As President Donald Trump holds his first rally since the coronavirus pandemic gripped the nation, the city hosting him —Tulsa, Oklahoma — invokes a dark history of horrific violence toward African Americans.
It also comes at a time of social unrest in America over historic racism and racial violence.
Amid cries for reform, demonstrations against racialized police-involved violence and a unified call for racism to actively be challenged through legislation, many have accused Trump of sending dog whistles to nationalists by holding his rally in Tulsa during the Juneteenth weekend.
Whether inadvertently or intentionally, it unearths a painful past.
In 1921, Tulsa was the site of a thriving community of African Americans casually referred to as “Black Wall Street.” The people that lived in the Greenwood area of the city were law-abiding, educated, and, more importantly, thriving. That, however, was a problem for the whites in the city.
For over 18 hours, from May 31 to June 1, hundreds of Black people were murdered and thousands were left without homes in what is now called the Tulsa Race Massacre. Historians say that this was “one of the worst incidents of racial violence in U.S. history, and one of the least-known: News reports were largely squelched.”
David F. Krugler, the author of 1919, The Year of Racial Violence, believes “The motivation was to punish African Americans for economic success and take it away. In Tulsa, they burned it to the ground.”
Like the month-long protests currently going on that started the same day, May 31, the Tulsa Race Massacre reminded the world that there are bloody and often murderous outcomes that come with social change, leaving civilians dead in the streets.
Tulsa was one massacre in about a seven-year span of domestic terror on Black people after slavery called the “Red Summer,” a phrase coined by James Weldon Johnson, field secretary for the NAACP. The writer of the African American National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” originally used this term for the tragic killings that happened throughout the nation in 1919: Black people were victims over ninety-seven lynchings, a “pogrom-like massacre” of up to 237 people in Arkansas alone and several race riots.
Scholars have expanded the time from just the summer to include events from 1917 all the way to 1923. Including the well-known desolation of the all-Black community of Rosewood, Florida, now listed in this collective of violence are at least 26 cities, including Washington, D.C., Chicago, Omaha, Elaine, Charleston, Columbia, Houston, and the aforementioned Tulsa where the president is hosting his rally during this season of racial angst during Juneteenth.
Poet, Claude McKay wrote this poem “If We Must Die” during the terror:
“If we must die, let it not be like hog. Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs, making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die, so that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy. Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe! Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow! What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men, we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack, pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!”
The poem was published in the July 1919 issue of the socialist paper, The Liberator but it expressed the level of dignified activism and courage that existed — even as people (many who had served in the “Big War”) were murdered by the people that were supposed to be their brothers and/or protect them.
Carlos F. Hurd who covered the 1917 East St. Louis riot, wrote in the Post-Dispatch, that he marveled at the casualness in which white mobs assaulted Black men randomly, mocking them as their “hands raised, pleading for life … almost dead from a savage shower of stones.” He recounted how common-place it was to hang Black people with clotheslines and rope and how not even women were not spared during the savagery.
White women would take sticks and brutally assault their “negress” counter-parts while they begged, Hurd reports, “for mercy.” The white women “laughed and answered the coarse sallies of men as they beat the negresses’ faces and breasts with fists, stones, and sticks.”
So as Trump gathers thousands in Tulsa in an attempt to reinvigorate his presidential campaign amid a tipping point over race in America, the deep and dark history of the city and beyond stands glaringly in the background.
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