Last month before a House subcommittee, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates referred to something called “Black Wall Street” in making his case for slavery reparations.
The name refers to the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma, which was a wealthy African American community — until it was burned to the ground in 1921 by a white mob. More than 300 African Americans were killed in what became known as the Tulsa Race Massacre.
As the 100th anniversary of the massacre approaches, the debate over reparations for descendants of slaves is beginning to make headway in the halls of Congress ahead of the 2020 election.
Brenda Alford, whose grandparents survived the massacre but lost their businesses, went most of her life not knowing what happened in Greenwood. Before the massacre, her grandparents owned a shoe shop, as well as a record store, dance pavilion and community skating rink, Alford tells Here & Now’s Robin Young.
“They lost everything,” she says. “My reality every day of my life is that if they had not survived that day, I wouldn't be talking to you right now.”
The violence broke out on the evening of May 31, 1921, when a 19-year-old African American man named Dick Rowland was accused of assaulting a white woman who was working as an elevator operator in a downtown building. Rowland was arrested, and when rumours that he had been lynched reached the African American community, violence ensued at the courthouse. Soon after, Greenwood was looted and burned by a white mob.
Those that lost their lives were buried in mass graves. Now, part of the debate in Tulsa is whether or not to exhume those graves. Alford says she supports exhumation.
“The discussion about the race massacre, all of that was swept under the rug for many years. Some people were threatened with their very lives of their families if they said anything. I'm glad that in this day and time it is being recognized,” she says. “I do feel like we should move forward with [exhuming the graves] because I believe it would give some closure to those who lost family members and friends in that situation.”
On how the massacre began at the courthouse
“There was a group of men who were going to go and try to help out, and they were met with opposition. At one point according to history, a white man asked one of the black men who had a gun what he intended to do with a gun, and the black man said, 'Use it if I have to.' They were there basically to try to protect Dick Rowland because it was rumored within the community that this group of white men was going to go and try to hang him.
“I had not heard about the race massacre aspect of our family history. I did not find out about it until about 2003 when I received a notification from a legal entity here in Tulsa that myself and many others were being included in a lawsuit against the city of Tulsa and other entities, basically regarding reparations for survivors and descendants of survivors of the 1921 race massacre. That's how I found out, and I have to say that I was pretty devastated.”
On how her family survived the massacre
“Gunshots were heard to be fired and the neighbors, the people in the community were trying to warn everybody that there was a mob coming through the city. And they were shooting and going into people's homes and having them to leave their homes, and they were going in and burning their homes. My grandparents along with their then 2-year-old daughter, their family and friends ran for their lives from our neighborhood and went to one of the parks that was farther out and stayed there until they felt like it was OK to come back, only to find their homes and their businesses looted and burned to the ground.
“As my grandparents and those in their community were running for their lives, they were being shot at and the bombs were being dropped on them as well. So it was a horrendous situation.”
On what she remembers hearing about the mass graves as a child
“It was well known amongst family members of mine that mass graves were there. As I contemplated why I didn't know about the race massacre, certain stories that I heard as a very small child came back to my memory. One of those was that when our relatives, my great uncles would come to town to visit, and we'd be driving to go to maybe some location within Tulsa, and we would pass by the Oak Lawn Cemetery. The conversation would be quote unquote, 'You know they're still over there,' as we passed that cemetery and everybody in the car would agree, 'Yes.' They knew that they were still over there, and I was a small child. I didn't understand what they were talking about, but of course, now I do. I also found out later that I have a great grandmother who was also a survivor of the race massacre who is buried there. [She] was buried there 1925. However, a lot of the records for folks who were buried before and after the race massacre cannot be found.”
On how the impact of the massacre is still felt
“Our community was not able to pass on generational wealth. I watched in my time my uncle, my grandfather's son, who followed his footsteps and got his degree in shoe making, I watched as he tried to restart the business in the '70s and was unable to do it. And we saw the effects it had on him. It was absolutely horrible.”
On how she thinks about Greenwood after learning about the massacre
“I remember after I found out about this aspect of our family history one of the things, I remember doing is going back and just taking a walk on Greenwood on the street where I grew up and just taking a walk as I did as a child walking to school every day and just wondering why I didn't know it. And also just thinking how could something as horrible, you know as that was, happen in a community that I grew up in and found so loving and just so peaceful? It was hard to imagine that something so horrendous had occurred in that area so many years before.”
This segment aired on July 23, 2019.