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Commemorating the ‘single worst incident of racial violence in American history’

Synod of the Sun remembers the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre

By Gail Strange | Presbyterian News Service

Tulsa, Okla., race massacre, Jun. 1, 1921 U.S. Library of Congress/Alvin C. Krupnick Co.

LOUISVILLE — The Tulsa Race Massacre has been called “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history.” On May 31 and June 1, 1921, mobs of white residents, many of them deputized and given weapons by city officials, attacked Black residents and businesses of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The attack, carried out on the ground and from private aircraft, destroyed more than 35 square blocks of the district — at that time the wealthiest Black community in the United States, known as “Black Wall Street.”

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the massacre. Imagine Tulsa 21 is a part of the Synod of the Sun’s Imagine initiative.

“The Synod of the Sun Imagine engages church members and leaders across the synod to explore crucial issues of faith and explore where God is working and moving,” said the Rev.  Kate Hogue, associate pastor of John Knox Presbyterian Church and Imagine event chair.

“Tulsa Imagine’s original mission and purpose remains the same. By engaging the events of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, as well as current struggles with racism in the Tulsa community, Imagine will:

  • Explore both the history and current impacts of the Tulsa Race Massacre
  • Give attendees the opportunity to listen to and participate in antiracism conversations with Tulsans
  • Invite participants to learn and unlearn through Fearless Dialogues
  • Equip church leaders with the resources to engage their own local congregations and communities.”

Hogue says that through “Listen & Lament” and “Reflect & Respond,” the group will begin to fulfill their mission and purpose. “These events signify the beginning of a broader, long-term conversation around the ways Presbyterians engage in antiracism efforts,” Hogue added. “In the coming months and years, we will seek to host additional events, which we hope will include:

  • A walking tour of Greenwood and a list of Black-owned businesses
  • Fearless Dialogues with Dr. Gregory Ellison
  • A panel discussion with faith leaders in Tulsa
  • A Fire in Little Africa concert and more.”

“In 2020, the Synod of the Sun formed the Network for Dismantling Racism (N4dR) with the 100th anniversary of this event firmly in its sights, not because what happened in Tulsa was unique, but rather because it was part of a pattern of domestic terror that marked the era,” said Kristy Rodgers, commissioned pastor and director of children’s ministries at First Presbyterian Church in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. “This is hard local and national history.”

To commemorate the massacre, the Synod of the Sun’s Network for Dismantling Racism (N4dR) will host two online events.

On May 27, at 6:30 p.m. Central Time (7:30 p.m. Eastern Time), the network will air a “Listen & Lament” event, an interview with Dr. Hannibal Johnson, historian, scholar, activist and author of two books on the Tulsa Race Massacre. Johnson will provide a historical context, a view of Tulsa at the time, specifics of the massacre and a look at Tulsa today.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Turner, pastor of the historic Vernon AME Church in Tulsa, will give the closing prayer and the event will conclude with 100 seconds of silence, one second for every year since those horrific events.

On June 3, at 6:30 p.m. CDT, N4dR will host “Reflect & Respond,” another online session providing a brave space to address what comes up and perhaps discern what’s next. Registration is now open for this event.

The massacre was prompted when on May 30, 1921, a young Black teenager named Dick Rowland entered an elevator at the Drexel Building, an office building on South Main Street. At some point after that, the young white elevator operator, Sarah Page, screamed, and Rowland fled the scene. The police were called, and the next morning they arrested Rowland.

Rumors of what supposedly happened on that elevator had circulated through the city’s white community, and by the afternoon of Rowland’s arrest, the Tulsa Tribune ran a front-page story reporting that police had arrested Rowland for sexually assaulting Page.

According to the Tulsa World, within hours of the arrest, Tulsa police received a threat on Rowland’s life. He was moved six blocks from the ramshackle city lockup to the county jail on the top floor of the courthouse at Sixth Street and Boulder Avenue, where the Bank of America Building now stands. This is the where the riot that became a massacre began.

The Oklahoma Bureau of Vital Statistics officially recorded 36 dead. A 2001 state commission examination of events was able to confirm 39 dead, 26 Black and 13 white, based on contemporary autopsy reports, death certificates and other records. The commission gave several estimates ranging from 75 to 300 dead.

According to reports, nearly 10,000 Black people were left homeless, and the city suffered property damage amounting to more than $1.5 million in real estate and $750,000 in personal property, an estimate equivalent to $32.65 million in 2020. Many survivors left Tulsa; those both Black and white who stayed kept silent about the terror, violence and resulting losses for decades. The massacre was largely omitted from local, state, and national histories.

In a video from the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the PC(USA), the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, reflecting on the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, says there are parallels to present-day struggles.

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