– Commentary –
By THELMA S. CLARDY
The Clardy Law Firm
As a child growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I never heard of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. It was only when I was a young adult and had left Tulsa after graduating from high school that I started hearing bits and pieces of it. So, returning to Tulsa for the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the massacre over the Memorial Day weekend was an eye-opening experience during which I learned much about the history of the city in which I had grown up and its dirty little secret.
And 100 years later in 2021, the scab of Tulsa’s dirty little secret that remained hidden for so long is slowly but surely being ripped off. The dirty little secret that destroyed an entire community of African Americans who lived, worked, and played in their own community in the Jim Crow era and were financially successful. The dirty little secret that literally includes workers unearthing the earth to determine whether there are mass graves of those who were killed during that awful event. To this day, it is unknown how many African Americans were killed, although the estimates run into the hundreds.
What I do know well about the Greenwood District is based on the fact that for all my elementary school years, I attended St. Monica Catholic School until it was closed for integration purposes. St. Monica was located right off Greenwood, so I would ride down the street to and from school for those many years. While the school is long gone now, the Catholic church still exists. Standing in front of the church brought back memories of the daily mass services we were required as students to attend Monday through Friday. On Sundays, however, my siblings and I attended Vernon A.M.E. Church, which was down the street on Greenwood and is now known as the “Historic Vernon A.M.E. Church” and is now pastored by the Reverend Robert Richard Allen Turner, an activist in his own right. Since becoming pastor of Vernon, Turner has been involved in the struggle to recognize the tragic events of what took place over May 31 and June 1, and seek reparations for the survivors and descendants of the massacre.
I remember that when I started high school, I along with several of my classmates sought to have Black history class at my school. While our efforts were successful, we protested against the assignment of a white man to teach us our history. Of course, he never taught us about the race massacre, either out of ignorance or because he was told not to talk about it. In reconnecting with several former classmates, I inquired as to their knowledge of the massacre. The majority of them said they didn’t know about it, and the ones who did said they heard about it from family members. I noted that younger adults I spoke with did indicate that they had heard about it in school as the state has recently required that it be taught in the schools in some form or fashion.
I also learned that the entire story about what happened is lacking in the sense that nobody seems to know what actually happened to the two primary actors, which reportedly served as the impetus for the total destruction of a thriving, bustling community. Before the events of those 2 days, Greenwood was a vibrant, bustling community of African-Americans who had built a community within the city with all types of businesses. There were attorneys, physicians, barbers, beauty salons, a hospital, restaurants, a theater and so much more that all went down in flames. At the conclusion of the massacre, it was believed that there were over 300 African Americans dead, a few whites, 10,000 African Americans left homeless over a 35-40 block area, some of whom were later carted off to different locations in the city for their alleged safety like chattel.
What was particularly enlightening to me personally was the monument listing all the businesses that were destroyed in the massacre: thriving businesses of all types. I thought about had the massacre not taken place, who knows what those businesses would have been able to accomplish had they been able to survive but for the evil actions of a racist white community. I think particularly of the Stradford Hotel, which was started and owned by the grandfather of John Rogers, Jr., a highly successful financial investor who owns one of the largest black-owned mutual investment companies in America today. What type of generational wealth went down in those flames and bombings of the black community? And who knows how many successful businesses would there be in Greenwood now instead of the small numbers it has now?
While Greenwood has not achieved the level of success it had back in 1921, the spirit of it rising again was clearly evident as observed through the new businesses that now thrive there.
One fact that gives me some hope is learning of the lawsuit that was recently filed by Tulsa attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons along with a group of other attorneys to seek reparations, among other things for the survivors and descendants. While an earlier lawsuit was filed several years ago by the late Johnnie Cochran on procedural grounds, this lawsuit still survives and covers several grounds for relief.
After returning to Tulsa for this visit, I realize that the city and the state have a long way to go toward restorative justice toward righting such an egregious wrong that took place 100 years ago. I, for one, will never view my hometown quite the same.