In a small meeting room in a Unitarian Universalist church a few miles north of downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma, people of different races and age groups gathered in late 2001 to pore over the large and comprehensive “Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot.” Between bites of doughnuts and sips of coffee, they strategized a way to commemorate the riot and reach some sort of reconciliation, either through reparations, a scholarship fund, or a memorial.
The report recommended that the state make reparations to the then 130 survivors of what some call the worst race riot in U.S. history. Ultimately, however, as the number of survivors dwindled, the city and state decided on what became John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, a public arena with the 25-foot-tall Tower of Reconciliation, which aimed to tell the history of the African-American struggle in America. It portrays slaves joining Native Americans on the Trail of Tears, the development of Tulsa’s Greenwood district, the Tulsa race riot of 1921, and ultimately the “climb” to freedom.
The tower stands just past three bronze figures, two of which were sculpted directly from photographs of the riot: a white gunman and a black man surrendering. An improvised man holding a baby makes up the trio. At night, the tower is lit from the bottom with an orange hue—a flare highlighting its presence downtown.
“It’s one thing to go to a memorial to make you feel happy, but another part of that has to tell some truth,” said Ed Dwight, the acclaimed Denver-based sculptor who designed and built the monument. “We could have done a memorial that looked back in history as if the riot’s legacy wasn’t going on anymore, but it’s still going on.”
Whether confrontational or not, the dedication of the riot memorial in Tulsa in October 2010 marked a significant gain in one community’s willingness to accept a past tarnished with racial hatred and inequality that has lingered for nearly 80 years.
Riots Barely Remembered
From 1908 to 1921, several race riots took place throughout the country—in Washington, D.C.; Springfield, Illinois; Chicago, Illinois; Elaine, Arkansas; and Omaha, Nebraska—that were equally or even more destructive than Tulsa’s. Though there are occasionally small remembrances of those events, only one other city has a permanent marker: Springfield, Illinois, whose 1908 riot led to the formation of the NAACP.
The riot of Elaine, Arkansas, in 1919 was one of the few that a governor called the National Guard to quash. It merited the immediate probe of the NAACP—by then a provocative force within the black community—which sent riot investigator Walter White, a black man who could pass as white and a future secretary general of the organization, to the scene of the crime. He almost didn’t survive, catching the last train out of town after a black survivor tipped him off about a plan to tar and feather and murder him.
“The riot that happened in Elaine, Arkansas, in 1919 is just not as sexy as the ‘Little Rock Nine’ [the nine students who desegregated the public schools in Arkansas], which people have interpreted as a win for Little Rock,” said Grif Stockley, the author of Blood in Their Eyes: The Elaine Race Massacres of 1919, about the riot in a small town 90 miles southwest of Memphis, Tennessee. Stockley adds, “What happened over in Elaine… was a complete disaster for the black community; there’s no way to spin it—nothing from it came out good.”
An armed feud broke out between the black sharecroppers and white deputized law enforcement after a union meeting among black sharecroppers. Governor Charles Hillman Brough put the riot down by sending the National Guard to dispose of mostly black agitators.
“After the Oklahoma commission, one of its state legislators came over to discuss strategies for doing something, which we brought to our state legislators,” Stockley said. “People around [Elaine] are aware of this [riot] and are interested in doing something—a statue or a plaque of some sort—just to lend weight to the event… But I suppose politics prevailed.”
White, who was also eventually dispatched to survey Tulsa, examined the aftermath of three other race riots in this period, which was ultimately deemed the Red Summer: Washington, D.C.; Chicago, Illinois; and Omaha, Nebraska.
In Washington, D.C., on July 19, 1919, word of a rape committed by a black man rapidly spread throughout downtown saloons and billiards halls. Shortly thereafter, drunken World War I veterans clubbed, beat, or shot more than 150 innocent men, women, and children; deaths totaled at 39. President Woodrow Wilson, by then incapacitated and near death, finally mobilized troops to end the carnage after
Just a week following the D.C. riot—and after a cartoon lampooning Wilson and the D.C. riot appeared on the front page of the Chicago Tribune—Eugene Williams, a black teenager, took a swim in the cool waters of Lake Michigan, ignoring the unwritten rule that blacks and whites largely kept to their own beaches. A mob stoned him to death and subsequently laid waste to the South Side of Chicago for a week. In some cases, black men and women were pulled off trolley cars and beaten.
In Omaha, Nebraska, in the mid-1990s, a group composed of historians, researchers, and Creighton University students organized an effort to monumentalize the riot that consumed Omaha in September 1919. The riot led to the near-death of the city’s white mayor and the brutal murder of a black man accused of assaulting a white woman. After a mob pulled Will Brown—a disabled packinghouse worker—out of the county jail, they dragged him across the streets of downtown Omaha, lynched him, perforated his body with bullets, and then set it ablaze on a homemade pyre.
Henry Fonda, the eminent actor, said of the Omaha riot: “It was the most horrendous sight I’d ever seen… My hands were wet and there were tears in my eyes.” Pieces of the rope used to lynch Brown were sold for 10 cents apiece.
“Brown was buried without a headstone, and this group of students tracked down his burial site and paid for one,” said Max Sparger, a research specialist at the Douglas County Historical Society in Omaha. “There was talk of putting a plaque at the courthouse, but we had to go through local politicians and that never happened… It’s an essential piece of Omaha history. We had a massive event in which our own mayor was attacked for trying to protect a black man. It was representative of the time of how people in America acted out of nothing but racially based rage.”
In 1993, two sixth-graders at a Springfield, Illinois, middle school, Amanda Staab and Lindsay Harney, turned up findings of the 1908 Springfield race riot during a project for a history fair. Springfield’s was one of the first post-Reconstruction race riots in U.S. history and led to the formation of the NAACP in 1909. The young girls’ final report on the riot—a devastation that led to six people fatally shot, two black people lynched, the flight of 2,000 blacks from their homes, and 50 minority businesses leveled—resulted in the placement of plaques on sites of the riot.
“Most people I talked to said they lived here all their life and had no idea the riot happened,” Harney told the Chicago Sun-Times on the day of the markers’ dedication three years later. “It’s shocking they don’t know. There are so many other historical markers in Springfield; the riot should be included.”
The city took down those markers in order to make way for the $145 million “interactive” Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in 2003. In 2009, however, instead of replacing the plaques, a mayoral commission unveiled a two-section cast bronze sculpture depicting the aftermath of the riot across from the museum—a month after a noose was found hanging in a city power plant’s employee work area.
“This monument will symbolize our commitment to advance race relations in Springfield and the surrounding area from bitterness and intolerance to inclusion tolerance and collaboration,” Beverly Peters, the chairwoman of the mayor’s 1908 Race Riots Commemoration Commission, told the State Journal-Register at the memorial’s dedication. “So let the word go out—that we will not be deterred by one or two or even a few Neanderthal thinkers who would resurrect a hangman’s noose or any other relic of the dark and racist past that we have lived.”
Tulsa Ennobles Its Past
“The memorial teaches Oklahomans that we can be one city, that we can remove the invisible walls of history and move forward, that racism isn’t something to be tolerated,” said Jean Neal, administrative coordinator of the John Hope Franklin Center. “You always want more, but you have to start somewhere.”
By now, the story of the Tulsa race riot is well known to most. But, the story of John Hope Reconciliation Park is hardly mentioned in the chronicles of the riot’s battle for legitimacy.
After Governor Frank Keating denied reparations to riot survivors in 2001, the survivors sued the state, an action taken all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The survivors lost on the grounds that the statute of limitations had run out on the mass crimes committed by officials acting on the state’s behalf.
In November 2008, John Hope Franklin, esteemed historian, cultural critic, and riot survivor attended the groundbreaking of the Center for Reconciliation named for him, which was partly funded by the state.
Neal said that compared to other riots in the U.S., Tulsa underwent total devastation—300 blacks dead, 3,000 people left homeless, and a thriving community burned to the ground—yet still had the “spirit and the heart” to rebuild.
“But we’re not stuck in the race riot,” she said. “Although we have reached back to 1921, we are still moving forward.”
Editor’s note: Portions of this essay have been previously published elsewhere.
Published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 17, September 1, 2014.