June 04, 2020

By Brian W. Carter

Contributing Writer


I left my house on a Saturday afternoon, as I have done countless times before. The difference this time is Los Angeles was in a state of social unrest in the midst of an ongoing pandemic. Nevertheless, medical gloves on, mask on, I head to Ralph’s supermarket on Obama Blvd and LaBrea Ave. to find an empty parking lot. They were closed, so I go to the Ralph’s on Pico Blvd in Midtown Los Angeles—closed. I found out, all Ralph’s in the Los Angeles area were closed due to fear of looting and vandalism. I wonder what daily routines were in progress in the lives of Black people living in the district of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma in May 1921?

Why am I bringing up Greenwood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, well, 99 years ago, this district was destroyed in a racially-charged war. Greenwood was a district that had one of the largest populations of affluent Black communities in the U.S. after World War I. Many in this community were descendants of runaway slaves that travelled along The Trail of Tears along with the Five Civilized Tribes around 1907 when the state was established.

The 1910 oil boom in the Northeast area of Oklahoma contributed to the progress of Blacks who lived in the area. Greenwood was home to Black multimillionaires with thriving businesses and neighborhoods that were home to lawyers, realtors and doctors. Even though racial segregation kept many Blacks out of certain areas, people in the community patronized their own businesses. According to 1920 city directories, Greenwood had: 108 Black business establishments including two newspapers, 41 groceries and meat markets, 30 cafes and restaurants, and offices for 33 professionals, including 15 physicians and attorneys.

Here is where the past and the present meet: a Black man’s life lit an inferno. In Greenwood, in May of 1921, a Black, teenage shoeshiner named Dick Rowland as an altercation with a White, elevator operator, 17-year-old Sarah Page, with details of the what happened between the two, still sketchy to this day. In Minneapolis, Minnesota, in May of 2020, George Floyd, known as “Bid Floyd,” who was a father and recent transplant to the area, a truck driver and security guard, died as a police officer strangled him to death with his knee on his neck.

While Rowland survive death threats of lynching for allegedly assaulting a White woman, Floyd died over an alleged, fake $20 bill. Both situations have resulted in similar outcomes: violence, vandalism and burning businesses, but there is a stark difference in the players involved in the mayhem.

In Greenwood 1921, police arrested Rowland and began an investigation. Later, a newspaper report of the incident initiated a confrontation between Black and White crowds around the courthouse where Rowland was being held. It’s stated that shots were fired and many members of the Black community retreated to the Greenwood Avenue’s business district. What would follow would is 16-hour riot that resulted in the destruction of 1,000 homes and businesses, 8,624 injured and the deaths of over 300 people, which culminated in $1.5 million in property damage. There are even alleged reports that National Guardsmen fired on Black communities with planes dropping dynamite sticks.

In America 2020, the four officers involved in the death of Floyd were fired, but had yet to be charged. Protests erupted in Minneapolis that became violent with looting and vandalism. Even though, former police officer, Derek Chauvin, was arrested and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter four days after he pinned his knee on Floyd’s neck, that wasn’t enough for many across the nation. Protests, not just calling for the other three former police officers to be charged, but calling for change in the judicial system are happening everywhere: Minneapolis, New York, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Chicago, Columbus, Austin, Columbia, Las Vegas, Denver, Boston, Hartford, Portland, Cincinnati and even in other countries. Many of these cities have been put under mandatory curfews and many states have declared a state of emergency.

Much like the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States finds itself in another unprecedented event. Some call it an uprising, some a rebellion, others call it rioting. One thing is clear, many are calling for change to a system that has unfairly and wrongly targeted African and Black Americans in this country for far to long.

Greenwood saw White men vandalizing and killing Black people because of the color of their skin. Today’s social unrest see’s men and women of various ethnicities protesting against a broken system. There are buildings burning, there is vandalism and violence, but the reasons are not the same. While many organizers and protesters condemn the vandalism and violence, many showing on social media that non-Black initiators are behind most of it, many agree that the opportunity to do so comes from the overwhelming injustice this country continues to see decade-after-decade.

What happened in Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921, was one of the greatest tragedies in the history of the United States. It was fueled by racism towards Black people who were simply living their lives in a thriving district. What is happening across the United States in 2020, is one of many reactions to the systemic racism that remains 99 years after the destruction of Greenwood.

Will there be change? Only time will tell, but is clear, another page is being turned in history and an unknown chapter is beginning.

Category: Opinion