching the riot); 1,256 homes and virtually every other building in Greenwood, including a hospital and a library, were destroyed. Many of those who survived the riot moved away, never to return, according to the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, which in 2001 produced an exhaustive report on the riot and its aftermath
Not all Whites behaved abominably. The American Red Cross aid to the riot’s victim was “a model of human behavior at its best,” the commission report said, and some White Tulsans and those from surrounding towns aided in providing for the thousands of Black Tulsans who had been left homeless.
What happened to Greenwood was the manifestation of the perverse racist principle that shadowed Black Americans’ lives until the mid-1960s: The White majority disdained Blacks because, it said, they were lazy, shiftless, stupid, spendthrift and immoral. But in the decades between the end of the Civil War and World War II, when Blacks proved again and again they were industrious, thrifty, moral and patriotic, whites hated them more – and they often took violent action to try to put blacks back in their “place.”
The Wilmington, North Carolina race riot of 1898.
The Atlanta, Georgia riot of 1906.
The Ossian Sweet murder trial of 1925.
The Shelley v Kraemer restrictive covenants case decided by the Supreme Court in 1948.
The foundation of these and many of racial events was what drove the pogrom that destroyed Greenwood: envy of and anger at a people whose success refuted the assertion that they were inferior.
White Tulsa refused to acknowledge the Greenwood riot for decades. Indeed, city and state authorities had initially refused to provide any funds to rebuild the area. It was not mentioned in the schools’ history curriculum. It was buried deep in the city records. Even into the late 1980s many white Tulsa residents had never heard of it. That changed due to the agitation of Blacks and White committed to bringing the story to light. State officials created the Tulsa race riot commission. and recommended a $12 million reparations fund be established to disburse payments to the direct survivors of the riot – who then numbered 80 – and fund development projects throughout the Tulsa Black community.
Last year the city commemorated the 90th anniversary of the riot. A newspaper report noted that some righting of the historical wrong has occurred. The Greenwood riot will be taught in the city’s public schools beginning this year. Various civic monuments and plaques around the city mark the history of the Greenwood Black community.
But the article also pointed out that, despite the Commission’s extensive documentation of lives lost and property destroyed in Greenwood, all legislative and legal attempts advocating reparations have failed. “[No] payments were ever delivered for what was lost.”
Isn’t that – the continuing injustice – the most powerful legacy of the Greenwood race riot?
Written by: Precinct Reporter Group
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