How do you cope with a massacre?

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(Photo from http://www.ktul.com/Global/story.asp?S=13805281)

W.E.B. Dubois’ The Souls of Black Folk asks the question: “How does it feel to be a problem?” He famously defined Black identity as “this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”  The Black experience meant a struggle “for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face. [1]”

Richard Wright’s brief autobiography in Uncle Tom’s Children framed Dubois’ dilemma in more practical terms.  He describes his “Jim Crow education” through a series of vignettes that introduced him to the minefield of dangers presented by a racial hierarchy enforced by violent retribution [2].  The experiences of Wright and other African Americans epitomize their tenuous positions within Jim Crow America.  They faced a white society that devalued African American lives in its efforts to assert its dominance over any threats or slights, whether real or imagined.  How can communities cope with a part of their history that was defined by such violence?

Tulsa, Oklahoma has faced this dilemma.  The city epitomized African Americans’ vulnerabilities in Jim Crow America.  On May 30, 1921, Dick Rowland, a nineteen year old African American, had an altercation (what actually happened is unknown, but he was exonerated of all charges of rape) with a seventeen year old white elevator operator.  He was arrested for attempted rape and clashes between armed white and African American groups outside the city courthouse devolved into a riot on June 1 that left the city’s once vibrant African American neighborhood in ruins and hundreds dead.

Tulsa was a boom town.  In 1900 the city’s population was 1,390, in 1910 it was 18,182, and in 1920 it reached 72,075.  The discovery of oil near the city in first decade of the twentieth century initiated this period of spectacular growth.  [3].  Because white Tulsans welcomed African American labor, but refused to allow them to patronize their businesses, the city developed a thriving African American community concentrated along Greenwood Avenue, known then as “Negro Wall Street.”  In 1921, the city’s African American community of nearly 11,000 was a city within a city [4].

How has the city coped with the destruction of this vibrant community?  Until recently, the riot has remained outside of popular memory.  It was not discussed in schools and remained a taboo subject [5].  Beginning in 2001, however, the city has strived to confront this difficult part of its past.  The Tulsa Race Riot Commission recommended reparations for the riot’s survivors and their descendants, a scholarship fund, an economic development plan for the Greenwood area, and a memorial for the riot’s victims.

Although the state and federal governments rebuffed the commission’s recommendations for reparations, the city’s memorial illustrates the riot’s new place in the community’s memory.  The John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park and John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation reflect the riot’s place in local memory.  The JHF Reconciliation Park memorializes the riot with three bronze statues: “Hostility,” an armed white man, “Humiliation,” an African American man with his hands raised in surrender, and “Hope,” the director of the American Red Cross holding a baby.  The park also includes “The Tower of Reconciliation,” which commemorates African Americans’ history in Oklahoma [6].  The JHF Center for Reconciliation goes a step further beyond memorializing the riot and uses it to promote education and broader conversations on racial justice and society [7].

Naming the memorial after John Hope Franklin shows his importance for the local African American community.  His father Buck Franklin, a lawyer, worked to prevent the city from passing an ordinance that would have effectively banned African Americans from rebuilding their community.  He built upon his father’s legacy through his successes as a historian and scholar who tied history to the Civil Rights Movement [8].

Citations:

[1] W.E.B. Dubois, The Souls of Black Folk (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 7-8.

[2] Richard Wright, Uncle Tom’s Children (New York: Harper & Row, 1940), 3-15.

[3] Scott Ellsworth, Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982) 9-10.

[4] Ibid., 13-16.

[5] “As Survivors Dwindle, Tulsa Confronts Past,” New York Times, June 19, 2011.

[6] http://www.jhfcenter.org/reconciliation-park/

[7] http://www.jhfcenter.org/the-centers-work/

[8] http://www.jhfcenter.org/john-hope-franklin/

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