Repentance, Grace, and Justice: The 100th Anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre

As people of faith, followers of Christ, we at Augustana mark the 100th Anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre, when white Americans killed over 300 black Americans and burned down the black section of Tulsa, leaving 8,000 homeless. This past Sunday, our prayers included:

God, we ask you to help our country as we confront our long legacy of racial violence. Lead us into true and full confession of the sin of white supremacy. Let us embrace repentance. Help us to use your forgiveness to walk together in Christ. Give us hope and your peace.

On Sunday, Pastor Goede shared excerpts from Caleb Gayle’s excellent article in the NYTimes Magazine “100 Years After the Tulsa Massacre, What Does Justice Look Like?” Here is the transcript of her remarks:

Tulsa was booming in 1921. The oil gushed, attracting transplants from other parts of the state, surrounding states and states along the East Coast, “geologists, drillers, tool-dressers, pipeliners, teamsters, roustabouts or rough-necks.” And these workers in turn needed schoolteachers, storekeepers and doctors. The city’s population rose from 18,000 in 1910 to 140,000 by 1930.

Residents of the black township of Greenwood could have visited a library, doctors’ offices, and 38 grocery stores, fruit stands, vegetable stands and meat markets. They could have walked to and eaten at more than two dozen restaurants serving “everything from sandwiches and plate lunches to steaks and chops with all the trimmings.” There were two movie theaters, including the Dreamland.

Black Tulsans could buy “clothes at Black-owned stores, drop off their dry cleaning and laundry at Black-owned cleaners and have their portraits taken in a Black-owned photography studio.”

From The Muskogee Comet, a Black newspaper, from June 23, 1904: “The Tulsa area ‘may verily be called the Eden of the West for the colored people.’”

From The Tulsa Tribune May 31, 1921: “To Lynch a Negro Tonight: Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in an Elevator.” A Black man named Dick Rowland had been arrested that morning, “charged with attempting to assault the 17-year-old white elevator girl in the Drexel building early yesterday.”

A white mob formed outside the courthouse, where Rowland was being held. By 9 p.m., the crowd had grown to more than 300. Some two dozen Black men, having heard about Rowland’s imprisonment, made their way in cars to the courthouse with guns in hand. Many had served in World War I. After being told by the police chief that Rowland would be safe, they left.

Later that night, the mob swelled to more than 2,000, and as many as 75 Black men went to the courthouse. After again being assured of Rowland’s safety, they seemed ready to go home. But a white man confronted a Black veteran holding a pistol, then tried to seize it. A shot was fired. Other shots, many shots, followed. In moments, a dozen men were dead.

Over the next 14 hours, stores were looted; shootouts between Tulsa police officers, white vigilantes and Black residents trying to defend themselves laid waste to buildings, land and lives. Private planes buzzed across the sky, keeping track of the movements of Black Tulsans, shooting at them and dropping bombs. By noon on June 1, 35 square blocks had been burned down, 300 Black residents were dead and 8,000 were homeless.

The Universal Negro Improvement Association tried to dispatch 50 Black Cross nurses to Tulsa; the National Guard wanted to send 100 tents. Both efforts were blocked by Oklahoma’s governor. The American Red Cross was let into the city to provide medical care and tents for shelter, but it fed only Black people who were deemed to be ill. The city put more than 4,000 Black Tulsans in what historians have referred to as internment centers. Many groups tried to send aid; The Chicago Tribune wanted to donate $1,000. But they were met with the response that the citizens of Tulsa “were to blame for the riot and that they themselves would bear the costs of restoration.”

From The Tulsa Tribune’s editorial pages: “Tulsa has resolved that the crime carnival ends here and will be buried with the ashes of the ‘n_town’ that is gone.”

Tulsa mayor, T.D. Evans: “Let us immediately get to the outside fact that everything is quiet in our city, that this menace has been fully conquered and that we are going on in a normal condition.”

From The Tulsa Tribune: “Plan to Move Negroes Into New District” “The two races being divided by an industrial section will draw more distinctive lines between them and thereby eliminate the intermingling of lower elements of the two races, which in our opinion is the root of the evil which should not exist.”

Insurance claims amounting to some $1.8 million were filed against Tulsa. Only one claim was approved; a white shop owner was compensated for the guns stolen from his store

The existing microfilm copy of that day’s paper with the headline “To Lynch a Negro Tonight” was made from an original whose front and editorial pages had had parts of them ripped out; all other copies of the edition were destroyed. The item is known today thanks to an eyewitness account. The front-page article in The Tulsa Tribune, “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in an Elevator,” came to light only because a graduate student discovered an original of the day’s paper and included it in a 1946 thesis. The stories that inflamed a white mob have all but been erased.

Tulsa’s current Republican mayor, G.T. Bynum, on reparations: “The challenge I have in my mind with that is that you’re essentially financially penalizing this generation of Tulsans through their property taxes for something that people did 100 years ago. And I don’t think that is right.”

Early this month, current Republican governor Kevin Stitt, a member of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, signed H.B. 1775, a state law that prohibits the teaching of any material that indicates that racism is intricately intertwined with American history and affects the country today.

Two years ago, a renewed effort was begun to locate the mass graves in which massacre victims were buried. The first mass grave, with the remains of at least 12 people, was found last October; exhumation is scheduled to begin on June 1. This will be the first time that the United States government “has tried to locate and recover the remains of unmarked grave sites for victims of racist violence.”

As white supremacy grows more visible, virulent and violent in our country, we who follow Christ have a unique voice and mission – to recall our history, to name the sinfulness of racism woven through it, to call us collectively to repentance, to assert justice, and to proclaim a vision of our world full of God’s grace and love.