(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the hundredth anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, with more essays in the following days.)
The centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre rightly celebrates the resilience of the Black survivors and their descendants, who were subjected to horrific acts of terror. However, one group of real people have been erased from history. The individual, identifiable rioters who made up the racist mob were never named and never brought to justice. The State’s failure to hold them accountable allowed them to deny responsibility, both individually and as a group, and eventually to deny the Massacre happened at all.
This ability to rewrite history, to suppress the largest, most bloody single attack on Black people in the United States, is an amazing act of power. Who tells the story of the Massacre continues to shape the contemporary response to demands for justice for the survivors and descendants.
The Tulsa Race Massacre’s precipitating event occurred when a white elevator operator falsely accused Dick Rowland, a young Black man, of assaulting her. However, the racial hatred that fueled the Massacre had long been stoked by local white demagogues. Rowland’s arrest would not have escalated had not the local newspapers incited the white rioters. Eventually, over the night of May 31st into June 1st, a mob of white Tulsans, many deputized by the police force, joined by the local national guard, along with sundry others, killed, burned and looted their way through 35 city blocks. The white rioters entered the homes and offices of the Black Greenwood community residents, some of whom fled their homes, others of whom hid in backrooms and attics while the white mob called on them to come out. Some of the survivors described the white people looting their houses, then urinating or defecating inside before setting fire to the building.
The Tulsa Race Massacre reverberated outside of Tulsa, affecting Black people across the country. Economist Lisa Cook recently demonstrated that the Massacre significantly impacted Black entrepreneurship across the United States. When the state and federal governments did nothing in the face of such violence, Black people lost confidence in the government’s willingness to protect their rights, resulting in a downturn in Black people filing patents. As but one example.
Despite this massive local and national impact in 1921, within a few years the Massacre had been erased from history. When Oklahoma passed the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Reconciliation Act of 2001, the State expressly acknowledged that it enforced a “‘conspiracy of silence’ [that] served the dominant interests of the state during that period which found the riot a ‘public relations nightmare’ that was ‘best to be forgotten, something to be swept well beneath history’s carpet’ for a community which attempted to attract new businesses and settlers.” In the statute, the state also accepted that it “ignored” its “responsibilities … rather than confront the realities of … race relations that allowed one race to ‘put down’ another race.”
Only in the last twenty years have the last survivors and the descendants of the Massacre victims begun to recount their experiences. People around the country—indeed, around the world—have been deeply moved as the survivors and descendants have come forward to tell their family’s stories as part of reparations litigation in 2003 (disclaimer: I served as one of the lawyers representing these families in this lawsuit), and again in Congress in 2007 and 2021 (disclaimer: I testified at the 2021 hearing).
There are, however, two historical narratives dominating the Tulsa story. In addition to the testimonies of the victims and their descendants, this other story erases the agency of the actual people—really, domestic terrorists—who killed, looted, and burned Greenwood. In doing so, it avoids acknowledging the reality of Black suffering as happening through the activities of identifiable people. Tulsa mayor G.T. Bynum, for example, recently described the Massacre as an event in which “people murdered our neighbors, and then they covered it up—for decades.” But these “people” were white citizens Tulsa, some of whom came to collect the terrorized and now-homeless Black laborers and domestic workers from detention camps in the days after the Massacre. Mayor Bynum’s description thus continues the work of erasure, anonymizing the assailants as generic outsiders and perpetuating the color-blind ‘reimaging’ of the Massacre, which Monica Bell noted in an earlier article in this series, is a major part of the public relations retelling of the Massacre by the City and its Chamber of Commerce.
There are, it turns out, close to a hundred pictures of the Massacre taken both during and after the murdering, looting, and burning. Some of them are the equivalent of selfies taken by the rioters who entered the Capitol on January 6, 2021, and they serve the same purpose: to celebrate the destruction and proudly prove they were there. These pictures show clearly identifiable people: mostly men wearing boater hats or fedoras in their shirtsleeves with the buildings burning in the background. The brazenness of these rioters is part of phenomenon of lynching postcards taken by people who believe there will be no accountability for their actions. And, indeed, some of the most vivid photographs we have today are from postcards made by the white citizens of Tulsa during the Massacre. Chilling how similar that is to the Capitol rioters and their use of social media to boast of their acts.
One picture in particular has haunted me since I first saw it in 2003: it is a photograph in the Tulsa Historical Society collection, captioned, “An armed man posing for the camera in front of the Dreamland Theater during the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921. He holds a rifle or shotgun in each hand and smokes a cigar.” The Dreamland Theater, one of the main symbols of Greenwood’s success and recently featured in books and on television, is burning in the background.
What was so shocking about these pictures was not that they were so hard to find, but that they were so easy to find. The conspiracy of silence was not a conspiracy of destruction; it was a shared agreement enforced by the looters, the rioters, and the white citizens of Tulsa, of Oklahoma, and of America simply not to talk about the Massacre, to deny it happened, and to erase it from the local and national consciousness.
This is a form of power—the fancy name for it is “epistemic injustice,” but essentially it is when one group gets to determine the way that people access or simply respond to facts (by denying them, or claiming that the response is overblown, or divisive, and so we should not speak of it but just move on). Then that group controls how—and even whether—we get to talk about, remember, or even perceive these facts.
The police know this through their experience with body cameras. The problem with body camera footage is not just that it is easily manipulable and gives a one-sided view of any situation. The real problem with body camera footage is that there is too much of it to properly review. The body camera studies show that they do initially impact police conduct, resulting in less forceful policing. But after a short while the police and return to business as usual. A plausible interpretation of this data is that the police fall back into their old routines when they realize that no one is looking at the footage. Worse, they recognize that ultimately they control the release of that footage. Even if there is some statute that requires publication of body-camera footage, the police always have some period of time to control the narrative.
People still forget that there was body camera footage from multiple officers depicting Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd. The police report did not mention that footage, and implied that Floyd died of natural causes. Indeed, these officers’ body cameras were not pointed at Floyd, they were pointed at the crowd of people witnessing his murder. Chauvin’s impassive expression is reminiscent of the man from Tulsa almost a century before. Both of them are confident in the belief that they can control the story, and will not be brought to account.
That unaccountability has real, contemporary consequences. Missing from this new recounting of the Tulsa Race Massacre are the stories of the white Tulsans who participated as part of the mob. By reducing these real people, these fathers and grandfathers of present-day Tulsans to some faceless mass, they have become invisible. Without a grand jury to investigate the white rioters—to record their names, all we have left is some evanescent, nameless “mob.” These people decided not to investigate their part in the Massacre. Without a grand jury to function like a truth commission, or like H.R. 40, the bill designed to document the history of slavery, the story of the Massacre could be erased.
Following the Massacre, the City and its white citizens were able to decide to move on, while Black people in Tulsa and around the United States lived in real fear of white supremacist terroristic threats. These grandfathers and fathers of present-day white Tulsans decided, along with the City and the Chamber of Commerce, that they were not going to compensate the victims, and so they placed a real debt on future generations as that bill comes due.
The Mayor of Tulsa claims that demanding compensation and reparations is divisive. He asks why present-day Tulsans should pay for the actions of the City one-hundred years ago, and invites us to blame the survivors and descendants for continuing to demand that they receive the compensatory and transformative justice that they are owed. But if anyone is to blame for burdening present-day Tulsans’ with this debt, it is the fathers and grandfathers who refused to take responsibility for their violence and destruction and the acts of their neighbors—whose identities remain hidden and hushed up. In the contemporary retelling of the Massacre, though the victims are identifiable, the white fathers and grandfathers, uncles and family friends who inflicted a bloody, terroristic inferno on Black Tulsans in Greenwood, remain obscured as “people”—outside agitators rather than everyday members of the white Tulsa community. The lens of history, now that it is finally recording what happened, points away from them.
Without an accurate accounting of which people were responsible for what happened—without identifying who is staring out of that picture—we cannot tell the full truth of the Massacre. Instead, the perpetrators retain the power to erase themselves from history and demand that we just move forward and not look back. The victims are told they should just move on—that they are divisive and unreasonable for still seeking justice. But until history includes accountability for the Tulsa Race Massacre, the conspiracy of silence remains in place.