Publisher’s note: Steven’s piece was originally published in 2014, but in light of the events in the pilot episode of HBO’s Watchmen, we’re republishing it.
It began with a boy and a girl. A 19-year-old black shoeshiner got on a whites-only elevator to go up a few floors to a restroom. The elevator operator was a 17-year-old white girl and she let out a scream. The boy ran, the police followed, and two days later the city burned.
The wealthiest black community in America was destroyed in 1921, and no one remembers it happened. Oh, we’ll get the 17th film about Martin Luther King Jr. to be sure, but that’s because it’s safe history. It’s a history where we’re comfortable labeling the bad guys “bad” because we can make them caricatures and know they lose. It’s the same reason Abraham Lincoln and the end of slavery. But we don’t mention the long, dark time between. Just fold the pages of the history books over, Hollywood, and pretend that Selma happened the page after the Emancipation Proclamation.
Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921 was a seething center of racial hatred. Historians estimate that active members of the Ku Klux Klan numbered some 3,000 out of the 70,000 in the city. Systematic segregation was the order of the day, but taken to a sort of level rare even in the darkest parts of the South in those years. There was a section of town called Greenwood and dubbed “Negro Wall Street,” though one imagines that the actual term used wasn’t quite so polite. The black businesses were there, the black homes were there, the hospitals, schools, parks. It was the richest black neighborhood in the country, almost self-sufficient in the way it was carved off from the rest of the city. Top to bottom, this was where blacks of all social classes lived and worked, the civilized American take on the model of the Warsaw ghetto.
But that changed with the burning match tossed by that single ill-fated elevator ride.
The police — a newly elected white county sheriff and his black deputy — did not conduct a manhunt. The consensus is that they concluded that no crime had actually been committed, that the shoeshiner, Dick Rowland, had tripped, that the elevator operator Sarah Page let out a startled yell, and that a clerk next door called the police. They took Rowland into custody to protect him from being lynched.
A mob formed, demanding Rowland be turned over to them. The sheriff refused, repeatedly, despite the swelling crowds. Over in Greenwood, black leaders argued over what could be done. The old counseled patience, fearing for the wrath that could fall on the community. But the young, many of them Great War veterans, decided there would not be another lynching, that after a decade of terror in the state in which 30 had been lynched, they would draw the line there. That they would rather fight than watch another innocent butchered. With rifles and shotguns, they armed themselves and went to the courthouse.
The hours stretched out into the night, the tension building. A hundred men facing a mob 2,000 strong outside the courthouse. A shot rang out; the tension exploded. During the course of two days, dozens were killed as violence raged uncontrolled through the city. The American Red Cross estimated 300 blacks were killed, most thrown into mass graves since disappeared and never searched for. The official count was only 36 deaths. Because that’s the easy lie that always comes after the violence. After the National Guard has been called in to put down the “Negro Uprising”; after old World War I aircraft are used against civilians; after 6,000 blacks are rounded up into containment centers; after 1,200 homes and 200 businesses are burned to the ground; after there are no real figures on black deaths or injuries anyway since the two black hospitals were burned down. Read that again: they burned down the hospitals.
It’s those sorts of details that get you, that so thoroughly drive home an image of a time and a place that you think you were there. Details like that are like the phrase uttered right before Q snaps his fingers and transports you to another place. They’re like subconscious triggers that switch something in your brain, flipping you from reading about history to going full Manchurian candidate rage about something that happened before your grandparents were even born. They’re the details that make the past real instead of theoretical.
The memories are long faded, most of the survivors long scattered and dead, their stories so rarely told even to their descendants that the event is a ghost between the pages of histories. The local newspaper archives no longer have the articles that give all the details of those days, because someone has long since removed them. Even the microfiche is gone for the pages that once held those articles.
“Violence can only be concealed by a lie, and the lie can only be maintained by violence. Any man who has once proclaimed violence as his method is inevitably forced to take the lie as his principle.” — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.
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