We are 100 years to the day from the Tulsa Race Massacre, arguably the single worst atrocity committed against Black Americans since slavery. We (I mean here white society, and yes, I take responsibility because I have passively benefited from it from the moment of my birth) have made it really easy to let 100 years of racial trauma go by without justice, healing, conciliation & reparations.
First, we covered up the story. We allowed insurance companies to use “riot” exclusions (clauses conveniently created by white insurers) to deny claims. We allowed city government to create building rules that didn’t allow those few building owners that could prove ownership of their buildings, to rebuild with the easiest and most available material – wood – so many, who lost their savings in local banks, could not even qualify for loans to rebuild. By the way, resilient Black Wall Street leaders did this anyway and by the ‘50’s, but without a bit of restitution from the white community.
We continued by refusing to look for perpetrators and prosecute them. We allowed the state, city and federal governments to argue over responsibility for the actions of white terrorists aided by police, fire department and the state guard until the argument was dropped and no one had paid a dime. We allowed the federal and state and city governments to create what appear to be purely ceremonial investigatory groups to examine what should happen now, and continue to let them off the hook when they don’t decide to do anything ‘today,’ but rather lob recommendations for things like reparation into the future for ‘other leaders’ to decide.
We must look. We must see the damage and imagine it is us. We must listen to the stories of survivors like Viola Fletcher and Lessie Benningfield Randall, and to the descendants of those killed who fled or stayed, with nothing left. We must imagine what 100 years of wealth-building would look like now had it not been extinguished. In Tulsa and in Black communities around the country we must imagine what things would look like had this great economic engine, the Black self-sufficiency movement that thrived at Greenwood and Archer and the 42 square blocks around it, not been destroyed by jealous, hateful, angry bigoted white men with no respect for the common humanity of their neighbors.
Until we look at what we have done to Black America through the lens of the Tulsa Race Massacre we are locked together like confused townspeople in a horrible Stephen King novel, wondering why we can’t get ahead, why trouble, calamity and ghosts from the past haunt us around every corner. Until we examine our moral compass, and all of those teachings about love and fairness we have heard since childhood, and find that conciliation and peace lie in the direction that first passes justice and reparation, we will not see the truly great potential in ourselves and in our shared community.
We must go back even further if we are to be thorough about this atonement, because there is more to see. Before Black Wall Street prospered we had already twice killed the innocent and violated agreements with the tribes from the very ground upon which Greenwood was built. We had built an entire economy and nation on the backs of Greenwood’s ancestors. Racism and white supremacy caused the blood of both peoples to be spilled there and across all this land, and those evils have worked together to this day to deny both peoples justice and continue harm.
It is time to do what is necessary to remove this curse that hurts all of us, most significantly our brothers and sisters of color. I believe there is a great future ahead of us, one of shared freedom, shared prosperity, shared beauty. But first, we must quit making it easy for leaders to deny justice. Until we really look at Greenwood, and force our elected officials to act on what we see, that prosperous future will elude us.
Noel J. Jacobs, PhD