Jul 12 2020

Book: Tulsa 1921

I heard the phrase “Greenwood” a few days after George Floyd was murdered. I’d never heard of it, or of the Tulsa race massacre before.

It’s 2020, so I went looking around on the Internet. The more I read, the more upset I became. Amy and I then watched the first few episodes of The Watchman, and I suddenly had a desire to get a full picture of what happened.

I do this by reading a book. I’m not a history buff, so I don’t spend a lot of time going deep on a particular historical event. Most of the surface level history I know comes from high school in Dallas (where, of course, we began with Texas history), a lifetime of museums, occasional TV documentaries, Wikipedia, or conversations. And books.

When I’m interested in something, I read a book on it. Since I’m reading one book on racial injustice each weekend this summer (and, given the pile of books I’ve accumulated, I expect I’ll continue into the fall), I decided to make my Saturday book Tulsa 1921: Reporting a Massacre.

I chose it carefully after reading the backgrounds of a few other books. I was looking for a reporting of the event, which I expected would be challenging given both the time frame (99 years ago) along with what I expected to be a lot of historical bias. I chose this book because the author, Randy Krehbiel, has been a reporter for the Tulsa World (Tulsa’s daily newspaper since 1905) for over 40 years and a Tulsa native. I figured, if anyone, he’d be able to mine the history from a reporter’s perspective, while balancing the topophilia he had for Tulsa, against the backdrop of a horrific event in the city’s history. Finally, Karlos K Hill, the Department Chair, African and African American Studies at the University of Oklahoma, wrote the foreword and endorsed the book, giving it more credibility in my eyes.

I lost myself in Tulsa in 1921 yesterday afternoon and into the evening. The Tulsa race massacre was an injustice on multiple levels. It included the willful destruction of what at the time was one of the most successful Black communities in America. In addition to the 24-hour destruction of the Black community by a variety of White Tulsans in pogram-like fashion, the ensuing several years of efforts to relocate the community, rather than allow the Black property-owning residents to rebuild, was deeply disturbing. Alongside this was a continual denial of any sort of meaningful redress or compensation by the White leadership of Tulsa.

During this period, the KKK had a new resurgence, which reinforced many aspects of systemic racism, both related to this period in Tulsa, as well as across the entire United States. Black leaders, with a few White allies, fought for justice for the residents, victims, and families of Greenwood. They also fought against the corruption, blame-shifting, and systemic racism that existed at the time in Tulsa. The Black Tulsans of Greenwood eventually prevailed and rebuilt their community.

Krehbiel handled this story exceptionally well. There are many ambiguities and unknowns. Rather than rendering an opinion, he tried to acknowledge the biases, the potential perspectives, and citied whatever he could find in history. Rather than tell the reader what to think, he painted a full story, incorporating many voices from different frames of reference, and allowed the reader to form a view and decide when the record was ambiguous, what had happened.

While an emotionally challenging book to read, I ended my day Saturday with another layer of understanding of how systemic racism is and has worked, for many years, in the U.S.