Our Unitarian faith tradition has a horrifying historical connection to the Tulsa Race Massacre.
Frank Lloyd Wright, as many know, comes from a renowned Unitarian family. His uncle, Rev. Jenkins Lloyd Jones, spread progressive Unitarianism in the Midwest with his newspaper and served All Souls Unitarian Church of Chicago (formerly Fourth Unitarian). Richard Lloyd Jones, his son, moved to Tulsa and founded two things: the Tulsa Tribune (1919) and All Souls Unitarian Church (1921).
When a young black man was falsely accused of sexually assaulting a white woman a century ago, Richard Lloyd Jones published a story titled, “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in an Elevator.” His editorial was titled, “To Lynch Negro Tonight.”
In response, several Black WWI veterans armed themselves to protect the young man who was unjustly targeted. Several hundred white people gathered. When someone fired a shot, the mayor deputized a hundred white people — and armed them. The massacre wasn’t carried out by some random mob of hateful racists but people with government authority behind them.
Most historians agree that Jones played a primary role in fomenting the violence. As many as 300 people were killed by violence and fire. Thirty-five city blocks were burned to the ground, including eight doctors’ offices, 30 restaurants, 12 churches, two dozen grocery stores, and a library. Many of the 1,100 homes destroyed by fire were first looted by whites.
Afterward, insurance firms refused to compensate the victims, so a generation of Black wealth was obliterated.
The city’s white pastors blamed the massacre’s victims for the devastation and even applauded the white men who led the violence, as did the local white papers. Postcards were created showing the destruction and the dead — and these postcards were displayed as trophies in town and mailed across America.
Richard Lloyd Jones later wrote, “The KKK of Tulsa has promised to do the American thing in the American way.” Even as Jones worked to build a religiously liberal church in Tulsa, he watered the seeds of white supremacy, which included a collective amnesia of those actions until just recently.
My colleague, Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, has served All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa for the past 20 years, when this horrific forgotten chapter of Tulsa history was brought to the awareness of city leaders. He has pursued racial reconciliation and co-led the effort to provide reparations to the families who lost loved ones and property. I agree with Lavanhar that “countless lives — our lives — are still shaped by the racist actions and attitudes of American citizens. So we remember.”
The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre reveals how sensationalized, inaccurate stories, combined with underlying racist attitudes, can result in tremendous destruction.
Black churches have time and time again said, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The graciousness of the Black church in America has been astonishing. Black people have never risen up in an intifada; instead, many attend Black churches that affirm the profound suffering of their people, teach the reality of grace, and call forth human dignity to hold out hope for a better day.
White churches, including my faith tradition, must have a reckoning on how we responded or failed to respond, just as we need a reckoning on our involvement with slavery, Jim Crow, and far too often our silence on civil rights. White churches must stop contributing to collective amnesia.
What has the school system in Tulsa taught about this horrific chapter until recently? Nothing. The erasure from memory of this horrific event among the dominant culture demonstrates that white supremacy has infiltrated all aspects of society. The media, the courts, the school system all conspired together to cover up this chapter of sheer brutality toward American citizens.
The only thing the city of Tulsa has ever given those who lost their homes was a green protection card, which Black people had to pin to their clothes if they didn’t want to get hassled or beaten by the police. The Tulsa authorities overnight created three detention centers and 7,500 green protection cards. Was the Tulsa Race Massacre not a random act?
The Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa was rebuilt but later destroyed by urban renewal. Almost all of the blocks of the Greenwood community are now under the freeway or purchased by the university. The takeover of Greenwood was complete.
Stories like this one have persuaded me that reparations are a moral imperative.
Rev. Alan Taylor is a senior minister at the Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Oak Park.