GUSTAVIA, St. Barth — The owner of Voila, a clothing store in this seaside isle that’s part of the Virgin Islands, inquires about my book of choice on a cruise here. “What is Tulsa 1921” he inquires in French, then easily switches to English.
It’s a story about a race riot nearly 100 years ago where a mob of white Tulsans, some believed to have been deputized by the authorities, set fire to thousands of homes and businesses owned by African Americans and killed as many as 300 men and women in the Greenwood district and then looted the contents. It’s a historic record, a century later, based on reports from competing newspapers.
“Why would they do that,” my new friend asks. “How come I never heard of this.”
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That a foreigner thousands of miles from Oklahoma would be uninformed is understandable. But sadly many Oklahomans haven’t a clue about the invasion in their own state. It may have been mentioned in that Harlow’s Oklahoma history book that I skimmed in ninth grade but it sure didn’t make an impression on my teenage brain.
A generation later my own children never remarked on the riot. They learned about the land run and the Dust Bowl but not the Greenwood massacre.
Journalist Randy Krehbiel’s book should help shed light on Tulsa’s disastrous summer of 1921. When the smoke finally cleared on the 35 square blocks of the Greenwood District, a dozen churches, five hotels, 31 restaurants, four drug stores, eight doctor’s offices, two dozen grocery stores, a public library and more than 1,000 homes were destroyed.
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It all began when a young African American man allegedly attempted to rape a white teenage girl. The details were sketchy and few witnesses came forward. A newspaper report a day later may have contributed to a white mob that gathered outside the jail where the man was being held.
Meanwhile, in the Greenwood district, African Americans were determined to protect the defendant from the growing mob.
The cast of characters reads like a mystery novel but they’re real people caught up in courthouse, city, state and church politics. Collusion and cover-up by law enforcement was also apparent.
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Krehbiel takes us through the weeds of the set fires, the nearly indiscriminate killings of Blacks and Whites and the follow-up state investigations. Some believe the fires were planned in order for businessmen to rezone, buy out the neighborhood and rebuild it as a more profitable industrial complex.
Tulsa’s image was on the line here as reporters from around the country converged on the city. How the city responded and rebuilt would be chronicled worldwide and the booming oil capital wanted to somehow put on its best face.
The riot had national implications, too, as African American veterans returning from World War I wanted respect. It followed lynchings and riots elsewhere in the country.
The Ku Klux Klan was also involved as was Oklahoma’s National Guard that arrived too late to stop the burning and looting.
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Tulsa 1921 was set in a backdrop of segregation, perceived white superiority, prohibition and petty politics. It’s hard to withhold contempt but judging actions of a century ago by today’s standards is always risky.
The novel and upcoming movie, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” is another example of unstudied Oklahoma history. Like Greenwood, the murders of Osage tribal members in order to steal their headrights was absent from my history textbooks.
OU Professor Karlos Hill, writing the foreword of “Tulsa 1921,", said Black Tulsans refused the rezoning ploy and subsequently were allowed to rebuild, no thanks to insurance companies which denied claims and no thanks to political leaders who refused external aid.
“The efforts of black Tulsans to rebuild in the face of white intransigence is a testament to their courage and resilience,” Hill wrote, adding, the book should be considered required reading for both general readers and serious students of Tulsa’s history.