DeMarco: When Did You Learn About the Tulsa Race Massacre?

The Op-Ed Page

Tulsa, Oklahoma burns during the race massacre of 1921.

Tulsa, Oklahoma burns during the race massacre of 1921.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This was supposed to run a couple of weeks ago, at the time of the anniversary of what happened in Tulsa, but it didn’t, and it’s entirely my fault. As y’all know, I’ve had a lot going on lately, day and night, and so certain routine activities — such as blogging, and checking my personal email — have fallen by the wayside. Well, yesterday, I managed to put up a post, and I’m getting close to catching up on email (maybe an hour or two of intense monotony left to do, whenever I can find an hour or two). Anyway, I still think we can have a useful conversation on this subject, so with my sincere apologies to Paul, I pass on his column, “When Did You Learn About the Tulsa Race Massacre?”

By Paul V. DeMarco
Guest Columnist

I am astonished and embarrassed that I learned about it so late in life. It’s particularly galling because the black freedom struggle is something I’m interested in and have read about. The March on Washington occurred the year of my birth, and I have always felt a connection to the Civil Rights Movement. The PBS documentary series Eyes on the Prize brought the movement to life for me and propelled me to read the first volume of Taylor Branch’s trilogy Parting the Waters: America in the King Years. My interest in the subject has recently been rekindled and I have resumed my reading about it, focusing on South Carolina’s role in the movement. I just finished Claudia Smith Brinson’s Stories of Struggle: The Clash over Civil Rights in South Carolina which tells of some of the unsung heroes and moments in our state.

I have no memory of hearing about the massacre until earlier this year while I was listening to the podcast Teaching Hard History, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. I learned that the massacre was a brutal decimation of the wealthiest black community in America by an organized white mob. Estimates vary but dozens to hundreds were killed and more than a thousand black homes and hundreds of black businesses were destroyed. After two days of annihilation, approximately a 35-block area had been burned to the ground. No one was ever prosecuted. The 100th anniversary of the massacre coincides with Memorial Day.

The reclamation of this suppressed history is part of the George Floyd effect. Many whites, myself included, had been lulled into believing that America was becoming a post-racial society. But over the past decade there has been a growing sense of incompletion, of too much left undone. This unease began to disturb the national conscience in 2013 with the death of Trayvon Martin, was inflamed by the election of Donald Trump, and reached a tipping point with Floyd’s death. Each name that made national headlines (Garner, Brown, Rice, Scott, Castille, Taylor, etc.) was a message: We are nowhere near finished with racial reconciliation in the U.S.

I’m glad that this part of history is finally being told. The title of the podcast Teaching Hard History is apt. We know the easy, comfortable parts. If you’re a Christian, you will recognize a parallel with our religious education. The story of Tulsa has been treated by whites in a way similar to the way Christians have treated the hard sayings of Jesus. All of us have our favorite comforting verses. But some of what Jesus spoke to his followers was searing. One of the most demanding of Jesus’ prescriptions is found in the gospel of Mark. When a rich young ruler asks Jesus what he must do to have eternal life, Jesus replies, “One thing you lack: Go and sell all you possess and give it to the poor.” Only courageous preachers use this as a sermon text.

Mixed with my gratitude that these neglected stories are finally being told is a disappointment that I have been deliberately miseducated. In contrast to my ignorance of Tulsa, I have retained the name of Denmark Vesey, a free black man who planned a slave revolt in Charleston in 1822. The plot was discovered and he and about thirty of his followers were executed. I remember being taught several times about this. How could I know the name of a man who killed no one but simply scared the bejesus out of white Southerners and not know about Tulsa?

Reasonable people can disagree about what history is essential to teach our children. However, I would submit that not teaching me about the Tulsa massacre was a deliberate omission by a white society that didn’t want to spoil the narrative of its benignity and wholesomeness. In that same vein, in the late seventies when I took South Carolina history in middle school, I was taught the Lost Cause narrative, the crux of which is that the Civil War (usually referred to as “The War Between the States” and sometimes as “The War of Northern Aggression” in my classroom) was about states’ rights, not slavery. Even at that tender age, I remember being confused. Wasn’t the right that all the fighting was about the right to own slaves? I remember arguing this point after class with a friend whose family had lived for generations in the Charleston area. We did not reach consensus.

Some whites are not interested in any reappraisal of our history. Exposing our middle and high school students to this and other episodes of ruthless racially-motivated violence takes some of the shine off the narrative that we have always been the good guys. Conservative politicians and news outlets recognize whites’ fear of this long-overdue reexamination and their desire to change the subject. This desire is the motivation behind the focus on critical race theory (CRT). I suspect that most people who oppose CRT have a very shallow understanding of it. Since they can’t say they are against studying the truth of our racial past, they beat up on the straw man of CRT, which they portray as a shadowy Marxist plot to convince our children to hate America.

Some states, including Oklahoma, have banned CRT and others are trying (Note to legislators: the best way to stoke interest in a subject among young people is to ban it). But most of those who recognize the omissions in the history we teach have no interest in CRT. All we want is for the full, unvarnished story to be told. Hearing the truth of Tulsa and other history like it will be a painful. But it will also set us free.

Dr. DeMarco is a physician who lives in Marion, and a long-time reader of this blog.

The burned-out Greenwood District after the Tulsa Race Massacre.

The burned-out Greenwood District after the Tulsa Race Massacre.

24 thoughts on “DeMarco: When Did You Learn About the Tulsa Race Massacre?

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Just a brief comment or two, in order to separate my own views from Paul’s.

    I don’t look on this quite the way he does. I will admit that personally, I had not focused on this particular race riot until a couple of years ago, when people started talking about it more as the centennial approached. I knew there were quite a few nasty, horrible incidents of race-based violence in our history, dating back to colonial times. I notice that Wikipedia organizes them into eras. I mean, there were a LOT of them.

    And I’ve known this for as long as I can remember. And to me, that’s the pertinent fact: Such violence is a frequent horror in history. That doesn’t mean I can rattle off for you a Top Five List, with the names of the dates and places when and where they occurred, and the number of casualties, without refreshing my memory on the specifics.

    Of course, if you DID make me compile such a list off the top of my head, No. 1 on my list would be the New York Draft Riots in July 1863. It has immense importance in our history, with all sorts of implications about key issues at the most critical, dangerous moment in that history. It happened, weirdly, right after the Union triumph at Gettysburg. We tend to think of that as the moment when the tide turned, after which the advantage was fully on the North’s side. From that moment when Pickett’s Charge fell apart at the stone wall, we were on our way to finally purging our country of the great sin of slavery. From then on, we were on the slope that led to the 13th Amendment.

    And yet that was the moment when men — a lot of them Irish immigrants, but other working-class whites as well — rebelled violently against the draft in NYC. They were motivated by two kinds of resentment — that toward richer whites who could afford to stay out of the draft by paying a bounty, and against black people in general, whom they both blamed for the war and feared as competitors in the labor market. Though the original focus was the draft, it spun off into what Wikipedia sums up this way: “The riots remain the largest civil and most racially charged urban disturbance in American history.” And yes, more people were killed than in Tulsa in 1921.

    Beyond that, I was aware of the violence closer to home, such as the Ellenton Riot of 1876, and the broader violence that happened that year, such as the Hamburg Massacre. And of course, the killings that my old friend Jack Bass labeled “The Orangeburg Massacre.” Tulsa wasn’t on my radar screen, specifically. In fact, when people started talking about it more a couple of years ago, my first thought was, “Tulsa? The Indian Territory?” A place that not only wasn’t a Confederate State, but which wasn’t even a state until 1907? Of course, I didn’t know much about Tulsa beyond passing through it a few times when we lived in Wichita, and the fact that Leon Russell was from there.

    As to the broader issue of whether we have been denied knowledge of such things up to now… I don’t buy into it, at least as it applies to my own understanding. I am FULLY aware that from about the time of the rise of the Lost Cause cult until the 60s or so, rosy pictures of the Confederacy were taught in Southern schools. Knowing that is simply a part of my overall understanding of history. I went to schools all over the country growing up (including in three Southern states — Virginia, South Carolina and Louisiana), and somehow I think I got a pretty complete picture. At least, a picture that prevents me from being surprise by what happened in Tulsa a century ago. Sorrowed, yes. Shocked, no.

    A few months ago, I was listening to a podcast or something while out on a walk, and I heard someone say something like, “People need to be taught that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves.” This was probably in the context of all the tearing down of statues. As I sometimes do, perhaps to the dismay of my neighbors as I walk past their houses, I cried aloud, “What? Who doesn’t know something like THAT?” I sort of meant to write a post about it, but when I thought about it later, I couldn’t remember what I’d been listening to when I heard it. Of course, that hardly matters. We’ve all heard people — usually, I suppose, people who are just finding out such elementary things themselves (kind of like Trump when he discovers something every schoolboy should know, and shares it, beginning, “Most people don’t know….”) — say such things recently.

    Of course, I know that all white people aren’t like me. (That’s a pretty basic thing I understand about this world, which is one of the reasons I so vehemently reject Identity Politics.) First, I’m a history geek. Not that I know everything about it, but that I’m into it, and make the effort to at least have a grip on the broad themes of the human story. I grew up in a number of different cultures, from the South to the North from Ecuador to Hawaii. I attend a very diverse church — one with a word meaning “universal” in the name — and have for years served at masses conducted in Spanish. I’m a longtime newspaper editor, which causes one to be immersed in race and culture, and the issues arising from them, on a daily basis over decades. And I’m a former member of such boards as that of the Columbia Urban League and Greater Columbia Community Relations Council. Over the years, I’ve engaged in many, many intense discussions about the role of the concept of race in our society.

    So no, I don’t expect everyone to view things exactly the way I do. Which is why I thought it would be a good idea to initiate this “Op-Ed Page” feature. And I thank Paul for his contributions to helping us all engage in civil conversation about our respective views…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Of course, all of this is related to why you don’t see me sounding off about the huge uproar over “critical race theory.” I’m not particularly proud of either side in the “debate,” which seems to me more about separating people into the tribes they are so eager to join than it is about anything else.

      Obviously, I’m not going to side with the Trumpistas who treat the “critical race theory” issue as a battle flag round which they rally to show that they’re all about “MAGA” and the Big Lie. And, of course, that they hate them libs.

      Nor can I be pleased by people oversimplifying all opposition to critical race theory as some sort of racist impulse to keep people from knowing the “truth” about our history. I don’t want the truth about anything to be concealed or held back, but I am no fan of critical race theory, which seems to have some rather strange and uninformed assumptions underlying it.

      I can’t imagine the fights over this issue ever leading to something that is good for our country or our world. Not when it’s been reduced to just another simplistic way of separating the tribes.

      In fact, the more I think about this sort of thing, the more I think about the need to resist these binary views of reality, in which everyone is expected to be wholeheartedly on one “side” or the other. Of course as y’all know, that’s been a theme of mine for as long as you’ve been hearing from me. (When I write about things as the “Rabbit Hole” or the political fissures in my church, I’m writing about things that are subsets of that overriding issue.)

      But now, the issue seems more critical than ever, as the tribes huddle ever more closely into their separate realities.

      So when I ask myself, “What is the most important thing you can do with this blog?” I think about that. And then I think I need to come up with some new ways of talking about it, because I don’t seem to have done much good over the year so far. Things just keep getting worse…

      1. Ken

        “I am no fan of critical race theory, which seems to have some rather strange and uninformed assumptions underlying it.”

        In essence, CRT focuses on negative racial effects NOT attributable to individual attitudes of racism or bias. There’s nothing strange about it. Nor is it part of some destructive binary tribalism. It is ONE OF the new ways of examining and talking about things you say you’re keen to see.

  2. Ken

    Americans associate the word “pogrom” with Russia and other places, not the US. But our history is replete with examples of race pogroms perpetrated in this country, including the Colfax Massacre (1873), the Coushatta massacre (1874), the Thibodaux massacre (1887), the Wilmington massacre (1898, novelized by Black author Charles Chesnutt), the Atlanta massacre (1906), East St. Louis (1917), Rosewood, FL (1923), Detroit and Beaumont, TX (1943), as well as several right here in the Great State of South Carolina.

    Not teaching this part of our history is not simply an omission, it is deliberate, purposeful amnesia. For every (white) person who wants to know/know more about these events, there are at least 10 who couldn’t care less and would rather it be forgotten.

    As this contingent puts it both in the past and again now: “It just contributes to divisiveness.”

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I don’t know about the “other places,” but I suppose I have to include myself as someone who associates the word “pogrom” with Russia.

      Probably because it’s a Russian word, and it was coined to refer to the persecution of Jews in Russian-speaking places.

      Of course, like so many words, it has since entering English often taken on a broader meaning having to do with the persecution of other groups. Words do that, but that process doesn’t stop me from gravitating toward original meaning. For instance, when I was editing Paul’s piece above, I paused on the word “decimation,” as I always do, when it appears before me. “Decimate” is a specific Latin-derived word with a specific meaning — it refers to the execution of a tenth of a body of men. People misuse it a lot, sometimes to refer to destruction much greater than that, sometimes much less.

      I don’t mind removing the term from the context of brutal discipline in the Roman Legions, but with that “DEC” root staring me in the face, I do want it to refer to a tenth of something.

      So when I see it, I think, “are we talking about destruction roughly equivalent to a tenth?” I decided that the destruction of property in that part of Tulsa was probably much greater, and that the human deaths might have (although not necessarily) been less than a tenth of the population — but if you averaged it out, it was probably OK.

      I also decided that I would come across as an insufferable pedant if I raised an objection to it, given the way it is so widely used. After all these years, I can pretty much predict when my behavior will prompt such a reaction. (It happens a lot.)

      But yeah, I do think about the origins of words, and what they were coined to mean. So I associate “pogrom” with Russia, and if I’m speaking of the persecution of another ethnic group in a different place, I will probably use a different word.

      I readily admit that perhaps that’s a character flaw on my part, related to hubris or pomposity. But it does not arise from ignorance…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Merriam-Webster certainly regards this tendency as a flaw, stating:

        People love to complain about ‘decimate’, but they’re wrong. Our language includes many words which originally had a specific historical meaning, all of which mean something different in English.

        Of course, what do they know?… 🙂

    2. Ken

      I’ll just add this germane quote from Ronald Reagan, back in 1977, about the TV mini-series Roots:

      “I thought the bias of all the good people being one color and all the bad people being another was rather destructive.”

      So this attitude about dealing with our national history on race has been around a long time and found resonance in lots of quarters.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Yes, and that’s one of the two ways of approaching the subject that I reject.

        Anyway, I don’t recall all the good people being black and all the bad people being white. So I don’t know what Reagan was on about.

        But I seldom agreed with anything he said, so…

        1. Ken

          He also said he couldn’t imagine sitting at home eight nights in a row to watch it all. So he didn’t necessarily see what he was commenting on. Didn’t matter, because he was aiming at finding resonance in certain quarters of the electorate.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            As I said (and said many, many times when he was in office), he didn’t know what he was talking about.

            Of course, I’ve softened on the guy over the last four years. Until Joe was elected, I was even kind of nostalgic for those days. At least we had a guy who was willing to play the part of an actual president on TV…

  3. Bill

    I first heard about this from my dad,along with the lowdown on Strom’s black daughter,back in the 70s
    He was a white minister who joined the NAACP in 1944,and took me to see Thelonius Monk in 1967..

  4. bud

    Some great bipartisan news. Juneteenth is about to become a federal holiday. And by a huge margin in the house.

  5. Brad Warthen Post author

    It occurs to me I owe Paul ANOTHER apology. I’ve been thinking about this since yesterday…

    I should probably wait until there are some other comments reacting to Paul’s columns before I offer my comments.

    I’ve been doing mine right away for a couple of reasons. First, I’m deliberately setting my own views apart from his at the outset, so everyone fully understands that although this is my blog, this is not necessarily what I think. I’ve probably made that point right now, don’t you think?

    Second is just about me and the faulty ways my mind works. When I’m editing Paul’s piece and putting it on the blog, I have a lot of thoughts about it. And since I well know that I will probably forget a lot of those thoughts if I don’t set them down RIGHT NOW, I’ll forget them. So I go ahead and comment right after posting his piece.

    But then that encourages people to react to what I said rather than what Paul said. Which isn’t right.

    So I’ll try to start holding back a bit…

  6. Paul V DeMarco

    @Brad-No worries, comment in whatever fashion you choose.
    @Bill-I would love to hear more about your father’s experience as a white NAACP member in the 1940s. I had a friend whose father was a Sothern Baptist preacher and gave a sermon in the 1960s that some in his congregation felt was too sympathetic to the black freedom struggle. Soon after, a cross was burned on the family’s front lawn. Remarkably, he retained his pulpit and continued to serve that church for several more decades. Presumably more moderate members held sway, as they did at the national level earlier this week.

  7. James Edward Cross

    I probably learned about the Tulsa Race Massacre in the early 1990’s, when the first books started to come out about it. I knew that similar things had happened in various places since the mid-1970’s, though. I was fortunate to take a black history course in college and have an African-American professor who had been a member of the civil rights struggle. He made sure that the class provided a corrective to the history I received in high school. It helped that I like history, am curious about it, and that some of the things he was teaching about dove-tailed into interests I already had. I’ve been lucky to have people who have inspired me to read more about women’s history, immigration history, and more. I still need to do more reading about LBGQT+ history but I’ll get there.

    Let’s face it … most K-12 history is designed to create good citizens and good workers. It is a triumphalist view of our history. It may have improved by being a little more honest about some of the less savory aspects of American history, but even that is presented in a “See what we overcame? How great we are” vein. Indigenous peoples fade away from the narrative after Wounded Knee and the end of the Indian Wars, so you’re not going to hear much about American residence schools. The labor movement mostly does the same after the 19th and early 20th centuries when the main “positive” achievements (like the eight-hour day) of the unions have been made. And so on. It doesn’t help that the way history is often taught is guaranteed to stifle most people’s intellectual curiosity about the topic. And, of course, there’s so much to cover and time is short.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      James, maybe you can help me understand something: Where did you attend school? That might help me understand what people mean when they say things like, “a corrective to the history I received in high school,” which “may have improved by being a little more honest about some of the less savory aspects of American history.”

      I just never experienced that. I’ve never felt that my history was sanitized, or had the experience of thinking (when presented with information like the Tulsa violence), “I was never told that!”

      I’ve mentioned this before, in fact, I think, on a previous comment on this post: When I hear people say things like “students should be taught that Washington and Jefferson were slaveowners” — which I heard recently on NPR or a podcast, I respond, Where did these people go to school and not learn that?

      I hear a lot of things like that, and it always puzzles me…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I wonder, when people say such things, whether they mean that at the very earliest levels of school history (to the extent it is taught at all) is taught on a childish level, before growing more sophisticated (and challenging) in later grades.

        Maybe. Or maybe not.

        All I know is that I have great respect for Washington and Jefferson. Their contributions to the country were extraordinary. But I don’t seem them as plaster saints, and would object to anyone characterizing them that way.

        Oh, and I should mention that I prefer John Adams to either, in part because I’ve always known he was fully opposed to the slavery that Washington and Jefferson practiced. It’s also one of many reasons why for me Lincoln, not Washington or Jefferson, was our greatest president. But I’ll confess that I do catch myself committing a bit of hagiography when it comes to Lincoln. He was pretty awesome. But of course as much as I admire Adams, it’s easy to see that he was also a pain in the rear end to those who knew him — he’s a fully complete human figure in our history…

      2. James Edward Cross

        Northeastern Ohio, 1964-1976 in what was considered a good suburban public school system. In American history it was often a struggle for teachers to have the time to cover anything post-WWII.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Oh, we NEVER got to WWII, to my everlasting frustration. I suspect the teachers didn’t even try hard to get there. As adults, they probably thought, “Who needs to be taught this? It just happened!”

          It’s understandable. Do we, in our dotage, see 9/11, or the 2000 election, as “history” strictly? That would be about the same. WWII ended only eight years before I was born.

          I just read ahead to the end of the books on my own…

      3. James Edward Cross

        To follow-up on your last point … it is not just what they’re taught, but what they **retain.** They may have been taught that Jefferson and Washington were slave owners but just don’t remember it. Year after year, in poll after poll, Americans reveal a shocking lack of knowledge in their own history. Aside from the pedagogical problems I’ve already mentioned, there’s the cultural aspect. Americans like to think of themselves as focusing on the future, not the past. History is something you endure in school, a bunch of names and dates you remember for the test and then forget because history is **irrelevant** to your daily life. Nevermind that that our present is shaped by that past, and that it will still have some effect on our future.

        A case in point. I do not know if you’ve seen this news story:

        Anyone who has a basic knowledge of how our government works would know that this is pure fantasy. The problem is, many people **don’t** know or remember those basics.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Right. So they need to have MORE history crammed into their heads, until they learn that nothing could possibly be more relevant to understanding the world they inhabit.

          I think you’re right about this…

          To follow-up on your last point … it is not just what they’re taught, but what they **retain.** They may have been taught that Jefferson and Washington were slave owners but just don’t remember it.

          And that’s on the students, not the teachers…

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            This is related to something that I’ll elaborate on when it’s not after midnight…

            It’s something I’ve written about many times, and need to write about many more times — the human failing that causes people to want to think of everything as either all good or all bad. Just two choices, in a black-and-white world.

            When reality isn’t like that.

            So people hear the bad things about famous leaders. But at the same time they hear even more GOOD things. So they think they have to make a decision, and they decide they must be GOOD guys, and forget the bad stuff.

            “Woke” people do the complementary thing: They decide to focus only on the bad stuff about the same people.

            And it’s ridiculous. It gives you two large groups of warring people who don’t really understand the world at all…


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