“Thunder Up” which for most means making as much noise as you can has become a become very popular phrase here in Oklahoma due to the great play of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the rest of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder. However, 91 years ago today, it was the normally festive streets of “Black Wall Street” (Greenwood, Oklahoma) that were “Thundering” with noise, mayhem, gunfire, and death during the worst domestic terrorist attack in U.S. History, the so called 1921 Tulsa Race Riot.
On May 31, 1921, a mob of 2000 Whites under the protection of city and state law pillaged and destroyed during the worst domestic terrorist attack in U.S. history. The terrorist mob destroyed 36 square blocks killed upwards of 1000 people, and left 10,000 Blacks homeless, destitute, and traumatized. Afterwards city and state officials condone this terrorism, blamed the innocent Blacks, and instituted a cover-up so successful the horrors of the Greenwood Massacre were effectively blotted out of history for almost 75 years. In fact, the cover-up was so successful that while going to school on Greenwood Street, I never once heard about the bombing!!!
Although Greenwood was not its own municipality, the residents of Greenwood ran their part of town as a separate entity, and when asked, many identified their hometown as Greenwood, not Tulsa. Because all of life’s necessities for Greenwood residents were within the geographic boundaries of their community, it has been said “Greenwood residents did not have any reason to leave the community for anything but shoes.”
The great Dr. W.E.B. Dubois stated “I have never seen a colored community so highly organized as that of Tulsa. The colored people of Tulsa have accumulated property, have established stores and business organizations and have made money in oil.” In fact, Greenwood was so economically self-sufficient, purportedly a dollar circulated within the community fifty times, sometimes taking a year for currency to leave the community. Noted Greenwood historian Scott Ellsworth described Greenwood’s business district and neighborhoods before the massacre:
“The black population had grown to almost 11,000 and the community counted two black schools, Paul Laurence Dunbar and Booker T. Washington, one black Hospital, and two black newspapers, The Tulsa Star and the Oklahoma Sun. [Greenwood] at the time had some thirteen churches and three fraternal lodges—Masonic, Knights of Pythias, and I.O.O.F.—plus two black [movie] theaters and a black public library.… Two and three-story brick buildings lined the avenue, housing a variety of commercial establishments, including a dry goods store, two theaters, groceries, confectionaries, restaurants, billiard halls… [and] offices of Tulsa’s unusually large number of lack lawyers, doctors, and other professionals.… Along Detroit Avenue and certain other streets were the neat, sturdy homes of some of those Black Tulsans who owned businesses lining Greenwood Avenue, augmented by the houses of the city’s Black professional class. Within this elite group, some were rumored to have assets in excess of $100,000.”
Over the last 10 years a group of dedicated historians, attorneys, politicians, and community activist have been fighting for Greenwood and its descendants to received proper remembrance, respect, and reparations. In 2003, I was blessed to be a law student member of the Reparations Coordinating Committee (RCC) which was an “all-star” legal team that including Harvard Law and Civil Rights icon Professor Charles Ogletree and the late great Johnnie Cochrane. The RCC filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for Northern Oklahoma. At the time the lawsuit was filed there were still 171 known living survivors of the Greenwood Massacre. This “slam dunk” case for reparations and justice was dismissed due to Statute of Limitations (essentially saying it was too late to file a lawsuit for what happen) first at the district court level, then the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, and finally “without comment” by the U.S. Supreme Court. To date there are less than 45 known living survivors of the Greenwood Massacre.
What’s worse daily the survivors are dying knowing that their justice system “without comment” turned their back on them. Once our legal avenues were denied by the “justice” system we made a determination to attempt to get a remedy through federal legislation. So, in 2005, I was asked to organize and coordinate a national town hall meeting featuring Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) and several survivors to call upon Congress to act. The town hall was attended by almost approximately 1000 people at my church in Tulsa and re-energized our drive towards justice calling upon Congress to act. In 2007, we finally won the introduction of bill in congress to remove the statue of limitations from the case, which would have allowed it to move forward. We were even able to secure a congressional hearing. However, the bill never received a house vote and “died.”
In closing, I’m reminded of a verse in the Black National Anthem “stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod” as for over ninety years the victims of the Greenwood Massacre have been unsuccessfully seeking justice down ever “road” possible only to be struck down with the “chasting rod” of injustice. However, the fight is not over as Rep. John Conyers has introduced a bill in congress to remove the Statue of Limitations which would allow a case to proceed forward.
The bill is modeled after the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which provided each surviving Japanese-American unconstitutionally held in concentration camps during WWII $20,000.00 and their descendant $10,000.00. So, there is still hope that we will be able to get justice while some of the survivors our still alive. For this to happen we need all lover of justice to THUNDER UP and make some noise to your federal representatives to support the Tulsa Race Riot bill.
Damario Solomon-Simmons, M.E.d., J.D., is the managing partner of SolomonSimmonSharrock & Associates law firm and an adjunct professor of African & African-American Studies at the University of Oklahoma. His life’s mission is to inform, inspire, and empower and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.facebook.com/solospeaks.
Damario dedicates this post to Otis “Dad” Clark the oldest known survivor of the Greenwood Massacre who died last week at 109. Damario had the great honor of traveling to Washington D.C. on several occasions with Dad Clark. During these journeys for justice, Dad Clark often spoke of looking forward to the day when he and the other survivors would get justice for themselves and the Black community of Tulsa. Sadly, Dad Clark left this earth without the satisfaction of the elusive justice that he pursued with vigor, grace, and enthusiasm. You can continue Dad Clark’s pursuit of justice by educating your network about Greenwood, requesting your local schools to teach