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Tulsa Race Massacre: For years it was called a riot. Not anymore. Here's how it changed.
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Tulsa Race Massacre: For years it was called a riot. Not anymore. Here's how it changed.

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The violence and destruction that transpired over a two-day period in the heart of Greenwood between black and white Tulsans nearly a century ago was widely described as a riot.

Generally, it was the accepted narrative of such nationwide confrontations during the early 1900s that involved outbreaks of racial clashes throughout America.

But with time, research and changing perspectives, many have concluded that riot might not be the appropriate term to chronicle what took place on May 31-June 1, 1921.

“They named it a riot. We didn’t name it a riot,” said State Sen. Kevin Matthews, chairman of the 1921 Race Massacre Centennial Commission in reference to newspaper accounts of the event. “People in my community started to tell me if we were going to tell the history, we needed to tell it from our perspective.”

Notably, Matthews said there was some initial hesitation on his part to consider how the event would be addressed moving forward. But overtures from the public could not be ignored.

Formed in 2017, the then-Tulsa Race Riot Centennial Commission later decided to refer to the event as a massacre “based on community input.” The rationale, members said, was “to shed the name given by the offenders and reclaim the narrative of our history.”

That feedback largely came from an active group of north Tulsa residents who went so far as to start a petition in 2018 called Greenwood ‘Black Wall Street’ Massacre of 1921” demanding the commission alter its official name.

The petition, which garnered 1,600 signatures, made clear that riot was “seen by members of Tulsa’s African-American community as coded or unclear language” that “perpetuates the tragic event as a riot.”

Support for the name change also came from long-held dissatisfaction that black residents victimized during the massacre were unable to recoup restitution because insurance claims didn’t cover calamities attributed to riots.

There was also the feeling that what ensued in Tulsa was not similar in nature to riots that occurred in Watts in 1965, Chicago in 1968, or some associated with the Red Summer riots of 1919.

“I kept hearing over and over again that the word riot gives the connotation that you burned your community down,” said Matthews. “We didn’t do this to our own community. We had it burned down by others. And if it was burned down, it was burned by them.”

Nehemiah D. Frank, publisher of the Black Wall Street Times, wrote a column suggesting that riot was “social conditioning at its finest” and the commission itself was causing unnecessary division by legitimizing the word. Today, Frank still is passionate the terms shouldn’t be interchanged because those affected were not allowed to categorize how they were treated.

“If you think about African Americans who experienced the massacre, they experienced it 60 years after (the) Emancipation (Proclamation),” he said. “African Americans are not the inventors of the English language. A riot to a black person living in 1921 may not have meant the same thing to a white person living in 1921.”

Hannibal Johnson, an attorney who has engaged in extensive research of the tragedy and written several books on the subject over the years, said it’s important to first consider several factors to determine how specific terminology came to be based on the rules of nomenclature, or the process by which something is named:

Who named it?

When was it named?

What is the context?

Who was absent from the discussion?

“Race riot is a term of art,” Johnson said. “It was used to describe these kinds of incidents involving black folks typically being targeted or assaulted by white vigilante groups.”

Depending on the point of view, some might consider the Tulsa event a massacre. Others could see it as a riot, an assault, a genocide, pogrom or even a holocaust. Many of those terms, said Johnson, could be applicable to what happened 99 years ago.

And in the aftermath of the massacre, people with some direct connection or even documenting it from afar provided their own interpretations.

As the mayhem reached a fever pitch, newspaper headlines like the one that ran in the Klamath Falls, Oregon-based Evening Herald on June 1, 1921, went with “Bitter Race War Rages in Oklahoma — 75 Dead.”

A Tulsa Daily World headline published that same day also used the word war instead of a riot to summarize the turbulence.

“RACE WAR RAGES FOR HOURS AFTER OUTBREAK AT COURTHOUSE; TROOPS AND ARMED MEN PATROLING STREETS,” a section of the morning front page read.

Though many race massacre survivors had routinely referred to the chaos as a race riot in interviews with journalists, historians and documentarians who wanted to hear their stories, Olivia J. Hooker was one of the few who didn’t.

Hooker, who was just a 6-year-old when the massacre occurred, testified in front of Congress in Washington, D.C., in 2007.

During remarks before the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee on the Tulsa-Greenwood Race Riot Claims Accountability Act, Hooker stated she was a survivor of “the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921” and then pivoted to say “but what really was a massacre.”

It did not stop there.

Even in literature and politics, the variances were apparent.

While there are several published writings that feature the word riot, other works deviated.

In documenting survivor testimonials, author Mary E. Jones Parrish, also a survivor, titled her 1923 book “Events of the Tulsa Disaster.”

Then-Tulsa Star publisher and editor A.J. Smitherman, whose home was destroyed in 1921, crafted a descriptive poem about the experience called “The Tulsa Race Riot and Massacre.”

And long before current Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum normalized the use of massacre, former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, who spearheaded the Tulsa Race Riot Commission in 1997, was once quoted as saying,”This is not a riot, this is an assault on the black community.”

But despite diligent reexamination of the motivations and actions of citizens involved in the encounter to justify a name change, some observers have expressed concern that rewriting history would be both inaccurate and inflammatory.

“The riot was a disgrace and a tragedy and stain on our state,” wrote Donald W. Rominger Jr. in a Tulsa World Letter to the Editor in response to a story about Vernon AME Church that referenced massacre. “But, it was not an ‘indiscriminate and merciless slaughter’ as the word ‘massacre’ is defined.” Others, like Carol Mann, on the same topic, felt similarly.

“What bothers me is the renaming of it to be Tulsa Race Massacre,” she wrote. “... renaming it a massacre seems to me to be unnecessarily inflammatory.”

Johnson, however, pointed out that some critics had a point in that all of the violence at the time wasn’t one-sided. Black residents did retaliate against white invaders.

“Part of the potential problem with using the word massacre is (saying) that it was a slaughter without resistance,” he said. “In fact, there was robust but short-lived resistance by black men in the black community. But they were outnumbered and outgunned.”

The present-day discussion over whether riot or massacre should be the official designation will continue to be debated.

Keeping the story of the event itself alive — even by way of analyzing its moniker — is ultimately paramount beyond grappling over terminology, Matthews said.

“That’s the goal,” he said. “That’s what we want to actually have happen.”


Tulsa Race Massacre: This is what happened in Tulsa in 1921

Kendrick Marshall

918-581-8378

kendrick.marshall

@tulsaworld.com

Twitter:

@KD_Marshall

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