Police officials in Tulsa, Oklahoma were either lying outright or irresponsibly misinformed when they said, last week, that the random, race-related killings of two Black men and a Black woman, and the wounding of two others, in their city, were “unprecedented.”
Of course, the word “unprecedented” should only have been used about the murders in the predominantly Black North Tulsa community, if the Tulsa Race Riot hadn’t actually happened, on “Black Wall Street.”
But, you know what? It did — and, it was a white-on-Black riot, the second worse in our country’s history. It was 91 years ago, on June 1, 1921, right there, in the same city where the mayor and police officials seemed to be so shocked at even the hint that white Oklahomans could ever have thought about killing their Black neighbors — simply for being Black.
Apparently, people in Oklahoma have very short memories.
No matter — here’s what happened: During the mid-1800s, what was then known as the Oklahoma Territory attracted significant numbers of Black people, especially from southern states, where overt racism was alive and well.
The Territory had actually been designated by the U.S. government as a reservation, or a refuge, for Native American tribes that had been pushed out of their ancestral homelands. And, between 1830 and 1842, a great migration of Native Americans took place, as the tribes headed for Oklahoma. While it is not widely known, it has been estimated that as many as one-third of those on the so-called “Trail of Tears” were Black people, many of whom were owned, as slaves, by various Native American tribes.
Following the Emancipation Proclamation, the recently freed Black Oklahomans moved aggressively to set up a number of “Black towns,” where they controlled every facet of their own local economies.
Under segregation, Black Oklahomans were excluded from opportunities to sleep in hotels, to make deposits in banks, to be buried by white funeral directors, or to eat in mainstream restaurants. So, they simply built and patronized their own. According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, between 1865 and 1920, African Americans created more than 50 towns and settlements, there.
Without question, the most successful example of that Black entrepreneurial model took place on “Black Wall Street,” in a Tulsa neighborhood called Greenwood. As difficult as it still may be for many of us to believe — Black, white, or otherwise — Black folks in Greenwood created a complete “parallel economy,” there, keeping their expenditures largely within their own community and creating several Black millionaires, in the process. Greenwood residents not only lived in the most comfortable and modern homes, they drove the latest automobiles, and six, Black, Greenwood residents even owned their own private planes. This, I have to keep reminding you, was in 1921.
In the movie “Rosewood,” starring Don Cheadle, envious Ku Klux Klan members swarm, pillage and burn a Black community — simply because its inhabitants were Black and prosperous. I’ll never forget seeing one white marauder, on the screen, standing on the porch of a Black household and peering into the window, before setting the house on fire. What he said, so unforgettably, to his fellow, rioting, Klansman was: “Hey, this “N-word” has a piano, I don’t have a piano.”
That, apparently, was all the justification the guy seemed to need. Somehow, it just didn’t seem right to him that there could possibly be peaceful, prosperous, Black people living in his community, if he, himself, also didn’t have the same standard of living.
That same logic, based on that same blind envy, was apparently at work in Tulsa, in 1921. The community of 10,000 predominantly Black residents, in Greenwood, stretched over 35 square blocks of homes and businesses, including The Gurley Hotel and Billiard Parlor (named after the District’s Black founder, O.W. Gurley), 21 restaurants, 21 churches, 30 grocery stores, two movie theatres, a bank, a hospital, a post office, a library and a bus system. It was prosperous, and it was self-contained.
Then, all of a sudden, sparked by a rumor and a specious newspaper report, alleging a minor assault by a young Black man, against a young white woman, the white community struck out, in a blind rage, killing hundreds (some say thousands) of Black residents, setting fire to businesses and, even, dropping sticks of dynamite on the district, from an airplane.
In about 12 hours, it was over; and the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, for all intents and purposes, ceased to exist.
Amazingly, not a single white aggressor was ever brought to trial. No white rioter was ever incarcerated. A thriving Black community, which stood as a national and international model for the economic potential of recently freed slaves, had been wiped from the face of the earth.
With that background, perhaps you can more readily, now, understand my shock at hearing Tulsa’s police and government leaders say that last week’s random, race-based murders of three African Americans was “unprecedented,” in their city.
It worried me to hear, from the city where “Black Wall Street” once thrived, that the authorities were having difficulty determining whether the indiscriminant Black murders could rightfully be classified as “hate crimes.”
Yeah, Black folks should have been concerned about that, but not for the reasons you probably think. The real crime, in a country wherein a federal conviction for hate crimes can result in life imprisonment, is that the Oklahoma State law limits a hate crime sentence to a maximum of one year in jail.
I guess, at the end of the day, “hate” is all relative, and for the people who actually write and pass the laws in Oklahoma, and who are not likely to be “hate crime” victims, themselves, it’s not such a big issue, and the law was drafted accordingly.
In recent days, we’ve heard that the two alleged murderers, Jake England, 19, and Alvin Watts, 32, were being held on “three counts of first degree murder, two counts of shooting with intent to kill, and one count of possession of a firearm in the commission of a felony.”
Let’s hope those charges don’t get reduced or knocked out, entirely, in court, and that England and Watts don’t wind up only being convicted under a toothless, Oklahoma “hate crime” charge.
But, here’s where the whole “Tulsa thing” gets a bit more complicated. Those who might have quickly thought those shootings were simply white-on-Black crimes really do have another “think” coming. Early eyewitness and police reports described the shooters as “two white men” in a white Chevrolet pickup truck. In recent days, however, we’ve all learned that young Mr. England, he who sent the now-infamous racist email, is actually not white, at all, but a “Cherokee Indian.” To further complicate the story, Mr. Watts, his “roadie,” and co-conspirator, has claimed, over the past few days, that his own family actually includes a “mix of races.”
Now what? Is this a case of multi-cultural-on-Black crime, Native American-on-Black crime, or the increasingly popular, mixed-race-on-Black crime?
No matter how you cut it, we’re being reminded every day that Black people are being targeted in growing numbers of random gun attacks. But, as was also the case in the Trayvon Martin case, the shooter is a person who claims an ethnicity other than non-Hispanic white. Does “post-racial” actually mean that all other ethnic groups are now free to discriminate against, and randomly shoot at, Black people? I hope not.
The pattern is disturbing and our true antagonists are not so simple to identify, by race, anymore. We, in the Black community, need to be cognizant of that, and function accordingly.
In the meantime, as they used to say on one of the old cop shows on TV: “Be careful out there.”
A. Bruce Crawley is president and principal owner of Millennium 3 Management Inc.