It’s time to listen to the echoes of Tulsa

Over the years that I’ve lived in the North Country, I’ve come to be good friends with Dr. JW Wiley, an expert on race and diversity issues in Plattsburgh who also blogs for the Plattsburgh Press-Republican.

A couple of years ago, while having dinner in Westport, we discovered that we share a weird bit of intertwined history.

JW’s great-grandmother lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the early 1920s, when that city erupted in a bloodbath of racial violence.

“My great-grandmother was also a survivor of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot,” he wrote in a 2007 blog post, “a consequence of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street (which you history buffs should “google” if you want to see one of America’s blackest eyes).”

It turns out my grandfather, who lived in the Midwest, was traveling in Tulsa when the violence broke out.  He wrote about it in his journal — about the fear, the martial law, the curfews.

At the time, JW and I felt a bit like orphans of history:  From our very different vantage points (my white grandfather, his black great-grandmother) we knew about this seminal event in America’s racial evolution…and almost no one else did.

Due in part to the new spate of apparently racial violence in Tulsa, and perhaps also because of the Trayvon Martin case in Florida, that’s changing.

More white Americans are grappling with the long history of white-on-black violence that has been largely ignored in our broader national dialogue.

It’s not just Tulsa.  In 1917, hordes of whites conducted an anti-black pogrom in East St. Louis.  Jim Crow era lynchings and officially sanctioned violence were common across the US through the 1950s.

In this era when America has its first African American president, the legacy of that often officially-sanctioned violence and terror can seem obscure, even eclipsed by the march of racial progress.

We prefer to remember the hopeful image of Martin Luther King Jr., rallying us to work toward an end to racial distinctions — as if we have already reached that yearned-for point in our cultural transformation.

But the sad truth is that we still live in the shadows of those southern trees that Billie Holiday sung about, the ones that that bear a “strange fruit.”

“Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,” Holiday lamented.  “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze.  Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”

I fear that Americans have chosen to linger lazily, even dangerously, in the romantic and flattering episodes of our history.

We re-enact the derring-do of the Civil War, dwell upon the unified glory of the Second World War, and savor the sexy coolness of the Mad Men era.  We think nostalgically about our small towns, our picket fences.

But to see ourselves clearly — to understand the racial divides that still mar our society, and the unique challenges that black America faces — we all have to travel through Tulsa.

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24 Comments on “It’s time to listen to the echoes of Tulsa”

  1. JDM says:

    You reference Tulsa, 1917. You reference lynchings of the 1950s.

    Keep the pot stirred. That’s what libs do.

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  2. dave says:

    JDM, I happen to be of the opinion that race issues today are overplayed by the media and the left.

    However, I do think it is an interesting observation that conservatives who otherwise glorify and romanticize our country’s past, and try like hell to turn the clock back to those days via political policies, have absolutely no interesting in hearing about, talking about, or learning about the reality of those times.

    Sometimes I just wish the left would understand that we have indeed progressed away from that past, and I wish the right would understand why we did.

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  3. verplanck says:

    JDM: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it

    Tulsa-based jazz group Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey recently made an album-length remembrance of the Race Riot:

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  4. JDM says:

    Those libs who cannot remember the past are condemned to rewrite it.

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  5. Walker says:

    JDM, what, exactly, is being rewritten? You think the story of the Tulsa riots of the twenties is made up?

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  6. Pete Klein says:

    We have both a great history and a sad history. Both need to be remembered while we press forward.
    On an individual basis, the same can be said of all of us. I would hope the same can be said of all of us.

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  7. JDM says:

    Walker: No, my remark wasn’t directed at this issue. It’s usually the conservative view point that the libs don’t “remember” history, with a variety of issues.

    Here, verplanck is invoking the conservative line to validate the article above.

    I wanted to point to out that the conservatives usually point back to history only to be told that nuances make history irrelevant.

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  8. JDM says:

    e.g. the high-tech lynching that Clarence Thomas and Herman Cain were put through.

    Where are those Cain accusers now?

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  9. Brian Mann says:

    JDM –

    I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts, just for a moment, without these catch-phrases and slogans.

    There is a long and brutal history of organized white-on-black violence in our society — widely documented, facts undisputed.

    This violence on a large scale continued (in cities like Tulsa and Detroit) recently enough that it exists in living memory.

    This isn’t antebellum, slave-days stuff.

    In the process, whites destroyed huge reservoirs of wealth in the black community; and whites murdered some of the most promising black leaders.

    What do you think about that?

    –Brian, NCPR

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  10. mervel says:

    I think Tulsa needs to be talked about mainly because it was never really talked about in the first place.

    But at the same time we should be free to talk about black on white violence also.

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  11. JDM says:

    Brian Mann: I think incidents of violence need to be addressed as an incident of violence and not as a continuation of all the sins of our past.

    Truth be told, there are many incidents of blacks do violence to whites because of the Trayvon thing. Those are looked at as incidents, not a major new movement of black mistreatment of whites.

    I think we should view your incidents in the same light.

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  12. hermit thrush says:

    I think incidents of violence need to be addressed as an incident of violence and not as a continuation of all the sins of our past.

    ha ha ha! this from a guy who openly argues for profiling of muslims. good one, jdm!

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  13. Mervel says:

    In this case though this was a continuation of racial hatred at least it seems so. So we don’t help ourselves by trying to cover our ears and eyes and say it is an isolated incident of violence unrelated to racial hatred.

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  14. Ellen Rocco says:

    So much of the post-Civil War black/white history of our country remains forgotten. I recommend Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns”–a recent winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. Wilkerson documents the Great Migration of black Americans from the South to the North and West during the first half of the 20th century, using the stories of three of those migrants to illuminate the day-to-day brutal reality of life in the South…and the North. Here’s a link to a page about the book (now in paperback and certainly at most public libraries):

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  15. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Interesting to be talking about white violence and black violence up here in the North Country. I can go weeks at a time without seeing a black person. In most of the NCPR area that is probably true of everyone who isn’t around Ft Drum, or a prison.

    As far as black on white violence we should talk about it. Let’s start here: black on white violence is nearly always simple criminal activity not organized violence.

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  16. JDM says:

    khl: “black on white violence is nearly always simple criminal activity not organized violence.”

    I think there has been enough national “calls-to-action” by black mis-leaders over the Travyon incident that one could call it “organized violence” against whites.

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  17. Two Cents says:

    So tell me what good does picking open scabs from decades ago do for the wound today.
    Violence is violence, and when it isn’t in eruption, it will always seeth just below the surface.
    Time to move forward period. Poverty is the common thread.
    I don’t want any more history lessons, i want to see a better future, it’s past due.

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  18. Brian Mann says:

    JDM –

    Why do you perceive a “call to action” by black leaders as a call for “organized” violence against whites? That seems a remarkable, even a troubling leap to me.

    –Brian, NCPR

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  19. Susano says:

    In the 60s, my father joined in Alabama protests for equal rights, along with a friend who was a WWII vet. His friend commented that even when in Germany during the war, he had never felt hatred like he did in Selma towards both black and white protesters. I think it is now much less socially acceptable to be open about racial hatred, but I am afraid it still is part of our national dynamic. The memory of the events in Tulsa, and of other times of terrible racial violence, is critical to our national future. As it has been said of the Holocaust, we must bear witness so that never again can such atrocities be perpetrated.

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  20. Pete Klein says:

    “Never again” sounds good but seldom works.
    What needs to be understood is how fear is the parent of hatred.
    Bigots don’t like to admit they are cowards but that is what they are.

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  21. JDM says:

    Brian Mann: I have one quote. I’m not going to spend my time searching for the overt and veiled threats by the dozens by black mis-leaders.

    Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Black Panthers, Louis Farrakan, and others, have all made their positions known on the Travyon issue.

    If you care to defend them, have at it.

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  22. JDM says:

    Scratch that line, “I have one quote”.

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  23. JDM says:

    Then, after defending the racial rhetoric from the black mis-leaders, who wants to defend NBC, ABC, AP, et al for conveniently editing the 911 call, making it sound like Zimmerman was giving out race-based information, when all he was doing was answering some multiple-choice questions.

    Organized race-baiting.

    Zimmerman, 28, a white Hispanic neighborhood watch captain

    Zimmerman’s father is white and his mother is Hispanic.

    Zimmerman’s father is white and his mother is Hispanic.

    Organized race-baiting.

    What? Hispanic isn’t descriptive? It has to be “white” hispanic.

    Was Travyor a “Jamaican” black or “Nigerian” black. Doesn’t say. Were his mom and dad both from the same place? Doesn’t say.

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