By Farina King and Brian King, Tahlequah, OK
On Sunday September 20, 2018, Donald W. Rominger, Jr. criticized Mitchel Willetts’ article for depicting the Tulsa Race Riots as a massacre. Rominger, a school teacher, claims that “gunfire broke out,” and “gunfire was exchanged between militia and citizens, both black and white.” The author’s usage of passive voice ambiguates the responsibility of the onslaught. He also omits certain details that would qualify this event as a massacre.
On May 31, 1921, Sarah Page, a seventeen-year-old white young woman yelled in an elevator after she was supposedly accosted by Dick Rowland, a nineteen-year-old African American. Rowland was arrested, and rumors circulated among white communities. An angry white mob demanded that Sheriff Willard McCullough release the young man to them so they could lynch him. When he refused, seventy-five armed African Americans (many of whom were WWI veterans) guarded the courthouse to protect Rowland and were met by 1,500 whites, many of them armed. While the black guards intended to protect Rowland from lynching, the white mob used Rowland as an excuse to commit racial violence. Black Wall-Street was booming and threatened white business in Tulsa. White city officials deputized members of the mob and provided them weapons. After midnight the mob had moved towards the Greenwood district and burnt down thirty-five acres of black-owned businesses. At least 1,256 houses were burned down, and many others were looted. Significant structures that housed the innocent and even the sickly such as the churches, schools, a library, a hospital, and businesses were razed to the ground.
There were no reported casualties of white women, but casualties of black women included Ruth Moore, Marie Johnson, Latha Renkin, Lily Taliafirio, Elsie Walker, Celia Whitty, and several unidentified women. Whites invaded the black neighborhood with guns, and outnumbered armed black men more than ten to one. Most importantly, the Oklahoma adjutant general’s report, that Rominger refers to as a key source, did not represent the actual number of casualties. In recent studies, particularly through the Tulsa Race Riot Commission, scholars and researchers have found that state and local officials intentionally covered up the Tulsa “riots” and its horrific impacts on the community and especially black residents. They estimate that at least 100 to 300 people were killed, and they were disproportionately African Americans. They also revealed that blacks were disproportionately incarcerated for the riot. It is likely that every white man who was injured was armed. The same cannot be said for the black casualties and fatalities. Sheriff McCullough later released Dick Rowland because it was most likely that he accidentally stepped on Page’s foot in the elevator. It is also essential to note that not a single committed criminal act from the riot was ever prosecuted or held accountable by any form of government. In the end, this is a story of a majority population that invaded a minority population’s territory and committed senseless racialized violence, including “indiscriminate and merciless slaughter,” while a few abled black folks nobly defended their women, children, homes, and livelihoods. To this, I say that Mr. Rominger and others who think likewise should reconsider his understanding of the word massacre and history. The incident has likely been labeled a “riot” to protect insurance companies from being required to provide benefits to the victimized Greenwood residents, as if placing the blame on the residents for the destruction of their homes and businesses and livelihoods. Even the act of trying to “share the blame” of the incident—an entire black community destroyed— is shameful and gross. It is true that some whites offered assistance to the victims and the American Red Cross provided significant aide, but it is also undeniable that some whites massacred Greenwood residents. It is important to not generalize all conflicts in terms of loaded binaries such as “white” and “black.” Nonetheless, there was a large group of whites that discriminated to the point of violence and slaughter against innocent blacks simply because of racism. We must stop trying to cover up that history as has been done since the incident occurred. Let’s honor those who lost their lives in such violence, recognizing their humanity and what really happened to them.
Read the original Letter to the Editor:
Dr. Farina King is an American historian who teaches at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, OK and offers a course on Oklahoma History. Brian King is an ESL instructor at Northeastern State University and a graduate student in the Department of Languages and Literature.