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Tulsa Burning

It’s a story that's 80 years old, although it is news to many Americans, especially white Americans.

The headline is that the country's worst race riot took place in 1921 in Tulsa, Okla. Hundreds of blacks were killed, and thousands more were left homeless when a white mob destroyed the black section of town.

This comes as news to most people because it was ignored and covered for years by a conspiracy of silence. That conspiracy was being broken when 60 Minutes II correspondent Bob Simon first reported this story in November 1999, because a state commission had begun to investigate the riot.

The commission questioned those who survived the Tulsa riot, including George Monroe, who remembers the June night in 1921 when his mother saw four white men walk up to his house, carrying torches.

"Our mother told us to get up under the bed, and we got up under the bed," he remembers. "We could just see their feet. They came in and set fire to the curtains."

"And one stepped on my fingers, and my sister put her hand over my mouth to be sure to stop me. 'Cause she could tell I was fixing to holler, because it hurt," Monroe recalls.

Monroe escaped with some sore fingers, but his home and the rest of Tulsa's black neighborhood, called Greenwood, was burned.

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Check out the site for the Oklahoma Historical Society, which has a section devoted to the riot.
Before the riot, 10,000 blacks lived in the district and did business there, making it one of the nation's most vibrant black communities. But children quickly learned that they lived in a different world from whites.

"The tracks [were] a dividing line," says Monroe.
"Every Sunday, we would climb on top of the coal car, and throw enough coal on the side, on our side."

"And I guess they did the same thing. But every Sunday, we had a good coal fight. We would throw at them and they would throw at us,…a kid's riot," he says.

The kids, of course, learned from the adults.

"After Oklahoma became a state, the first law passed by the Oklahoma state legislature was Senate Bill 1, which completely segregated the state," Don Ross says.

Ross, who now represents Greenwood in the state legislature, s one of the prime movers behind the campaign to uncover this chapter in Tulsa's history. He never heard about the riot of 1921 until he was 15 years old and in high school.

What Ross heard as a teen-ager was that on the morning of May 30, a 17-year-old white girl screamed after a young black man got into the elevator she operated.

The Tulsa Tribune, which was the afternoon daily newspaper, printed a fantastic write-up of this event. It carried a front-page story, "Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in an Elevator." Within the next hour, there was talk of lynching on the streets of Tulsa.

Many of Tulsa's blacks were veterans of World War I and armed, so a group went to the local courthouse and offered to help the sheriff defend the jail and its black prisoner, in case there was trouble. The sheriff told them to go home.

"As they're leaving, a white man goes up to a tall black vet and says, 'Where you going with that gun, nigger?' And the vet says, 'I'm going to use it if I have to,'" says historian Scott Ellsworth.

"White man says, 'Like hell you are. Give it to me.' A struggle,…[a] shot goes off. The worst riot in American history begins," Ellsworth adds.

He has been studying the Tulsa riot for 20 years. It is not just an academic quest for Ellsworth, as he was born and raised in the community.

Veneice Simms also remembers that fateful evening. She was getting ready for her high school prom.

"[I] had a beautiful dress, shoes, everything new," she remembers. "And even some borrowed pearls. The seamstress had let me have her borrowed pearls to wear."

"That's when it started. That's when the bullets started falling," Simms adds.

Simms, her family and many Greenwood residents got out of town during the night. Others stayed and fought but by dawn, they were overwhelmed.

"Right before dawn, as many at 10,000 whites descended upon black Tulsa," says Ellsworth.

"There was a block-by-block battle, throughout the black [community]," says Ellsworth. "They would force the occupants of a house out. If people resisted, they were murdered on the spot. The homes were looted, and then they were set fire to."

"[White authorities] spent most of their time arresting blacks, and disarming blacks, preventing them from defending their homes and businesses, taking them to internment centers around town," Ellsworth continues.

Kinney Booker's father hid his wife and five children in the attic just before armed whites came to the front door.

"We could hear him from the attic talking to them," Booker remembers. "He said, 'Don't set my house on fire, please.' But…not long after he left, they set it on fire, and we had to scramble out in a hurry."

The attack came from the air, too. Investigators say some of the fires seen in rare footage of the riot were caused by whites, dropping explosives from Wrld War I vintage planes flying over Greenwood. The flames destroyed almost every home and business in the 35-square-block town.

Historians say that this newspaper story was the match that lit Tulsa afire.
Late in the day, martial law was declared and National Guard troops patrolled the streets. The dead were everywhere, bodies lying where they fell. Photographers even turned some of their grisly pictures into souvenir postcards.

Most of the dead were buried quickly in unmarked graves around town. But some were laid to rest in Tulsa's Oak Lawn cemetery, in an anonymous section reserved for paupers.

There were no funerals, as authorities outlawed them. There were no coffins, no head stones, and no records of burials. But a 10-year-old boy saw it all.

Clyde Eddy walked by the cemetery with a friend and saw some men digging around a bunch of wooden crates.

"We went in, naturally, and walked up to the first one and raised the lid up," Eddy remembers. "There was three bodies of black men in it - just thrown in there. And we went over to another crate, a larger crate, and raised the lid on that, and there [were] four bodies in this one."

"And there was, let's see, one, two, there [were] either four or five more boxes scattered around. And, about that time, one of the men saw us, and they [ran] us out," Eddy recalls.

The newspapers didn't think the mass graves deserved many headlines. And the white city fathers, proud of their booming oil town, wanted to bury the story along with the bodies.

The official National Guard report said there were 35 dead, nine whites and 26 blacks. But that number keeps on rising.

"We think now that something like 300 people were killed in this," says Ellsworth. "Ten thousand people were left homeless by the riot." None of the homeless were white.

The survivors lived in tents and shacks, which they built themselves.

"My brother was 14 at the time, and he helped my father install wood," Booker remembers. "It was raining, as far as I can remember. Rain, rain, rain…and we had a wooden floor in our tent. We were lucky to have that."

But Tulsa's whites did make a promise. The city's white establishment said it was going to rebuild Greenwood.

"They lied. Not a dime," Ross explains. "They proceeded to pass a fire ordinance that said, in effect, you cannot build on property that had been burned. They wanted to starve blacks out of the land."

"They made it known to all philanthropic groups: We don't want your money. We will take care of our own. And there wil be no problem," Ross says. "They spoke; they lied."

Courts and insurance companies paid some damage claims filed by whites, while all black claims were rejected. A grand jury filed no charges against whites, but 57 blacks were indicted for rioting. And, in fact, they had put up one heck of a fight.

"In my community, among those survivors, they won the riot," says Ross. "Only until they brought airplanes in, and dropped bombs and fire bombs and brought the National Guard in, could they subdue my people. That's the view from the black community."

For Ross, setting up a legislative commission to study the riot was a way of keeping that pride alive.

"It's said history is the lie agreed upon. Well, somebody agreed not to tell the story of the riot in Tulsa," says Eddie Faye Gates, a member of the commission.

"At first, that was denial….It didn't happen. Now, Tulsa and Oklahoma's way past the denial stage," he adds.

The commission is looking for the truth by looking for the dead. But Greenwood is looking for more than just some unmarked graves.

"Somebody…has to pay," Gates continues. "If you don't, if there's no penalty for wrongdoing, there is no incentive for societies to do the right thing."

Gates contends that monetary payments to living survivors and perhaps scholarships for the college-aged children of descendants are in order.

But State Representative Bill Graves, who opposed setting up the commission, says Tulsa should put the past where he says it belongs: in the past.

"The sons don't pay for the sins of the fathers. They pay for only their own sins," he says.

Tulsa's black section was decimated by the riot.
"The statute of limitations has run, on the [people] here involved that were injured…I don't think they have any right to money from the legislature," he adds.

Graves says he’d have no problem with a memorial, but Ross insists he doesn't need a memorial. He's already got one: his anger.

"I feel strongly, if I'm ever satisfied with whatever we do, that I will let down some [people] who educated me in my life. And who died angry. I am their living memorial. My anger is," Ross says.

But Monroe, who was the kid with the sore fingers, has a longer view about reparations, monuments, and everything that's happened and not happened in Tulsa since that dark day in 1921.

"Even today, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, segregation's still here," says Monroe. "It's still here. But it's loosening up a little bit now."

Just this spring, the Tulsa race rot commission finished its investigtion, and recommended that survivors, like George Monroe, and their decendants be paid reparations.

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