Many folks rail again pop culture, claiming it is turning American minds into intellectual cotton candy.
The daily glut of TV sitcoms, popular music, and motion pictures often get a bad rap for the dumbing down of American culture. But not always. There are occasions where a television series moves beyond its mission to entertain the masses. Sometimes, they educate.
Two HBO series, "Watchmen" and, later, "Lovecraft Country," served as wake-up calls, educating me on an event in American history that was never mentioned in my U.S. History classes at Hattiesburg High School. Often referred to as the Tulsa Race Riots, the "riot" was, by a more correct definition, a massacre.
In "Lovecraft Country," the Tulsa massacre was featured in a dream sequence. Uneducated me, on this subject anyway, wasn't sure if it wasn’t simply one of the series character's dreams. A fantasy, even. Well, it wasn't.
As enlightened as I assumed myself to be on American history, curiosity sent me to explore the unbelievable. My thoughts went from, "Did that really happen" to "Why did I never know this happened?" The easy answer to the second question is that America's high school history books didn't teach me about it.
On the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre, documentaries aired on CNN and MSNBC detailing chronologies of the horrors of that day. Both were difficult to watch.
In the years following WW I, racial and social tensions were running high in America. The Civil War ended just 56 years earlier and was still a tender spot in our national consciousness. The Ku Klux Klan was active in the state of Oklahoma, which had just achieved statehood in 1907. Still a young state, Oklahoma had seen the lynchings of at least 26 Black men and boys. The stage was set for what was to happen in Tulsa's Greenwood District.
In 1921,Tulsa was a thriving oil town with a population of about 100,000. Like many American cities during that time, and even today, Tulsa was segregated, with Blacks making up 10% of its population.
Many of Tulsa's Black residents lived in Greenwood, which functioned as a city within a city, filled with profitable Black-owned businesses including grocery stores, theaters, banks and nightclubs. I imagine it was Tulsa's version of what Hattiesburg's own Mobile Street would have been like during its heyday.
Black doctors, dentists, lawyers and educators called Greenwood home. Residents elected their own leaders and, more impressively, used their personal wealth to promote greater economic growth within the district, earning itself the nickname “Black Wall Street.” Greenwood's days of glory were numbered though.
The oil boom notwithstanding, some areas of Tulsa suffered from a stalling economy, resulting in widespread unemployment, especially among the white population. As returning war veterans struggled to find jobs, Tulsa’s unemployed white residents grew resentful of Greenwood's relative prosperity despite the city's slump.
On May 30, 1921, a Black teenager, Dick Rowland, 19, was accused of assaulting Sarah Page, 17, a white female elevator operator. In what can be described as "fake news," the accusation was proclaimed in a front-page story of the Tulsa Tribune. Rowland was arrested, and while he was jailed, an angry white mob, feeding off rumors and the newspaper's account, began gathering outside the courthouse. There, they demanded Rowland be handed over to them. The sheriff refused.
The following day, about 10 p.m., a group of 75 armed Black men, concerned that Rowland might be lynched, arrived at the courthouse. They were met by some 1,500 white men, many of whom were also armed.
A witness later testified that a white man ordered one of the armed Black men to drop his gun. When he refused, a single shot was fired. It's not clear whether the gunshot was fired by accident or as a warning shot. Still, it set off a brief but deadly exchange of gunfire that left 10 whites and two Blacks dead in the street.
As the Black men who had come to help protect Rowland retreated toward Greenwood Avenue, the white mob gave chase. A running gun battle ensued, spreading into the Greenwood District. Hundreds of Black residents left their homes and businesses to see what the commotion was all about. Seeing the growing crowd, Tulsa police panicked and began firing at any Black person on the street. Police were also seen deputizing members of the mob, instructing them to “get a gun” and start shooting Blacks.
Stories spread that Black Tulsans had begun an insurrection and that their numbers were being reinforced by more African Americans coming into the city from nearby towns. None of which was true, but the rumors were enough.
At daybreak, the morning of June 1, thousands of white citizens poured into Greenwood. Businesses were looted, homes and churches burned, 35 city blocks of Greenwood were decimated.
It got worse when some White pilots decided to attack from above. A group of men gathered at the nearby airport and were joined by flight crews working for the Curtiss-Southwest Airplane Co. A dozen or so light planes were prepared for a "bombing mission" on Greenwood. Many of the planes had served as training aircraft for the American military during World War I.
The massacre was in full swing as the aircraft took off. Each pilot took an "observer" with them whose job it was to be the "bomber."
The planes were loaded with balls of fabric soaked in turpentine. Matches were used to ignite them as makeshift bombs were dropped all over Greenwood. After running out of their incendiary payloads, the planes would return to the airport to reload.
On their return flights, they only had to follow the black plumes of smoke from their previous bombings for guidance back to Greenwood. Besides their turpentine-soaked bombs, some of the "observers" carried rifles, randomly firing at any Black person attempting to flee the mayhem.
One resident of Greenwood, a journalist, Mary E. Jones Parrish, recounted the scene:
"...the sights our eyes beheld made our poor hearts stand still for a moment. There was a great shadow in the sky and upon a second look, we discerned that this cloud was caused by fast-approaching aeroplanes. It then dawned upon us that the enemy had organized in the night and was invading our district the same as the Germans invaded France and Belgium. … People were seen to flee from their burning homes, some with babies in their arms. Yes, seemingly, I did not leave. I walked as in a horrible dream."
The pilots and crews were relentless in their attacks, dropping fire bombs on Greenwood from low altitude.
They targeted neighborhood homes, businesses and Greenwood's Mount Zion Baptist Church. For maximum fire damage, the flat rooftops of buildings were targeted.
With the fires fully involved, Tulsa's fire department was forcibly held back by the mob, leaving firemen little choice but to watch helplessly from a safe distance as Greenwood burned. A school, library, churches, hotels, stores, two Black-owned newspapers, and Greenwood's only hospital were either destroyed or severely damaged by the fires.
There's no way to confirm how many lives were lost but the numbers range as high as 300, many of the bodies buried in unmarked mass graves in the pauper's field section of Tulsa's Oaklawn Cemetery Sadly, bodies were "disposed of" is probably a more apt description.
Oklahoma's governor declared martial law as the National Guard arrived. Guardsmen helped put out the remaining fires and were also used to imprison Black Tulsans. As many as 6,000 were kept under armed guard at the city's fairgrounds. White citizens who took part in the massacre were simply disarmed and instructed to go home.
With their homes burned to the ground, thousands were forced to live in tent cities. Greenwood's Black men were put to work cleaning up the ruins of their once-prosperous neighborhood, now reduced to ashes.
And what of Dick Rowland, the teenager whose arrest sparked the massacre? All charges against him were dropped. Page, the elevator operator, would not press charges. The police later concluded that Rowland had stumbled into the woman, or accidentally stepped on her foot, which would explain her scream. Released from jail, Rowland left Tulsa, and never returned.
For decades following the Tulsa massacre, there were no memorials held to commemorate the events of June 1, 1921.
In fact, deliberate efforts were made by the city of Tulsa and the state of Oklahoma to cover it up.
The Tulsa Tribune removed its May 31 front-page story accusing Rowland of assault from bound volumes of its old newspapers. Historians later discovered archival records of the massacre were also missing. And, of course, America's school children were not taught about what happened in Tulsa.
There are three living survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre. One, 107-year-old Viola Fletcher, spoke at a rally in Tulsa, marking the centennial commemoration of the tragedy. The story may have been hidden from us, but Fletcher's words bring that history back to life.
"I will never forget the violence of the white mob when we left our home. I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams. I have lived through this massacre every day. Our country may forget this history but I cannot."
And now, neither can we.
Elijah Jones is a proud Hattiesburg native who enjoys writing. Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org.