Tulsa, 1921: After a race riot that torched much of the city's black community, detainees are led away.
Tulsa, 1921: After a race riot that torched much of the city's black community, detainees are led away.
Tulsa Historical Society via AP

Ethnic Cleansing, American Style

Reviewed by Kevin Boyle
Sunday, April 8, 2007


The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America

By Elliot Jaspin

Basic. 341 pp. $26.95

People knew about the terror, of course. The stories came to them in whispers, passed on in warning or in shame or perhaps in pride. There was a day 80 or 90 years ago, they were told, when the rumor of a crime -- a rape, most likely -- had so enraged the whites in town that they lynched the black man they thought responsible. Then something else had happened, something every bit as sinister. In the fever of the moment, the whites had turned on their black neighbors, ordering entire communities of African Americans to gather what they could carry and get out of town, appropriating the property the victims were forced to abandon, destroying the homes they left behind. Years later, people still knew. But these weren't the sort of stories that you told in public.

In the last decade or so, the silence has started to lift. Oklahoma established a public commission to investigate the destruction of Tulsa's African American neighborhood in a horrific 1921 pogrom. Hollywood made a movie dramatizing whites' assault on the black town of Rosewood, Fla., in 1923. And two years ago, the sociologist James W. Loewen published an award-winning book, Sundown Towns, that systematically documented America's wave of racial purges, which he rightly called "ethnic cleansing." Now Elliot Jaspin's vivid Buried in the Bitter Waters digs deeply into 12 of the purges -- those he judged "the worst of the worst."

A reporter for the Cox newspaper chain, Jaspin brings a journalistic sensibility to the task. He's interested less in broad social dynamics than in the particulars of the small towns where the 12 purges took place. He carefully recreates the often convoluted steps that led to each town's racial cleansing "in the period between Reconstruction and the 1920s." And he makes the horror come alive by describing the experience of people swept up in the violence of the moment: a mob member's viciousness, a white official's cowardice, a victim's heart-pounding fear as she fled across an open field, her house ablaze behind her. Jaspin then takes each story to the present day, showing how the purge left wounds that still refuse to heal.

As chilling as each incident is, though, the cumulative effect of stringing together 12 stories is problematic. Part of the difficulty is that Jaspin's choice of case studies leaves the wrong impression of American ethnic cleansing. All 12 incidents he describes took place in small towns, 10 of them in the South, with African Americans always the victims. In fact, the majority of purges occurred in the North and West, including almost two dozen in Illinois alone, according to Loewen. Urban neighborhoods were particularly prone to racial expulsions since racism and the real estate market made for a ferociously toxic mix. And mobs in Western states were more likely to target Chinese immigrants than blacks.

Jaspin runs into another problem as well: Because the purges tended to follow a predictable pattern, his stories start to feel depressingly familiar, then frustratingly repetitious. As that happens, Buried in the Bitter Waters loses much of the emotional power that drives the book in its early stages.

Jaspin compounds the problem by devoting most of his conclusion to detailing a nasty fight he had with his editors at Cox newspapers in 2005, when he presented them with the multi-part series upon which the book is based. The conflict raised some troubling issues of journalistic ethics: The editors objected to Jaspin's use of the term "racial cleansing," which they thought too inflammatory, and his charge that Cox's flagship newspaper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, repeatedly downplayed anti-black violence and racial exclusion in suburban Forsyth County, Ga., the site of a brutal purge in 1912. But Jaspin's intricate detailing of what was essentially a clash over professional standards deadens what should have been the book's dramatic climax.

That's disappointing because it's not enough simply to know that Americans once engaged in ethnic cleansing. We need to be shocked by that terrible truth, to read the stories and cringe at their cruelty. Only then, as Jaspin says, will we be willing to confront the question of how to secure justice for the families that were driven from their land in the early 20th century: to talk seriously of reparations for the victims' descendants, maybe even of restoring land to its rightful owners, a possibility that has already caused consternation in a few communities around the country. More fundamentally, if we're shocked by the violent separation of the races all those years ago, we might be forced to consider -- if only for a moment -- America's continued embrace of segregation, the enduring legacy of days so bitter we only now dare speak of them. ยท

Kevin Boyle teaches history at Ohio State University. His book "Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age" received the 2004 National Book Award for nonfiction.

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