On May 30, 1921, a simple accident between a black shoeshine boy and a white female elevator operator was intentionally misconstrued in a local paper as assault. White Tulsans took this as just cause to burn Black Wall Street to the ground. Over 5,000 black residents were arrested, approximately 300 were killed, and even more were injured. The fires consumed 1,256 homes, 191 commercial sites, some churches, and even schools, a hospital, and a library.
In Tulsa, reconciliation has outpaced reflections on truth. As a child, I never reflected on Ida B. Wells’s description of lynching: “the nineteenth century lynching mob cuts off ears, toes, and fingers, strips off flesh, and distributes portions of the body as souvenirs among the crowd.” Without second thought, I’d traipse around the grounds of what was Black Wall Street and saunter past the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park. I failed to see the devastation visited upon the community nearly a century ago. The memory of the hope that Little Africa once offered serves as the inspiration of commemoration efforts nearly a century later.
The Centennial Commission is considering the best ways to memorialize the devastation. Its efforts so far have focused on the progress to come—on hopes for reconciliation. But historical exercises that do not weight their reconciliation with painful truth often become pain suppressants. They do not relieve the deep pain that exists. At risk is a double-forgetting of what happened in 1921.
Forgetting is enabled by the language we use to describe the horror of that day. Calling it a riot minimizes the truth. It allowed insurers to escape the responsibility of paying benefits to the households and businesses set ablaze, leaving most of the financial burden of the community’s reconstruction to the victimized. The truth is: This was a massacre.
Today, the stain of this massacre and subsequent events have left black life fragile in Tulsa. The life expectancy of 74126, the zip code of much of black Tulsa, is 10.7 years less than that of 74137, a more affluent, predominantly white community.
Sixty-seven years old is the average life expectancy in 74126—if people can make it that long. Terence Crutcher barely reached 40 before a white police officer shot him, unarmed, just north of where Black Wall Street burned 98 years before. It’s an all too familiar story: white police officer shoots an unarmed black man without facing any prison time. As a community, Tulsa blew past the truth that historical context could bring. Instead, the city rushed to reconciliation in the usual places: churches, community centers. There were somber mayoral press conferences, and a gentle protest at the same Reconciliation Park.
But what if that same police officer who shot Crutcher had to see the names of the lynched on those steel columns as she drove by her local precinct to work every day? What if, staring Tulsans in the face, were the true stories of those afflicted by racism? That is the duty standing before the Centennial Commission: to anchor reconciliation in truth.
Such frank reflections on the truth might dissuade individuals like U.S. Senator James Lankford from serving on the commission. His proposed solution to racial strife is “Solution Sundays,” in which Americans are encouraged to invite someone of a different race to dinner. But instead of the commission’s “reconciliation committee,” perhaps what Tulsa needs is a “truth-first, then-reconciliation committee.” It need not look any further than Montgomery to understand that the way forward lies in the past.