‘The United States of Lyncherdom’ Didn’t End With Tulsa

·9 min read

Last week, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a blanket memo warning that “upcoming commemoration events associated with the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre in Oklahoma probably are attractive targets for some racially or ethnically motivated violent extremist-white supremacists to commit violence.” The bulletin didn’t cite specific threats, but the mere fact that officials considered the warning warranted proves some things never change in these United States.

A century ago, everyday white Oklahomans deputized by Tulsa’s police to "get a gun and get a n---er" indiscriminately shot, burned out, and dropped bombs on Tulsa’s prosperous “Black Wall Street” District, dumping an unknowable number of bodies in mass graves after they killed at least 300 Black Americans. Like so much racist violence in this country—from the murder of Emmett Till to the Charleston Mother Emmanuel Massacre—the killers justified their murders with a lie of the white imagination. Today, the mere acknowledgment and remembrance of that act of white terrorism, the current gravest threat to national security, is considered a potential provocation to yet more white violence.

Tulsa was far from the only thriving Black community of the early 20th century—in fact, Oklahoma had several all-Black towns—destroyed by white violence. Even in the shadow of enslavement, Black folks built sites of political autonomy, economic opportunity and relative safety from the unstinting threat of white American terror. As early as 1738, under the reign of Spain’s King Philip V, enslaved Black folks escaped plantations in English Carolina and established the Florida town of Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, the first free Black settlement in the colonies, while the 18th and early 19th centuries saw the foundings of Maryland’s “The Hill” community, Indiana’s “Lyles Station,” Illinois’s “New Philadelphia” and the Wilberforce Settlement in Ontario, Canada. But most freedmen’s towns were founded after Reconstruction, when the U.S. government pulled troops from former Confederate states and left emancipated Black folks to deal with white supremacist vengefulness in the form of Jim Crow.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>"Reconstruction after Destruction by Fire caused by Race Riots, Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA, American National Red Cross Photograph Collection, 1921"</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Universal History Archive/Getty</div>

"Reconstruction after Destruction by Fire caused by Race Riots, Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA, American National Red Cross Photograph Collection, 1921"

Universal History Archive/Getty

The “Exoduster” movement, led by Henry Adams and “Pap” Singleton—a coffin-maker whose vocation made him intimate with the wages of white racist violence—brought multiple Black settlements to Kansas (“It is better to starve to death in Kansas than to be shot and killed in the South,” one Black news outlet wrote in 1879), which had been preceded by towns such as Shankleville, Texas, and rural Black homesteading settlements across Indiana and Ohio. By the late 1880s, at least 200 freedmen’s towns had been founded across the country, including Eatonville, Florida, described by native daughter Zora Neal Hurston in Of Mules and Men as a “city of five lakes, three croquet courts, three hundred brown skins, three hundred good swimmers, plenty guavas, two schools, and no jailhouse.” Some of those towns—the Tenth Street Historic District of Dallas, Texas; Langston, Oklahoma; and Eatonville among them—survive.

This Black Journalist Made Sure the Tulsa Race Massacre Was Never Forgotten

But a significant number of freedmen’s towns were abandoned in the 1920s, casualties of racist lending and credit practices during the Great Depression, Black political disenfranchisement under Jim Crow, and white racial terror violence. Rosewood, Florida, among the most well-known, was mostly reduced to cinders in 1923 as its Black residents were forced to flee mobs of murderous white vigilantes who beset the town when a local white woman lied about being attacked by a Black man. As many as 100 residents of Leflore, a majority-Black county in Mississippi, were lynched and fatally shot in 1889 because local agrarians dared establish a Colored Farmers’ Alliance. In 1901, white mobs armed themselves with guns taken from a Missouri military armory and murdered at least three Pierce City Black men after a white woman was found dead; more than 200 other Black residents who were forced to abandon their homes “left by the trains, in wagons, horseback and on foot, taking whatever of their property it was possible and leaving anything which would in any way prove an impediment,” according to a newspaper article at the time. Mark Twain penned The United States of Lyncherdom in response to the murders, but did not publish it during his lifetime, reportedly out of fear of losing Southern friends.

The Slocum Massacre in East Texas deserves recognition here. The 1910 anti-Black pogrom was rumored to have roots in a debt dispute between a white farmer named Reddin Alford and Marsh Holley, son of a formerly enslaved local Black landowner and prosperous businessman named Jack Holley. Other stories mention Jim Spurger, who after learning a Black farmer named Abe Wilson was the boss of an all-white road construction crew, roused local whites. The late East Texas politician Jerry Sadler, grandson of an enslaver in the area, wrote in his 1984 memoir that “the whites wanted the land that the Blacks owned, and they had decided finally that there was only one way to get it. The Blacks had some of the most desirable farmland in the county.”

On July 29, armed white men from Slocum and surrounding areas reportedly went “road to road and cabin to cabin, shooting down African Americans in their tracks.” Charlie Wilson, a Black Slocum resident who was wounded but survived, later told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that white terrorists using “shotguns and Winchesters... did not say a word when they fired on us.” The county sheriff told reporters that the mobs also cut telephone wires, then began “killing Negroes as fast as they could find them. And, so far as I was able to ascertain, without any real cause. These Negroes have never done anything that I could discover. There was just a hot-headed gang hunting them down and killing them.” He lamented that "we won’t find some of the bodies until the location is revealed to us by the buzzards."

The death toll was given at the time as somewhere between eight and 20, but Black survivors estimate as many as 200 of their friends and neighbors were killed, and as in Tulsa, many of the dead were tossed in mass graves. “In many cases relatives of the Negroes discovered the whereabouts of a body and dragged it to a secluded spot during the hours of the night,” a Houston newspaper reported at the time. “On account of the fact that several bodies have been thus disposed of, the exact number of Negroes killed will never be known... No white man was injured during the trouble." Nor was any white man ultimately prosecuted for the murders.

Marsh Holley and his surviving relatives, like nearly all of their Black neighbors, fled Slocum and resettled in nearby towns. The Holley family, still fearing for their lives, changed the spelling of their surname to “Hollie.” In 2016, largely due to the efforts of Constance Hollie-Jawaid, Marsh’s great granddaughter and E.R. Bills, author of The 1910 Slocum Massacre: An Act of Genocide in East Texas, an historical marker was erected in Slocum to honor the victims and recognize the massacre. This happened despite obstruction from some local officials who seemed to suggest descendants of those murdered should just get over it.

“It’s a sad situation, but I feel like we’re all past it and other ones carry the burden on their shoulders,” then-County Commissioner Greg Chapin told a local news outlet in 2015. “Their ancestors dealt with it years and years ago, but some of them don’t let it go.”

“The citizens of Slocum today had absolutely nothing to do with what happened over a hundred years ago,” County Historical Commission chair Jimmy Odom wrote at the time, calling the idea “blackmail by shame.”

He complained that “this is a nice, quiet community with a wonderful school system. It would be a shame to mark them as racist from now until the end of time.”

White Ignorance Is Bliss—and Power

The Slocum Massacre, like the massacre in Tulsa, “was kept alive for decades in the Black community long after whites had erased it from the official record,” as Charles M. Mills writes. Sadler noted in his memoir that three years after the Slocum massacre, the “county courthouse was burned by an arsonist” and, quite conveniently, “the records were destroyed.” Ed Wheeler, a white Tulsan who in 1970 began researching the murders in his hometown, has recounted the threats received when he began digging into the history. (“Black folks were anxious to tell the story, but every interview was at their church with a minister present,” Wheeler told a Tulsa news outlet this year. “And they refused to allow me to use their names.”) The resulting article, Profile of a Race Riot, was published by a Black Tulsan news outlet. Local white publications had refused to carry the story, complicit in the effort to maintain a selective and untrue Oklahoma history.

That same effort, on a national level, is being carried out by those trying to legally ban teaching of the full history of slavery, racism, and ongoing anti-Blackness in this country. In the face of these efforts to sanitize the truth in deference to white supremacy, truth-telling is all the more critical. Viola Fletcher, a 107-year-old survivor of the Tulsa massacre who testified before Congress last week—along with her 100-year-old brother, Hughes “Uncle Red” Van Ellis, and 106-year-old Lessie Randle—emphasized the importance of why white supremacy should not be allowed to succeed in scrubbing the timeline clean of its deeds.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>"Ruins of Greenwood District after Race Riots, Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA, American National Red Cross Photograph Collection, June 1921"</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Universal History Archive/Getty</div>

"Ruins of Greenwood District after Race Riots, Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA, American National Red Cross Photograph Collection, June 1921"

Universal History Archive/Getty

"I will never forget the violence of the white mob when we left our home,” Fletcher said. “I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams. I have lived through the massacre every day.”

“Our country may forget this history,” Fletcher added, “but I cannot."

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