DEATH IN A PROMISED LAND: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 by Scott Ellsworth

DEATH IN A PROMISED LAND: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921

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A quiet, succinct, unflinching examination of the 1921 Tulsa race riot, last and proportionately worst of the outbreaks during and after World War I--when rising black expectations (WW I service, the migration to the cities) collided with increasing white repressiveness (anti-radicalism, the KKK). An auspicious debut, too, for a young Tulsa-bred doctoral candidate (in the Oral History Program, not incidentally, at Duke). To evoke the racial climate, Ellsworth mentions the new ""barbarity"" of lynchings and supplies a newspaper account (""The Negro was unsexed and made to eat a portion of his anatomy""); to convey Oklahoma's lost potential as a promised land, he juxtaposes an 1880s attempt to make it ""an all-black state"" and the 1910 revocation of the franchise. For the most part, however, he focuses--tellingly--on Tulsa itself: the burgeoning of the long-established black community (with particulars on ""Deep Greenwood,"" a.k.a. the ""Negroes' Wall Street""); three local incidents--two involving whites--which convinced Tulsa's blacks that law-enforcement officials were no bulwark against mob violence. Also evident is the effect of inflammatory press reportage. Thus: the events of 1921. On May 30, a young black bootblack had an (unwitnessed) altercation with a young white female elevator operator; on May 31, he was arrested and, while under investigation, excoriated in the Tulsa Tribune as an assailant liable to be lynched; on the evening of the 31st, a white crowd formed outside the courthouse, armed blacks appeared to help guard the prisoner, and when one (a WW I vet) refused to give up his gun to a white, fighting broke out--which resulted, within the next 24 hours, in the destruction of the black community and the death of approximately 75 blacks and whites. Blacks did fight back (Ellsworth opens with an eyewitness account of the defense of ""Deep Greenwood""); but half of them, cripplingly, were interned (as against no whites). Blacks also rebuilt their community--Ellsworth stresses--without direct white aid. Blacks (""armed negroes"" plus outside ""agitation"") were blamed for the riot, too--but ""the lynchings ceased."" ""At a terrible price,"" Ellsworth writes in one of his few editorial statements, ""black Tulsans had shown their white brethren that they were not going to let it happen here."" His unassuming command of the source materials, plus his relaxed way with a narrative, could spur others--even on an advanced high school level--to explore the local past. (There will also, pertinently, be pictures.) The book's historical contribution--limited only by a dearth Of willing white informants--makes it a worthy companion to William M. Turtle's established study of the 1919 Chicago riot in the literature on the era's racial conflict.

Pub Date: Feb. 2nd, 1981
ISBN: 0807117676
Publisher: Louisiana State Univ. Press