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The History And Legacy Of Tulsa Race Massacre

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Tulsa's Juneteenth celebrations are being held today in Greenwood. That is a neighborhood north of downtown that was once known as Black Wall Street. It was a thriving district of black-owned businesses and homes. Many African Americans in Tulsa had made their money in the oil and gas industry there. But 99 years ago, things changed. A black man was accused of assaulting a white woman in an elevator, and the city erupted. White mobs torched Greenwood to the ground, and as many as 300 people were killed.

Well, here to tell us more about the Tulsa race massacre and its lasting impact on Tulsa today is Jim Goodwin. He is the publisher of the Oklahoma Eagle, a newspaper focused on African American issues, a publication his family has owned since 1936. Welcome.

JIM GOODWIN: Thank you for the invite.

CHANG: Well, let's start by talking about what happened on May 31, 1921. Can you just give us a little more detail about how everything unfolded?

GOODWIN: It began because of an alleged criminal attack by Dick Rowland against a woman who was an elevator operator. Sarah Page was her name. Young - both of them young, and it mushroomed into an allegation that there was a rape or an attempted rape in the Drexel hotel. That was the pretext that caused the confrontation that later followed.

When the allegation was made, an arrest was made of Dick Rowland, and there was a fear that he would be lynched. And so this was a community that was known for its lawlessness or disrespect for law and order. And so in an attempt to protect him, men gathered at the jail. The next thing we know, there was a shot fired, and then all hell broke loose. And some 5,000 people who were - some of whom were deputized as police officers - invaded the community, devastated some 30 to 35 blocks, countless businesses, over 1,200 homes. The Black population in Tulsa, which is about 13% of the population that was a little over 10,000 - 60% of whom were placed into internment camps and held for over eight days.

CHANG: Wow. You know, when I listen to you tell me these details about what happened in 1921, it strikes me. I never heard about any of this from my teachers in grade school growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area. I know many people throughout this country know very little about this massacre. Why do you think that is?

GOODWIN: Well, that was a conspiracy of silence. I mean, it was an ugly past, and it was a dark history that was not to be discussed. And it's only been recent that it's being taught in the school system here in Oklahoma. But we at the Oklahoma Eagle have written about it practically every year since our existence.

CHANG: What does Greenwood look like today? Can you paint a picture for me?

GOODWIN: Yes. It's a vestige. It's just a remnant of what it used to be. It's about a block. Urban renewal, as it did with many cities in America, put a highway right through the heart of the business district. And so it left just a remnant. It will not ever be restored to its past because the people who inhabited it at the time, the assets are not there.

CHANG: Civil rights leaders are celebrating in Greenwood today. And President Trump, of course, had scheduled a rally to be held today in Tulsa as well, but he later decided to postpone that rally until tomorrow. How did you feel when the president scheduled his first rally in months in your city initially on June 19, or Juneteenth?

GOODWIN: Well, of course, you can imagine it caused great consternation. But really, I, as a owner of a paper, I'm certainly not against anybody speaking. Free speech is something that's very vital to our country. But his coming, I guess, I regard it as just another photo op. He himself is crediting himself most recently of having made Juneteenth known around the world because of his presence. Of course, that's an incorrect statement, but it does focus - ironically it does focus on bondage of the vestiges of which we are still belaboring under. So I think it will have perhaps an unintended impact of making things better at the national level because people are going to say, we've had enough of this silliness we call white supremacy or racism. We've just have enough.

CHANG: Jim Goodwin is the publisher of the Oklahoma Eagle. Thank you very much for your time today.

GOODWIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF RACHEL ZEFFIRA SONG, "THE DESERTERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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