Greenwood Oklahoma and the Healing of Democracy
By: Dr. Stephen Morris
Growing up in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, about an hour north of Tulsa, Oklahoma, I would often hear rumors of a massacre in Tulsa. But often, these words were spoken in hushed tones and combined with Biblical themes of apocalyptical judgment when the sun and the moon turned blood red, words that were dismissed as old wives’ tales or unprovable myths.
It was not until after I received my doctorate in 2017 and had freed some mental space; I began to uncover information of the first aerial bombing in the United States that was an act of war against an African American community in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Not long after that, I discovered evidence that turned these old rumors and myths into history, kept alive by oral traditions African American ancestors handed down from one generation to the next.
One hundred years ago, on May 31, one of the most infamous tragedies to occur on American soil leaped from the pages of dusty old books and seldom read political hearing reports to the heart of the American consciousness. I sat mesmerized by pictures and stories that I had read and seen on national television (CBS and CNN). My heart sank as the horrors of bigotry and hate were unleashed on African American citizens. After a night of death and destruction, African American survivors were herded into internment camps and tagged “Police Protected” by the same police department that shot and killed family members the night before. Meanwhile, their family treasures were looted and stolen by armed whites and military personnel. The dead were buried in mass graves that have just recently been uncovered, yet many more graves are yet to be unearthed. They were much like those discovered after the Armenian Holocaust in Turkey, post-World War II Germany, in post-Viet Nam War Cambodia, and the ethnic cleansing wars of Central Europe.
Booker T. Washington, an African American educator and entrepreneur, called Greenwood the “Black Wall Street.” The success and fame of this Tulsa City District was well known, yet it disappeared from the pages of American history almost overnight. The fact that a cover-up on such a grand scale occurred speaks volumes of the systemic racism that permeates the American subconscious. President Harding issued a statement, other politicians paid due diligence, then it all went away. All levels of American society were complicit in keeping this horror and shame from our history books. If we never speak of our shame, how can we ever learn? Perhaps there was a desire not to know, to not change the repulsion of a Jim Crow, segregationist society.
Many asked why African Americans are still angry; after all, we fought a civil war to end slavery. But very few speak of the “Red Summer of 1919” or the years between 1917 through 1921 when over four dozen black communities across America were invaded and nearly destroyed by angry white mobs fueled by President Woodrow Wilson’s screening of the racist movie, the “Birth of a Nation” in the White House. Where were cries for law and order when President Wilson, the initiator of the League of Nations, delayed and stymied the Women’s Suffrage Movement or introduced segregation into the Nation’s federal civil service bureau? Few speak of the nearly 5,000 men, women, and children who were lynched between 1870 and 1950 or of African American soldiers who fought in World War I and in World War II lynched in their uniforms. Did the Civil War end acts of systemic violence that make possible the cover-up of the Greenwood Massacre?
Another insidious factor of the Greenwood Massacre occurred when many insurance companies decided not to pay individuals and families to rebuild because Greenwood was labeled a “riot” and not a massacre. The Federal government later redlined Greenwood as a high-risk area; therefore, banks did not loan Greenwood families the money to rebuild. Many discussed the significant Civil Rights Legislation of the 1960s as evidence of change in the Nation’s psyche. But few, if any acknowledge, the legislation of the 1960s was a near duplicate of the legislation of the 1860s and 70s.
When I reviewed the history of our nation’s faltering attempts to address systemic racism, I am saddened and hopeful. Sadly, so many lost lives and fortunes because of moral blindness and systemic racism. I am hopeful because even after the deaths of Ronald Green, 2018, George Floyd, 2020, and Breonna Taylor, 2020, we who survive have a deep abiding longing that someday equality will be manifested in the hallowed halls of our democracy. We courageously cling to the prospect that America will live up to the true meaning of its creed, that ALL are created equal, and ALL are equally entitled by their Creator to life, liberty, and pursuit of a quality life.
Greenwood, Oklahoma, is a reminder of why we need to have ethnic studies curriculum in our schools. As the Civic Education Center CEO, I hear many who question the validity of ethnic studies. They said, “This type of curriculum is not needed in our schools” or “Ethic Studies teaches people to be victims,” and lastly, “Why do you want to bring up hate? Can’t we forget it and move on?” Such statements often reflect blindness to the reality of race in America. There are just too many untold stories. These untold stories hinder American Democracy and hinder the belief that Democracy, as it stands, can endure. In a 2021 Brookings Report, only 17% of Generation Z, those born after 1996 and are about 23 years old today, believe democracy works. At the Civic Education Center, we empower student voices in the context of American Democracy. We teach students, teachers, and community members to become knowledgeable citizens engaged in the democratic process.
President Biden recently spoke these words regarding Greenwood, “Some injustices are so heinous, so horrific, so grievous, they cannot be buried, no matter how hard people try . . . Only with truth can come healing.” If our history books told the whole story of American Democracy, there would be less of a desire to have ethnic studies curriculum in our public schools. Let us remember Greenwood and garner the courageous hope of the Greenwood survivors who sought to rebuild their homes and businesses after the massacre in the face of tremendous opposition. We must forge ahead together to build a better America that exists in truth and in justice for all.