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Editorial: Tulsa has much to apologize for in the 1921 race massacre and what happened afterward
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Editorial: Tulsa has much to apologize for in the 1921 race massacre and what happened afterward

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Tulsa Race Massacre

Remnants of homes that were burned to the ground in the Greenwood District of Tulsa are shown following the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

One hundred years ago, a white Tulsa mob attacked the segregated Black neighborhood known as Greenwood.

Thirty-five square blocks were burned to the ground.

Dozens were killed — the exact number is unclear and hotly debated by some. There should be no dispute, however, that none of the deaths were justified.

The Tulsa Race Massacre was a murderous, racist attack on innocents, and it leaves our city with much to atone for.

The scar of 1921 reveals the sins of our grandfathers … our fathers … and ourselves.

Endemic racism: From its founding, Oklahoma was a racist state. Tulsa was a full part of that.

Black people were brought to the territory as slaves, property with no human rights.

After the Civil War, their status was changed, but their subjugation continued. Jim Crow laws replaced slavery in keeping Black Tulsans in legal and social bondage.

Black people were citizens in name only, refused equal accommodations, the right to vote and any sense of justice from police or courts.

They had to live where white men told them they could live and were forced to behave servilely or face humiliation or prosecution. Their schools were separate and unequal. Racist language rang shamelessly through the streets, the laws and the newspapers.

This was the cruel, undemocratic and bigoted atmosphere before the race massacre … and after it.

Reforms of the Civil Rights movement undid the legal framework, but left centuries of abuse unaddressed. The echoes of the failure to address that history still ring today.

The massacre: It should not need to be said, but nothing that happened in 1921 — nothing — merited the mob violence of the race massacre.

Innocent men and women were murdered.

Homes were destroyed.

Businesses were burned.

Families were uprooted.

The local and state civil authorities set up to protect and serve the public — police, fire and elected officials — failed miserably to protect the Black people of Tulsa. Indeed, many of those who should have been stopping the rampage either looked on in benign cooperation or actively participated.

For two days, the racism of law and convention became the racism of fire, bomb and bullet. It is a bloody mark upon the name of our city.

The cover-up: After order was restored, the city and its white residents quickly behaved as if nothing had ever happened.

Many report that bodies were secretly buried.

With code and authority, the city frustrated the rebuilding of Greenwood. The business elite cooperated.

Insurance claims were refused.

No reparations were made.

History was whitewashed. Schools ignored the race massacre for decades. Generations of white Tulsans graduated from public schools unaware of the events of 1921.

Such a cover-up can be read either of two ways, neither exculpatory. Either the white citizens of Tulsa recognized the horrific wrong, and intentionally hid the evidence, or they were so immune to the sufferings of others — if the others were Black — that they could naturally stifle any consideration of it. We suspect there were strong doses of both at work.

Thus, the fires of the massacre became unredeemed ashes.

The failure to change: Shame should have led to reform, but it did not.

The racism of 1921 Tulsa was perpetuated in statute and behavior.

Until forced by courts and federal law to recognize Black Americans as full citizens, Oklahoma and Tulsa continued for decades to treat them as something less.

What then were the lessons taken from the race massacre? For the white people of Tulsa, there were none. They accepted no guilt, and soon forgot that anything had ever happened. For the Black people of Tulsa, it was that they were subject to destruction at less than a moment’s notice by their oppressors, who had the power of law and wealth to enforce their domination.

The failure to sympathize: In the contemporary setting, Tulsa has begun to emerge from the conscious and subconscious repression of the race massacre’s reality.

The Legislature started the process in 1997 with a state investigation into the events of 1921.

In 2013, then-Police Chief Chuck Jordan apologized for “the actions, inaction and dereliction that those individual officers and their chief exhibited during that dark time.”

Scholars have delved into the true history of the massacre.

We have John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Commission and Greenwood Rising.

Under the direction of Mayor G.T. Bynum, the city has started the process of finding and appropriately dealing with mass graves and the crimes they reflect.

But a failure to empathize persists.

Again and again, we hear: I was not alive in 1921; my family had nothing to do with it; I am not responsible.

The moral statute of limitations has not lapsed, and the failure of too many to recognize the continuing pain — the failure even to offer a genuine apology in the name of the people of Tulsa to their fellow Tulsans — prevents true healing.

Until we have atoned for the sins of the race massacre, culpability continues and compounds.

How to expiate such awful acts is a question for the entire community.

It’s a process that should require a thorough, thoughtful and public examination of what led to the massacre, what happened there and what happened afterward. Truth and reconciliation are not a moment but a process, and one that ends only when the pain does.

For the state, it should begin with a new era of policy designed to address disproportionate burdens on the Black population in health care and criminal justice.

For the state and city, it could also include consideration of reparations, direct or indirect. This remains a controversial issue, but one that deserves a public debate.

For individuals, it should mean many things, including acts of charity, self-education and acknowledgement.

For all, it should start with an act of contrition … of apology.

For what happened … for what was done and not done … for what led to it and led from it … for the failure to empathize then and now… we are sorry.

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