On May 30, 1921, the residents of Tulsa, Oklahoma gathered for a Memorial Day parade despite the day’s forecast, which called for heavy precipitation.
“The parade went on despite the rain,” writes Randy Krehbiel in “Tulsa 1921: Reporting a Massacre.”
From the published accounts of that day, you wouldn’t know that Black veterans had participated, as well. Their sacrifices were not being remembered. And, besides, the country for which they risked and, in many cases, lost their lives was not a country meant for them, in the eyes of many whites at the time.
The year prior, in 1920, the U.S. census “concluded that Oklahoma had the nation’s highest percentage of native-born citizens,” which was itself cause for celebration. Indeed, Tulsa “prided itself on not just its patriotism but its Americanism. It even observed Americanism Day,” Krehbiel writes.
“All Tulsa Pays Homage to Dead,” blared the headlines of both of the city’s major newspapers — the Tulsa Daily World and the Tulsa Tribune.
Of course, by “all” they meant all who were white and Protestant and law abiding and unaligned with labor unions or the sacrilege idea that Blacks are equal to whites. Time and again, events in Tulsa would bear this reality out.
In 1917, 12 white members of the Industrial Workers of the World, “a labor union then attempting to organize oil-field roughnecks,” were arrested and charged with vagrancy before being hauled off by a mob of “fifty men in black robes and black masks,” and assaulted, whipped, tarred and feathered.
In 1920, Roy Belton, an 18-year-old white boy, was arrested for murder, but a mob of white vigilantes didn’t want to wait to see how things would play out in a trial, so they took justice into their own hands, lynching Belton and then rushing to get bits of his clothing to keep as souvenirs.
When Sarah Page, the white elevator operator, told police on the morning of the 1921 Tulsa Memorial Day parade that a young Black man named Dick Rowland grabbed her arm, the circumstances were already ripe for an explosion of white, nativist rage.
By now, you may be familiar with at least the broad outlines of the destruction of Tulsa’s Greenwood District, the relatively well-off Black community that Booker T. Washington dubbed in 1913 “Black Wall Street.”
That name, Krehbiel correctly points out, was a misnomer, since Greenwood “had no formal financial institutions, no banks or brokerage houses.” What the area lacked in capital accumulation, however, it made up for in community and collaboration. Greenwood’s thriving, independent local economy, despite the fact that it was but a mere echo of the oil-boom wealth of white Tulsa, made it a target for jealous whites who felt that Blacks should always occupy the lowest rung of society.
Last week, major media outlets broke their necks covering the 100th anniversary of the Greenwood massacre. What Krehbiel calls the “deadliest outbreak of white terrorist violence against a black community in American history” took place between May 30 and June 3.
“It is estimated that more than three hundred people (mostly Blacks) died due to the violence,” the author writes. “All told, in less than twenty-four hours, the thirty-five square blocks that constituted the Greenwood District — more than one dozen churches, five hotels, thirty-one restaurants, four drug stores, eight doctors’ offices, two dozen grocery stores, a public library, and more than one thousand homes — lay in ruin.”
But the Tulsa Massacre, as it’s come to be known, wasn’t unique. Similar mob acts by whites had taken place in previous years in cities across the country, including in Chicago in 1919.
“Over the course of American history, more than 250 episodes of collective white violence against black communities have occurred,” writes scholar Karlos K. Hill.
We’d be mistaken to think that this white violence and the ideology of white supremacy that undergirded it were limited to the more unenlightened, less liberal whites of the South and Southwest or working class enclaves on Chicago’s South Side.
The one man who perhaps bears the most immediate responsibility for the Tulsa Massacre was Wisconsin-born, Chicago-raised Richard Lloyd Jones — the son of the great Universalist minister Jenkin Lloyd Jones and Frank Lloyd Wright’s cousin.
Without Wright’s strong affiliation with the Unitarian Universalists (along with his uncle, Wright’s mother’s family were Welsh Unitarians and his father a Universalist preacher), there may be no Unity Temple.
As many scholars have noted, the radical openness and humanism of Unitarian Universalism helped influence Wright’s groundbreaking design.
The impulse and responsibility to remember that binds us to acknowledge the impact of Wright’s Unitarian Universalist roots on his architectural legacy should also bind us to confront this much uglier aspect of history.
Jones, the famous publisher of the Tulsa Tribune, may have committed a good portion of his life to preserving the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln (this “great American who saved the nation and freed the slaves,” Jones would say in a Feb. 12, 1921 speech), but in his newspaper, he referred to the Greenwood District as “N—town” or “Little Africa,” according to Tim Madigan’s “The Burning: The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921.”
And while Jones didn’t have a problem with Blacks who knew their place and were polite and respectable, he wrote that “a bad n— is about the lowest thing that walks on two feet. Give a bad n— his booze and his dope and a gun and he thinks he can shoot up the world.”
Jones’ rhetoric isn’t too far from that used by Wright himself, when describing a 1928 design for his (ultimately unbuilt) Rosenwald Schools, “an educational network, mostly in the segregated south, for African-American children,” according to Fast Company.
“Wright referred to African-Americans as ‘darkies,’ and there appeared notes on drawings that indicated beliefs that blacks liked bright colors or in letters that they were a simple people who took great joy in song,’” Mabel O. Wilson, a Columbia University architectural historian and professor told the publication.
“These racist sentiments emerge in the Jim Crow era after Reconstruction, which is exactly the period of Wright’s youth. And yet he was surrounded by many progressive family members like his uncle the Unitarian minister Jenkin Lloyd Jones, who embraced and promoted socially progressive ideas about education.”
In point of historical fact, concepts of progressive reform and abolitionism have always too easily coexisted with notions of biological determinism and racial hierarchy.
For instance, the historian Nell Irvin Painter calls Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose philosophy of transcendentalism influenced Wright’s Universalism, the “philosopher king of American white race theory.”
Emerson “wrote the earliest full-length statement of the ideology later termed Anglo-Saxonist, synthesizing all the salient nineteenth- and early twentieth-century concepts of American whiteness,” Painter writes.
In the early 20th century, as more and more European immigrants poured into American cities, as white fears of violence and miscegenation grew, and as everybody bumped into each other in the collective rush for economic opportunity, social ideas like whiteness and nativism helped to inject some semblance of order into the perceived chaos.
The 1915 film “Birth of a Nation” seemed “to unite white Americans on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line in their racial fears and hatreds.” That year, the Ku Klux Klan reemerged in Stone Mountain, Ga., a little more than a decade after President Ulysses Grant all but outlawed the hate group in 1871.
By the time Richard Lloyd Jones got word from his court reporter that Dick Rowland had allegedly assaulted Sarah Page in an elevator on Memorial Day 1921, Jones, ever the opportunist, sensed an opportunity. Like Roger Ailes after him, Jones would exploit fear and economic insecurity for profit.
Even though, as Madigan writes, the charge against Rowland “was highly suspect from the beginning,” Jones’s Tribune printed “an inflammatory account of the elevator incident and of Rowland’s arrest” in its May 31, 1921 issue. The angrier the headline, the more papers sold.
“To Lynch a Negro Tonight,” the headline read.
“North of the tracks,” where the whites lived, “the paper was passed from person to person along Greenwood Avenue, the sickening headline staring up at them like a call to arms,” Madigan writes.
The rest, as they say, is history and may we never forget it.