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Tulsa Race Massacre: Breaking the Silence

Posted at 8:11 AM, May 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-01 09:28:32-04

TULSA, Okla. — "It's not just a Tulsa story or an Oklahoma story. This is a part of American history."

A riot. A massacre. The official record of what happened in Tulsa in 1921 published 80 years after the fact.

"It was just truly a conspiracy of silence," says Vanessa Hall-Harper, Tulsa City Councilor.

Hall-Harper is not alone in this assertion. The committee of people who filed the 2001 report on the devastating hours of May 31 through June 1, 1921, agree that the history was buried.

"You would hear stories about what we then called the race riot," says Dr. Scott Ellsworth, author and historian. "Bodies floating down the Arkansas River, airplanes, machine guns, things like that, but you could never really find out anything about it."

As a result, many Tulsans didn't learn about the massacre until later in life.

"I first learned about the Race Massacre when I was 24, 25 years old," says Tulsa Mayor GT Bynum.

"I grew up right here in North Tulsa," says Hall-Harper. "I was unaware of it, I was unaware, for so long."

The report sought to change all that.

Dr. Ellsworth lays out in just 50 pages the circumstances that led to the massacre and details the events that took place during those fateful hours and the immediate aftermath.

"There's no question we learned a whole lot," says Dr. Ellsworth. "During those couple of years, we were putting the report together."

Dr. Ellsworth published one of the first comprehensive histories of the massacre, which was called the Tulsa Race Riots at the time, in 1982 years before the commission was formed.

That commission brought in Dr. Ellsworth as one of several research consultants to get the story out and to shine a light on the record since it was "too bright to ignore."

"The real event that launches the massacre, it was, you know, issued on May 31 in the Tulsa Tribune, with this inflammatory article on the front page," says Dr. Ellsworth.

That article, titled 'Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in an Elevator,' caused a stand-off at the courthouse.

"What came next was a mob of white Tulsans basically invading Greenwood and, you know, forced people to leave their homes, killed people, burned down houses and businesses," says Maggie Brown. "Basically, the entire district was burned to the ground in just a matter of hours."

In addition to creating a comprehensive record of what happened, the Tulsa Race Riot Commission also looked into the victims. How many were killed, who they were, and where they were buried.

The City of Tulsa is now literally digging for those answers.

READ MORE: 1921 Race Massacre mass graves excavation continues June 1

"First and foremost for us, this search is for the graves of the victims," says Mayor Bynum.

In 2000, a year before the first commission disbanded, the commissioners also jumped at the opportunity it was given by the Oklahoma lawmakers.

To answer whether reparations should or could be paid to the victims of the massacre.

The majority of commissioners said that reparations "could and should be made," calling it "good public policy."

"But I personally believe that there's no question that restitution needs to be paid to the survivors, we only have a couple left," says Dr. Ellsworth. "We had a real opportunity 20 years ago, we didn't take that opportunity."

"I don't think that's right to financially penalize this generation of Tulsans for something criminals did a century ago," Mayor Bynum said when asked about providing reparations to the Tulsa Race Massacre survivors.

Cash reparations are now the subject of an ongoing lawsuit between a survivor and descendants and the City of Tulsa.

As Tulsa pauses to reflect a century later, Tulsans must look at how the city and its communities move forward.

"It's not going to truly repair a community unless we have the highest levels of government involved," says Hill-Harper.

The current Race Massacre Centennial Commission was established in 2015 with the goal of commemorating the massacre.

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