I’ve used some of the space opened up during COVID-times to begin to address a gaping hole in my education. Truth is, I know painfully little about U.S. history, even less as regards its African American component. That I know more about the history of Chile or Mexico than the history of my own country is unsurprising since I’m trained as a Latin American historian, and have spent the better part of 50 years studying those countries. But how I could avoid taking responsibility for my own country’s history for so long is puzzling. In any case, I’ve begun to address my ignorance with generous amounts of Douglass and DuBois, Baldwin and Rankine, McGee, Glaude, Jr., Wilkerson, and Blight. I’ve also put my long walks outside to some educational purpose by listening to podcasts covering this history, including any number of episodes of NPR’s “Throughline” with hosts Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah, David Blight’s 27 lectures at Yale (History 119) on “The Civil War and Reconstruction,” Brooklyn Deep’s “School Colors,” as well as “Floodlines,” “A Strange and Bitter Crop,” and many others. Yesterday, I caught up with the final episode of “Blindspot: Tulsa Burning,” produced out of WNYC’s studios, and expertly narrated by WNYC’s KalaLea.
I don’t have to remind you that we recently marked the centennial of the race massacre that led to the destruction of the so-called “Black Wall Street,” the prosperous 35-block Greenwood neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. On May 31 and June 1, 1921, a white mob of thousands, aided and abetted by the police and the National Guard, rampaged through Greenwood, leaving behind a heap of rubble where once a thriving town had stood, up to 300 dead (we’ll never know the exact count as Black lives didn’t matter), a thousand injured, and some 6,000 Black townsfolk penned up in the fairgrounds and other large sites. Nearly 10,000 people were left homeless as 1,256 homes were looted and burned down.
What followed the atrocity was…silence. Not a single person was ever arrested or tried for the racist rampage; the only individual to be compensated for his losses was a white pawnshop owner. White Tulsa avoided taking responsibility for its own history by thoroughly erasing the massacre from the city’s official history for most of the 20th century even as the events remained as a traumatic memory for its victims, one so painful that survivors rarely spoke of it to their children or grandchildren.Continue reading