[This review was published to this Web site in 2003.]
Riot and Remembrance: America's
Worst Race Riot and Its Legacy
James S. Hirsch
Mariner Books, 2002
To call it a "riot" is very much a misnomer. What happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on May 31, 1921, and the following days is much more aptly described as a "race war."
Alarmed by reports that a young black man who was being held for a possible sexual attack on a white elevator operator may soon be taken from the Tulsa jail and lynched, armed blacks, sometimes marching in military formation, made "scattered forays into white Tulsa." These included two appearances at the courthouse, the second of which led to a confrontation in which a gun was fired as a white man attempted to disarm one of the blacks. At that point, "all hell broke loose" and people were killed on both sides. When whites scrambled to get guns, breaking into sporting goods stores and pawnshops to obtain them, the blacks retreated to Greenwood, the black section of the city, for reinforcements. The battle raged until about 2 a.m. on June 1, and then seemed over. But at dawn a sniper killed one of the whites gathered in clusters on the outskirts of Greenwood, and a full-fledged pitched battle ensued. By the time it was over, almost all of Greenwood had been burned to the ground, and the population driven out. Researchers have found 38 death certificates (25 for blacks, 13 for whites), but there are allegations that as many as 300 died (or sometimes it is said 300 blacks, ignoring the dead whites). The dead appear to have been among the combatants, since there was no effort by either side to kill the other en masse.
James Hirsch is the author of Hurricane about the boxer Rubin Carter, and has been a reporter for the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Accordingly, he tells the Tulsa story well, with a readable style. Many readers will think there is a semblance, at least, of journalistic balance.
As with so many things today, however, polished technique is mixed with much intellectual confusion and ideological warping. What will appear to the casual reader as quite a good book on the Tulsa conflict seems something very different when examined closely.
Hirsch is clearly telling the story from the perspective of the black activism that has contributed one aspect to the overall deconstruction of American culture and history that has occurred in the "culture war" since the 1960s. The events in Tulsa were virtually forgotten (masked by a "culture of silence," Hirsch says) until a black activist wrote three columns about them in 1968. Since then, the national media have been very much alive to the matter, and the issue has followed a trajectory similar to the one taken by the "Japanese-American internment" issue: militant articulation from a single point of view; a willingness on the part of "politically correct" politicians to accept that point of view; the appointment of a "reparations commission" heavily stacked on the side of the alleged "victims"; atrociously biased behavior in conducting the commission hearings; the approval of palliative measures that are intended to "heal," but that do not; and, finally, the entry of the whole thing into folklore with a "feel good" musical that plays fast and loose with the truth.
Hirsch's perspective is part of a much broader phenomenon that has occurred in the American psyche. Through most of American history, its story was seen from the point of view of the mainstream society, which was white. That society took its own existence for granted and was entirely preoccupied with itself. This changed profoundly, however, beginning in the middle of the twentieth century. The century-long coalition of an alienated intellectual subculture with "the worker" gave way to a new coalition in which those who were alienated against the mainstream society sought allies primarily among minorities. Over time, this was enhanced by the flood of Third World immigration and by the feminist movement, which in its ideology saw women as themselves a "minority" to be championed. The result: a perspective that now almost without exception sees American life from the point of view of the erstwhile outsiders.
The point of view is so much a part of Hirsch's writing that it seems almost subliminally present, such as when someone hardly sees the wallpaper in a room. Many readers will be inclined to accept uncritically, for example, a reference to "Barry Goldwater, who opposed civil rights." When Hirsch accuses a Tulsa newspaper editor has having held "xenophobic and white supremacist attitudes," citing the editor's opposition to the annexation of Hawaii, that characterization won't seem too exceptional today. Why? Because Americans have forgotten how the annexation of Hawaii was the first issue to raise the question of whether the United States was to abandon its traditional insularity and embark on an imperialist path. (Quite soon after the annexation of Hawaii, the question of empire was raised even more graphically by the conquest of the Philippines from the Filipinos themselves in a two-year guerrilla war that continued after the Spanish in Manila had long-since been defeated.) When Hirsch makes such references (such as to Goldwater and the editor just mentioned), he reduces complex and legitimately arguable issues to what is in effect a "sound bite" that imparts only a selective portion of the truth.
Hirsch's bias is sometimes most evident in what he passes over without comment. He mentions, for example, a black leader's having been acquitted by a jury -- but without commenting in the slightest way about whether it was a white jury and, if so, about what that acquittal implies as a rebuttal to the "racism" that is otherwise imputed to whites of that day. Most egregiously, Hirsch concludes the book by recounting, without adverse comment, the plot of a musical, The Song of Greenwood, that was performed at the new Greenwood Cultural Center on May 31, 2001. The musical seriously falsifies the events of 1921 by making up a supposed fact that the young black man who had been held in jail and the elevator operator he was thought to have assaulted "were lovers"; and, further, that the girl had cried "rape" and later "admitted that she fabricated the charge." One might think that as a supposedly objective reporter he would find such a propagandistic stretching intolerable.
Often the bias amounts to a simple reiteration of now-well-established shibboleths. He says that widespread fear of the rape of white women by blacks "conflated sexual and racial insecurities among whites." Further, that "black success was an intolerable affront to the social order of white supremacy." The first of these shibboleths is the sort of psychoanalytical nonsense that has been a favored instrument for ad hominem attacks for at least the past century; and the second is contradicted by much historical evidence that white society actually welcomed black success. Speaking of lynchings, Hirsch says that they "were the preferred instrument to crack down on 'uppity' Negroes" -- and adds (as a strange indication of who was considered 'uppity') "particularly those accused of raping white women."
The ideological perspective is perhaps to be expected as a given in today's climate. What is not to be so readily anticipated, though, is an author's failure to delve further into a good many aspects of the history, especially where doing so would help corroborate or refute a given version. He quotes a newspaper account that the young female elevator operator claimed her attacker had scratched her hands and face and torn her clothes. This would suggest that there was physical evidence to corroborate or refute her claim that she was attacked. Did she not bear scratches? Were her clothes not torn? Hirsch lets it go, never exploring it.
He argues that Tulsa's neglect of the black community after Greenwood's destruction was as serious an offense as the destruction itself. "The betrayal of Greenwood after the riot was as great a crime as its destruction." It is as though Greenwood's rapid reconstruction "just happened." Within six months, "much of Greenwood's housing infrastructure had been rebuilt, with 664 frame shacks, 48 brick or cement buildings, and four frame churches." By 1925, there were few visible signs of the town's destruction. "Despite the riot," he tells us, "the number of black Tulsans during the decade increased by 71 percent, to 15,203... By 1926 [just five years after the riot], Tulsa had more hotels for blacks than were in Harlem." But where were the means obtained not only to accomplish all of this, but to do so so rapidly? The explanation Hirsch gives is that the reconstruction was "fueled by dollars earned by domestic servants." It couldn't have been by loans made from (white-owned) banks, because we are told that "black homeowners were victimized by having to pay exorbitant mortgage rates, between 10 and 20 percent." All this, however, is totally incongruous. One cries out, with radio commentator Paul Harvey, for "the rest of the story."
Hirsch is willing to say that "blacks who resisted arrest or whose homes had firearms... were the most likely to be executed." The charge that there were executions is, of course, of the highest gravity. But he tells nothing of executions: no witnesses' accounts, no mention in reports; there is, in fact, no other mention by Hirsch himself.
It would be especially helpful if Hirsch had delved considerably more than he did into the nature of the "black nationalism" that arose early in the twentieth century and that came into violent intersection in Tulsa with the vigilantism that had been so much a part of American frontier life (though declining as frontier conditions came to an end) since the Civil War. The militant black leader W. E. B. DuBois had given a speech in Tulsa in March, just weeks before the "riot." What had he said? Hirsch doesn't tell us. We are told that the armed blacks who went to the courthouse marched in military formation. Was this entirely spontaneous, or had they been in training together as some sort of paramilitary group? We know that DuBois and the magazine of Greenwood's African Blood Brotherhood praised the armed blacks after the event. But Hirsch has no curiosity about the lead-up, if any, to the black side of the conflict.
The result of these omissions and many others is that the book raises far more questions than it answers. This is certainly not a definitive book on the subject.
Dwight D. Murphey