RIOT AND REMEMBRANCE: The Tulsa Race War and Its Memory
"But our boys who had learned their lesson/ On the blood-stained soil of France/ How to fight on the defensive/ Proposed not to take a chance." This rousing piece of verse is not a post-WWI veterans' drinking song but a poem recounting African-American resistance to a white riot ignited when blacks banded together to stop a 1921 Tulsa, Okla., lynching. But despite the bravery displayed, the riot, which was the worst in U.S. history, was a cataclysmic event in which the entire prosperous black neighborhood of Greenwood—1,256 homes, churches, stores, schools, hospitals and a library—was looted and burned to the ground, while three hundred people were killed and the black residents were finally forced at gunpoint into detention centers. Even more shocking is that the event has been virtually wiped from history with newspaper accounts, police records and state militia records destroyed. Hirsch's reconstruction of this history, which reads as a horrifying narrative, is illuminating and grim. Relying on oral histories, investigative journalism, court and archival records as well as published memoirs and government reports, Hirsch (Hurricane: The Miraculous Journey of Hurricane Carter) paints a complex portrait of a prosperous city where oil was discovered in 1901 and where African-Americans had obtained some degree of economic and cultural independence in a state with an already troubled history of racial tension. Political organizing by the International Workers of the World in 1917 had set the stage for social unrest; veteran status gave black men a new identity after WWI. Hirsch unearths an important episode in U.S. history with verve, intelligence and compassion. (Feb.)
Forecast: This book may not hit bestseller lists, but it could be shortlisted for awards. The fight for economic compensation to Greenwood's victims can be related to the larger current struggle for reparations for African-Americans.