Tulsans treated 14,000 Confederate veterans like royalty: They lent them cars, welcomed them in their homes and gave them free food. These veterans toured the Greenwood district and saw how prosperous what was known as “Black Wall Street” had become — and ridiculed the local whites over how successful their black neighbors were.
Slavery had only ended two generations earlier. Blacks weren’t supposed to be able to read, yet in Tulsa, they were principals of schools, like Ellis Walker Woods. In most of America, blacks were relegated to sharecropping and forbidden to own land, but in Tulsa, real estate developers like O.W. Gurley prospered. In 1918, blacks could not attend most medical schools; in Greenwood, the community went to see R.T. Bridgewater for their health-care needs. Blacks here owned houses, cars, banks, theaters — even hotels and airplanes. African Americans built one of the most prosperous, self-efficient economies, black or white, in the country — all under the watchful, jealous, racist eye of many of their white neighbors.
And then one day a few years later, those white neighbors decided they wouldn’t stand for it anymore.
On May 30, 1921, 19-year-old Diamond Dick Rowland, a shoe-shiner in the Drexel building in downtown Tulsa, took a break to use the restroom. On his way to use the “colored” bathroom, required by Jim Crow segregation laws, he either bumped into or stepped on the foot of the elevator operator, Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white woman. Page screamed, and Rowland ran out of the elevator. He was arrested on charges of attempted assault, which the Tulsa Tribune reported under the headline, “Nab Negro in elevator attack.”
A mob of white men gathered at the county courthouse to take Rowland and hang him. Then a group of black military veterans arrived at the courthouse to help protect Rowland. When one of the white men confronted one of the veterans that night and tried to take his gun, a scuffle ensued, and a white man was shot (though not killed). All hell broke loose.
That was how the Greenwood Massacre began. The black veterans retreated under heavy gunfire while shooting back in self-defense. But their attackers called in reinforcements from out of town, and eventually, they started using private airplanes to attack Greenwood, dropping bombs on churches, homes and businesses. White looters went to houses of their affluent black neighbors and shot into them, telling residents to come out. If people didn’t come out quick enough, they shot more. Everyone — men, women, children and the elderly — had to come out of their homes. People were separated by gender and forced to walk miles to concentration camps in Tulsa, some in buildings that still stand — like the former Convention Hall, known for years as the Brady Theater in honor of W. Tate Brady, who had welcomed the Confederate veterans in 1918. (This January, it renamed itself the Tulsa Theater.)
Once the blacks left their houses, the white mob — deputized by the sheriff — drove up in trucks and looted everything of value from Greenwood. Over an 18-hour span, 40 city blocks were destroyed, 10,000 people were left homeless, 1,256 homes were razed and countless people were killed; some estimates say 300, some go as high as a 1,000. The true number never will be known, because the mob took the bodies and dumped them into mass graves.
That’s where they are still buried today, 99 years later.
This is the history of the city where President Trump plans to resume his campaign rallies this weekend, in the middle of a pandemic that’s killing black people at far higher rates than whites, and just weeks after he threatened to call the Army out to subdue protests sparked by the sight of a white police officer kneeling on a black man’s neck for 8:46 and killing him. Trump moved the date back from Friday to Saturday only once it became clear that the irony of coming to Greenwood on June 19 — Juneteenth, the date that commemorates the arrival in Texas of the Union Army bearing orders to end slavery — was too bitter even for him to ignore.
After the massacre, Tulsa’s black community rebuilt bigger and better. The congregation where I pastor, Historic Vernon A.M.E. Church, was no exception: We built on top of our basement, which survived the massacre, and we thrived. The whole community thrived, too, up until the construction of Interstate 244 in 1967, cutting right into the heart of the Greenwood district (and runs over what many believe to be bodies buried in mass graves) with no exit ramp that could have encouraged people to patronize black-owned business. “Urban renewal” programs in the 1960s, which were so obviously aimed at clearing black neighborhoods that they came to be known as “urban removal,” followed.
Now my church and Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church are the only two black-owned buildings standing in Greenwood.
America still has a problem with racism, no matter how much Trump may try to pretend otherwise. Where is the justice in this land that claims to hold so tightly to “law and order?” Where is the liberty for blacks in this “land of the free?” Where is the leadership from our elected officials in the “home of the brave?” Until the United States does right by those it has enslaved since the inception of the country — until it does right by those whom it looted and massacred in communities like Greenwood — the nation’s values will be hypocrisies. Greenwood is still America; blacks are still American. We as a people have always loved this country, from Crispus Attucks to George Floyd, but unfortunately, America has shown that she does not love us.
The holiday Trump initially chose for his visit, Juneteenth, is the rare opportunity for blacks to celebrate something good this country did specifically for them, thanks to our ancestors’ sacrifice. It celebrates a liberation from chattel slavery — a liberation that we participated in, fighting for in the Union army. My great-great-grandfather, Allen Birdsong, was one of those African Americans who fought for the liberation of his people. I celebrate with great joy the victory of the Union over the rebellious, treasonous insurrection of the southern Confederates.
And now Trump is coming to my city, wrapped rhetorically in the Confederate battle flag. He answered the sudden nationwide rise of the Black Lives Matter movement this month by refusing to rename U.S. military bases that honor Confederate officers. He threatened to use the Insurrection Act to silence protesters.
We have seen true insurrection in this country, though, and Trump supports those who sympathize with it. In Tulsa, we know what true terrorism looks like. The trauma from 1921 is still palpable here today. Unfortunately, the justice from it is not. I hope Trump comes committed to providing justice for those who were killed in 1921. We still have some living survivors left. One I know well; I have given her communion. We call her Mother Randall. I pray before she goes home to see the Lord that she will finally see justice given to her by the country she loves.
Jesus told his followers, “if you love me keep my commandments.” If the United States loves African Americans, it should keep its own commandments as listed in the Constitution. Obey the 13th Amendment and free our young men and women from prison for crimes such as marijuana possession, which is legal in a growing number of states. Abide by the 14th Amendment and treat us like equal citizens — give us due process, and if we are deprived of that, as we have been so often, pay us reparations. If we are free, obey the 15th Amendment and stop seeking ways to suppress the vote of African American community.
If Trump cannot speak to these concerns when he’s here in Tulsa, why is he coming at all? We are tired of political speeches; we need political acts. For far too long, the injustices of the past have been ignored by those in leadership. Such ignorance compounds the present problems we see today in African American communities.
Trump has a choice now: Will his rally be reminiscent of the United Confederate Veterans convention here in 1918, which lit the fuse for the 1921 race massacre? Or will his visit help extinguish the racist flame that has been burning in this city since then, taking countless innocent lives? A lot has changed in this country since 1921, but two facts remain the same: The sin of racism and the idolatry of white supremacy is still America’s number one problem, and we still rise and fall on the strength of our leadership. My hope is that our leaders truly hearken and listen to all the people.
Juneteenth is not only a celebration of what happened for African Americans. It’s also a reminder of what should and can happen only if we had more people willing to make bold, courageous, noble decisions. Every generation is called to accept the charge of making this world a better place than it was when they came. We have been called now to improve our lot — by dealing a final death blow to institutionalized racism in America. Let us not pass this most dreadful sin down to our children. Maybe the next American generation will be born free at last!