How can a re-telling of the 1921 Race Massacre change how we act today?

White people like me have not told the story I’m about to tell. Instead, white people have largely buried Tulsa’s racial history, specifically of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

Enraged by rumors that a Black man raped a White woman in an elevator in downtown Tulsa, a White mob gathered at the Tulsa County Courthouse. Fueled by a violence-inciting Tulsa Tribune headline, “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator,” along with a salacious story claiming Dick Rowland assaulted Sarah Page, the White mob demanded Rowland’s release so they could lynch him.[1]

The Black community, meanwhile, was fully aware of the possibility of the White mob lynching Rowland. Between 1907 and 1920, thirty-three lynchings had occurred in Oklahoma and twenty-seven of those were Black. Black men returning from World War I, having fought for the United States, were joined by other Black men and women unwilling to allow another lynching. In fact, editor A.J. Smitherman of the Black-operated newspaper Tulsa Star, had written on several occasions that it is the legal right and duty of Black citizens to arm themselves and march on the courthouse, take life if needed, to uphold the law and protect the prisoner. “The lynching of Roy Belton,” Smitherman wrote in the Tulsa Star, in reference to the lynching less than a year before the massacre, “explodes the theory that a prisoner is safe on the top of the Court House from mob violence.”[2]

Following Smitherman’s call, seventy-five Black men, many World War I veterans armed and in uniform, marched on the courthouse “like men of war” to uphold the law.[3] When they reached the courthouse and availed themselves to the Sheriff to protect Rowland from breakout and lynching, they were told to return to Greenwood.

Now in close proximity with the White mob gathered at the courthouse, one of the Black World War I veterans skirmished with a White man trying to take his gun. The gun fired. A gun battle erupted in the street in front of the courthouse and through the streets of downtown Tulsa. Police Chief John A. Gustafson issued firearms to White men. A white bricklayer named Laurel Buck testified that he went to the police station seeking a commission and a gun. All the guns had been distributed, but he was told to “get a gun and get busy trying to get a n- – – – – -.”[4]

In gun battles stretching from the courthouse to inside Greenwood, hundreds were wounded. In the days of and following the conflict, the Red Cross administered first aid to more than five hundred White and Black persons. The official count of those killed in the conflict is thirty-nine (twenty-six Black and thirteen White). According to the Red Cross estimate, however, as many as three hundred persons, mostly Black persons, were killed in the massacre.[5]

In two days, most during White mob actions on June 1, 1,256 homes were looted then burned to the ground. The contents of those homes including family Bibles, dolls, furniture, and family albums were reduced to ashes. Forty blocks of homes were destroyed. Thousands who were not killed and did not flee the city were rounded up and held by force in the Tulsa Fair Ground. No Black person was allowed to move freely in the city without papers or a badge declaring whether or not they worked for a White person. Ten thousand Black Tulsans were left without homes.

That same day, white mobs burned more than one hundred businesses in Greenwood, the most prosperous black-owned district in the United States, known as Black Wall Street. Doctor’s and law offices, grocery stores, banks, the Dreamland Theatre, and the Y.M.C.A. were destroyed. The photos of rubble and smoke resemble images of a city bombed in war. Churches were not spared. Mount Zion Baptist Church, “an impressive brick tabernacle which had been dedicated only seven weeks earlier,” along with several other churches were torched by the white mobs.[6]

Here I return to the question, How did White Christian communities respond immediately after the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre? What follows, more narrowly, is an analysis of appeals to theology, scripture, or faith by three leaders of Christian organizations in response to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

Three White Responses to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre

We have some evidence of White responses in the aftermath of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Using my key question and limited scope that I named, I analyze three responses in the aftermath of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

Bishop Edwin D. Mouzon

I first analyze a sermon titled, “Tulsa’s Race Riot and the Teachings of Jesus,” by Bishop Edwin D. Mouzon of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, preached on the Sunday after the massacre.

Rephrasing my key question for this analysis, How did Mouzon respond to the massacre?

How did Mouzon, a White Christian preacher, appeal to theology and scripture to justify racist actions or uphold white supremacy?

Appealing directly to theology without specific biblical reference, Mouzon downplays White racial prejudice in Tulsa. Mouzon condemns the KKK, but he clearly states racial equality will never be realized. Quoting Bishop E.E. Hoss, Mouzon says, “God Almighty has drawn the color line in indelible ink.”[7] He then insists on separate (but not equal) dwellings, hotels, schools, and churches in Tulsa and points to the social failures of race mixing in Brazil.

Scripturally, Mouzon loosely uses Jesus’ language about “a city set on a hill” as exposing lawlessness. “‘Little Africa’ was almost without law. No effort had been made to enforce the rule of law,” Mouzon says, separating the “fine citizens” of Tulsa from the lawless Blacks who incited the riot and lawless Whites who burned “Little Africa.”[8]

How does Mouzon call the church to account for racist ideas, policies, and actions? Mouzon calls White Christians to take responsibility only for the disgrace of permitting lawless men to make our city immoral and unsafe. “Let us repent of our sins and resolve to make this fair city safe for men and women to live in.”[9] Though Mouzon speaks of Black people being saved in eternity, his overall rhetoric betrays any interpretation of “men and women” to include Black people.

Dripping with ethos, the sermon includes no compassionate pathos for Black people. On the Sunday after ten thousand Black people became homeless because of White mob actions, one of Mouzon’s suggestions for a better future was that White preachers and godly White women must teach Black “creatures” better behavior.

Statement from the Ministerial Alliance

The Tulsa Ministerial Alliance published a statement about the events of May 31-June 1, 1921. No signatories or addressee, the statement opens with concern for Tulsa’s reputation and laments the condemnation of the world. Pathos in the document shows concern for both Whites and Blacks. Though the blame is placed on a “bad element” among the Black community, concern is expressed that they have been “despoiled of all their earthly possessions.”

Most of the letter involves cultural critiques, remedies, and a call for investigating, bringing to trial, and punishing the perpetrators of the riots, murders, and burning of property. Public officials are called to account for complicity in lynchings. The Alliance critiques officials for turning a blind eye to debauchery and bribery in bonding out criminals, while focusing on technicalities of parking tickets. Returning to teaching the Bible in schools, reserving Sunday for worship, making gun possession a felony, and joining churches are all offered as reforms for wayward Tulsans.

While it’s hard to imagine how they would want to join White Christians who are blaming them for the troubles and loss of life and homes, “Colored churches” are welcomed “to associate themselves with the Ministerial Alliance.”

Red Cross Report by Director Maurice Willows

In a letter of thanks from the East End Relief Board (EERB), Black members thanked Red Cross director, Maurice Willows. What I find important about their rhetoric is the agency of the Black community that flows alongside gratitude. The EERB speaks of the courage of the Black community to repel city administration’s efforts to deliver the “burned area” over to land grafters. As Willows wrote in his report, quoting Black citizens, “Pay us for what we’ve lost, and we will talk to you about selling what is left.”[10] The EERB thanks Willows, dubbing him the “apostle of the square deal for every man.”

This “apostle of the square deal for every man” refused in his report dated December 31, 1921 to refer to the “riot” unless in quotes. Here begins the decades-long refusal of insurance companies to pay claims because of “riot clauses,” and thus the stubborn reason the event had been called “riot” for nearly a century. Yet from the beginning, Willows calls the events of May 31-June 1, 1921 a “short-lived civil war,” and “wholesale destruction of property—life and limb,” a “one-sided battle.”

In the roughly one hundred pages of Red Cross documents, Willows thanks White Red Cross workers. Yet there is careful documentation of non-discrimination of those served by the Red Cross, which located at several sites, including Booker T. Washington school grounds, adjacent to the “burned area.” Willows even cautions in the report against the Red Cross serving police and national guard. He confirms disputed details of the June 1 attacks on Greenwood, saying planes were indeed used to drop kerosene bombs. Willows estimates loss of property at $4 million, equivalent by one calculator to $60 million dollars in 2019 dollars.

A strong case for reparations[11] could be made from a credible source such as the Red Cross director questioning as Willows does, “Where were the police?” and “Where was the fire department?” and “Why the temporary breakdown of city and county governments?” Eyewitnesses reported that firefighters responded to the fires but were repelled at gunpoint by white rioters.[12]

Not only that, but Willows refuses to accept “innocent bystander” as medical status for some known perpetrators. For example, when in ongoing medical treatment, one White man claimed his bullet wound was attained by being an “innocent bystander,” the medical worker produced a photo of the man during the massacre, with a shotgun slung over his shoulder.

Finally, Willows critiques the presence of influential, wealthy land developers on reconstruction committees and building codes that made rebuilding inside city limits in Greenwood’s own neighborhoods a violation of city ordinance. This was a further unsuccessful attempt to run Black people out of Tulsa.

For decades after the massacre and burning of Greenwood, relentless and concerted White community efforts at expulsion have been matched by Black community resilience and reconstruction. One result in a century of Tulsa history is a city still very divided racially.[13] Given the history of the massacre and a century of ongoing racial dishonesty, denial, and lack of reparative action, I move to my project description that intends to meaningfully penetrate and disrupt white resistance to reparative and restorative actions.

[1] Page did not accuse Rowland of rape, and no charges or conviction was rendered in the case. Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, Tulsa Race Riot: A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, John Hope Franklin, Scott Ellsworth, et. al. (Tulsa, Oklahoma: 2001), 22.

[2] John Hope Franklin et al., Tulsa Race Riot: A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, Commission (Tulsa, OK, February 28, 2001), 53.

[3] Kimberly C. Ellis, “We Look Like Men of War: Africana Male Narratives and the Tulsa Race Riot, War and Massacre of 1921” (Purdue University, 2002), 3.

[4] Franklin et al., Tulsa Race Riot: A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, 159.

[5] The most comprehensive and detailed account of the “time of war,” as Black people often referred to the events, is diagrammed hour by hour May 31 through June 1, 1921 in the maps and appendix. Franklin et al., Tulsa Race Riot: A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.

[6] Franklin et al., Tulsa Race Riot: A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, 23.

[7] Bishop Edwin D. Mouzon, “Tulsa’s Race Riot and the Teachings of Jesus,” The Christian Advocate (July 14, 1921): 912.

[8] Mouzon, “Tulsa’s Race Riot and the Teachings of Jesus,” 913.

[9] Mouzon, “Tulsa’s Race Riot and the Teachings of Jesus,” 912.

[10] Willows, American Red Cross on the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot.

[11] The Commission committtee called for reparations to survivors and descendants of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, including compensation for property, Black student scholarship funding, economic development zones in Greenwood, and a memorial for reburial of human remains. No reparations have ever been paid with public funds. What does it say about Tulsa that such a devastating event has not ever been treated by city or state government with reparations? Franklin et al., Tulsa Race Riot: A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, 20a.

[12] Franklin et al., Tulsa Race Riot: A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, 77–78.

[13] While it is beyond the scope of this project to cover the development of Tulsa, even specific to racial divisions, there are a number of important works I have consulted to broaden my understanding of the intervening time between the massacre and today. Alfred L. Brophy, Reconstructing the Dreamland: The Tulsa Riot of 1921: Race, Reparations, and Reconcilation (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002); Scott Ellsworth, Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (Baton Rouge; London: Louisiana State University Press, 1982); Hannibal B. Johnson, Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District (Austin, Tex.: Eakin Press, 1998); Krehbiel and Hill, Tulsa, 1921; Majorie Ann Tracy, “The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921: The Politics of Lawlessness” (University of Tulsa, 1996).

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