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Blindspot: Tulsa Burning – Episode 6: The Lesson

06/07/2021

On May 31, 1921 Tulsa’s Greenwood District was thriving – a black city within a city. By June 1 it was in ashes, leveled by a white supremacist mob. The Tulsa Race Massacre remains one of the worst incidents of racial terror in US history.

July 2,2021

For series background see here

The centennial of the massacre attracted international coverage; camera crews, T-shirt vendors, and even a visit from President Joe Biden. It seemed as though all this attention might ensure that history finally, would never be forgotten. But a month later some Tulsans worry that a backlash has begun.

The city’s mayor and other elected officials have spoken against reparations for victims of the massacre and their descendents.

A new law in Oklahoma limits how teachers can teach the massacre in schools. “If you care about the history of America’s Black victims of racial violence,” says educator Karlos Hill, “You live in the world differently than if you are indifferent or simply ignorant about it.”

EPILOGUE In the days following the massacre, some 6,000 Black residents were forced to live in internment camps and many were made to clean up the destruction of their own community.

The Red Cross set up tents and hospitals; they stayed for nearly six months. Many people and organizations outside of Tulsa sent money and other contributions.

Soon after, Tulsa’s city officials declined any additional aid saying that what happened “was strictly a Tulsa affair and that the work of restrictions and charity would be taken care of by Tulsa people.” Nearly half of Greenwood’s residents left, never to return. But those that remained rebuilt Greenwood and many say it came back even stronger. That is, until the 1960s, when the city allowed a highway to bisect the neighborhood.

Like so many other thriving Black communities, Greenwood was divested from and disenfranchised.

The people featured in this podcast series who survived the massacre went on to live rich and varied lives: Mary Elizabeth Jones Parrish—the journalist whose book Events of a Tulsa Disaster is a primary source for much of what we know about the massacre—taught high school in Muskogee and ultimately returned to Tulsa.

Buck Colbert Franklin—one of the first Black lawyers in Oklahoma and who served Greenwood residents from an internment camp tent following the attack—practiced law for more than 50 years. He published his autobiography My Life and An Era with the help of his son, the legendary civil rights leader and historian John Hope Franklin.

A.J. Smitherman—the crusading newspaper publisher of The Tulsa Star—lost his home and newspaper offices in the attack. He was among the dozens of people indicted for the massacre, blamed for inciting the violence. He fled east, ultimately to Buffalo, New York, where he founded another newspaper, The Buffalo Star. He never returned to Greenwood and died in 1961, at age 77. Nearly fifty years after his death, Tulsa County finally dropped the charges against him.

Mabel Little—who ran a beauty salon in Greenwood—also lost everything during the attack. In the years afterward, she and her husband Pressley built a modest three-bedroom house and adopted 11 children. Pressley died in 1927 from pneumonia; Mabel blamed the massacre for his declining health. In her later years, she was a tireless activist for desegregating Tulsa’s public schools. When she died in 2001, she was 104 years old.

Learn more about Greenwood and the massacre: Riot on Greenwood: The Total Destruction of Black Wall Street by Eddie Faye Gates Riot and Remembrance: America’s Worst Race Riot and Its Legacy by James S. Hirsch Reconstructing the Dreamland by Alfred L. Brophy Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 by Scott Ellsworth

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