Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The "scream" that destroyed a community

Recently two characters in the Seattle street scene were convicted of the beating death of a 26-year-old man partly because he ran afoul of turf and social mores. I see these mostly white “kids” hanging out in at the Westlake Center downtown, calling themselves “Juggaloes” and “ravers”; what is their purpose in life is anyone’s guess, but one thing that is certain is that they are no more adverse to violence than their black counterparts. Although the victim (who tried to “fit-in” with both groups) suffered from bi-polar disorder (of course), this hardly mattered to these street people; he got what he deserved, according to them, because he was a “chimo”—slang for an adult male for who puts his hands on the younger girls who think it is “cool” to hang with these guys. A local “den mother” believes the girl who made the charge was lying (“high school stuff” according to a Seattle Weekly story), because the victim didn’t want her hanging out at his apartment anymore, and she wanted to get even. But it didn’t matter; the girl made the charge, and from there the victim was marked for death.

This isn’t the only case where there have been adverse impacts derived from the mere accusation that the sanctity of a woman—and to be more specific, a white woman—had been violated. Blacks in the South and Latinos in the Southwest were frequently lynched on the mere the allegation in the pre-Civil Rights era. Although the New York draft riot during the Civil War and the Detroit race riots of 1943 and 1967 are often cited as the worst urban riots in U.S. history, many historians point to the 1921 Tulsa, Oklahoma, race riot. At the time, Tulsa had what passed for a “prosperous” black community, and the main thoroughfare through the community that many whites disparaged as “Little Africa,” Greenwood, was regarded as the nation’s “black Wall Street,” and naturally was the subject of resentment by many whites. The resentment was mostly unfounded; Tulsa was in the midst of an oil boom that benefited almost solely whites, but communities like Greenwood prospered simply because like in other areas of the country where Southern racial attitudes held sway, black consumers couldn’t shop anywhere else. Although most worked in menial jobs for white employers, what money they was simply not the same in white stores.

Although since the 1960s the vision most people have of urban rioting is one where blacks incomprehensibly burn down their own neighborhoods, this was not the case prior to that. There were literally hundreds of race riots—two dozen in 1919 alone as the Ku Klux Klan gained “respectability”—in which white mobs invaded black neighborhoods on the slightest pretext, burning, beating and killing, and where local authorities simply stood by. Oklahoma was not immune from this activity, being a de facto Southern state, and the Tulsa newspapers could be counted on in inflaming paranoid racist passions. In regard to the supposed crime problem in the city, The Tulsa Tribune warned that if police and politicians didn’t clean-up the city and themselves, “an awakened community conscience would do it for them.” The paper frequently reported as “justified” examples of vigilante “justice,” including lynching. Perhaps surprisingly, blacks were not necessarily scapegoated for the crime problem, and crimes in Greenwood were rarely mentioned.

That is not at first. Days before the Tulsa riot, the Tribune reported the sinister revelation that in houses of “ill-repute,” concerned citizens saw black men playing pianos while white girls danced, and some of the latter were offering "customers" their “services.” Suddenly, white Tulsans were provided with a focus for their frustrations about crime—black men. At the same time, blacks in Greenwood were determined that whites would not invade their community and destroy it as they had done across the country. Then, on Memorial Day, the event that triggered the riot occurred. A black youth, Dick Rowland, a shoeshiner, was apparently working that day when at some point he felt the need to use a restroom; because he could not use the facilities in the building he worked, he was obliged to use the “colored” restroom in the top floor of the building next door. A white woman, Sarah Page, operated the elevator that Rowland had to use to reach the top floor. As he was entering the elevator, he apparently tripped into the operator, who according to a witness, screamed. Rowland was then seen running away in fright, which was to be expected. Page was questioned by police about the incident, and apparently did not make any inflammatory accusations, at least insofar as the police conducted their investigation in a casual manner; in fact no record exists on what exactly she said. But the “witness” spread the story that an attempted rape had occurred, and the next day the Tulsa Tribune was awash with sensational accusations. An editorial, that has since “disappeared” from the paper’s archives, claimed that a lynch mob was forming to take care of business.

Rowland had by then been arrested, and the May 31 a white mob had gathered around the courthouse where he was held demanding that he be handed over, which the sheriff refused to do. Meanwhile, blacks in Greenwood were determined that Rowland would not be lynched, and arrived at the scene to prevent any such occurrence. Assured by the sheriff that Rowland was “safe,” they left. But the white mob, incensed by the idea that blacks would try to stop them, went to grab their guns and returned to the courthouse in ever increasing numbers. Black residents now concluded that the sheriff would not be able to protect Rowland, and about 75 returned, some carrying guns themselves. Not surprisingly, a wayward gunshot triggered what followed. The black men retreated to Greenwood in the face of 2,000 rampaging whites; about 400 whites tried to break into the National Guard armory to steal weapons, and when they were turned away, broke into gun shops. Although the Guard was subsequently deployed they were stationed in white areas, and left Greenwood unprotected.

The next day, June 1, while out-armed black residents fled, thousands of whites were allowed to pour into Greenwood, setting fire to everything in sight. Firefighters who arrived at the scene did not attempt to enter Greenwood; merely being “threatened” by white rioters was sufficient. It was also reported that bi-planes were flown in to protect white rioters, shooting blacks below, and dropping incendiary bombs. By the time the rioters were finished, Greenwood’s 35 blocks were a charred ruin. Although the “official” account claims 39 deaths, the “unofficial” count is probably in the hundreds, because thousands of injured blacks were denied treatment at local hospitals. Virtually the entire population of 10,000 was left homeless. Greenwood never recovered from the effects of the riot. Not unexpectedly, an "investigation" shortly thereafter put all the blame on blacks.

And all this because a black shoeshiner accidentally tripped into a white female elevator operator on his way to the “colored” restroom. In fact, charges never were brought against Rowland relating to the incident.

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