World Enough and Time: Reading about Tulsa in 1921

Bill Hagen
Contributing writer

After decades of erasure from history books and classes, the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot or Massacre emerged into the greater public consciousness sometime in the 90s, with the call for reparations and exploration to discover whether mass, unmarked grave sites existed.

The mayor of Tulsa, who has authorized explorations, says he didn’t learn of the massacre till this century. It wasn’t taught or discussed, even—it turns out—in some Black families.

Ironically enough, Republicans in the Oklahoma legislature and Governor Stitt want to control how it and other racial subjects are discussed in the public classrooms with HB 1775. As I read it, the bill would prohibit role-playing, an effective way of discovering how different sides of a conflict thought and felt. (And boy, do we need to develop such imaginative outreach in our divided country today!)

Given the vagueness of the bill, the effect will be for some teachers and schools to simply avoid discussing the history and role of race in America. That may be the real intent of the bill.

But in this 100th anniversary of Tulsa Race Massacre, a number of newspapers and magazines are publishing accounts. The most complete magazine accounts of what happened are in the April issue of Smithsonian by Tim Madigan, author of The Burning, and the May/June 2020 issue of Oklahoma Today. Current issues of Humanities and Oklahoma Today have brief stories.

Without going into what and how it happened, one thing seems perfectly clear. Though not planned, the hoped-for result of the actions of the white mob, the police, and city officials after the violence was to clear out the Greenwood district of its Black inhabitants. In short, a racial cleansing of the area.

Why else would you systematically burn over 1200 homes after looting them? (You don’t want the owners to come back.) Why only arrest or detain Blacks during the violence? And why so slow to provide adequate shelters for about 11,000 newly homeless during the fall and winter of 1921-22?

Donations from outside Tulsa were refused and some city entities proposed building a railroad terminal or buying up damaged properties so white businesses could move in. Blacks could relocate farther north and west, one official said. Luckily Greenwood came back.

Scott Ellsworth’s Death in a Promised Land

If you want to read a thorough accounting of why, what, and how it all happened, I recommend Madigan’s The Burning or Scott Ellsworth’s earlier Death in a Promised Land. I note that the University of Oklahoma Press is publishing a photographic history, The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre by Carlos K. Hill. Be prepared for pictures of burned bodies, some of which were sold as post cards in the 1920s.

The best way to get “inside” the participants and others at the time, however, is to turn to fiction. Anna Myers in Tulsa Burning and Rilla Askew in Fire in Beulah use their creative imaginations to build on the facts, as we know them.

Anna Myers in "Tulsa Burning" and Rilla Askew in "Fire in Beulah" use their creative imaginations to build on the facts of the Tulsa Race Massacre.

Myers’ novel, pitched at young adults, features a teen-aged boy who is confronted by the hatred of the times, both through a trip to Tulsa with a Black friend and what happens in his small town, where the different races are close neighbors.

By the time she published Fire in Beulah in 2001, Askew could claim, with justification, that although the characters here are entirely fictional or, in the case of historical persons, fictionally portrayed, the incidents of racial violence are all real; they took place exactly as described, perpetrated by Americans, on Americans, in this promised land.

Her novel is divided into parts--"Wind," "Kin," "Beulah," "Oil" and "Fire." Each part opens with a date, beginning with 1900, though most are concerned with events in the fall of 1920, leading up to the riot. One might spend time trying to ascertain the historical accuracy of the novel, but the rationale for fiction rather than another history certainly applies here: to create the experience of events rather than analyzing their causes and effects.

Fire in Beulah is unified through two women who are scarred by the experience--Althea Dedmeyer, wife of a Tulsa oilman, and her long-suffering black maid, Graceful Whiteside. Althea is driven to become involved in Graceful's life at first through their common name--Whiteside was Althea's maiden name--, but more through a growing dependence on Graceful, in part due to her husband's neglect of her while he seeks a big oil strike. Through these characters, we are introduced to Graceful's family, entirely caught up with protecting her fugitive brother, T.J. from white lynch fever and Althea's malicious brother, Japheth, who embodies a spirit of destruction. The novel crosscuts from one character’s story to another, until the characters converge in the white invasion and destruction of the Greenwood commercial and housing district.

I don’t recommend reading these novels and historical narratives to re-immerse you in shared guilt or anger. But reading is sort of like role playing: putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. If we can only understand the Other (whomever that might be), perhaps develop some empathy, maybe we can reach across what seems an abyss at times.

It’s a dream I have, anyway.

Bill Hagen is a retired OBU professor. He lives in Shawnee with his cat. Contact him at billha47@hotmail.com.