The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy

By James S. Hirsch

Houghton Mifflin. 358 pp. $25


The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921

By Alfred Brophy

Oxford Univ. 187 pp. $27.50


Massacre, Destruction, and

The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921

By Tim Madigan

St. Martin's. 297 pp. $24.95

In late 1999, international news media flocked to Tulsa, Okla., to report on the city's long-ignored 1921 race riot. News helicopters hovered over a cemetery where investigators searched for suspected mass graves of riot victims. Elderly men and women appeared on "Sixty Minutes II" and "Frontline" to recount their childhood memories of an event that left as many as 300 dead and nearly the entire black population of the city homeless. The clash of memory and politics, history and current events, turned Tulsa's past into a lightning rod for heated discussions about race, rights and reparations.

What happened in Tulsa? What relevance does an 80-year-old event have for race relations in America today? Should victims of the bloody events of 1921 be compensated for their losses? These are the questions that James Hirsch, Tim Madigan and Alfred Brophy explore in their books on what they respectively call Tulsa's "race war," "race riot" and "massacre" of 1921.

On May 31, 1921, Tulsa exploded in violence. The spark was the arrest of "Diamond" Dick Rowland, a young man who made a living shining shoes, who was accused of assaulting a white woman. The sensationalist Tulsa Tribune covered the case closely and reportedly ran an editorial encouraging a lynching in its first edition that day. By early evening, several hundred whites had gathered at the county courthouse where Rowland was imprisoned. A small band of black Tulsans gathered weapons and drove to the courthouse, determined to protect Rowland from a lynching.

Their fears were not unfounded. In August 1920, mobs in Tulsa and Oklahoma City had broken into jails and murdered a white carjacker and a black man suspected of killing a police officer. More than 50 blacks had been lynched nationwide that year. Responding to the brutal attacks, A.J. Smitherman, editor of the black Tulsa Star, encouraged his readers to arm themselves and be prepared "take life if need be to uphold the law" and prevent a lynching.

The volatile combination of white vigilantism and black self-defense led to a clash on Tulsa's courtyard steps. As Rowland languished in his jail cell, the county sheriff tried to disperse the crowd. When whites attempted to disarm the black protesters, shots were fired, and chaos ensued. Vastly outnumbered, the black Tulsans retreated across the railroad tracks to Greenwood, the segregated city's black district. Reports of a "Negro uprising" brought thousands of angry whites to the streets. They broke into hardware and sporting goods stores and pawnshops, collecting guns and ammunition. The city's police chief, John A. Gustafson, deputized at least 250 white men on the spot, issuing them badges and weapons. One newly minted "deputy" gloated: "Now you can go out and shoot any nigger you see and the law'll be behind you."

White Tulsans went on a rampage. Sorties of armed whites raided Greenwood on June 1. White men, most of them wearing police badges, shot at black pedestrians, looted black-owned homes and torched 1,256 private homes, a black hospital and school, one of the nation's largest black-owned hotels and Tulsa's premier black church. Two airplanes buzzed the neighborhood, leading some black residents to believe that they were being bombed. Armed blacks, led by World War I veterans, defended their neighborhood but were outgunned. Estimates of the number killed ranged widely. Oklahoma officials reported that 36 had died; a Salvation Army official estimated that 150 people died; NAACP leader Walter White wrote that somewhere between 200 and 250 people died. More than 7,500 local black residents found themselves refugees, most herded into an internment camp at an area fairground. After the disaster, an apocalyptic postcard circulated. A panorama of the charred remains of Greenwood, the postcard was simply inscribed: "Running the Negro Out of Tulsa."

These three histories of Tulsa overlap significantly in their chronology, though they differ in style and emphasis and on some key details. Hirsch argues that "each side misunderstood the actions of the other." In an illuminating and brilliant discussion of history, memory and forgetting, Hirsch offers us a chronicle of misunderstanding, tracing the contentious debates about the meaning of the 1921 riot from its immediate aftermath through the Tulsa Race Riot Commission hearings in the 1990s. In his convincing account, Hirsch shows how the wounds of racial division -- in Tulsa and in the nation at large -- are far from healed. Brophy, a law professor who worked for the Riot Commission, uses hitherto unexamined court records to recount the riot. He recovers a largely forgotten history of black activism in one of the grimmest periods of race relations, emphasizing the black militancy of the World War I era and how assertive black demands for racial equality threatened white Tulsans. Linking history and advocacy, Brophy also offers a reasoned defense of reparations for the riot's victims. Madigan's book is a historical reconstruction of the riot that tells the story from the perspective of the black victims with novelistic flourishes, including invented dialogue.

Hirsch's book is the best of the three. Riot and Rememberance offers a compelling account of the clash between history and memory, as the author revisits the contending white and black versions of the massacre. White Tulsans blamed the event on violent, lawless blacks who had brought on the destruction of their own neighborhood. "Uppity" blacks pushed too far, too fast in their demands for racial equality. Tulsa's political leaders and business elite eagerly endorsed the view that black Tulsa had brought on its own fate; in doing so, they could wash their hands of responsibility and leave Greenwood residents to rebuild their neighborhood alone. For white Tulsans, the event quickly slipped into obscurity, ignored by newspapers, history textbooks and by local officials. As late as 1972, Tulsa's white-owned media outlets refused to report on the events of 1921.

Black Tulsans recounted the events of 1921 at family reunions and in church halls but seldom in public, for fear of white retaliation. The black version of 1921 differed greatly from the white. Black witnesses recalled bodies "stacked like cordwood" and passed on stories about black refugees paraded through the streets at gunpoint. Many black Tulsans viewed the events of 1921 as a white conspiracy to silence black protest and maintain racial supremacy. Some believed that the burning of Greenwood, just adjacent to downtown, was a thinly veiled land grab, intended to profit developers at the expense of black residents.

Over the years, the documentary record grew thin. Police and national guard records for May and June 1921 simply disappeared. Even the allegedly inflammatory Tulsa Tribune editorial was torn out of the only remaining copy of the newspaper in the public library. All that remained were the conflicting and imperfect memories, distorted through the prism of politics, that collided during the 1990s hearings on the Tulsa Race Riot. Many white Oklahomans dismissed the events of 1921 as ancient history, perhaps disturbing but ultimately irrelevant. They saw little to be gained from opening old wounds, and possibly much to lose if the riot's history sparked a campaign to award reparations to black victims.

By contrast, many black Tulsans viewed the events of 1921 as a conspiratorial effort by wealthy whites to drive black Tulsans out. They believed that the city and state governments should be held culpable for their failures to protect black Tulsans from the marauding white mob. Where the historical record was incomplete or ambiguous, in such matters as the stories of aerial attacks and mass graves, many black Tulsans believed the worst: that government officials had used planes to attack innocent civilians and had covered up the carnage by burying the dead secretly and anonymously. They demanded reparations, at least to the survivors of the horrors of 1921.

It's unlikely that today's inquiries will determine the truth of accounts of airplane attacks and mass graves. Madigan uncritically accepts the accounts; Brophy believes that planes were used to coordinate the attack on blacks but does not settle on an absolute number for casualties; Hirsch remains agnostic about both. But all agree that the horror of Tulsa must not be forgotten.

These three books forever rescue Tulsa from the fog of historical amnesia. But the consequences of 1921 -- the deaths, the destruction of property, the loss of a whole generation's wealth, the forever poisoned racial climate in Tulsa -- all remain unremedied. In February 2001, the Tulsa Riot Commission issued its report and called for reparations to survivors. On June 1, 2001, Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating signed the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Reconciliation Act. The bill was largely symbolic: It recognized the terrible costs in lives and property and race relations that resulted from the riot but avoided the issue of reparations altogether. The state government instead awarded each survivor a gold-plated medal bearing the state seal. Tulsa's survivors may forever await justice. *

Thomas J. Sugrue, a professor of history and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, is author of the Bancroft Prize-winning book "The Origins of the Urban Crisis."

Aftermath of the 1921 fire that destroyed the Greenwood district in Tulsa; at right, a mobster poses in front of the burning Dreamland Theater