A journalist’s painstaking recounting of a bloody urban race riot that was covered up for decades.
On May 31, 1921, a group of about 75 African-Americans, many of them armed, marched on the city jail of Tulsa, Oklahoma, to protect a young man who had been accused of assaulting a white girl. They had reason to believe that he was in danger of being lynched: that afternoon the Tulsa Tribune had reported the assault and apparently published an editorial urging white citizens to take the law into their own hands. All this remains fuzzy, says former Wall Street Journal and New York Times reporter Hirsch (Hurricane: The Miraculous Journey of Rubin Carter, 2000), because all archival copies and microfilms of the paper have had their editorial pages carefully removed. This was one of many measures taken by Tulsa civic leaders to hush up the events that followed: a crowd of some 1,500 armed whites met the black marchers, shots ensued, and hours later the predominantly African-American section of Tulsa called Greenwood was in flames. More than 1,250 buildings in the 36-block area were destroyed, some possibly as a result of aerial bombardment. At least 38 and perhaps as many as 300 people died, most of them black. Thousands of surviving residents of Greenwood were rounded up and placed in makeshift detention camps. In the ensuing months, Tulsa civic leaders found scapegoats for the riot, most of them black, too, and then set about erasing it from the public record. Drawing on oral histories of survivors as well as on studies by local scholars, Hirsch tells us what can be reliably said about Tulsa’s “race war” and recounts efforts by modern-day Tulsans to recover and atone for the past.
Absorbing and horrendous at the same time: an important contribution to American history.