- Riot and Remembrance: America's Worst Race Riot and Its Legacy
As Noam Chomsky noted in a May 2009 article on TomDispatch.com, Americans tend to forget their atrocities, both foreign and domestic, as soon as they commit them. This "historical amnesia" arises in part out of a sense of American exceptionalism, the sense that the United States is not just one of many imperfect countries but rather a nation endowed and imbued with purpose and mission. In the sort of hairsplitting that was the mainstay of medieval theology, proponents of American exceptionalism differentiate between the "reality" of America's nature and the "accidents" of its history and thus regularly contest any historical inquiry into matters which call into question the beneficent greatness of the United States. Indeed, because race is one of the axes along which the American ideal frequently breaks down, the historical interpretation of those events which bring into stark relief the reality of racial inequity in the United States tends to be the most contested. One such event is the race war that erupted in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on May 31, 1921. Before the fires that consumed the black section of the city had even cooled, another war erupted over how the events should be remembered—if they should be remembered. James S. Hirsch's book, originally published in 2002 under the slightly different title of Riot and Remembrance:The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy, recounts not only the fantastic violence that beset Tulsa's African American population but also the struggle to preserve the personal memory of the event and to determine how it is commemorated institutionally.
Hirsch embeds his narrative in the contradictions present at the birth of Oklahoma—a state which attracted both Jim Crow-minded Southern whites and African Americans eager to escape the strictures of the former Confederacy—and of Tulsa—a city that, given its separation from the Oklahoma oilfields by the Arkansas River and reputation for backwardness, never should have become the center of the state's oil industry. Through fierce self-promotion, as Hirsch recounts, the city did boom, its population reaching 18,182 in 1910, and then 72,075 in 1920. Relegated to the fringes of Tulsa's prosperity was an African American community, dubbed Greenwood, that grew up north of the railroad tracks. The level of segregation in Tulsa actually allowed a relatively independent black business district to emerge, with theaters, movie houses, its own newspaper, and hotels. Hirsch pulls from both previously published academic work as well as the writings of local businesspeople such as J. B. Stradford (builder of the Stradford Hotel, which rivaled in luxury similar white hotels) and salon owner Mabel B. Little to paint a detailed picture of black economic life in Greenwood. The business district extended only a few blocks, beyond which was the poverty typical of many segregated communities, but it was a point of pride for many black Tulsans—a much-needed one in an era and place when lynchings and other forms of mob justice were meted out on a regular basis against racial and ideological "undesirables."
What actually set off the 1921 Tulsa Race War remains shrouded in mystery, despite the best efforts of Hirsch and previous researchers. On May 30, Dick Rowland, a black shoeshine man, was in an elevator with white operator Sarah Page; she screamed for some reason, and he fled the scene. Rowland was later arrested, which fact the Tulsa Tribune played up in insidious fashion. The Tribune also published an editorial—titled, according to some witnesses, "To Lynch a Negro Tonight"—which has since been lost to history, [End Page 217] excised before the newspaper's transference to microfilm. Whites began to converge on the courthouse, as did a group of blacks, some of them World War I veterans determined to prevent a lynching. As was almost bound to happen, someone fired a shot, after which all hell broke loose. Hirsch draws from later testimony, written accounts, and interviews with survivors to give a vivid, on-the...