That prior to the advent of Wikipedia it was necessary to search through the library stacks for basic information about the Tulsa massacre suggests the extent to which American institutions actively and passively suppressed this history, essentially erasing from mainstream consciousness any knowledge of the event, as well as its numerous kin. In our era of resurgent, violent white vigilantism and nationalism, it is imperative that Americans know more comprehensively the history of hate and population-level violence against racial and ethnic minorities in this nation.
A. W. died on April 9 this year, in Sun City, Arizona, at the youthful age of 98. His death came a little less than three weeks before another, much younger brother, the filmmaker John Singleton, was taken off of life support in Los Angeles. Singleton is mostly famous for making the South Central–set stories Boyz n the Hood (1991) and Baby Boy (2001), films that stirred national interest in part because they were made in the decade-long wake of the Los Angeles riots of 1991, an event that, at the time, was incorrectly categorized as the deadliest riot in the nation’s history by our ahistorical media machine. But Singleton was not himself ahistorical. He also made Rosewood (1997), a film that chronicles the January 1923 massacre of black Americans in Rosewood, Florida. So, when Singleton died, I thought about my late great-uncle A. W., whose entry into the world was marked by the kind of violence that Singleton’s Rosewood reminds viewers took place (more than) once upon a time on American soil.
When Americans think of the word “riot,” images of the Watts riot of 1965, the Washington, DC, riot of 1968 after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., and the rebellions in Los Angeles in 1991 and Ferguson, Missouri, in 2015 leap to mind. If they are more educated than most, they might remember the history of the Harlem riot of 1943, which is the basis for the penultimate chapter of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952). In this vein of American memory, the riot begins when a black motorist (as was the case in both Los Angeles riots) or a black dignitary is beaten or murdered by some arm of the American power structure, typically the police, leading a fed-up minority community to take to the streets in protests that quickly turn violent. Black and brown rioters smash store windows and loot goods while black-shirted white anarchists march through the streets chanting about an end to capitalism and the termination of the police state. But the history of American rioting goes further back, is far whiter and much more a product of reactionary white nationalism, than the popularly circulated images of Black Lives Matter and Antifa would suggest.
In the postbellum America of the late 1800s and early 1900s, particularly in the summer of 1919, pitched battles in the streets between whites and blacks were common, with these conflicts often erupting into white mob violence. Disputes between black and white servicemen back from World War I or accusations that a black man had raped a white woman or insulted a white man would escalate into threats of lynching, followed by pogrom-level violence against entire black communities. These were the original race riots, instances of white mob violence that remain — despite the aforementioned riots of the 1960s and 1990s, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the mass shootings of recent years — the deadliest acts of American-on-American slaughter in the nation’s history.
Here are just a few of the better-known acts of racial terrorism that took place in the early 1900s:
- The Tulsa massacre of 1921. Tulsa, Oklahoma, is the site of the deadliest riot in American history. Scholars estimate that between 250 and 300 people, almost all of them black, were killed. The murdered included Dr. A. C. Jackson, a former Mayo Clinic surgeon considered the most skilled black surgeon in the nation. One of the most lucrative black business districts in the country, known as the Black Wall Street, was completely destroyed. Thousands of black people fled the city, while those who survived and stayed in Tulsa were herded into concentration camps.
- The Elaine, Arkansas, massacre of 1919. During the deadliest Red Summer massacre, between 100 and 250 black people were massacred in Elaine, along with five white people. Arkansas native and filmmaker Michael W. Wilson, after researching the massacre for years, is currently filming the documentary Elaine. Wilson thinks that the real death toll might have been much higher, in the range of 800 to 900 victims.
- The East St. Louis, Illinois, massacre of 1917. Somewhere between 50 and 250 black people were slaughtered by a white mob in East St. Louis in late May and early July 1917, in the wake of labor strife between striking white workers and black strikebreakers at the Aluminum Ore Company.
- The Rosewood, Florida, massacre of 1923. In response to a rumor that a white woman had been beaten and raped by a black drifter (it was later revealed that her white lover had attacked her), a white mob descended on the black section of Rosewood, destroying property and killing somewhere between several dozen and over 200 black residents.
- The Chicago riot of 1919. This riot began when a black child swimming in Lake Michigan accidentally floated across the invisible line that divided the black swimming area from the white swimming area. A fanatical white man stoned the boy until he drowned, an act of such cruelty that it unleashed racial violence across the city. In the wake of the riot, a constellation of institutions from real estate moguls to city government and the University of Chicago, convinced that the races were fundamentally unable to coexist in the same neighborhoods, actively colluded to segregate the city. All of Chicago’s racist housing covenants were implemented in the years that followed, even as millions of Southern blacks flocked to the city in search of jobs and freedom. To this day, Chicago remains among the most racially segregated large cities in the United States.
When taking stock of the wide-ranging estimates of deaths in Elaine and East St. Louis and Rosewood and Tulsa, it is useful to remember the South African comedian Trevor Noah’s observation, in his autobiography Born a Crime (2016), that whereas Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler are seen as the sine qua non of racism and mass murder in the Western world because their campaign of extermination resulted in the studiously reported total of six million Jewish people bombed, shot, buried alive, worked to death, starved, and gassed, the butchers of African people such as Belgium’s King Leopold are barely even known outside academic circles because no one troubled to count how many Africans they killed. The massacre of blacks simply was not seen as important enough to record accurate death totals.
No wonder Ta-Nehisi Coates’s June 19, 2019, testimony to Congress in support of HR 40, the African-American reparations bill originally (and repeatedly) brought forward by Congressman John Conyers, met with a cold shoulder from most of the American public. Uneducated throughout their lives about the facts of the case and uninterested in a fair hearing, the predominantly white public concluded, as it has at every stage in the nation’s history since the revocation of Sherman’s 40 acres and a mule general order, that black Americans deserve no financial recompense for the wrongs done to them by America’s most powerful institutions, oligarchs, and terrorists. That whatever recompense Jews, Native Americans, Japanese Americans, or any other group will be given, the same will be foreclosed for black people.
America’s history of pogroms remains suppressed in popular discourse in much the same way that the violent, dehumanizing nature of slavery was so long suppressed here. In much the same way, the truth of the Armenian genocide has been suppressed by the Turkish government. Indeed, popular knowledge of atrocities perpetrated or allowed by governments or other powerful institutions is suppressed the world over — if not by mere neglect, then by willful, amnesiac omission. As the scholar Cameron McWhirter observes in Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America (2011):
[M]ost Americans have no idea of the crucible of 1919, despite its importance in shaping modern race relations. […] Our nation is covered with plaques and monuments marking battles, inventions, constitutional conventions, and other important events. But no plaque or cenotaph marks the racial violence of 1919. It may be an intentional amnesia. The human compulsion is to avoid history we find too ugly or complex.
In her essay “Remembering Red Summer — Which Textbooks Seem Eager to Forget,” Ursula Wolfe-Rocca notes that, if you take a typical US history textbook off the shelf or from a student’s desk, “you’re unlikely to find more than a paragraph on the 1919 riots; what you do find downplays both racism and Black resistance, while distorting facts in a dangerous ‘both sides’ framing. These textbooks render students stupid about white supremacy and bereft of examples from those who defied it.” Recasting pogroms and lynchings as fair fights engaged equally by white and black belligerents is dishonest on its face. And by simply offering students so little information about the massacres, these textbooks downplay their importance in American history. The exercise by white vigilantes, often abetted by their local police, of the doctrine of collective responsibility against whole black communities served to segregate America as much as did Jim Crow laws.
In 2017, I published a piece about the controversy surrounding the attempt to take down the statues of Confederate generals. In that essay, I noted a Donald Trump tweet wherein the leader of the free world bemoaned the turn that living history was taking against the guardians of slavery. “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” Trump wrote. “You can’t change history, but you can learn from it.”
Though he had previously supported the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse, Trump had, in the course of his campaign for president, come to understand the resonance of his message, and indeed his very person, among the United States’s white supremacists. Suddenly, the old, bird-shat statues of obscure soldiers on horseback were “beautiful,” American history at its finest.
Trump’s tweet sought the truth of the mob, not the scholar, and in that sense it made its own sense. For to remove the statues from public space would necessarily remove them, not from the proper study of history, as Trump only pretended to contend, but as symbols in the popular sphere, which is exponentially more powerful. Resituating the statues at sites of historic preservation only academicizes them, eroding their original meaning and raw political might, which has always been about the assertion of the white man’s vengeance in the public square.
Meanwhile, the Red Summer, strange fruit of that vengeance, has had not a single statue, let alone a Trumpian tweet-storm, to memorialize it. Its absence from the American knowledge base is its own kind of politics, a form of silent propaganda. In this same vein, the president’s unwillingness to confront and denounce the scourge that he has benefited from is its own statement.
So what of this erasure of events that, though a century old, are much more recent than our Civil War — events that have shaped our nation, events that clearly presage the domestic terrorism perpetrated against Mexican Americans in El Paso? What can possibly be learned about our nation and ourselves from a history whose statues were never sculpted?
Keenan Norris is assistant professor of American literature and creative writing at San Jose State University. His novel Brother and the Dancer won the 2012 James D. Houston Award. He is completing his next novel, The Confession of Copeland Cane V.