Black Wall Street*
Before Katrina, Detroit, Baltimore…
By Robert Barsocchini
An otherwise poor and uninformative documentary (funded by Pennsylvania Public Television and Corporation for Public Broadcasting) on the US bombing and burning alive of 11 residents, adults and children, of the MOVE house in Philadelphia, 1985, begins with one minute (10:30 to 11:30) on the rarely-mentioned 1921 onslaught, aerial bombing, and incineration of the “Black Wall Street” business district of Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921, by white mobs, including the KKK and government forces.
From the PPT, CPB doc:
May 31st, 1921, Tulsa, Oklahoma. The ‘Negro Wall Street’ district of the Greenwood neighborhood is bombed from the air.
Whites invade the enviable black business district, looting, burning, killing.
The police commandeer private planes. The 101st Airborne is flown in. A load of dynamite is dropped. 75 instantly killed. Hundreds of homes and businesses destroyed.
Four truckloads of bodies are shovelled into mass graves along the Arkansas river.
4,000 black men, women, and children arrested and placed in concentration camps, where they are required to carry ‘passes’.
The city quickly re-zones the neighbourhood so that the railroad can be run through, thus completing the destruction of that neighbourhood.
Wikipedia states that on May 31 and June 1, 1921:
…a group of white people attacked the black community of Tulsa, Oklahoma. It resulted in the Greenwood District, also known as ‘the Black Wall Street‘ and the wealthiest black community in the United States, being burned to the ground.
An estimated 10,000 blacks were left homeless, and 35 city blocks composed of 1,256 residences were destroyed by fire. The official count of the dead by the Oklahoma Department of Vital Statistics was 39, but other estimates of black fatalities vary from 55 to about 300.
The events of the riot were long omitted from local and state histories.
“The Tulsa race riot of 1921 was rarely mentioned in history books, classrooms or even in private. Blacks and whites alike grew into middle age unaware of what had taken place.”
One official, the police chief, was found guilty of “failing to take proper precautions for protecting life and property, and for conspiring to free automobile thieves and collect rewards.”
“No legal records indicate that any other white official was ever charged of wrongdoing or even negligence.”
Black Wall Street neighbourhood after the massacre and being razed:
Of the wider trend of this kind of violence in the US during that period, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Elliot G. Jaspin has documented in his book, Buried in Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America, that whites in the US, mainly in the period of about 1900 to about 1920, engaged in extraordinarily widespread, mass “racial cleansings” of large areas in which black people lived.
White terrorists would form mobs and drive out the black people, torturing and killing those who could not escape or refused to leave. The US government allowed the practice and did not punish or rectify it, and many of the cleansed counties remain entirely white today.
Records, like those from the Black Wall Street massacre, abound of harrowing escapes as white mobs fired at black civilians in their neighbourhoods and burned down their houses, forcing people to flee through forests and creeks, hide in wells, or simply get on trains at gunpoint and go away.
Crucially, Jaspin also documents why this history is almost entirely unknown in the US: people either deny or try to explain away racial cleansings [and many other crimes of their society], through tactics such as using euphemisms, making excuses, or, the tactic perhaps most seen today, blaming the victims.
George Orwell wrote: “The nationalist not only does not disprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.”
Lynchings of black people were also a frequent occurrence during, before, and after this period.
Harvard scholar Garikai Chengu notes:
A lynching was a quintessential American public ritual that often took place in front of large crowds that sometimes numbered in the thousands. Historian Mark Gado notes that, “onlookers sometimes fired rifles and handguns hundreds of times into the corpse while people cheered and children played during the festivities”.
…in 1899 the Springfield Weekly described a lynching by chronicling how,
“the Negro was deprived of his ears, fingers and genital parts of his body. He pleaded pitifully for his life while the mutilation was going on…before the body was cool, it was cut to pieces, the bones crushed into small bits…the Negro’s heart was cut into several pieces, as was also his liver…small pieces of bones went for 25 cents…”. Such graphic accounts were the norm in the South, and photos, were regularly taken of the lynched bodies on display and made into postcards that were sent all over the country.
Lynchings were sanctioned by the US government, as they were not prevented and went unpunished.
In the US today, Chengu continues, the:
…police state assassinates the Black victim twice. Once by way of lynching and again to assassinate the victim’s character so as to justify the public execution [blaming the victim].
Chauncey DeVega notes at Alternet:
American Exceptionalism [the US state-worshiper’s version of “Our God is the One True God”] blinds those who share its gaze to uncomfortable facts and truths about their own country.
The burned to death images of the black body were a form of mass culture in 19th- and 20th-century America.
DeVega gives some samples of reports on how lynchings were carried out:
Two thousand people gathered for the killing, some taking a special excursion train from Atlanta for the purpose. The leaders of the lynching stripped Hose, chained him to a tree, stacked wood around him, and soaked everything in kerosene. The mob cut off Hose’s ears, fingers and genitals; they peeled the skin from his face. They watched, a newspaper reported, “with unfeigning satisfaction” as the man’s veins ruptured from the heat and his blood hissed in the flames.
“Great masses of humanity flew as swiftly as possible through the streets of the city in order to be present at the bridge when the hanging took place … the Negro was … taken to the City Hall … crowds of men, women and children turned and hastened to the lawn.
“On the way to the scene of the burning people on every hand took a hand in showing their feelings in the matter by striking the Negro with anything obtainable, some struck him with shovels, bricks, clubs, and others stabbed him and cut him until when he was strung up his body was a solid color of red, the blood of the many wounds inflicted covered him from head to foot.
“Dry goods boxes and all kinds of inflammable material were gathered, and it required but an instant to convert this into seething flames. When the Negro was first hoisted into the air his tongue protruded from his mouth and his face was besmeared with blood.”
“Life was not extinct within the Negro’s body, although nearly so, when another chain was placed around his neck and thrown over the limb of a tree on the lawn, everybody trying to get to the Negro and have some part in his death. The infuriated mob then leaned the Negro, who was half alive and half dead, against the tree, he having just strength enough within his limbs to support him.
“As rapidly as possible the Negro was then jerked into the air at which a shout from thousands of throats went up on the morning air and dry goods boxes, excelsior, wood and every other article that would burn was then in evidence, appearing as if by magic. A huge dry goods box was then produced and filled to the top with all of the material that had been secured.
“The Negro’s body was swaying in the air, and all of the time a noise as of thousands was heard and the Negro’s body was lowered into the box.” “No sooner had his body touched the box than people pressed forward, each eager to be the first to light the fire, matches were touched to the inflammable material and as smoke rapidly rose in the air, such a demonstration as of people gone mad was never heard before. Everybody pressed closer to get souvenirs of the affair. When they had finished with the Negro his body was mutilated.
“Fingers, ears, pieces of clothing, toes and other parts of the Negro’s body were cut off by members of the mob that had crowded to the scene as if by magic when the word that the Negro had been taken in charge by the mob was heralded over the city. As the smoke rose to the heavens, the mass of people, numbering in the neighborhood of 10,000 crowding the City Hall law and overflowing the square, hanging from the windows of buildings, viewing the scene from the tops of buildings and trees, set up a shout that was heard blocks away.”
In another lynching:
..fingers and toes were cut off, his teeth pulled out by pliers and finally he was castrated. It still wasn’t enough. Irwin was then burned alive in front of hundreds of onlookers (Brundage, p. 42).
DeVega continues that white torture and execution of blacks:
…was a ceremony … with distinct practices, that symbolically purged the black body from the white polity…
The rendering of spectacular violence against non-whites paid a psychological wage to white people that helped to create a type of social cement for White America, one that covered up its own intra-group tensions of class, religion, and gender. This racial logic continues in the present with a racially discriminatory criminal justice system, the murder by police of black and brown people, and how white Americans support such unfair treatment.
A 2001 report on the destruction of Black Wall Street “included the commission’s recommendations for some compensatory actions, most of which were not implemented by the state and city governments. The state passed legislation to establish some scholarships for descendants of survivors, economic development of Greenwood, and a memorial park to the victims in Tulsa. The latter was dedicated in 2010.”
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