Reading Tulsa 1921 is a little like being in the middle of a mob and hearing all the hundred-year-old voices at once. It is an important record of absolutely everything leading up to, during, and after the mass killing of Black people in and the destruction of the Greenwood district, the Black Wall Street section, of Tulsa, Oklahoma on May 31–June 1, 1921—a history that was never recorded in Oklahoma school books and certainly did not make its way into my white high school history classes in suburban New York in the 1960s. But unless you are digging for facts, it is a difficult book to follow as it is really more like investigative notes, leaving nothing out. Often the reporting is recounting what is essentially a game of "Telephone" where facts are skewed or made up out of whole cloth or maybe not, and every single one of them is relayed for examination. According to author journalist Randy Krehbiel, some truths will never be known, especially about the incident that led to this abomination.
I was willing and eager to dig through this book because my mother was born in Tulsa in 1921, and although she never spoke about it, or is it possible she didn't know?—I'll never know—I suspect that whatever happened exploded into our family with such force that, unbeknownst to me, I've suffered the reverberations in my own history, due to my mother's trauma ... due to her parents' trauma … due to her Jewish merchant father's decision to inexplicably flee (my word, not hers—she never explained it and I don't know exactly when he fled, if he did indeed flee) Tulsa after she was born, four months after the massacre. The family subsequently moved so often that my mother suffered a lifelong phobia about being lost.
I'm glad this record exists. It made the people and the place real for me and I did pick up bits of history that may add to my personal understanding: the fact that the riot and destruction began in the white business district (where my grandfather's jewelry store probably was), although this pales in comparison to what followed; and the fact that at least two businesses mentioned in Greenwood (a movie theater and a grocery) had white owners, so perhaps there were others. But all this is tangential to what we need to know to understand what happened. Read More