By Abayomi Azikiwe
For many years the white mob attacks against the African American community in Tulsa, Oklahoma during late May and early June of 1921 have been cited to illustrate the oppressive and violent character of race relations in the United States during the 20th century. A popular historical narrative of the so-called “Tulsa Riot” focuses heavily on the destruction of the Greenwood business district in the African American community which was known as “Black Wall Street.”
Those African Americans whose homes, churches, small businesses and other personal property were destroyed in a racist frenzy, emanated largely from a working class people seeking to carve out an independent existence some six decades after the end of legalized chattel slavery and the Civil War. Despite the differences in perspectives between African Americans and whites on the causes behind the tragic events of 1921, the fact of the matter is that the political establishment in Tulsa has never fully come to grips with the nature and character of the massacre which left in excess of 300 people dead.
Over the last two decades there has been some official acknowledgement in Oklahoma that the attacks on African Americans were unjustifiably brutal and stemmed from attempts to undermine the aspirations of a burgeoning community. However, since these events occurred nearly a century ago, some within the white community have dismissed claims related to the severity of the incident and whether the payment of reparations is justified.
In recent weeks there have been numerous articles published on the possible discovery of mass graves of victims from the massacre.
The Tulsa massacre was initiated on the false premise that an African American youth had assaulted a white woman in an elevator. The following day a leading newspaper article called for the suppression of a purported “lawless” African American community prompting white mobs including law-enforcement personnel to invade areas around Black Wall Street where they shot people on sight, looted homes, businesses and churches, later burning many of the structures to the ground. Hundreds of African Americans were taken into custody and disarmed under the pretext of preventing further assaults on white residents.
These allegations about threats to white women were false as was the case in so many other lynching incidents which were prevalent in the U.S. during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Various historical studies indicate that anywhere between 3,500 and 5,000 African Americans were lynched from the period of the 1880s until the Great Depression of the 1930s. Almost none of the perpetrators were ever brought to justice by the U.S. courts on local, state or federal levels.
Evidence of the impunity with which attacks were carried out against African Americans is represented in the fact that numerous efforts to pass federal anti-lynching laws failed. One of the last attempts in the late 1930s amidst a resurgence of racist violence in the South under the Democratic administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt met the same fate as other attempts to empower the federal government as a last resort to end the racist targeting of African Americans by mobs including politicians and the police. The eventual passage of an anti-lynching bill by the Senate in 2018 was largely symbolic and meaningless.
Investigation of the Tulsa Massacre in the Current Period
A scientific archaeological study is underway utilizing equipment which has detected the possible existence of mass graves in a cemetery outside of downtown Tulsa. These investigations arose as a result of efforts to organize a commemorative recognition of the 1921 massacre centering on the upcoming centenary in 2021.
A December article published by Live Science on the research surrounding the location of the victims reports that: “Amanda Regnier and Scott Hammerstedt, from the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey at the University of Oklahoma, told a city committee this week that scans with ground-penetrating radar in October had revealed the existence of the pit at Oaklawn Cemetery, northwest of the city’s downtown area, according to a city statement. The radar showed the buried pit measured roughly 30 feet by 25 feet (9 by 7.5 meters) — large enough to hold dozens of bodies, according to the researchers. Other traces of what could be unmarked graves were found nearby.”
If this discovery is confirmed an excavation of the site would raise legal and political questions for the city government of Tulsa and the State of Oklahoma. From a historical perspective, the scientific uncovering of these suspected mass graves could necessitate other legislative measures to address the descendants of this organized act of racist terror.
The massacre on its own constitutes a genocidal act. Moreover, the nearly century of the cover-up designed to mischaracterize the May-June 1921 mass killings and to minimize the degree of deaths, injuries and destruction are also crimes against humanity.
These official denials of the racist and genocidal history of the U.S. in which Tulsa is so representative, inevitably extends the distortions so prevalent even in the 21st century as it relates to the political character of the U.S. Documenting the lynching and massacres of previous centuries potentially expands the debates over reparations beyond enslavement well into events of the 20th century.
One of researchers working on the investigation of the possible mass graves, Amanda Regnier, told Live Science: “We have large anomalies that appear consistent with mass graves … smaller anomalies that look like graves with coffins … and a series of other anomalies … that are more faint, and could represent individual people buried without coffins. We cannot know for certain what this is, but the signature closely matches those of other mass graves that have been excavated.”
At another nearby location known as Canes in close proximity to the Arkansas River, there are even more suspected mass graves. The images derived from ground-penetrating radar scans suggest there could be other victims buried in this area as well.
These investigations using sophisticated imaging equipment have been guided by interviews with survivors of the massacres, their descendants and photographic analysis from the period in question. In order for an actual exhumation of the grounds to occur there has to be legal permission granted by the authorities in Oklahoma.
The Significance of the Tulsa Massacre Investigation
It is quite important for the State of Oklahoma and the City of Tulsa to cooperate fully in this research. The events of the Tulsa racist massacre have been ignored and trivialized on an official level for far too long. Such research has profound implications for the re-opening of investigations into other episodes of racist violence during the 20th century in the U.S. The uncovering of the facts surrounding these incidents points to the reality that racism is still alive and well in the 21st century.
African Americans remain today disproportionately the victims of police and vigilante violence which often times goes unpunished. The criminal justice system through racial profiling, targeted arrests, prosecutions and imprisonment represents key pillars of national oppression and class exploitation. Racism continues to be used to create and foster divisions among the working class inside the U.S. However, until the federal government and the ruling capitalist class are held responsible for the present situation there can be no lasting solutions.
In recent years there are concerted attempts underway by political and economic interests to effectively reverse the gains of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 20th century. False notions of a “color-blind” society in the 21st century merely serve as an ideological attempt to deny the justifiable claims for reparations, full equality and self-determination on the part of African Americans.
Fully revealing the extent of racism and national oppression in the historical development of the U.S. can provide mechanisms for the actual reconstruction of the society based upon genuine democracy and economic justice.