June 20, 2021

100 years later, the United States tries to end its amnesia

“I hear the screams and I relive the massacre every day. A country can forget its history, but I cannot. “ In the space of six minutes of moving testimony, Viola Ford Fletcher became the face of what America has refused to face for nearly a century. The 107-year-old black woman determined to demand justice and reparations spoke on May 19 before the Judicial Committee of the House of Representatives.

She recounted the memories she kept intact of the racist massacre of hundreds of blacks on May 31 and 1is June 1921, in the city of Tulsa (Oklahoma). The most important lynching ever carried out on American soil constitutes the paroxysm of racial tensions in segregated America at the beginning of the 20th centurye century. However, until the early 2000s, it was absent from teaching in schools.

“We lost everything that day, our homes, our churches, our newspapers, our theaters, our lives. Nobody cared about us for almost a hundred years, our history has been forgotten ”, denounced Viola Ford Fletcher.

“I will never forget the violence of the surly mob of whites when we left our house. I can still see the eyes of those black men who got shot and their bodies lying in the street. I still smell the smoke and see the businesses run by blacks being set on fire. “

Forced to leave Tulsa in this climate of xenophobic terror, the American feels that her life was stolen from her that night. She now hopes to obtain justice: “I ask my country to recognize what happened to me, and the tremors, and the pain, and the loss”, she said in front of an assembly moved by the force of her story.

Read Washington’s letter (in 2019): Tulsa, site of the most important lynching in American history, comes out of oblivion

The sacking of “black Wall Street”

Fires raged through the black neighborhood of Greenwood on June 1, 1921, in the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma.  It is one of the worst outbursts of racial violence in the United States.

A century ago, on May 31, 1921, in this southern city of the United States, the arrest of Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old black man accused of assaulting a 17-year-old white woman, triggered the one of the worst outbursts of racial violence in the country. Going to the only restrooms in the neighborhood allowed to blacks, the young shoe shiner accidentally crushed the foot of a white operator, according to an investigation by the Oklahoma Historical Society. Everything is linked quickly: the young woman cries, the accusation of sexual assault spreads quickly, Dick Rowland is arrested.

Hundreds of angry white demonstrators thronged in front of the court of Tulsa, making fear with the black population a lynching, then common practice. A group of black men, some of whom are armed, are mobilized. The tension mounts, gunshots ring out. African Americans are retreating to their neighborhood of Greenwood, nicknamed “Black Wall Street” because it is known for its economic vitality. From dawn on 1is June 1921, an outburst of violence fell against the black quarter of the city. White men ransack and burn more than 1,250 homes and businesses without the police intervening.

Read also US Congress set to recognize lynching as federal crime, after more than a century of debate

Planes used for agricultural spraying are even transformed into weapons of war, drop incendiary bombs on houses and executions take place in the middle of the street. Between 100 and 300 people were reportedly killed within 48 hours, but the figure remains uncertain and could turn out to be even higher, as many bodies have never been found. Some 8,000 of the 11,000 blacks then living in Tulsa found themselves homeless. None of the white officials are prosecuted, while several blacks accused of provoking the violence are sentenced.

Museum, documentaries and television series

The Greenwood neighborhood on May 30, 2021, in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

One hundred years later, on May 21, the NGO Human Rights Watch noted that municipal authorities in Tulsa and the state of Oklahoma had still not provided financial reparations for the massacre. Even if this remains insufficient for the NGO, the opening of a large museum dedicated to the history of the district, the historic center Greenwood Rising, which will be inaugurated on Wednesday, June 2, remains nevertheless hailed as a first step towards the end of the denial.

On the occasion of the centenary of the massacre, several television documentaries finally deal with this blind spot in American history, notes the local daily The Oklahoman, among which Tulsa Burning : The 1921 Race Massacre (broadcast Sunday, May 30 on the History channel) and Dreamland : The Burning of Black Wall Street (Monday on CNN). The fact that Russell Westbrook and LeBron James, two black NBA stars, produced these documentaries should allow them to gain additional attention.

In recent years, television series have also taken hold of this drama. Like episode 9 of the first season of Lovecraft Country (2020), or the opening scene of the fantasy series Watchmen (2019) which had already shed light on the Tulsa massacre. “A large part of the public hears about this massacre for the first time”, had also noted at the time The Washington Post.

The New York Times also published, on May 24, a 3D model of the district of Greenwood as it looked in 1921, on its website. Supported by historians, a dozen journalists gathered photographs and archival data, searched census data, newspaper articles and the testimonies of survivors of that time, in order to recreate the dynamic atmosphere of the neighborhood before quitting. ‘he is reduced to ashes.

A week after receiving at the White House the family of African-American George Floyd, who died on May 25, 2020 under the knee of white policeman Derek Chauvin, Joe Biden will be present at the commemorations in Tulsa. The Democratic president will deliver a speech after a year punctuated by the demonstrations of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Article reserved for our subscribers Read also Joe Biden in Tulsa, scene of a long-forgotten racist massacre