Auburn history professor discusses significance of Tulsa Race Massacre’s 100th anniversary

Published: May 27, 2021
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On May 31, 1921, an atrocity known as the Tulsa Race Massacre began in the thriving Greenwood District of the Oklahoma metropolis. More than 35 city blocks were burned to the ground and hundreds of Black citizens were killed, erasing what was known as Black Wall Street, a booming center of Black ingenuity and promise. A new documentary about the massacre – executive produced by NBA All-Star and philanthropist Russell Westbrook and directed by Peabody and Emmy Award winner Stanley Nelson and Peabody and duPont Award winner Marco Williams – will air on the HISTORY channel on Sunday, May 30.

Auburn University’s Keith Hébert, an associate professor of history in the College of Liberal Arts and Public History Program Officer for the Department of History, is an expert in the history of race riots, the legacy of white supremacy and the U.S. civil rights movement. He discussed the significance of the massacre’s 100th anniversary, details the atmosphere of race relations in the country at the time and talked about what incidents like the Tulsa Race Massacre can teach citizens as the country continues its march toward progress and equality.
 

Why was the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre so significant?

The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre reveals much about the long history of endemic white on Black violence in America. Many white Americans today are unaware or purposely ignorant of the widespread atrocities committed against Black people in America. The history of the brutal conditions that Black slaves endured in America and the waves of racial violence experienced by Black people since emancipation in 1865 are far too often omitted in classrooms across the nation. Consequently, for some, the Tulsa Race Massacre might appear as if it were an exception to the normative Black experience in America when, in fact, white on Black violence has been a prevalent part of the American story. Incidents of white on Black mass violence in America were common because they were tolerated by all levels of government, law enforcement and social institutions under white control. The violence in Tulsa and elsewhere was committed by white citizens who acted knowing they would not be held accountable for their collective violence. Tulsa provides a lens through which to explore broader trends in American history.

Are there any lingering effects from this chapter of history that continue today?

The impact of mass racial violence and systemic racism continues to be felt across Black communities. In Tulsa, the Black community struggled to rebound after losing around 300 lives and millions in personal property. No Whites were arrested. No reparations were made for the destruction of this thriving Black community. The unpunished acts of violence emboldened local white supremacists who during the following years swelled the local Ku Klux Klan’s membership and marched openly down Tulsa’s streets. Across America, the distrust that exists between law enforcement and Black people and other minorities has much to do with the legacy of these numerous incidents of racial mass violence.

Unfortunately, most of that history is ignored locally by many whites who attempt to silence the retelling of these horrific moments. Just as racialized violence has victimized many Black communities, many white communities have fallen victim to a distorted view of American history that refuses to acknowledge the obvious—racism has been a central tenet of American history. However, some Americans believe that any future improvement in race relations hinges on acknowledging and repairing past wrongs.

Is this incident similar to any topics from your current research projects?

Two years prior to the Tulsa Race Massacre, a wave of white on Black mass violence swept across America during the Red Summer of 1919. During the autumn of 1919, white domestic terrorists murdered hundreds of Black men, women and children in more than three dozen communities nationwide. Currently, I am writing a history of African American communities in central Appalachia. During the Red Summer, a white mob in Corbin, Kentucky, murdered at least two Black men before forcing the entire Black community of approximately 200-plus residents to exit the town aboard railroad freight cars with threats that they would be killed if they returned to their homes. White mobs in several communities across America carried out similar acts of racial cleansing.

Why is it important to commemorate and remember anniversaries like this in our current day and age?

The Black victims of the Tulsa Race Massacre never received justice. America’s failure to prosecute white domestic terrorists has created festering wounds across America that have never received adequate reparations. Despite efforts to silence Black voices, white supremacists have failed to erase this history. Fifty years ago, scholars recorded many oral interviews with Black people who provided firsthand testimonials of the violence in Tulsa. Recently, investigations have sought to identify the victim graves. Modern scanning technologies and other tools have been employed to help us better understand the scale of Black Wall Street’s destruction. Remembering the Tulsa Race Massacre challenges Americans to think critically about the persistence of American racism.

Hopefully, the Tulsa centennial inspires people to learn more about similar tragedies and the underlying racism that transformed ordinary white citizens into unlawful violent mobs. Any path forward involves open and honest conversations about how this and similar events have shaped the American experience.

More Information To arrange an interview with our expert, contact Neal Reid, communications editor, Auburn University Office of Communications and Marketing, at neal.reid@auburn.edu