Tulsa's complex racial history revisited in wake of shootings

OPINION - In Tulsa, Oklahoma the historic complexities in the relationship between Native Americans and whites versus African-Americans goes all the way back to the founding of the state...

The shootings of five black people in Tulsa, Oklahoma over the weekend has left a community in grief. The early reports have simply framed the shooting as a potential hate crime which may have been racially motivated.

Many of the reports about the shooting have identified both of the shooters as white and the victims they gunned down at random were all black. But a number of reports have identified one of the shooters, Jacob England, as Cherokee Indian and in Oklahoma the race dynamic between African-Americans, Native Americans and whites is anything but black and white.

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Oklahoma was the destination for much of the migration that took place in the late 19th century. A great deal of the territory was set aside by the federal government for the removal of southeastern Native Americans. Only a few decades later, once oil was found under much of the land, white southerners continuing their migration to the western United States began to remove Native Americans from the region entirely.

“African-Americans and Native Americans were complex actors on the nineteenth-century ‘frontier’ of the North American continent. The presence of some Native Americans as slave owners [in Oklahoma], and some African-Americans as settlers on Indian land, illuminates a more complicated and complete history of United States empire,” Dr. Kendra Field, Assistant Professor of History at the University of California Riversidel told theGrio.

“Within months of Oklahoma statehood [November 16, 1907], the legislature effectively segregated all facilities within the state. One after another, Jim Crow laws were passed to restrict African-Americans from assembling, and to impose segregation in housing, schools, railroad cars, and beyond. Racial violence swelled throughout the 1910s, including frequent lynchings and burnings of African-American men and widespread terrorization of African American communities.”

Field cites David Chang’s The Color of Land, which says: ”[T]he Oklahoma state constitution made a step toward defining the legal meaning of race in Oklahoma…Eager to assuage their worries and to win Indian votes for the ratification of the constitution, Democratic delegate Robert Lee Williams, a white resident of the Choctaw Nation, proposed an amendment. It stated that for the purposes of the constitution, ‘the word or words ‘colored’ or ‘colored race,’ ‘negro’ or ‘negro race,’… shall be construed to apply to all persons of African descent. The term ‘white race’ shall include all other persons.’ In effect, the provision defined Indians as legally white.”

During this same period, in the first couple of decades after statehood, African-Americans that moved to Tulsa and surrounding areas had access to land and were doing very well economically.

Commonly referred to as “Black Wall Street” the Greenwood area of Tulsa was home to many successful African-American businessmen, some who were worth millions of dollars. Founded by O.W. Gurley, “Black Wall Street” was an amazing symbol of black wealth and success until 1921, when it became the site of lynching and violence.

What was once a symbol of opportunity for African-Americans, became the site of racialized violence and brutality. This unconscionable abuse of black Americans can be viewed through a prism that is much more complex than simply black versus white.

It’s under this historical context that the Tulsa shootings can be re-framed not as a run of the mill hate crime with white shooters targeting blacks. In Tulsa, Oklahoma the historic complexities in the relationship between Native Americans and whites versus African-Americans goes all the way back to the founding of the state.

The 1921 race riots and bombing of “Black Wall Street” fall into that complex narrative as a moment where any flicker of black success was stamped out quickly. While Jacob England’s possible revenge fantasy for the death of his father at the hands of an African-American is a relevant detail about this story, England’s Native American heritage and Oklahoma’s complicated racial history should not be ignored.

Follow Zerlina Maxwell on Twitter at @zerlinamaxwell