The aftermath of the Tulsa Race Massacre.

The Ground Breaking review: indispensable history of the Tulsa Race Massacre | Books

Under the subtitle “An American City and Its Search for Justice”, Scott Ellsworth has produced a much-needed book that acts like a mirror. Though documenting a particular place and time, it helps us understand the race-based and sectarian turmoil that is so pervasive today. Oprah Winfrey has hailed it as one of “20 of the Best Books to Pick Up”.

Fast-paced but nuanced, it’s an impeccably researched update of Ellsworth’s literary debut. Death in a Promised Land, from 1986, was the first comprehensive history of the Tulsa Race Massacre.

Long called – defensively – a “race riot”, it took place on 31 May and 1 June 1921, The melee was prompted when a lynch mob gathered to abduct an innocent Black youth, jailed for supposedly assaulting a young white girl, an elevator operator. Not only had the sheriff refused to surrender the terrified 19-year old, but just two years after their service in the first world war, cars of armed Blacks, some in uniform, arrived to defend the prisoner. As tempers flared, predictably, gunfire erupted.

And so it was that what began as run-of-the-mill attempt to murder a Black man accused of violating white virtue morphed soon into not just the murder of one African American but a veritable open season on “niggers” – targeting men, women and children indiscriminately.

It is estimated that as many as 300 perished while 800 more were treated for gunshots and burns. White marauders, urged on by lurid lies in the press, deputized and armed by police and augmented by biplanes dropping incendiary bombs and snipers welding machine guns, looted, burned and destroyed the entire Black district. They mocked, tortured, killed and interred its entire population.

Formally known as Greenwood, the enclave was called the nation’s “Negro Wall Street” by Booker T Washington. If not a utopian Wakanda, with its abundance of African American-owned businesses – office buildings, barber and beauty shops, restaurants, hotels and a theater – Greenwood was at least a Black expression of the American Dream. Thirty-five square blocks were laid waste. They contained 1,100 structures housing thriving enterprises, proud families, a post office, a library, a hospital and five churches.

The aftermath of the Tulsa Race Massacre. Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

Ellsworth’s 1986 account helped sear this long-suppressed outrage into America’s consciousness. Death in a Promised Land, The Ground Breaking and Ellsworth’s numerous other efforts amount to a lifetime of truth-telling.

Currently a history professor at the University of Michigan, previously a consulting historian with the Smithsonian Institution and Duke University’s Oral History Program, Ellsworth has always been a man with a mission.

But it’s perhaps his newest role, as chairman of the physical investigation committee for the city of Tulsa, collaborating with archaeologists and forensic scientists to uncover unmarked mass graves of massacre victims, that explains Ellsworth’s mission best. Following fruitless investigations last July, further search in October revealed 12 fragile pine coffins and remains in an area where “nobody is supposed to be buried”. On 31 May and 1 June, the centennial of the most dire race strife in the US, those victims will be exhumed.

Tim Madigan, who wrote his own assessment of what happened to Greenwood, The Burning: The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, has praised Ellsworth’s undertaking, stating: “I believe that the path of true racial reconciliation runs through millions of American whites, whose hearts would be changed if they only knew our history. To those people I would simply say this: Please read this book.”

Malcolm X expressed much the same sentiment, noting: “Of all our studies, history is best qualified to reward our research. And when you see that you’ve got problems, all you have to do is examine the historic method used all over the world by others who have problems similar to yours.”

Like the Jewish Tulsans who witnessed their town’s tragedy and recalled pogroms in the old country, Ellsworth’s engrossing story reminded me most of Kristallnacht. Yes, there are distinctions. But the scapegoating, the dehumanization, the humiliation and the cruelty are identical.

Rev Robert Turner, of Vernon AME Church, prays as crews search for remains at Oaklawn Cemetery in Tulsa, in October 2020.
The Rev Robert Turner, of Vernon AME Church, prays as crews search for remains at Oaklawn Cemetery in Tulsa, in October 2020. Photograph: Mike Simons/AP

What so inspired scorn and hate, was, Ellsworth explains, “A mindset, a bearing, a way of engaging the world. In an age when people of color are constantly being told that they are lesser beings, here is a community who knows that they are just as good as anyone …

“Hemmed in by a white world that values only their labor, Greenwood is an outpost of vitality, achievement and pride. The evidence is everywhere. You can see it in the women who drape themselves in pearls and fur for a show at the Dreamland or the Dixie.”

If living well is the best revenge, it is also a state to which many are forbidden to even aspire. Whether through violent uprooting, at the point of a gun, or through more insidious means that are just as harmful – disinvestment, redlining and gentrification, in Harlem, Greenwood and elsewhere – there are plenty who feel they deserve to live where we live, more than we do.

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