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A Case for Reparations -- Tulsa Oklahoma
A Case for Reparations – Tulsa Oklahoma**
May 30, 2021
One hundred years ago this month marked the worst assault on a Black community in the history of the United States. The Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa Oklahoma stood as a model of Black entrepreneurship where Black people, who because of Jim Crow segregation laws couldn’t share in the overall wealth of Tulsa, established their own community. They accumulated their own wealth and grew a highly successful community of businesses, schools, entertainment venues, medical facilities, hotels, restaurants, groceries, churches, and social services. They had professionals living and working in their neighborhoods including doctors, lawyers, accountants and finance experts. So successful was this community that it became known as the “Black Wall Street of America.” Greenwood served as a model of what Black people could accomplish with their own spirit and perseverance. At its peak of prosperity, ten thousand Black people lived in Greenwood.
Then came that fateful day in May 1921. It is said that the riots were precipitated by a young Black male who accidentally lost his balance and fell into a young white female elevator operator. The woman pressed charges and the young man was arrested. The Tulsa Tribune reported the incident on the front page of the newspaper saying a Black man assaulted a white woman motivating a white lynch mob to charge the police station and demand the youth pay for his offense. Greenwood organized a group of Black World War One veterans to go to the courthouse to protect the young man. A confrontation ensued between the white mob and the veterans that mobilized the mob to almost one-thousand and they stormed the Greenwood neighborhood. Greenwood residents tried to fight back but were greatly outnumbered and overwhelmed. After twenty-four hours of mob assault, over three hundred Greenwood residents were killed, hundreds more were injured and arsonists burned over one hundred businesses and twelve hundred homes to the ground. The mob even used airplanes dropping dynamite and firebombs on people’s homes and businesses. This was the first time airplanes had been used by Americans to bomb other Americans. Almost nine thousand residents were left homeless and over six thousand Greenwood residents were placed in internment camps.
Where was the Tulsa Police Department during this insurrection? It was reported in a 2001 study that the police in fact, deputized rioters to help destroy the Greenwood community. Not a single rioter or arsonist was ever arrested or charged with a crime. The only persons arrested were Black Greenwood residents who were accused of inciting the riot and blamed for causing their own destruction. Hospitals in Tulsa refused to treat the injured Black Greenwood residents. Insurance companies refused to honor claims filed by the residents. Millions of dollars of property destruction and one hundred years later, neither the residents nor their descendants have received a single penny of reparations.
If there ever were a case for reparations, justification could not be clearer. These were Black people doing exactly what white Americans advocated to build successful communities. Greenwood residents did it in the face of much greater obstacles to success since they lived in Jim Crow “separate but not so equal” America. The city of Tulsa and State of Oklahoma were responsible for encouraging and fomenting the riots and nothing was done to stop it from occurring. There is pretty clear evidence the police actually participated in the riots. Until recently, this story has not been widely reported and it has been whitewashed for many years by Oklahoma officials and historians. If curriculum revisionists in Texas, Oklahoma and a host of other conservative controlled legislatures have their way, the Tulsa massacre, Black history and slavery will become history never taught to our school children.
Reparations are highly controversial in this country. The major case for reparations is usually made by describing how slavery helped build the economy of the country through the cotton and sugar trade with Europe based on free slave labor. The labor was worth millions of dollars and yet, slaves and their ancestors were never reimbursed. Black people though slavery and the subsequent Jim Crow era were denied an education, proper nutrition, housing, healthcare and opportunities for employment – all of which have monetary value. They were also humiliated in the process always being told they were less human than white people and were not deserving.
The major case against reparations was made by Shelby Steele in 1990 and many say is still relevant to this day. He posited that the most difficult part of reparations is how they would be paid. He and many people do not believe that simply giving cash to people will work. He cites the war on poverty of the 1960’s as a failure and thinks that cash outlays would act as a disincentive to work and cause major waste. Steele advocated for REPAIRations that would address education, employment, housing, healthcare, income and other Black/white disparities. The $6 Trillion budget presented this past week by President Biden starts to address some of what Steele recommended by setting aside dollars in each federal department to close the disparity gap.
Back to Tulsa; This story is different because it is crystal clear that the city and the State of Oklahoma bear major responsibility. Government agencies contributed to destroying the Greenwood community and affected the residents and their ancestors. Our nation also lost a golden opportunity to build off the Greenwood model of a successful Black economic community during the worst of Jim Crow conditions. It is clearly a great loss for the former residents, their ancestors and for the nation as a whole. So, what to do? The cash value of what was lost is easily calculated and either payments to the ancestors or an investment like those proposed by Shelby Steele for neighborhood revitalization in Tulsa would be positive steps. Moving on a grander scale, it is time for a national dialogue on reparations. The income and asset disparity between white people and people of color is huge and needs serious attention.
**Much of the history noted in this paper was taken from an excellent feature in the New York Times on Sunday May 30,2021. Here is the link to that article and a great 3-D graphic of the Greenwood community prior to the 1921 riot. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/05/24/us/tulsa-race-massacre.html?searchResultPosition=2