Refusing to Erase the Tragedies of U.S. History | Sojourners

Refusing to Erase the Tragedies of U.S. History

This week, we marked the 100th anniversary of one of the most horrific moments in American history: On May 31, 1921, white mobs burned to the ground the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Okla., an area commonly known as Black Wall Street. White neighbors killed Black residents in what became known as the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. That story — and many other accounts of Black success and self-determination confronted by malice, terrorism, and destruction — are hidden in the corners of history’s closet by a dominant culture that prefers silence over truth-telling.

The events that sparked violence on that day: A young man, Dick Rowland, was accused of assaulting a white woman, Sarah Page, in an elevator. Mobs of white Tulsa residents pursued and attacked residents of Greenwood, killing hundreds, impacting thousands, burning down homes and businesses, and destroying the entire district in what has been described as the “single worst incident of racial violence in American history.” Page later wrote a letter exonerating Rowland.

What happened on that day 100 years ago is one tragedy; another is the way that we in the United States have covered up this history. Our nation lives with the enduring legacy, the continued racialized and systematized violence against people of color — a result of its failure to repair and recompense the descendants of the massacre.

We are in a state of emergency. Black Americans represent 33 percent of the sentenced prison population in a country where we make up 12 percent of the adult population. The median wealth of Black families is less than 15 percent that of white families’ wealth. Black homeownership rates are at the lowest level since the 1960s. Voter suppressions laws are being enacted in states across the country to keep the voices of Black voters from being heard. My heart is heavy and discouraged by our people’s inconsistent progress due to systems that have consistently targeted and marginalized us. One of the greatest obstacles we face as a nation is related to the lack of collective knowledge we have concerning our history.

Rev. Robert Turner, pastor of Tulsa’s Historic Vernon AME Church, told me members of his community approached the centennial this week “with a tired, yet optimistic spirit that considers both the tragedy of yesterday and the opportunity for tomorrow.” But, Turner said, our country cannot move forward without an investigation into Greenwood and other massacres.

“If America expects Black people to feel safe, to feel like our lives really matter, they need to do more than just convict Derek Chauvin — he is not even sentenced yet,” Turner said in an interview this week. “There are thousands of cold cases where Black people have been killed — not by some vigilante crowd, but by deputized, state-sanctioned whites.”

Jacqueline Blocker, director of engagement for Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, is a descendant of one of Greenwood’s Black female business owners

“I knew that my great grandmother owned a business — I always heard about that growing up — but I did not know it was a part of this whole Greenwood history until much later, until I got into college,” Blocker told me this week. “Now that everybody is talking about it, I feel like it is being commercialized.”

Blocker said she’s concerned that a watered-down version of Greenwood’s history overlooks the success of the past — and hope for the future.

Debates about whether race should even be discussed in schools are taking place throughout the nation. Several states, including Tennessee and Oklahoma, have passed measures essentially forbidding instruction on the real history of our country.

“You can’t erase the history, but there has to be a discussion about the hope. I don’t feel there’s enough focus on the fact that we did it! Look at the entrepreneurship. Look at the success. Look at the resilience,” Blocker said. “I would like to focus more on the hope and what we do to redo this — in this century. How do we reimagine and recreate the Black Wall Street of 1921 before the massacre? That’s the discussion we need to have.”

Unfortunately, the faded memories of Black triumphs have created a void filled with scarcity and disconnection.

Maya Angelou told us, "If you don't know where you've come from, you don't know where you're going." For too long, students and churches have heard the narratives of slavery and dehumanization of Black people. But history also has other stories to tell — stories of success, abundance, and unwavering faith. The stories of our ancestors' excellence, unity, cooperation, and wealth are not documented or discussed widely in the history we teach our children. These stories lodged in our untold history are the positive portrayals of a people that can serve as metaphorical deep breaths during a suffocating time. I find some hope in the legacy of Black Wall Street’s architects — and the blueprint they left.

Before the 1921 massacre, Black Wall Street builders found freedom and prosperity even in oppression. Although Jim Crow laws tried to stop the Black community from thriving, residents created an abundant town that rivaled mainstream Tulsa. Greenwood was a beacon of prosperity, hope, and uplift.

Systemic racism attempted to tear them apart, but our ancestors came together and developed the wealthiest Black city in America. That story must be told. It was ripped apart due to the America’s original sin, racism. That story must be told too.

While our Black communities are still struggling to rise from the ashes of Black Wall Street, we can use their stories to rebuild, change our community’s trajectory, and flourish. It all starts with knowing our history and using its lessons to press forward.

The curriculum Building a City on a Hill, tells the stories of Black legacy builders and their remarkable achievements. It is a culmination of stories centering on communities of Black families, showcasing their resiliency, strength, and faith — including that of Tulsa's Black Wall Street in 1921. We need to read and tell these stories. We need to study the legacy of enslavement in the United States, and the impacts of state-sanctioned violence against Black citizens like those in Tulsa, by embracing legislation that calls for a federal truth, racial healing, and transformation commission.

It is time to confront the cycles of generational trauma that have continued because this nation has refused to acknowledge and address its past. As people of faith, we must be truth tellers and pursue healing from our brokenness by first addressing our wounds. Scripture bears witness to God’s desire for people to experience wholeness and “shalom.”

Countless times, God has strengthened a broken people’s resolve and helped them rise against adversity. I have faith that we can experience this if we meet this moment, tell the truth, and pursue transformation.

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