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Tulsa Race Massacre: Digging up the truth

Remembering the Tulsa Race Massacre
Posted at 10:28 AM, May 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-27 07:17:43-04

TULSA, Okla. — In 1997, Senator Maxine Horner, along with Reps. Don Ross and Leonard Sullivan, introduced House Joint Resolution 1035, which would create the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Commission.

As Tulsa works to acknowledge the injustices done that day a century ago, there was a journey into the creation of the Commission and what its purpose was.

"We have to remember that this history was intentionally buried for more than 50 years," said Scott Ellsworth. "You know, official records were destroyed. You know, researchers had their lives and livelihoods threatened. And it's been a long process of getting the story out."

The Tulsa Race Riot Commission formed from previous legislation. Originally drafted to include reparations as a major part of the Commission's goal it was amended to focus on studying the deadly massacre. Something many believe is largely being swept under the rug.

"This year, we'll celebrate 100 years since the race massacre. One of the reasons that that wasn't talked about was the very same reason we talked and people don't want to feel uncomfortable about the participation of boats in their family," said Rep. Monroe Nichols.

"Probably by the time I was 10, or 11 years old, you would maybe hear neighbors talking about it or some group of adults," Ellsworth said. "And they would always change the subject or lower their voices, and you couldn't really find out much about it."

In January of 1997, three state lawmakers introduced House Joint Resolution 1035.

"Basically put together a committee of people from across the state to research the events, because of course, it had not been talked about very much or necessarily research officially by any government organization since back in 1921, when it first happened," said Maggie Brown.

It's left many people to learn the details of the massacre for the very first time later in life.

"I moved here in 1997," said Phil Armstrong, project director for The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission. "And was just shocked that I knew more about this history than most Oklahomans who were born here.

But the Tulsa Race Riot Commission and its goals were not without controversy.

Sometimes righting the wrongs entails a little pain, but sometimes that is necessary.
Eddie Faye Gates, Tulsa World editorial 1997

The Commission was charged with answering a set of specific questions. Those questions included: what happened? Who are the survivors? Who were the victims? Where were they buried?

The most controversial question: would reparations be appropriate?

"But certainly something that is, you know, not really talked about for the first 75 years after it occurred, really divides the community," said Brown.

In an Associated Press story dated August 1999, the division is clear.

[State Rep. Don] Ross, who is Black, now supports tax breaks for businesses that are located in low-income areas, ones he feels were robbed of their economic legacy by the riot.

State Rep. Forrest Claunch, leader of the Republican Caucus, saw no reason why this generation should pay for what happened 78 years ago.
Associated Press, August 1999

The sentiment from 1999 is something Tulsa Mayor GT Bynum echoed ahead of the Centennial of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

"The problem I have with that is where the cash comes from, it would come from a tax levied on this generation of Tulsans, who are completely innocent of anything that criminals did 100 years ago in Tulsa," said Mayor Bynum.

An article from the Denver Post, also from 1999, shares it wasn't just the idea of reparations that bothered people.

Although it's gotten strong support from many Tulsans, the project stirs shame for other residents over events more comfortably lost to memory.

To some, the findings of the Commission present in January likely will revive a much less welcome image: of old Tulsa, violent and lawless.
Denver Post, 1999

The Denver Post article adds the Commission's report will cause Americans to face "questions about how civil bodies turn criminal and how winners write history."

"Figuring out how we all come together to deal with it rather than try to prohibit that truth being told because it just might make some of us feel a little uncomfortable," said Rep. Nichols.

A New York Times article from Feb. 2000 stated,

The workings of the Race Riot Commission have sparked a remarkable and often uncomfortable period of introspection in Oklahoma.

"My reaction was more surprised," Rep. Nichols said. "I'd never heard about it, then surprised that it happened

"It's important to do because, you know, for 50 years, Tulsa let lost its sense of honesty, and we're now getting it back. You know, the American past has nothing to be afraid of or scared of, you know, we need to learn the bad and we need to learn to good as well, too. And it can teach us a lot. And the more we learn about what our past really is, the better that will help guide us in the future," said Ellsworth.

The original Tulsa Race Riot Commission disbanded in 2001 after the report was released. Since then, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission has been working toward the Centennial to create programming and action in commemoration of the hundred years since that deadly night.

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