By Orisabiyi Williams, Chair of the Greater Tulsa African American Affairs Commission
What happened to Greenwood in 1921 was not a riot. It was a massacre.
We have to stop calling what happened May 31 through June 1 in 1921 a “riot.” When I hear African Americans refer to this event as a “riot,” the first thought that comes to my mind is that those individuals are detached mentally and spiritually from the true history of the night Greenwood burned. For those African Americans and others who persist in referring to this event inaccurately I offer this primer:
One week after the destruction of Greenwood infamous Klansman Tate Brady joined the Tulsa Real Estate Exchange Commission. The stated goal of The Exchange, which was created by the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce was to assess the property damage caused by the event. The actual goal of the Exchange was to move blacks farther north and east to make room for new rail lines north of downtown. Immediately, the Exchange began to make rules and regulations that made it extremely difficult for the citizens of Greenwood to rebuild their community.
According to historian Lee Roy Chapman, one technique The Exchange employed to frame the event was the use of the word “riot” to refer to the tragedy because the word implies that two parties were involved with malicious intent. Using this term caused insurance claims to be denied because of policyholders’ “participation” in the event. Without insurance settlements, the citizens of Greenwood had no money to rebuild their homes and businesses.
B.C. Franklin, the father of John Hope Franklin and a prominent attorney during that time, filed a suit against The Exchange when they attempted to force unemployed black men to clean up after the lynch mobs. The case went all the way to the Oklahoma Supreme Court and Franklin won, which was a needed victory for the community at the time.
The night Greenwood was bombed and burned was a massacre, not a riot.
Calling the event a “riot” is not only deceitful, it also minimizes the suffering and desolation the people of Greenwood endured during the destruction of their community and its hampered reconstruction.
How can we look at the few remaining survivors and say, “riot”? How can we ask for justice and reconciliation with a derogatory lie? It is unconscionable that we have a Race Riot Commission that by its very name refuses to accurately describe the horror and call what happened to Greenwood in 1921 what it really was: a massacre.
African Americans in Tulsa have become blind to the struggles of their community and their predecessors by softened language that seeks to make others comfortable with our painful history. The language used to describe a historical event defines the event for future generations. And so it is now, the language that our oppressed community uses to refer to and study about this event is the language that white Tulsans in the Tulsa Real Estate Exchange Commission used to encumber the future growth and success of the Greenwood community.
In a few years, the city will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1921 Greenwood Massacre. With the rise of groups like Black Lives Matter, more international attention has been directed at successful black communities like Greenwood during the “Black Wall Street” era. Celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and John Legend are working to tell the history of the event and the community by producing documentaries and a miniseries telling the story of Greenwood.
History is recorded by society’s winners. Napoleon said, “History is a set of lies agreed upon.” When will our community start to articulate its own history? The time is now! We start by never calling this tragedy a “riot,” by correcting this term whenever we hear it, and by educating our young people about the truth of this horrific massacre.