By State Senator Maxine Horner
There is an intergenerational effect from the 1921 Tulsa race riot that is the unconscious transmittal of an experience that is most mysterious and intriguing. In response to an incident like the riot which in effect, was potentially an act of ethnic cleansing, the message was clear: "We abhor you people and wish you were not here and in fact, are willing to make that happen." There are characteristics of people who have been through a shared experience such as the Great Depression or in this case, the "riot" that emerged haunted as a result of that experience.
The way they relate to their children and grandchildren and the world around them is not how they may have related had it not been for that experience.
If a people have been terrorized to the degree that North Tulsa survivors and descendants were, it could be expected that they would not make themselves noticed or be noticed by the group that terrorized them in the first place. Alternative ways of relating and responding may have to be developed or adaptations made by both groups for good or ill will.
It is that perspective that allowed the horror of the riot in the first place. Since statehood and beyond, Oklahoma has taken its black citizens through intimidation, stereotypical conditioning, segregation, and legal and social engineering. Some of those conventions were even transmitted by Representatives of the African American community suggesting that they cast down their buckets where they were — to conform as second-class citizens.
Speaking in Boley, Oklahoma during a convention of the National Negro Business League, famed educator Booker T. Washington, told the gathering not to worry about being segregated. He recommended that instead, they build up the section, which had been assigned to them, and they would make friends and be respected by the whites. Washington searched for an accommodation with whites, and a comfort zone for blacks being held back and terrorized through segregation and racism.
He urged blacks "to pull themselves up by the bootstraps." In Tulsa they did. Staying in their place did not appease whites or inspire the friendship forecasted by Washington.
After the epitaph for the black boulevard was written in flames, the aftermath led more toward a conspiracy to further dehumanize the suffering population than to demonstrate a justice toward its fellow citizens. That city government officials and real estate interests attempted to force blacks off their land and develop the proprieties as an industrial area is a matter of record.
Churches, schools, homes and business enterprises were destroyed. Men, women and babies were carried away dead, to unknown places, as funerals were banned for not too mysterious reasons. The National Guard issued Field Order 4 on June 2, that all able bodied Negro men were "required to render such service and perform such labor as required by the military commission." In my view that is involuntary servitude, slavery by Marshal Law. Why did the National Guard not clear the area of all persons, black and white? Why were 6,000 African American citizens placed in concentration camps and walked through the streets as a defeated enemy - when it was in fact, a riot by whites? It was the black community under attack by terrorists. With estimates of from 150 to 300 dead, it was at best shameful, at worse, a massacre.
This report does not answer all my questions, nor did I anticipate it would. It does draw a clear picture of the racial climate at the time, and offers reasonable men and women, if they choose, adequate information to draw some conclusion.
On June 1, 1921, Lady Justice was blind. Indeed, her eyes were gouged out. As significant, accumulation of wealth was halted and the community was left to begin again only with its own meager resources. What is owed this community 80 years later is a repairing — education and economic incentives and something more than symbolic gestures or an official report as an apology extended to the survivors. The climate was real and official. The words of Mayor T.D. Evans spoken during the June 14, 1921 meeting of the Tulsa City Commission are brought to our attention once again:
[T]his uprising was inevitable. If that be true and this judgment had come upon us, then I say it was good generalship to let the destruction come to that section where the trouble was hatched up, put in motion and where it had its inception. All regret the wrongs that fell upon the innocent Negroes and they should receive such help as we can give them.
It...is true of any warfare that the fortunes of war fall upon the innocent along with the guilty. This is true on any conflict, invasion, or uprising...
Let us immediately get to the outside the fact that everything is quiet in our city, that this menace has been fully conquered, and that we are going on in a normal condition.
The mayor had his way. The conspiracy of silence was launched. We can be proud of our state for reexamining this blot on our state and our conscience, and for daring to place the light from this report on those dark days. This has been an epic journey. It can be an epic beginning. There are chapters left to write. To face, not hide again, the shame from this evil. Some remedial action is suggested in this report and others are prepared for statue in Senate Bills 751 and 788 and House Bills 1178 and 1901 and House Joint Resolutions 1028 and 1029. The Oklahoma legislature is now the caretaker of this past and may disperse to the future forgiving, fair, kind, deserved and decent justice.