How Tulsa massacre spent most of last century unremembered

After the smoke cleared in June 1921, the toll from the massacre at Tulsa, Oklahoma, was devastating -- scores of lives lost, businesses and homes burned to the ground, a thriving Black community gutted with a white mob.

How Tulsa massacre spent most of last century unremembered

The nightmare cried out for attention, as a tool to be researched and memorialized, together with figurines and speeches and anniversary commemorations.

But the horror and violence visited upon Tulsa's Black community did not become part of this American story. Instead, it was pushed down, unremembered and untaught until efforts decades later started bringing it into the light. And even this year, with the 100th anniversary of the massacre being recognized, it's still an unfamiliar history to many -- something historians state has wider consequences.

"The results of this is a sort of a lie we tell ourselves jointly about who we are as a society, who we've been historically, that's set some of these things up as aberrations, as exclusions of what we know society to be rather than endemic or intrinsic parts of American history," said Joshua Guild, an associate professor of history and African American studies at Princeton University.

Really, U.S. history is full of dark events -- frequently involving racism and racial violence -- that haven't been made a part of their national fabric. Many involved Black Americans, of which the Tulsa Race Massacre is considered among the most egregious in its absolute destruction, but other racial and ethnic communities are impacted as well.

Americans not understanding about these events or not recognizing the full scope of the country's conflict-ridden history has impacts that continue to reverberate, Guild explained.

"If we don't comprehend the essence of the injury... we can not really have a full reckoning with the possibility of any sort of redress," he said.

"It is really important for Americans to learn from the past, because you really cannot even understand a few of our current-day political branches and ideas if you don't realize that this dialog within both the character and the parameters of American democracy is a continuing and a very long one," she explained.

Terrible events that many Americans don't know about include long-ago history, such as the Snake River assault in Oregon in 1887, where as many as 34 Chinese gold miners were murdered, and the 1864 Sand Creek massacre of around 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho people by U.S. soldiers at Colorado. Others are within the lives of several Americans living now, like the 1985 bombing from Philadelphia police of the home that headquartered the Dark organization MOVE, killing 11 people.

As strange as it may sound, the mere fact that something happened is not enough for it to be recalled, '' said Robin Wagner-Pacifici, a professor teaching sociology at the New School for Social Research, who has written about the MOVE bombing.

"You can never presume, however enormous an occasion may be regarding its literal effect on numbers of individuals, that it's going to be styled and recognized and proceed in time, in memory, from future publics or condition apparatuses or political powers," she said.

In Oklahoma, the massacre largely wasn't discussed until a commission was formed in 1997 to research the violence. For years, the nation's public colleges predicted it the Tulsa race riot, when it was discussed in any way. Students are urged to consider the differences between calling it a"massacre" or even a"riot."

How an occasion is presented can make a difference, Wagner-Pacifici said. That could include whether it's linked to other historic moments and what components are emphasized or downplayed.

"All kinds of political forces and celebrities will kind of movement in, to attempt to name it and maintain it, to be able to tamp down it in its impact or to elaborate it in its effect," she said.

She pointed to a recent illustration: the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection with a predominantly white mob at the U.S. Capitol. Some Republicans have tried to minimize or even deny the violence, and on Friday GOP senators blocked the creation of a bipartisan panel to look into the attack.

Back in Tulsa, word of unrest that started May 31, 1921, and ran through the evening and the next day made it to news outlets. Front-page stories and accounts from The Associated Press talked of a"race conflict" and"armed conflict" However, the wake -- of a neighborhood shattered --- was relegated to inside pages at best before being swept beneath the carpet.

In one instance, a narrative weeks later well inside the pages of The New York Times reported in passing that a grand jury in Oklahoma had determined the catastrophe was due to the actions of armed Black folks and the white men and women who got involved were not to blame.

It merely shows that remembering is never just really about remembering, Wagner-Pacifici said.

"It is always inspired," she said. "Who remembers what about yesteryear, who enables a past to be remembered, to be brought back to life and in what ways... it's absolutely fundamental to that which you decide you wish to be at the current."

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