Brenda Alford stood at the spot where her grandfather’s business was burned to the ground.
It was 99 years ago, on 31 May 1921, when a horde of white people in the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma raided the prospering black neighbourhood of Greenwood, firing indiscriminately on hundreds of black civilians and torching the businesses, homes, hotels, churches and cinemas in what was then known as “Black Wall Street”. It was an episode of white supremacist terror that has haunted this city ever since.
“I do not feel anger,” Alford said, her feet inches from a black plaque, embedded in the concrete to mark the place where her grandfather’s shoe store “Nails Brothers Shoes” once stood. Now there is just an empty lot that sits in front of a highway. “Because of the positivity they [my grandparents] instilled in us growing up… they had every reason to be angry, to raise us to be negative people. But they didn’t.”
Alford had not known about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre until later in life, after both her grandparents had passed away. But she heard fragments of their memories; from her grandmother describing how she hid under a church “for some reason”, to other elders pointing to a local cemetery as the place “they” dumped the bodies. But descriptions of the massacre itself were never forthcoming.
Most of those black bodies, up to 300 people murdered in one of the most horrific single acts of racist violence in American history, have never been found. Alford now chairs the local committee overseeing the search for them. But as the coronavirus pandemic struck the United States in early March, meticulously negotiated plans to excavate at a local cemetery were put on indefinite hold.
Alford’s family did return and attempted to rebuild. But looking at Tulsa now, beyond Greenwood’s black plaques in the concrete, its brightly coloured murals and ornate memorial parks, the economic legacy of the massacre and decades of disenfranchisement in the aftermath is an inescapable reality.
Tulsa is a hyper segregated city, where Greenwood now marks the borderline between the poorer northern section, that is mostly black, and the most prosperous southern sections, which are mostly white. 34% of black people here live in poverty, compared with 13% of white people, according to Human Rights Watch. African Americans are more than twice as likely to be arrested than white people.
It is this harsh end of the criminal justice system that has brought race relations in Tulsa into sharp national focus in recent years.
The city continues to endure the pandemic, as Covid-19 cases in Oklahoma begin to surge once more. But while the search for these victims is postponed by the virus, it has not prevented Donald Trump from visiting Tulsa.
The Trump campaign is scheduled to hold its first rally since the coronavirus pandemic struck on Saturday, a day after the nation marks Juneteenth to commemorate the emancipation of America’s last enslaved people. And the rally comes as the country continues to grapple with a renewed call for police reform in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, and just a few weeks after the 99th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre.
The decision to hold a rally here has outraged many in the African American community. It has seen some of those associated with bipartisan efforts to enshrine the history and lessons of the Tulsa massacre into popular consciousness, speaking out in frustration.
“I think his actions speak for themselves,” said Oklahoma state senator Kevin Matthews, chair of the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission and one of only two African American senators in the state. “If it were an accident then you could correct that. If you didn’t intend it, then don’t come on this weekend and interrupt one of the most sacred holidays for black people in this state … it’s purposeful when you plan for people and not with them.”
“If you are an elected official for everyone, and if you respect us – then listen to us,” he said.
The massacre of 1921 occurred at the height of Jim Crow racial segregation in the deep south and midwestern United States. It was sparked by clashes between a white lynch mob that formed outside Tulsa’s county jail demanding custody of a 19-year-old African American named Dick Rowland – falsely accused of sexually assaulting a young white woman – and a small group of armed black people who came to defend him. It quickly descended into nearly 24 hours of bloody chaos, where a thriving community of around 10,000 black people saw their lives and livelihoods destroyed by conscripted whites acting on behalf of the state.
No black American was ever compensated for their losses. No white American was ever charged over the incident. It was referred to as a “race riot” rather than a massacre until last decade.
“To have to lose everything the way they did,” said Brenda Alford, “and not to receive any restitution for it, was a situation that was horrible. They lost their economic base and it was never replaced.”
In May 2015, an unarmed 44-year-old African American man named Eric Harris was shot and killed by a white reserve sheriff’s deputy, Robert Bates. Bates, who was 73, was an untrained volunteer allowed to participate in an undercover sting and claimed he accidentally shot Harris after firing his personal revolver instead of a taser.
Body camera footage captured Harris’s last moments. As he writhed in pain and complained he was losing his breath, another officer involved in the arrest said: “Fuck your breath.”
Bates served less than two years in prison for manslaughter.
On a scorching afternoon this week Andre Harris, Eric’s brother, described watching the video 1,000 times in an effort to connect himself with his brother’s last seconds alive. His profound grief also connected him to history, and he pointed out that just as in 1921 when the sheriff’s office conscripted members of a lynch mob to wreak havoc in Greenwood, it was a volunteer white officer that killed his brother.
“Such disrespect for human life,” he said with reference to both events.
A year later, in the same city, 40-year-old Terrence Crutcher would become the next unarmed black man to die at the hands of police in Tulsa. The white officer who opened fire was acquitted at trial.
Andre Harris has planned a road trip to Los Angeles this weekend to avoid Donald Trump’s trip to his city. “I’m getting out to the nearest ocean and I’m going to pray,” he said. “I’m tired of feeling that negative energy.”
The main purpose is to create an atmosphere of solidarity, of unity, of love from all races, all walks of life.
At the BOK center in downtown Tulsa, around 70 Donald Trump supporters have been camped out since the beginning of the week in a bid to secure a spot at the rally. Some wore hats and pins depicting the confederate battle flag, a symbol of America’s slave owning past. Concrete blocks have been erected at major intersections. On Thursday night, Tulsa’s mayor announced a night time curfew in the city as concerns around unrest continue to mount. City public health officials have urged the campaign to postpone, citing fears of the uncontrollable spread of virus among attendees.
Trump’s strategic communications director Marc Lotter, who strolled among supporters earlier in the week, flanked by two private security guards, argued that the rally was “a great example of democracy”. He declined to answer if the president would accept moral responsibility should any rally goer contract the virus.
Pastor Mareo Johnson is founder of the Black Lives Matter Tulsa chapter and a principle organizer of the counter demonstration planned for Saturday evening. The chapter was created in the wake of Terrence Crutcher’s death in 2016. Crutcher was a personal friend of Johnson’s.
The city, he claimed, has come close to major unrest on a number of occasions in recent years. Earlier this month three protesters, out to peacefully memorialize the death of George Floyd, were injured after a truck drove into a march also held to mark the 99th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre.
But Johnson described, with sincerity, his intention for Saturday’s action. “The main purpose is to create an atmosphere of solidarity, of unity, of love from all races, all walks of life and backgrounds,” he said. “This is not us against them. This is not us being at war.”