Demonstrations and protests about social justice and the death of George Floyd while in police custody last week are still going on around the country.
Meanwhile, people in Oklahoma quietly marked the 99th anniversary of one of the most egregious acts of racial violence in the nation’s history — the Tulsa race riots of 1921.
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Not a lot of folks know about it. But it happened, and when it did, hundreds died and an entire community was looted and destroyed. I was reminded of this ugly chapter when Paula Peebles of the National Network brought it up during her speech at a peaceful protest outside City Hall on Sunday.
My ears perked up at the mention of it. My husband and I had visited the Greenwood section of Tulsa for the first time in February. The bloody massacre that took place there isn’t taught much in U.S. history classes, and we were curious.
Before the area was burned down in 1921, Greenwood was a racially segregated but thriving neighborhood dubbed the “Negro Wall Street” by Booker T. Washington, a former slave who became a leading educator of his time, according to the Greenwood Cultural Center. Considered the nation’s wealthiest black neighborhood, the 35-block area boasted 15 black doctors, a movie theater, churches, a large hotel, and its own newspapers.
But over a two-day period, all of that was destroyed after a murky random encounter that somehow went wrong. A black male teenager tripped and may have bumped against a white female elevator operator who screamed. After his arrest, armed black residents stationed themselves outside a nearby courthouse hoping to prevent his lynching. White residents confronted them and things spiraled out of control. Whites outnumbered black residents and were better armed.
Bullets were flying and fires started. Tulsa officials summoned the National Guard to quell what they called a Negro uprising. According to History.com, by the time it was over on June 2, Greenwood had been destroyed and 10,000 African Americans were homeless. No one was ever held responsible for what happened. People were left to rebuild as best they could. It was one of the deadliest and most devastating racial massacres in American history — as well as one of the least known. A lot of people had not heard of it until the HBO series Watchmen depicted it.
I find it ironic that Greenwood commemorated the 99th anniversary at the same time that Philly and other cities were dealing with violent confrontations that followed peaceful demonstrations protesting Floyd’s violent death.
Nearly 100 years have passed and America still can’t get past its original sin of racism. Decades have gone by, yet we are still fighting many of the same battles. African Americans still want to be treated fairly in a system that has a long history of not doing right by us.
Floyd’s death was only the latest in a string of high-profile cases of brutality against African Americans.
Other victims include Ahmaud Arbery, 25, who had been jogging in Georgia when he was fatally wounded in February after being stopped by two white men, and Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency room technician killed in Louisville, Ky., in March after police burst into her apartment while she slept.
Meanwhile, the National Guard has been activated here and is attempting to restore order as local business owners take stock of what’s left. And the protests and demonstrations continue. Mayor Jim Kenney said on Monday that Philadelphia is “in the middle of one of the biggest crises in the city’s history.”