Tuesday, June 1, 2021

The 1921 Tulsa Riots: was there culpability on both sides?

I'm enough of a historian to know about the whatever you want to call what happened in Tulsa 100 years ago. Additionally, I have enough skills that I could  research the incident. I do have to add that some of the primary source material has been deleted. I would also add that maybe a lot of that material has been deleted. Additionally, the neglect of the incident allows for some details to be ignored.

One of which is particularly troublesome to me is that both blacks and whites were armed. The source for the passages is Wikipedia, but it's probably the most unbiased:

A few blocks away on Greenwood Avenue, members of the Black community gathered to discuss the situation at Gurley's Hotel.Given the recent lynching of Belton, a White man accused of murder, they believed that Rowland was greatly at risk. Many Black residents were determined to prevent the crowd from lynching Rowland, but they were divided about tactics. Young World War I veterans prepared for a battle by collecting guns and ammunition. Older, more prosperous men feared a destructive confrontation that likely would cost them dearly. O. W. Gurley stated that he had tried to convince the men that there would be no lynching, but the crowd responded that Sheriff McCullough had personally told them their presence was required. About 9:30 p.m., a group of approximately 50–60 Black men, armed with rifles and shotguns, arrived at the jail to support the sheriff and his deputies in defending Rowland from the mob.
I think the previous passage is important to understanding the events of those days because the sight of armed blacks led to whites feeling the need to "tool up". That is important for a lot of reasons, especially given the debate about firearms in US society. But the people you would think would raise this issue, the "gun violence prevention" crowd are oddly silent about this. Anyway, armed blacks led to the following.
Having seen the armed Black men, some of the more than 1,000 Whites who had been at the courthouse went home for their own guns. Others headed for the National Guard armory at the corner of Sixth Street and Norfolk Avenue, where they planned to arm themselves. The armory contained a supply of small arms and ammunition. Major James Bell of the 180th Infantry Regiment learned of the mounting situation downtown and the possibility of a break-in, and he consequently took measures to prevent. He called the commanders of the three National Guard units in Tulsa, who ordered all the Guard members to put on their uniforms and report quickly to the armory. When a group of Whites arrived and began pulling at the grating over a window, Bell went outside to confront the crowd of 300 to 400 men. Bell told them that the Guard members inside were armed and prepared to shoot anyone who tried to enter. After this show of force, the crowd withdrew from the armory.
OK, I don't really want to point fingers here as to who was responsible especially since it is unclear how the violence escalated. But, as I pointed out, the "gun violence prevention" crowd is silent about this aspect of the incident. That is strange since the escalation of violence was a definite factor in the massacre. The following is conjecture, but it is the closest I have seen to what may have happened.

Shortly after 10 p.m., a second, larger group of approximately 75 armed Black men decided to go to the courthouse. They offered their support to the sheriff, who declined their help. According to witnesses, a White man is alleged to have told one of the armed Black men to surrender his pistol. The man refused, and a shot was fired. That first shot might have been accidental, or meant as a warning; it was a catalyst for an exchange of gunfire.

Now, firearms violence doesn't happen when firearms aren't present. That is a simple fact that when something doesn't exist, it can't effect anything. On the other hand there was a combination of hot heads and firearms. There is something called the "weapons effect" which is where the mere presence of weapons may increase aggression. Wouldn't you think the GVP crowd would be mentioning this? Especially since this pretty much makes their argument.

The upshot was that the gunshots led to an immediate escalation of violence with both sides firing on the other. The first "battle" was said to last a few seconds but  resulted in ten Whites and two Black men lying dead or dying in the street.

The Black men who had offered to provide security at the jail ended up retreating toward Greenwood. A rolling gunfight between both sides ensued. The armed White mob pursued the Black contingent toward Greenwood, with many stopping to loot local stores for additional weapons and ammunition. Panic set in as the White mob began firing on any Black people in the crowd. The White mob also shot and killed at least one White man in the confusion. The two groups squared off in gunfights throughout the night. At around 1 a.m., the White mob began setting fires, mainly in businesses on commercial Archer Street at the southern edge of the Greenwood district.

The problem with this is that the incident is covered, but not very well. There was a Grand Jury investigation into this in 1921, but I don't think it led to much. Although it does make interesting reading. There are lots of gaps in what is known. 

There were no convictions for any of the charges related to violence. The  silence about the terror, violence, and losses of this event went on for decades. The riot has been omitted from most local, state and national histories: It was not recognized in the Tulsa Tribune feature of "Fifteen Years Ago Today" or "Twenty-five Years Ago Today". A 2017 report detailing the history of the Tulsa Fire Department from 1897 until 2017 makes no mention of the 1921 massacre.

"The Tulsa race riot of 1921 was rarely mentioned in history books, classrooms or even in private. Black and White people alike grew into middle age unaware of what had taken place".

I'm not going to get into the details about this since they are quite frankly under dispute. Neither side is very helpful since copies of one of the newspapers involved have pretty much vanished from the face of the earth. There was a reward offer for copies of this newspaper during the 1990s investigation, but none could be found. Likewise, the reports of mass graves are being investigated, but it sounds like these may indeed rumours.

Anyway, it seems odd that an armed group of black people are marching on Tulsa to commemorate this event. I have to wonder how much of what happened was due to an armed populace and hot heads. Dick Rowland, the person whose arrest started this chain of events, was well known among attorneys and other legal professionals within the city, many of whom knew Rowland through his work as a shoeshiner. Some witnesses later recounted hearing several attorneys defend Rowland in their conversations with one another. One of the men said, "Why, I know that boy, and have known him a good while. That's not in him."

On June 3, 1921, a group of over 1,000 businessmen and civic leaders met, resolving to form a committee to raise funds and aid in rebuilding Greenwood. Judge J. Martin, a former mayor of Tulsa, was chosen as the chairman of the group. He said at the mass meeting:

Tulsa can only redeem herself from the country-wide shame and humiliation into which she is today plunged by complete restitution and rehabilitation of the destroyed black belt. The rest of the United States must know that the real citizenship of Tulsa weeps at this unspeakable crime and will make good the damage, so far as it can be done, to the last penny.

Sadly, Most of the promised funding was never raised for the Black residents, and they struggled to rebuild after the violence.

Virtue signalling doesn't cost anything, real actions do.  Additionally, there is a certain irony here of an armed black parade in commemoration if a major factor in the incident was that the blacks had chosen to arm themselves 100 years ago.

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