In early June, the centenary of the Tulsa race massacre was marked in that town, by US President Joe Biden and the Oklahoma state authorities. Biden is the first US President to officially acknowledge that massacre and express his support for the remaining survivors. The suburb of Greenwood, in Tulsa, was reduced to smoking ruins and its African American inhabitants murdered by rampaging white racist mobs – with the connivance and participation of law enforcement authorities.
Greenwood in Tulsa was known, prior to 1921, as the ‘black Wall Street.’ African Americans had successfully started up businesses, theatres, churches, libraries and had proven themselves industrious in the decades after emancipation. The Oklahoma authorities, driven by white racial resentment, seethed at the success of the African American community. The local newspapers, seizing upon a false allegation of sexual assault of a white woman by a black man, incited the Tulsa community to basically attack the African American minority in Greenwood.
The white supremacist mob, armed with weapons from local law enforcement, and backed up by bombs from the air, proceeded to burn and demolish black-owned businesses, and murder black families. One of the survivors, Viola Fletcher (now 107), remembers the dead bodies, the stench, the plumes of smoke, the sheer terror of fleeing as her parents collected their kids to protect them.
The psychological trauma of the survivors, and the loss of a thriving and vibrant community, are incalculable. More than just the financial loss of business, the silence and coverup of the racial massacre added to the injuries of the survivors.
There was no official acknowledgment or apology, and no compensation was forthcoming. Black advancement, and seeing the African American community doing the ‘right’ things – working, getting an education, starting businesses and so on – was met with white racial resentment.
This deadly act of white domestic terrorism – an act of economic injustice as well – should be a cause of concern. President Biden urged his fellow Americans to reflect seriously on why racial terrorism is such a blight on the nation. In fact, the 1921 Tulsa race massacre was not an isolated incident. During the year of 1919, African American communities throughout the United States – especially returning black WW1 veterans – were targeted for racial killings.
African American WW1 veterans thought their service would be a pathway to equality. Sadly, they were wrong. Rejected by white society, denounced as interlopers ‘stealing jobs’ from ‘real’ Americans, black communities were targeted by white supremacist lynch mobs, usually with the connivance of the police. The black veterans, given their combat experience, organised the nucleus of armed resistance against racist attacks.
The Alamo defenders were fighting to keep slavery
While the Tulsa race massacre was suppressed and ignored for decades, the defenders at the Battle of the Alamo have been lionised as martyrs to the cause of freedom. The 1836 battle, portrayed as a David vs Goliath struggle, has become a crucial lynchpin of Texas – and wider American – folklore. The white settlers who fought Mexican troops were not committed to liberty, but to the preservation and extension of slavery.
The Alamo was one battle in a series which resulted in the annexation of Mexican territory by white American colonists, and the foundation of the slave-owning state of Texas. The pro-slavery motivations of the new settlers has been all but written out of the ‘Texas Revolution’ story, and the Alamo’s defenders hailed as a plucky and outnumbered band of liberty-loving patriots dying in the fight against the evil Mexican tyrant, General Santa Anna.
Mexico had in fact abolished slavery in 1829 – sending shivers down the spines of the Texan colonists. Texas, a part of the Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas, was still part of Mexico. The American settlers practiced slavery in violation of the Mexican constitution. They refused to pay taxes to the Mexican government treasury, and acted as a law unto themselves. In the face of this refusal, the Mexican authorities sent troops to quell this nascent white supremacist rebellion.
The Alamo defenders were defeated, and their deaths were politically manipulated to construct a mythology of Texan dedication to patriotism and liberty. The larger American army under General Sam Houston defeated the Mexicans, and Texas broke away to form an independent republic. One of the first clauses in the new state’s constitution was to preserve slavery, and indeed declared that the US Congress had no authority to emancipate slaves in its jurisdiction.
The Alamo defenders, still regarded as ‘heroes’ in Texas, rather than the racist agitators that they were, achieved near-demigod status through conservative folklore. The Walt Disney series Davy Crockett, the latter executed at the Alamo, entered popular consciousness as a courageous frontiersman. John Wayne’s epic 1960 movie The Alamo lionised the American settlers, promoting the values of individual liberty and sacrifice.
The Alamo soldiers were perhaps brave, but they died for the cause of white supremacy. The ideology they supported motivated those who demolished the black community of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Rather than continuing the Heroic Anglo Man narrative of American history, it is high time to educate ourselves on the white nationalism that glues together the racial pyramid of American capitalism.
2 thoughts on “Let’s remember the Tulsa race massacre, and stop mythologising the Battle of the Alamo”
It boggles the mind that this was only a hundred years ago. This massacre took place three years before my father was born.
[…] for which they fought. Facing legalised discrimination at home, black American veterans found themselves at odds with a society for which they risked their […]