TULSA, Okla. – One recent Sunday, Ernestine Alpha Gibbs returned to the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Vernon.
Not his body. She left this Earth 18 years ago, at the age of 100. But that day, three generations of her family brought back Ernestine’s memories to this place that meant so much to her. A place that was, like their matriarch, a survivor of a distant atrocity.
Albums containing black and white photos of the grocery store that employed generations of Gibbses. Ernestine’s VHS cassettes reflecting his life. Ernestine’s high school and college diplomas, presented in not-so-well-aged leather covers.
The diplomas were a source of pride. After her community was razed to the ground by white rioters in 1921 – after gunfire, arson, looting – the second year of high school temporarily fled Tulsa with her family. “I thought I would never, never, never come back,” she said in a home video in 1994.
But she did and found a happy ending.
“Even though the riot took a lot, we still graduated,” she said, a smile spreading across her face. “So we had to stay here and we had to do everything after that.”
Not that the Gibbs family had it easy. And not that Black Tulsa has truly recovered from the devastation that took place 100 years ago when nearly every structure in Greenwood, the legendary Black Wall Street, was razed – with the exception of Vernon AME.
The Tulsa Race Massacre is just one of the most vivid examples of how black wealth has been undermined, over and over again, by racism and racist violence – forcing generation after generation to start again. zero while taking on the burden of being Black in America.
All in the shadow of a lost black paradise.
“Greenwood has proven that if you have assets you can build wealth,” said Jim Goodwin, editor of the Oklahoma Eagle, the local black newspaper established in Tulsa a year after the massacre.
“It was not a question of intelligence, that the black man was inferior to the white men. This refuted the idea that racial superiority was a fact of life. “
Before the massacre, only a few generations removed from slavery, the unhindered prosperity of blacks in America was an urban legend. But the Greenwood neighborhood in Tulsa was far from a myth.
Many black residents took jobs for families on the white side of Tulsa, and some lived in servant quarters seconded on weekdays. Others were shoe shiners, chauffeurs, doormen, bellboys or maids in high-rise hotels, banks, and office towers in downtown Tulsa, where white men who have amassed wealth in the oil industry were kings.
But on Black Wall Street – ridiculed by whites as “Little Africa” or “N ——- city” – black workers were spending their income in a bustling, booming city within a city. Black-owned grocery stores, soda fountains, coffee shops, hair salons, movies, music rooms, cigar and billiard rooms, tailors and dry cleaners, rooming houses and rental properties: Greenwood had it.
According to a 2001 Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot report of 1921, the Greenwood District also had 15 doctors, a chiropractor, two dentists, three lawyers, a library, two schools, a hospital, and two black publishers printing. newspapers. for the north of Tulsans.
Tensions between Tulsa’s black and white populations flared when, on May 31, 1921, the white company Tulsa Tribune published a sensationalist report describing an alleged assault on Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white girl working as a TV operator. elevator, by Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old black shoe shine.
“Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator,” reads the title of the Tribune. The newspaper’s editor, Richard Lloyd Jones, previously published an article extolling the Ku Klux Klan for adhering to the principle of “white supremacy in the social, political and governmental affairs of the nation.”
Rowland was arrested. A white crowd gathered outside the prison. Word that some in the crowd intended to kidnap and lynch Rowland traveled to Greenwood, where two dozen black men had armed themselves and arrived at the jail to help the sheriff protect the prisoner.
Their offer was rejected and they were fired. But following a separate deadly clash between the lynching mob and the men of Greenwood, the White Tulsans took the sight of armed and angry black men as evidence of an impending black uprising.
Some have said that what followed was not as spontaneous as it seemed – that the mob intended to drive black people out of the city altogether, or at least keep them away from the city’s white enclaves. .
For 18 hours, between May 31 and June 1, whites far outnumbering the black militia waged a scorched earth campaign against Greenwood. Some witnesses said they saw and heard planes overhead bombarding and shooting at businesses, homes and residents of the Black neighborhood.