Trump in Tulsa: City faces up to violent past ahead of rally

By Jane O'Brien
BBC News, Tulsa

media captionIn 1921 Tulsa saw one of the biggest race massacres in American history.

President Donald Trump is holding his first political rally since the start of the pandemic in Tulsa, Oklahoma, this weekend. His choice of location and the date have raised tensions in a city struggling to come to terms with its history of violent racism.

On 1 June 1921, a white mob ransacked the prosperous black neighbourhood of Greenwood, killing an estimated 300 people and burning 35 blocks of homes and businesses to the ground.

The bodies of the victims were buried in mass graves and, for decades, the memory of those fearful first few days in June were buried with them.

"Following the massacre, both blacks and whites swept this under the rug," says Mechelle Brown, programme co-ordinator at the Greenwood Cultural Center, which preserves the history of the neighbourhood.

"They had to focus on surviving. They said that to talk about it meant to relive it, and it was too painful to relive."

The killing started after a young black man was accused of assaulting a young white girl in a downtown office elevator.

image sourceCourtesy Greenwood Cultural Center
image captionGreenwood was once known as Black Wall Street

The man, Dick Rowland, was arrested and there were fears he would be lynched. A group of African Americans went to the jail to protect him and were confronted by a larger group of white men. Shots were fired and the ensuing violence lasted for several days.

Thousands of white men, some of them deputised by the police, descended on Greenwood. Ten thousand people were forced from their homes. Others were murdered. Eyewitnesses said planes circled overhead dropping bombs of turpentine or coal oil while buildings were torched from the ground.

media caption'A celebration of life. A celebration of freedom': What you need to know about Juneteenth

It remains the deadliest single act of racial violence in American history.

Nobody was ever charged in the looting and destruction and city officials who stood by - or took part - were never held accountable for failing to protect their black residents.

But as the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre approaches, the city has begun to reckon with its past.

A commission has been set up to locate the graves and identify the victims - although a test excavation at one of the sites has been postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Emphasis has been placed on education with plans to teach the history of Greenwood in all Oklahoma state schools. And the neighbourhood is being promoted as a cultural and tourism destination.

Oklahoma's Republican governor Kevin Stitt has invited Mr Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence to tour Greenwood ahead of Saturday's rally - a move that has infuriated many residents.

image sourceNAACP/Library of Congress via Reuters
image captionThirty five blocks of Greenwood was burned during the massacre

The president has been widely accused of inflammatory rhetoric and of fuelling racial divisions during protests after George Floyd, an unarmed black man, was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis last month. He has called for a law and order crackdown that critics say hasn't addressed the concerns of peaceful protesters.

Some Tulsa residents say the president's visit to Greenwood would be disrespectful and increase the risk of spreading the coronavirus within a vulnerable community. Statistics show that the death toll among African Americans is disproportionately higher than among white people.

"We are very concerned about all these people coming into our state as well as being escorted into our community to visit the Greenwood Cultural Center. That's like bringing them right onto our house," says TheRese Adunis, whose grandparents survived the Tulsa Race Massacre and whose father was born a few months later.

"Because we're coming up on the 100th anniversary of the massacre, Greenwood is a hot tourist stop right now. Our city and our state want to promote it but it's like, you want to make money and you want to be known for our misery but you don't care about our lives," she says.

image sourceAFP via Getty Images
image captionThe Tulsa rally will be the president's first since the pandemic lockdown began

She's also angry that despite repeated promises no reparations have ever been paid to the survivors of the massacre and little has been done to reduce social and economic disparities within the city.

Before the massacre, Greenwood was known as Black Wall Street, the richest African-American neighbourhood in America, with some 300 black-owned businesses.

It was a centre for jazz and blues that profoundly influenced the music legend Count Basie. Apart from a handful of historic markers, there is little evidence of that prosperity today. The north side of Tulsa, with its population of 65,000 African Americans, remains separated by railway tracks from the predominantly white and richer south side of the city.

"They want to take credit for talking about it instead of taking ownership and fixing it," says Damario Solomon Simmons, a lawyer and activist in Tulsa who has represented some of the survivors.

image sourceCourtesy Greenwood Cultural Center
image captionGreenwood had become a vibrant black community

He'll be taking part in a rally with the Rev Al Sharpton on June 19th, a date also known as Juneteenth, a national commemoration of the end of slavery in the US.

President Trump had planned to hold his campaign rally on Juneteenth but postponed it by a day following local protests.

"It's an opportunity to leverage the history of Greenwood and the massacre for his own benefit," says Mr Solomon Simmons. "That's what we're seeing throughout the city - powerful people who are utilising the history to push their agenda and give cover to their gentrification efforts."

After the 1921 massacre, Greenwood residents rebuilt their community without aid or money from the state. For a while it flourished, but never fully recovered and eventually declined.

image sourceCorbis via Getty Images
image captionA band marches on Martin Luther King Day in 2016 in Greenwood

Mr Solomon Simmons says the death of George Floyd has sparked a new awareness of the ongoing inequalities and injustices facing African Americans.

"We who are advocating for legislation, we have to redouble our efforts. The time is now. I can't imagine a better time with the whole world watching," he says.

More on this story