A Secret History: The Tulsa Race Riot
BY RILLA ASKEW
One of the best-kept secrets in American history has been the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. I think it’s important to say that the riot is not a separate element of Black History that we need to pay attention to only in February, and it’s not some peculiar anomaly of Oklahoma history — anomalous as Oklahoma’s history has been. This event, the largest, most devastating assault by white Americans on black Americans in the nation’s history, is an American story. An American tragedy. It belongs to all of us. And it should be known by every American in complete detail.
And yet, even today, many have never heard of the Tulsa Race Riot, or if they have, they don’t really know what happened there. When I set out to write about it in my novel, Fire in Beulah, I found facts very hard to come by. Microfilmed documents had been removed from the Tulsa library. I could find no books in print that told the story. This was back in 1989, when there was hardly a whisper anywhere about the terrible events that had taken place in Tulsa in 1921.
I’d grown up 50 miles from Tulsa and had never heard a word about the riot, or about any racial trouble in Oklahoma, though there were numerous lynchings in the former Indian Territory, just as there were throughout the South. The collective memory of the riot had not been handed down in Oklahoma’s white communities as it was in the black communities. And I certainly wasn’t taught about it in school. When I finally did learn of it, years after I’d left Oklahoma, by the chance reading of a biography of novelist Richard Wright, I knew at once that I would write about it.
And I knew, too, that the work would take the form of a novel rather than nonfiction — not just because I’m primarily a novelist, but because I believed then, and still, that the art form that strikes truest to the human heart is fiction; it’s the form that most allows us to live inside another’s skin, to know within ourselves the truth of another’s experience. And so, although I’d never written historical fiction in my life, I set out to uncover the hidden history of the Tulsa Race Riot and to put it in a novel in such a way, I hoped, that readers would experience the riot themselves.
Obviously, I had a few writing challenges ahead of me. I needed to learn not only the facts of the riot (a tricky enough challenge) but also the social and political climate in Oklahoma that led to it. I needed to find a way to render those details and that climate as accurately as possible without the research hanging out there like a dirty cleaning rag. I would have to immerse myself in the ordinary details of everyday life in the early 1920’s, which I knew absolutely nothing about (Did they have hot and cold running water then? Elevators? Street cars?), not to mention dwell in the racial mindset of that horrifically Jim Crow era, the casual racist language and presumptions of the dominant white culture, and I had to find a way to live that experience through both white and black eyes. And finally, I had to effectively “forget” all the details of the riot that I’d uncovered so that the characters in the novel would not be telegraphing the cataclysm barreling toward them, just as those who lived through it, and committed it, surely could not have anticipated the devastation to come.
The process took eleven years.
I traveled from New York to Tulsa, went to the main library to begin my research, but the microfilmed Tulsa newspaper archives surrounding the dates of the riot had been removed. With the aid of a librarian, I was able to find other sources to tell me the essential facts. (Let me put in a plug here for America’s libraries and librarians. I always tell my writer friends and students: libraries are your friends! It wasn’t a librarian who had removed those files but some other censor somewhere along the line who decided that people did not need to know about this dark chapter in Tulsa’s past.)
The facts of the riot are these: On the night of May 31, and morning of June 1, 1921, what began as a race war in downtown Tulsa became an American pogrom as 10,000 armed whites swept into the wealthy black district of Tulsa known as Greenwood, looting and killing and burning. Planes dropped firebombs on the district. Over a thousand homes and businesses were destroyed; scores were murdered. By the time the violence was quelled, Tulsa’s entire black community lay in ashes. Because of the cover-up that began immediately, the death count from the riot is still uncertain, though estimates say as many as 300 Americans, most of them black, were killed in the riot, though some whites died there, too.
How could such an enormous, devastating event be “forgotten”? Some say it was a culture of silence that lay over the shameful events. The dominant white culture wanted to forget what was too painful and ugly to remember. Others say it was not a culture but a conspiracy of silence. I vote for the conspiracy theory, myself. Witness how fast the cover-up began, how the city fathers in Tulsa turned away offers of help that poured in from around the nation, how they tried to prevent black citizens from rebuilding on the ashes.
Witness the fact that a recent bill to require that the Tulsa Race Riot be taught in Oklahoma history courses, though it passed the House, was never brought to the Senate floor for a vote, and so died a quiet death. Witness the fact that certain conservative lawmakers recently proposed eliminating all of Oklahoma’s AP history courses and replacing them with courses focused on “American Exceptionalism” and all the “good things” about our country, instead of the bad.
When I began my research, some seventy years after the event, the Tulsa Race Riot had been wiped clean from Oklahoma’s narrative — and America’s memory. But there were some who would not let it be entirely forgotten; some, mostly in the black communities of North Tulsa, who had heard the story handed down and wanted the truth to be told. They developed a Race Riot Commission to uncover all the facts. By the time Fire in Beulah was published, the Tulsa Race Riot Commission had also issued their report.
This is one reason we need accurate historical fiction. Some readers may only ever get their history from fiction, so we as writers damn sure better get our facts right — especially if we choose to write about something so painful and significant and covered up. But there’s more to it than that. For me as a writer, and I think for many readers, the act of engaging with a novel or any work of art that tells the truth about a past we’ve been lied to about, or that we’ve lied to ourselves about through ignorance or omission, is also, in a small way, to own it.
We each find our way of owning the story. Fiction writer George McCormick said in a recent conversation about why we need to teach about the Tulsa Race Riot in our schools:
Nothing is more difficult than being implicated in this nation’s dark history. Yet, it is there, and as the sons and daughters — the citizens — of these people and this nation, it is incumbent upon us to see and tell the truth. It only takes a generation to forget it all. Which is the point. Which are the stories, sober and told with love, that we tell.
I can think of no better way to say it.
RILLA ASKEW is the author of four novels and a book of stories. She’s a PEN/Faulkner finalist, recipient of the Western Heritage Award, Oklahoma Book Award, and a 2009 Arts and Letters Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her novel about the Tulsa Race Riot, Fire in Beulah, received the American Book Award in 2002, and was selected for Oklahoma’s One Book One State reading program in 2007. Askew’s essays and short fiction have appeared in Tin House, World Literature Today, Nimrod, Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, and elsewhere. Her most recent novel, Kind of Kin, is published by Ecco Press.
Essay originally published on 2/24/15