Why Did White Tulsa Burn Down Black Tulsa?

Before its recent centennial, I hadn’t been particularly aware of the Tulsa Massacre, or of the many other, similar events that went way beyond lynching and have been called, I think justifiably, pogroms. Now I know that my ignorance was by design, and Tulsa is part of my consciousness of the long history of white aggression in America against people of color. And, once again, I wonder why we white people seem never to have been able to let other people be.

In case the story doesn’t ring a bell, a quick recap: According to The New York Times, “What the Tulsa Race Massacre Destroyed.” a hapless Black teenage boy apparently stumbled and grabbed the arm of the white teenage girl operating an elevator; black men came out with guns to defend the jailed boy from gathering whites (jailed black people could be dragged out and lynched); a shot was fired.

That same night, white Tulsans destroyed almost the entire 35-block Black Tulsa business and residential district known as Greenwood: up to 300 people killed, almost 1500 homes burned or looted; 8-10,000 left homeless, 6,000 held in camps. In today’s dollars, close to $30 million in property damage; untold millions in future Black generational wealth gone up in smoke. 

The smoking ruins of the Dunbar School.

Is there in this account a provocation sufficient to explain that paroxysm of white rage? Or was, as the Times suggests, white resentment of Black success “one factor” behind it? 

Or, I would ask, were white people simply completely unable to accept Black success?

Homes burning.

Black Tulsans had created their own (segregated) economy. They were taking care of themselves and each other. Some of them were quite wealthy.

Yet it’s well-known that one view white people have, historically, held of Black people has been that they were “naturally” lazy, shiftless, incompetent, stupid, incapable of taking care of themselves. This narrative, which could conveniently be trotted out to justify slavery, carried over naturally to Jim Crow, where it could be used to shore up white supremacy.

Perhaps the cognitive dissonance was too much for the white people of Tulsa. Maybe they felt compelled to destroy the living proof that their narrative was wrong. 

And then, as has been well-documented, they covered up the whole thing. (Listen to the WNYC/History Channel podcast, Blindspot: Tulsa Burning.) 

All this just to reinforce our fixed idea of the superiority of white people to people we have defined as nonwhite?

To demonstrate that those people weren’t entitled to what they’d earned, but we were—that, in fact, we were the only ones entitled: to have, to be, to do, to live?

In short, to drive home the point that people we’ve defined as nonwhite have always been, not only not us, but not entitled?

Apparently, even to take up their own space in the world.

Woman left homeless in Tulsa.

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2 Responses to “Why Did White Tulsa Burn Down Black Tulsa?”

  1. none Says:

    Powerful questions. . .

  2. none Says:

    Great piece! And it all comes down to the questions you pose at the end.

    (I tried to post this on your blog but i got into an endless loop of having to login to wordpress to have my comments public and then rewriting my comments and having to log in etc etc etc)

    Kathryn Libioulle-Clutz

    Envoyé de mon iPhone

    Kathrynclutz66@gmail.com +33 (0)6 84 48 65 49


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