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The attack on the relatively affluent black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, known as Black Wall Street, on June 1, 1921, was almost certainly not planned ahead of time. The environment in which the attack by hostile whites that destroyed that community and resulted in dozens of innocent African-American deaths, however, made such an attack extremely likely once the slightest perceived provocation was announced. Such was the case days before when a 17-year old white female elevator operator was allegedly assaulted by a black shoeshine worker in the elevator. The facts of the case will likely never be known, but Oklahoma, during the period in question, was as racist as any locality could be, with a large contingent of Ku Klux Klan members and institutionalized racism and desegregation a prominent feature. The mere suggestion anywhere in the American South during that period, and in some of the North and Midwest, that a black assaulted or raped a white was sufficient to precipitate a riot and lynching. It cannot be overstated precisely how violently racist Tulsa was, and the spark that lit the fire was the uncertain event between the white girl and the black man. It took little to no provocation to convince some whites, especially those in the KKK, to attack blacks; the suggestion that a white female had been violated by a black was sufficient to ensure a violent response against blacks in general. That the white-owned newspapers were complicity in the attack could easily be surmised by the sensationalist headlines attending the affair, such as “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator.”
In 2001, a special commission established to study the 1921 riots issued its report, titled “Tulsa Race Riot: A Report of the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.” The commission looked at both sides of the conspiracy question and found the answer inconclusive. It did, however, note the environment that existed in Tulsa during the period of the riot:
“Everyone agrees that many of the city’s most prominent men were klansmen in the early 1920s and that some remained klansmen throughout the decade. Everyone agrees that Tulsa’s atmosphere reeked with a Klan-like stench that oozed through the robes of the Hooded Order.” [http://www.okhistory.org/research/forms/freport.pdf]
There is little doubt, given the context of the time and place, that there were many whites, especially in the Klan, who looked favorably upon any opportunity to attack affluent blacks. The incident in the elevator provided the “provocation” needed to sanction such an attack, and the fact that white city officials were well-represented among the virulently racist population of Tulsa, and that the local media coverage was more than amendable to throwing the proverbial gasoline on the flames, was sufficient to precipitate the attacks that destroyed a once-peaceful and prosperous community.
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