Many of the 1.5 million folks who tuned in Sunday night to watch the premiere of HBO’s transformational comic-book adaptation The Watchmen clearly had a hard time unseeing the horrific first eight minutes of the series, as the words “TULSA 1921” flashed on the screen.
An angry, chaotic mob of white people, some in ivory robes, firing rifles at random black citizens or beating them up on dusty streets, while one hurls a Molotov cocktail into a black-owned business. A young African-American boy, hidden in the back of a coach attempting to flee the massacre, peers through a bullet hole to see the corpses of two black men dragged across the pavement of the Oklahoma city.
As soon as the episode ended, thousands took to the internet asking variations of the same question: Did that really happen?
Not only did the 1921 Tulsa massacre actually take place, but the reality is arguably far worse than what was depicted on HBO. The flames that lit the night sky a bright orange in The Watchmen’s depiction destroyed some 35 city blocks when the violence actually occurred on May 31 and June 1 of 1921. The fact that America went out of its way to avoid talking about what happened those two dreadful days has also made it impossible to get an exact toll of what many were killed in the worst outbreak of racial violence in U.S. history, but best estimates are that between 100 to 300 people were murdered — nearly all African-American.
Just a couple of days after the broadcast, with much of the nation focused on the impeachment drama in Washington, President Trump ripped open a nearby scab of America’s tortured racial history when he tweeted that his predicament has become “a lynching.” Though many were quick to point out that Trump is hardly the first high-profile scandal figure to compare his (it’s always a him) plight to the ritualistic vigilante mob violence that’s killed nearly 5,000 Americans (the vast majority black, many falsely accused), the grotesque comparison smacks of willful ignorance.
The national conversations about lynchings and Tulsa seemed to raise even more questions. Why weren’t we taught about these things during all those years of American history class in school? What from the U.S. legacy of white supremacy and twisted racial relations could teach us about how we got into today’s mess? And what else haven’t I heard about? On Tuesday, I took to what I called “history Twitter” to ask what should be on a list of race-related history that U.S. schoolkids generally aren’t taught.
I was flabbergasted by volume of response — more than 550, and counting, including a few history luminaries like Douglas Blackmon, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Slavery By Another Name, and Andrea Pitzer, whose chronicles of concentration camps have become vital in Trump’s America. The entire thread is incredible, and if you read it you’ll find many things I couldn’t squeeze into this column. At the end of this piece, there’s a columnist’s note on why it focuses solely on racism against black Americans, links to some of the “honorable mentions” — and what’s next.
But here’s a start.
This was probably the No. 1 response that came in from Twitter, and it’s perfect because I confess that I sadly knew little about this 1923 incident, in which a self-sufficient, predominantly African-American community on the Gulf Coast of Florida was all but wiped off the map by white vigilante mobs from a neighboring town, searching for a black man on (unproven, of course) evidence that he’d assaulted a white woman. Much like with the Tulsa massacre, a news blackout meant the Rosewood massacre violence might have been completely forgotten, but a feature film in 1997 by the late John Singleton led a modern rebirth of interest. Contemporary news accounts said just a handful of people of both races were killed, but later investigations suggest as many as 27 black people, and possible more, were slaughtered.
Rosewood didn’t happen in a vacuum. It was part of a wave of racially motivated violence against African-Americans that started around the time of the U.S. entry into World War I in 1917, peaked with Tulsa (more on that later) and also included the so-called “Red Summer” that took place exactly a century ago in 1919, right after the war. In a series of incidents across the country, including large cities like Chicago and Washington, D.C., white supremacist mobs killed more than 100 people. The social upheaval caused by the huge World War I mobilization and the competition for jobs and status when troops returned lay behind the violence and mayhem. The era also saw a massive revival of the Ku Klux Klan, inspired by the KKK’s alarmingly positive portrayal in D.W. Griffith’s trailblazing 1915 film, Birth of a Nation.
In the 21st Century, Oregon’s white hipster culture gets lampooned in places like TV’s Portlandia, but most Americans don’t know that the white part is not an accident. In 1844, the government of what was then a U.S. territory ordered all black people to leave — free or slave (since this was 17 years before the Civil War). In 1859, just ahead of that conflict, Oregon entered the Union with a constitution that formally established it as a “whites only” state, and it later declined to ratify the 14th and 15th Amendments meant to establish civil rights for African-Americans. (It finally did ratify the 14th Amendment ... in 1973).
The consequences have lingered throughout history. In the early 1920s, during that Klan revival, Oregon had the largest and most politically active KKK movement in the American West. Today, Portland remains the whitest large city in the United States, and since Trump’s election the city has been the scene of skirmishes between white supremacist groups and opponents on the left.
When I was growing up as a Baby Boomer, every schoolkid learned the feel-good story of World War II’s “Arsenal of Democracy,” about how women and other Americans surged into factories to produce the weapons that defeated the Nazis. But what if I told you that at the height of this war machine, transit workers in the factory-laden city of Philadelphia (third largest production site for war materiel in the entire nation) brought buses and trains to a complete halt for a week. Why? The wildcat strikers were furious that the Philadelphia Transit Company (predecessor of SEPTA) had promoted eight African-American employees to become streetcar drivers.
The labor unrest only ended with intervention from President Franklin Roosevelt, furious at the disruption to the war effort. The dispute highlighted the conflicts around mass migration of African-Americans to the North and the job opportunities caused by so many men fighting overseas. In 1943, white supremacist violence had erupted in a number of U.S. cities including Detroit, where three days of rioting left 34 dead.
The end of the Civil War — and the roughly 12 years of Reconstruction that was backed, spottily, by the U.S. military and a raft of new laws and three key amendments to the Constitution — ushered in a brief period where blacks in the South (amid much unrest) successfully voted and won elections. One surprising story in that regard was the city of Wilmington, N.C., where a fusion party of African-American Republicans and white populists wielded power into the late 1890s.
In November 1898, angered by another loss at the ballot box, white supremacists staged what many considered to be a coup d’etat on U.S. soil. The white mob burned down the newspaper, killed as many as 60 African-Americans, and replaced the duly elected government with its own people. Local historians branded the takeover as a “race riot” and blamed it on blacks. The nearly forgotten episode was the exclamation point on the era that white Southerners called “redemption,” enacting discriminatory Jim Crow laws that undid much of the racial progress seemingly won in the Civil War.
Many Twitter folks responded with episodes from the civil-rights movement within my own 60-year lifetime; I think (perhaps naively) that some of these are fairly well-known, but your history teacher probably didn’t tell you about the December 1969 night when U.S. government agents burst into a Chicago apartment to assassinate a rising black activist.
The Black Panthers were a revolutionary movement in the 1960s that became the primary target of an unlawful government spying and disruption program known as COINTELPRO. FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover was specially worried about the rise of what he called “a black messiah,” and an eloquent young Chicago Panther chief named Fred Hampton seemed to fit the bill. Tipped by an informant, FBI agents and police raided an apartment, killed Hampton as he slept in his bed (and also one other man), and tried to falsely claim a firefight when all (but possibly one) of the bullets came from them. The episode highlighted how government efforts — many of them illegal — snuffed out black dissent in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
As today’s Americans debate what to do about a flood of displaced people around the globe, few acknowledge the massive refugee movement that took place on U.S. soil during the first two-thirds of the 20th Century. It’s estimated that 6 million black people left the American South between 1916 and 1970, fleeing repressive Jim Crow laws, lack of economic opportunities, and terrorism by white supremacists. This migration — chronicled in Isabel Wilkerson’s remarkable Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Warmth of Other Suns — has had a profound effect on American life, creating large African-American communities in the industrial cities of the North and the huge political and social impacts that arrived with them.
One reason why the so-called Radical Republicans who wielded influence in Congress in the late 1860s had to enact the 14th and 15th Amendments was in order to thwart Southern efforts to continue to repress African-Americans, despite losing the Civil War. These efforts included so-called “black codes” — laws aimed to restrict the freedom of black people as well as their ability to make a living. What’s more, there were a number of massive white riots that aimed to prevent blacks from voting or otherwise exercising political power.
In New Orleans, on July 30, 1866, for example, a phalanx of whites including police and firefighters attacked a parade of mostly black Republicans opposing the black codes and voting restrictions and massacred 47 people. In Colfax, Louisiana in 1873, a white militia angry over an ongoing election dispute stormed the courthouse in initiating a massacre in which 150 African-Americans were killed. The Colfax killing spree was the worst episode in a long reign of terror that ushered in white supremacy and racial segregation.
Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal played a key role in (slowly) lifting America out of the Great Depression of the early 1930s, and some black voters rewarded that success by joining the Democratic Party. But FDR, whose electoral and congressional coalitions still relied on Southern whites, had a mediocre if not poor record in repaying his new black supporters. For example, his new housing initiatives such as the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and Home Owners Loan Corporation upheld policies that tended to promote — rather than end — racial segregation, setting the stage for future urban conflicts.
The facts behind the massive white riot that was depicted on The Watchmen paint a vivid portrait of the banality of evil. It’s hard to believe that such sweeping violence was triggered by a still unknown encounter in an office elevator between a black shoeshiner and a white woman that somehow was spun into a tale of assault, with the help of hysterical coverage in a local newspaper, the Tulsa Tribune. The deeper trigger, as with other white supremacist violence, was economic competition, as black people who’d flooded into Oklahoma after its statehood had created a thriving community in the Greenwood neighborhood that became known as “the black Wall Street.” Nearly a century later, not all of the mass graves of the massacre’s many black victims have been discovered.
Maybe the history teachers of President Trump — yes, and Joe Biden and Clarence Thomas and all of those others — didn’t cover lynching in class. That’s because their personal political dramas had little in common with the way that mobs dishing out cruel vigilante justice — often mutilating and hanging their victims in public places as a warning to blacks or, occasionally, other targeted groups — used terrorism to keep people in line.
More than 4,000 lynching victims are listed at the recently opened National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama - following decades of unsuccessful efforts by activists such as the iconic black journalist Ida B. Wells to lobby Congress or states to enact anti-lynching laws. Indeed, the practice continued deep into the 20th Century, most famously with the 1955 Mississippi murder of black Chicago teen Emmett Till, rumored, probably falsely, to have whistled at a local white woman.
Just last week, Mississippi officials erected a new historical marker at the site where Till’s body was discovered. Unlike the previous markers that had been destroyed by locals’ potshots, the new marker is bulletproof — one more homage to the Faulknerian truth that when it comes to racism in America, the past is not even past.
Note 1: Many on Twitter wanted to include the long and typically untaught history of abuse toward America’s indigenous people, including the massacres at Wounded Knee, the murders of Oklahoma’s Osage Native Americans over oil wealth, the efforts at indoctrination through so-called Indian schools, as well as the Japanese-American internment during World War II and events targeting Hispanics, including the mass deportations of the Great Depression and the Zoot Suit riots. I promise these will come in a later piece.