Survivors recall tragic 1921 Tulsa Race Riot
OAK BLUFFS, Mass. — Over the years, Martha’s Vineyard has largely served as an early vacation spot for African Americans, as well as a forum for public discussion among some of the most influential black scholars and leaders in the nation.
Such was the case last week during an event titled, “A Gathering of Elders: Sheroes, Heroes and Survivors,” a wide-ranging conversation on topics ranging from Hurricane Katrina to the 1921 Tulsa, Okla., Race Riot.
Charles J. Ogletree Jr. — a seasonal Island resident and a professor at Harvard Law School who founded the school’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice — led the panel discussion, which included three survivors of the 1921 riots, all over the age of 90.
Ogletree is the lead counsel in lawsuits against the city of Tulsa demanding that victims of the riots and their families be compensated. The plaintiffs are not seeking reparations per se, but rather the establishment of educational and health care resources for current residents of the area most severely affected by the riot.
Even though the riot killed between 40 and several hundred people — estimates vary — most of whom were black, left over 10,000 people homeless and destroyed 1,200 homes by fire, the tragedy had been practically forgotten about until this decade.
In 2006, the federal district and appellate courts dismissed the suit, citing a statute of limitations. In April 2007, Ogletree appealed to the U.S. Congress to pass a bill extending the statute of limitations for the case. Congress has yet to do so.
Ogletree said it was important for African Americans to remember the Tulsa Race Riot, not only to commemorate those who suffered and lost their lives, but also as a warning that such a tragedy must never happen again.
“With all the comforts of Martha’s Vineyard, we cannot forget our past,” he said. “The events of 1921 in Tulsa were one of the most senseless and regrettable chapters in American history, yet most people are not even aware they happened. There were many people from that period who wanted to sweep it under the carpet and forget. But if we do forget what is unjust, what is unpleasant, what is unforgivable — then what have we learned?”
Dr. Olivia Hooker, 92, was 6 years old and living in the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa when the riot broke out. She said Greenwood was made up mostly of prominent African Americans and was often called the “black Wall Street” because its elegance and sophistication rivaled other white neighborhoods in town.
Hooker said the riot — which was sparked by seemingly innocuous accusations of a black male groping a white woman — was simply an excuse for many white people to act out on their jealousy and resentment of the successful black neighborhood of Greenwood.
“I grew up in a more protected environment than many other black children, so I was a bit of an idealist … I believed in every word in the Preamble of the [U.S.] Constitution and in ‘My Country ’Tis of Thee,’” she said.
“So when the riots broke out I couldn’t believe it. I looked out the window and I saw these men with guns and I heard a sound like hail falling. Then my mother yelled to me, ‘They’re shooting at you … that’s your country shooting at you.’”
Wess Young, 90, was even younger during the riots, but is able to remember the events through the recollections of his mother and sister. Young said tensions escalated after members of the Ku Klux Klan went to the jail where the young man accused of touching the white woman was being held and demanded he be released into their custody. A group of white men in the hundreds with all the markings of a lynch mob had also gathered in front of the courthouse, and emotions were running high.
“Then a group of about 25 armed black men showed up to take the young man out of there, and the white people didn’t take too kindly to that. It wasn’t like a black man could just go down to the corner store and buy a gun in those days,” Young said.
As the group of black men left the courthouse, one of them, a uniformed World War I veteran carrying his standard issue service revolver, was accosted by a member of the white mob. The white man’s goal, presumably, was to disarm the veteran. A short scuffle ensued and ended with the gun being discharged, killing the white man.
The gunshot triggered an almost immediate response by the white men, many of whom fired on the black men, who returned fire. Within hours, most of the homes in Greenwood had been burned to the ground and many men, both black and white, lay dead or dying in the street, Young said.
Young said the black people of Tulsa found little comfort or support from any white people on that day.
“We didn’t see no fire department, no county sheriff, no police chief. When the mob came the white owners of the gun shops and pawnshops opened up the doors. And if you were white you got a gun, and the owner would say, ‘Now go out [and] kill yourself a nigger,’” Young said.
This vivid description drew audible gasps, and throughout the recollections of the race riot many in the audience could be seen wiping away tears.
Otis Clark, the senior member of the panel at age 104, said members of the white community always resented the thriving Greenwood community.
“We were living the high life … some of us had big automobiles with about 26 cylinders and we would drive them up and down the gravel roads … the colored people and the whites were getting along pretty good until that summer. It seems that jealousy just got the best of some people,” Clark said.
After the panel discussion, filmmaker Reginald Turner showed a lengthy clip of his film “Before They Die!,” which depicts the plight of the remaining survivors of the riot as they await the outcome of the lawsuit against the city of Tulsa. The title of the film summed up the sense of urgency it chronicled.
Ogletree said when they first initiated the lawsuit in 2003, the lawyers represented approximately 155 clients. Now, just five years later, old age has claimed the lives of over half of those clients.
The time for justice is now, he said.
“Hatred, bigotry and greed shattered these people’s lives. For some, it took everything away from them,” he said. “They have spent a lifetime trying to put the pieces back together, and the least we can do is get these people justice before they leave us.”
Ogletree also drew comparisons between the Tulsa Race Riot and the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, noting that the federal government ignored the plight of the African American community in New Orleans both before and after the hurricane touched down.
Like the events in Tulsa 86 years ago, Ogletree warned, we as a nation should never forget the events in Louisiana and Mississippi of two years ago.
“Little has changed in New Orleans over the past two years; we already tend to forget just how devastating those events were. Many people thought the events following that storm were no longer possible; the lawlessness, the lack of liberty, and apathy by people in positions of power,” he said.
“And if we forget or choose not to remember the injustice uncovered by Katrina — just as in Tulsa in 1921 — we open the door for it to happen again.”
(The Vineyard Gazette)
|Joined by Harvard Law School’s Charles J. Ogletree Jr. (left), 104-year-old Otis Clark — a survivor of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot — threw out the ceremonial first pitch before the Boston Red Sox’ Aug. 31 game against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park. Clark and other survivors took part in a panel discussion on Martha’s Vineyard last week. (Phoebe Sexton / Boston Red Sox photo)