International Network of Street Papers an elderly white man attempted to disarm one of the veterans, a shot was fired, and the massacre had begun. The Tulsa police then showed up. But instead of stopping the violence, they deputised members of the lynch mob and provided them with arms, telling them to “Get a gun, and get a n*****.” A Warning from History In May 2020, George Floyd was murdered by Derek Chauvin, a serving police officer. The killing shocked the world and galvanised the Black Lives Matter movement. Change is coming but it is long overdue. In May 1921, the worst incident of racial violence in America took place in Tulsa. The Greenwood district of the city was known as the Black Wall Street, its destruction likened to Kristallnacht. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, died. Only now, nearing the 100th anniversary, is its story being told. Scott Ellsworth is a historian leading efforts next month to exhume unmarked graves of victims. He explains why we need to remember. Interview by Steven MacKenzie The Big Issue: What was the Greenwood district of Tulsa like before the events of late May 1921? Scott Ellsworth: Greenwood was an incredibly vibrant community, and home to 10,000 African American men, women and children. It was home to two newspapers, two schools, a hospital, a public library and a dozen churches. Thirty restaurants served everything from sandwiches and bowls of chilli to barbecue and steaks and chops with all of the trimmings. Two theatres – the Dreamland, which sat 750, and the Dixie, that had seats for 1,000 – offered motion pictures, jazz concerts, lectures and boxing matches. In Greenwood, there were three dozen grocery stores and meat markets, as well as clothing and dry goods stores, a photography studio, a feed and grain store, tailor shops, billiard halls, five hotels and the offices of more than a dozen African American physicians, surgeons, dentists, and lawyers. The wealthiest of Greenwood’s merchants lived in beautiful one and two-storey homes, complete with pianos, fine china and garages for their automobiles, while most citizens lived in simple wooden homes. But throughout the community there was a deep, abiding sense of pride. This was their neighbourhood. They had built it. And soon they would have to fight to defend it. What were the roots of unrest and what was the spark that led to the riot? The late 1910s an early 1920s were an especially dark time for race relations in America. Segregation was on the rise, in 1915 there was a rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, the largest and most powerful terrorist group in US history. Race riots and lynchings were common nationwide. In 1920, an 18-year-old accused murderer was lynched by an all-white mob in Tulsa. From that moment on, Black Tulsans knew that they could not rely on white Tulsa police officers to protect African American prisoners from mob violence. What happened on May 31 and June 1? On the afternoon of May 31, the Tulsa Tribune, one of the city’s white daily newspapers, published an inflammatory front-page story claiming that a 19-year-old African American shoe shiner named Dick Rowland had sexually assaulted a 17-year-old white female elevator Page 11 operator in a downtown office building. The Tribune also published an editorial titled ‘To Lynch Negro Tonight’. Within a half hour of the newspaper hitting the streets, a lynch mob began to gather outside the courthouse in whose jail Dick Rowland was being held. When word hit Greenwood that evening that the white mob was storming the courthouse, a group of 75 African American World War I veterans went down to the courthouse and offered their services to the sheriff to help protect the prisoner. As they were leaving to return to Greenwood, For the next few hours, crowds of whites murdered innocent African Americans – who were just getting off work – downtown, while gangs of whites took part in drive-byshootings along residential streets in Greenwood, firing into parlours and children’s bedrooms. Some fires were set, and there was an attempt to invade the African American business district, but that was repulsed by armed Black home and business owners. By three o’clock in the morning, it seemed like the worst of the violence was over. It was not. The next morning, just before dawn on June 1, thousands of whites invaded Greenwood, killing any African Americans who resisted, and imprisoning those who did not. Then the white mobs systematically looted and set fire to Greenwood. Not only did the police and local National Guard units fail to stop the invasion, but they also fired on Black citizens. Machine guns were unleashed upon Greenwood, and in at least one instance, an airplane dropped sticks of dynamite. Before the violence finally ended that afternoon, more than 1,000 African American homes were destroyed, while 10,000 Black citizens were now homeless. Thirtyfive square blocks, the entirety of Greenwood, had been reduced to ash and rubble. How many people were killed? To this day, we still don’t know. Reasonable estimates run from somewhere in the 70s to 300. Nor do we know what the ratio is between Continue on next page

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