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1921 Riot Reveals Tulsa's History Of Race Relations


Police are still investigating whether the Tulsa shootings were racially motivated. We do know some of Tulsa's history. It has a difficult history of race relations, including a riot in 1921 that left scores, if not hundreds, of people dead.

Scott Ellsworth has studied that event closely. He's a Tulsa native who now teaches African-American history at the University of Michigan. He's on the line from Michigan Radio.

Welcome to the program.

SCOTT ELLSWORTH: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: Why don't you listen with me here to some tape from 2005? A few years back, NPR spoke with a man named Robert Fairchild, a man old enough to remember those riots in 1921.


INSKEEP: Confrontation between a white man and a black man. What happened next, Scott Ellsworth?

ELLSWORTH: Well, the whites were at the courthouse in downtown Tulsa, preparing to lynch a young African-American who had been accused of attempting to rape a young, white girl. A lynch mob formed of whites, but a group of black, World War I vets showed up to prevent the lynching. A shot went off, and the worst incident of racial violence in American history started.

INSKEEP: And you mentioned World War I veterans. We should mention some of the context here. This was a period when quite a few African-Americans had come home from serving their country in World War I.

ELLSWORTH: They had, and they had gotten a taste of democracy, and racial democracy, overseas in France. They had served their country well, and wanted to see more democracy back home. This is also an era where you've got the Ku Klux Klan getting formed again. You know, Oklahoma has had a very troubled history with race relations. It had only become a state in 1907. The first bill passed by the Oklahoma State Senate was a segregation law.

INSKEEP: And so they attempted to prevent this lynching. It led to violence, and what was the violence? How did it spread?

ELLSWORTH: Well, the violence spread very quickly, from gunplay downtown to the white Tulsa police officers handing out guns to members of the white mob; the local units of the National Guard, eventually, sort of being a part of this as well. But you had the invasion of the Greenwood community, which was the African-American community in Tulsa. Over the next 12 hours, more than 1,000 homes and businesses belonging to blacks were looted and then burned to the ground.

And we have an unknown number of deaths to this day, certainly over 100. You know, this was a horrific event. We had never seen anything like this. But it was also an event that was not talked about actively, you know, really until the 1980s.

INSKEEP: Has Tulsa changed a lot?

ELLSWORTH: Well, I think Tulsa has changed some. You know, I think it's important to remember that Oklahoma is a very profoundly conservative state. In 2008, Oklahoma was the only state where not a single county voted for Obama. I spoke to African-American activists on Monday morning about this shooting, what's going on. I think that white Tulsans and black Tulsans are going to fundamentally disagree on how they see this event.

I mean, we don't know that much about it yet, so some caution. But I think they're going to look at it differently.

INSKEEP: What do you mean, differently?

ELLSWORTH: Well, I think that most whites in my hometown will see this as a tragedy, an ugly event; but they will also dismiss it as an aberration. Whereas I think in the African-American community, I think they will see it as part of a larger picture. They live in a state where the majority of the electorate - the white electorate is, you know, very much anti-affirmative action.

There's even in Tulsa a district that just in the last couple of decades has been named the Brady district, which is after a fellow who was one of the founders of Tulsa, but he was also a prominent member of the Klan and supporter of the Klan. Efforts by the black community to get the name of that district changed have gone nowhere.

So whereas I think in Tulsa, in the African-American community, there is a sense that there is a good police chief; that so far, this case has been handled quite well; I think they feel embattled and that this is part of a larger picture which has to do with day-to-day race relations in Oklahoma - whereas I think my fellow white Oklahomans will, again, view this as a tragedy, but not really speaking to us or about us.

INSKEEP: Scott Ellsworth is a native of Tulsa, and a professor of Southern history and culture, at the University of Michigan. Thanks very much.

ELLSWORTH: Thank you.


INSKEEP: We're glad you're with us this morning on this local public radio station. You can continue to follow us throughout the day. Many NPR correspondents are on Facebook and on Twitter. You can follow this program, among other places, @MorningEdition and @NPRInskeep. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.