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The Tulsa Massacre: How do you make amends one hundred years later?12 min read

June 6, 2021 8 min read


The Tulsa Massacre: How do you make amends one hundred years later?12 min read

Reading Time: 8 minutes
  • Content warning: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.
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  • Recommended for: Ages 12+

Have you ever heard of the Tulsa Massacre?

Where is Tulsa, Oklahoma? / Where is Tulsa Located on the US Map
Tulsa, Oklahoma is in Central America. Image: Where is Chicago?

Chances are you haven’t, and even if you have, it is only recently that you were made aware of this event. It was a terrible hundred-year-old incident that occurred in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the United States of America. During the massacre, hundreds of innocent black people lost their lives, and thousands lost their home to the violent acts of white locals. They were subjected to this violence for no fault of their own, but rather because the rioters didn’t like them just for the colour of their skin.

Now, for the first time in history, an American President is apologising to the victims of this event and trying to come to terms with the incident. But how does Joe Biden plan to make amends, and is it even possible all these years later? Let’s find out.

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Abraham Lincoln. Image: GIPHY

African American History

Before we get into what’s being done to make this very wrong-wrong right, let’s take a look at what really happened.

When Africans came to America, they were forcibly brought there as slaves. That meant they worked for white Americans with no pay and no human rights. The whole system was unfair and inhumane, and as you’d expect, several people worked hard to overturn slavery. Finally, in 1865 under President Abraham Lincoln, slavery was abolished. African Americans were finally given rights as free citizens of the United States of America.

The end of slavery


Equal yet unequal

So while African Americans were technically granted some form of equality when slavery was abolished, the system was far from just. Several experts feel that what the African American community needed at the time was Equity.
Equity is the quality of being fair and just. Its difference from equality is illustrated in the figure, below, where the left hand side shows an instance of equality, and where the right hand side displays equity.

Click on this image to read about how New Zealand is working to create equity for all its citizens. Sourced from Mental Floss

Equality does not ensure equal access to resources and opportunities. Therefore, equity and equality need to go hand in hand.

Once slavery was banned, the plight of the African American community was far from over. It was hard for them to get jobs or loans, they didn’t have proper access to schools, and most black Americans lived in poverty.

Steve Luxenberg at Commonwealth Club | Datebook
Even after they were freed from Slavery, African Americans had to live separate from the white community and they couldn’t attend the same schools or even apply for the same jobs. Image: The SF Chronicles

Starting from Scratch

Since they were never paid as slaves, these people were American citizens, but they had no money or assets to their names. All of them had to start building their wealth from scratch. So, while white people had been accumulating wealth within their families for hundreds of years, black people had to make a life for themselves from nothing.

Despite all these hurdles, some African Americans rose to prosperity. One part of America where these people lived was Greenwood district in Tulsa, Minnesota. The community had several black-owned banks and businesses, and their mini economy was booming. It was known as ‘black wall street‘.

Tulsa's 'Black Wall Street' Flourished as a Self-Contained Hub in Early  1900s - HISTORY
An image of Greenwood in 1919. It was a flourishing neighbourhood until the massacre of 1921. Image: History.com

May 31, 1921

A Century After The Race Massacre, Tulsa Confronts Its Bloody Past : NPR
Image: NPR

But on May 31, 1921, everything changed. A mob of white locals came down to Greenwood with guns and weapons. Then, with the support of the police and government, they killed, looted and injured hundreds of black folk living in the community. Thousands of homes and businesses were burned to the ground. In just two nights, all the hard work of the Greenwood African Americans was destroyed.

The events leading up to the massacre

The massacre had two causes: One was a more long term and racist hatred of the black community. These feelings of hatred were probably increased when the white locals jealously observed the rise of African American wealth despite all odds.

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On the other hand, there was the direct cause of the incident. On May 31, 1921, Dick Rowland, a 19-year old Black shoeshiner, tripped and fell in an elevator. When he tripped, he reached for a young white lady for balance, and she got startled. She screamed and ran away.

The Newspaper Report

While this event was harmless, the newspapers painted a grim and false picture. They claimed that the man had committed heinous crimes and assaulted the woman.

This angered the white citizens of Tulsa. They already held racist beliefs that made them hate and fear the black community for no real reason. The newspaper report of this terrible incident seemed to give their false beliefs a grain of truth. A racist mob was fired up by everyone’s anger over what the newspaper had claimed happened in the elevator. They decided that not only was this incident the fault of the whole black community but also that they would take the law into their own hands. However, what they did next was far from fair, just or lawful.

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Racism is when people are treated unfairly because of their skin colour or ethnic background. It causes great harm to people. 

Despite the horrors of the massacre, for over fifty years, the local authorities kept it a secret. It was only in 1997 that the US central government started to investigate the incident. Moreover, it was only included in the country’s history books in 2001, a whole 80 years later! The Tulsa History Museum had no mention of the massacre until 2012!!

“We can’t just choose to learn what we want to know and not what we should know, we should know the good, the bad, everything. That’s what great nations do. They come to terms with their dark sides. And we’re a great nation.”

Joe Biden, 100 years after the massacre

Just one word

The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 – BillMoyers.com
The Newspapers in Tulsa seemed to imply that it was a fight between the black and white community. Image: The San Diego Tribune

With just one word, the government managed to cover up one of America’s most racist and atrocious events. Rather than accepting that it was a massacre where black people brutally lost their lives, the police termed it a riot. While a massacre depicts the loss of innocent lives and the hands of unjust violence, a riot implies two fighting parties burning, looting and destroying each other’s lives. But in the case of the Tulsa massacre, people came into the homes of peaceful, innocent citizens and devastated their lives and livelihoods.
Terming it a riot also worked out for white-owned insurance companies and banks. It meant that the people who lost their homes and businesses wouldn’t be paid any reparations or given compensation as they somehow were part of the violent act.

“My fellow Americans, this was not a riot. This was a massacre.” 

Joe Biden, President of the United States

The long term damage

It is believed that the mob destroyed an equivalent of more than 200 million US dollars in property value from local Black home and business owners!

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Last year, the death of George Floyd sparked global protests against America’s systemic racism. Click on the image to learn more.

While being racist is a crime in America, many believe that is already embedded in the system. This kind of racism often goes unnoticed but has a terrible impact on black skinned or African American communities

Due to systemic racism, black people get fewer opportunities and many have low-paying jobs where they can’t afford proper healthcare or representation in court. This means that African Americans often don’t get the same rights and privileges as white Americans.

So with all this loss, the whole community was set back by millions of dollars. All the survivors of the incident and their families were pushed back into the dire poverty that their families had worked so hard to overcome. To this day, the African American community does not have access to proper education, healthcare or opportunity.

Making Amends

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Joe Biden

But, all is not lost. Joe Biden, the current President of the United States, has finally acknowledged the Tulsa massacre and marked the 1st of June as a day of remembrance. This year, Joe Biden flew to Tulsa on the anniversary of the massacre and met with its three remaining survivors.

“For much too long the history of what took place here was told in silence, cloaked in darkness. But just because history is silent it doesn’t mean that it did not take place and, while darkness can hide much, it erases nothing. Some injustices are so heinous, so horrific, so grievous, they can’t be buried, no matter how hard people try. So it is here: only with truth can come healing and justice and repair.”

Joe Biden

Biden also promised that he would work hard to end modern racism in America and uplift the black community. He plans to do so by helping small black-owned businesses survive and grow. Moreover, his government will spend money to improve access to good quality education and resources to improve the mental and physical well-being of black Americans.

Foundation gifts $100,000 to 3 Tulsa Race Massacre survivors Black Tulsa |  The Independent
The three remaining survivors of the Tulsa Massacre. Image: The Independent

After 100 years of trying to hide the incident, Joe Biden has finally accepted that it was a dark part of America’s history. He has even accepted that racism and white supremacy are the biggest threats to the American people today.


The idea of reparations for slavery is morally appealing but flawed | The  Economist
A cartoon depicted the debate around reparations. Image: The Economist

While all of Joe Biden’s actions have been welcomed by the African American community, some say he isn’t doing enough. They believe that African Americans should be given money or reparations for all that was taken from their families. Others go a step further, saying black American deserve reparations for slavery as well.

People who oppose reparations say that this would do far less to benefit the community than upliftment through help for businesses and education. Moreover, that money would go to African Americans from the taxes that twenty first century Americans pay. Many people and politicians believe that Americans shouldn’t have to pay the price for crimes that they personally didn’t commit.

Watch president Joe Biden’s entire speech here:

Do you think that the African American community deserves reparations for slavery?
Should the remaining survivors of the Tulsa massacre be given reparations?

With Excerpts From: The Indian Express, BBC, NBC, Time Magazine, Tulsahistory.org and The Guardian.

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