Racist Violence, Lynching Culture, and the Tulsa Massacre: An Interview with Prof. Karlos K. Hill
tags: racism,violence,African American history,Oklahoma,Tulsa race massacre
[The 1921 Tulsa race massacre] could aptly be described as a community lynching. By this I mean that the incineration of every significant structure in the Greenwood District and the indiscriminate killing of its residents was meant to create a spectacle of violence so powerful that terrorized Black people would leave the city and never return.
Karlos K. Hill, The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre: A Photographic History.
Most Americans now have some knowledge of the long-hidden history of the 1921 Tulsa, Oklahoma, race massacre thanks to Tulsa community members, scholars, technical experts, and others whose work on this mostly overlooked history was widely covered by media as the nation observed the centennial of this horrific atrocity.
Major media outlets shared some details of what happened a century ago when hundreds of enraged white rioters attacked the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa—“Black Wall Street”—perhaps the most prosperous African American community in America in 1921. After armed African American men prevented the lynching of a young Black teen on the evening of May 31, 1921, local law enforcement deputized hundreds of armed white citizens to kill Black Tulsans as city officials called in the National Guard.
A fierce white mob attacked the Greenwood neighborhood with the aid of police officers and Guard troops with heavy machineguns. White civilians were armed with pistols, rifles, gasoline bombs, and more. In addition, snipers fired from airplanes that also dropped crude homemade bombs and incendiaries. The Guardsmen swept the area with machine gun fire, mowing down any Black person within range. And the mob created an inferno, igniting and spreading flames to homes and businesses alike.
By the afternoon of June 1, 1921, the white mob had killed as many as 300 Black residents of Greenwood, injured more than 800 other residents, and left the 35-block area of the neighborhood smoldering. Almost every structure—homes, shops, churches, and more—was gutted or leveled by fire.
News services recently covered these high points of the race massacre, but provided little context for the mass slaughter or what happened in the wake of the violence.
In his groundbreaking new book, The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre: A Photographic History (University of Oklahoma Press), revered history professor and board member of the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission Karlos K. Hill examines this long-hidden history through a series of photographic images that reveal Greenwood life before the race massacre; the bloody and fiery human reality of the massacre; and the aftermath of this explosion of white hate. The moving and often heartbreaking images are bracketed with the moving words from survivors of the massacre.
Beyond the images of the white paroxysm of violence and the destruction, Professor Hill takes the history further than most news accounts by relating with photos of what happened to the survivors after the massacre. The photos reveal how Black people were rounded up by local authorities and marched through Tulsa as they were mocked and jeered by white bystanders. Most were then arrested and locked up in internment facilities without adequate food and water. At first, a Black internee could only be released if a white person spoke up for him or her.
And then Professor Hill shows how white leaders failed in their in the effort at permanent expulsion of Black people from Tulsa. He takes readers to a time of resilience and hope—what he calls “Greenwood’s triumph over hate.”
Tulsa City officials resolved to thwart Black people from rebuilding and resettling in Greenwood, but the Red Cross and other “angels of mercy” provided medical care and temporary housing for many of the survivors. In the months following the massacre, survivors who returned to the neighborhood began rebuilding homes and shops.
Gradually, Greenwood became a thriving community again by the 1930s thanks to the courage, persistence and resolve of Black survivors. Professor Hill tells that story too. Unfortunately, the neighborhood faded in the 1960s as the result of urban renewal that included construction of a freeway that ran through Greenwood and divided Tulsa.
Thanks to the tireless efforts of Professor Hill and other scholars and community members, the term used to describe the horrific anti-Black violence in Tulsa in 1921 has shifted from the erroneous “Tulsa Race Riot” to the “Tulsa Race Massacre.” The Library of Congress and other institutions recently adopted the nomenclature “Tulsa Race Massacre” to replace the inaccurate “Race Riot” descriptor. The “race massacre” designation honors the victims and survivors of the mass murder while more precisely assigning responsibility for the 1921 atrocity to a brutal mob of white citizens abetted by local law enforcement and heavily armed National Guard troops who perpetrated the most destructive explosion of anti-Black violence in American history.
And now archeologists, forensic pathologists and others search for graves of the victims of the race massacre and work to identify remains of those who were murdered a century ago.
Professor Hill intended that his photographic history honor the Tulsa massacre survivors and their descendants. The book is based on extensive scholarly and photographic research and will remain an authoritative reference for scholars and the public.
Karlos K. Hill is Regents’ Professor and Chair of the Clara Luper Department of African and African-American Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Oklahoma. He is also a leading community-engaged scholar and historian and specializes in the history of lynching, racial violence, and their legacies in the Black experience. His other books include Beyond The Rope: The Impact of Lynching on Black Culture and Memory (Cambridge University Press, 2016), and The Murder of Emmett Till: A Graphic History (Oxford University Press, 2020).
Professor Hill also founded the Tulsa Race Massacre Oklahoma Teachers Summer Institute to teach the history of the 1921 Race Massacre to thousands of middle school and high school students. Hill also serves on the boards of the Clara Luper Legacy Committee and the Board of Scholars for Facing History and Ourselves, and is actively engaged on other community initiatives working toward racial reconciliation and repair.
Professor Hill generously talked by telephone about his work as a historian and his new book from his office in Oklahoma.
Robin Lindley: Thank you Professor Hill for speaking with me, and congratulations on your groundbreaking new book on the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. Before I get to your book, I’d like to hear about your work as a historian. First of all, what inspired you to study history?
Professor Karlos K. Hill: To be very honest and transparent, I had great mentors.
I went to Macalester College in Minnesota, and I had the great opportunity to work with Peter Rachleff, who is a historian of American labor history. I also had a chance to work with Professor James Brewer Stewart, who was a historian of anti-slavery and the anti-slavery movement. And I had the great honor and privilege to take classes from Mahmoud El-Kati who was also a professor in the history department from whom I had many African-American history courses. Between those three individuals, I gained a deep appreciation for history and the ways in which history could unlock and answer questions that come up today about our most vexing problems and issues. And I gained a deep love and appreciation for teaching because they mentored me and taught me the value of teaching.
And, for those reasons, I left Macalester on a mission to become a historian. I was fortunate to get into the graduate program at the University of Illinois and had other great mentors there, including David Roediger, who's still a friend and colleague, and Sundiata Cha-Jua, who was my primary advisor and who's been a blessing for me. I've had other people along the way for sure, but those [professors] would be the individuals that have propelled me to become the historian I am today.
Robin Lindley: What a superb team of influences from undergraduate and graduate school. Now you're a leading American historian on racial violence. Did you develop that expertise when you were a student?
Professor Karlos K. Hill: That didn’t happen until graduate school. My primary advisor, Sundiata Cha-Jua, is a historian of lynching, racial violence, and the Black Power movement, among other things. I was his research assistant for my first two or three years in graduate school, and it was under his tutelage that I began to learn about the research on the history of lynching and racial violence. And ultimately, after three years of doing research on his behalf, I essentially asked him, would it be okay to use some of the research that I had been doing for him to help me get off the ground with a research project. He said, of course. And the rest is history. So my advisor's work, that I became very close to as a graduate student, has propelled me to do this work professionally and to speak about this work publicly.
Robin Lindley: In your earlier writing, you focus on the lynched “Black body.” I think many people don't understand, as you’ve written, that after the Civil War and into the early 20th century it was virtually an accepted white ritual to harass and kill Black people. How do you see this brutal history?
Professor Karlos K. Hill: That’s an issue that many historians have tried to understand—the white psychology, the white culture during the post Civil War and post slavery eras. Why is it that white people, white communities, essentially killed Black people for anything and everything in public? Why does this happen? And, there are theories and there are some great arguments out there that are theoretically informed and historically informed that get into a lot of nuance and minutiae.
But I would say quite simply that this [racist cruelty] comes out of slavery. And slavery, if anything, was about dominating the Black body for the sake of profit. There had been 250 years of slavery which was literally a period of dominating the Black body for the sake of white prosperity, for the sake of profit.
When slavery ended, it didn’t mean the end of the desire to continue to dominate Black bodies. What ended was the way in which Black bodies were dominated, which was owning Black people, but this desire to master, to dominate, to dictate Black people's lives did not end with slavery. It continued into the Reconstruction era and certainly into the Jim Crow era. And so, the manifestation of the ways in which whites figured out a new system to dominate Black people economically, politically, socially, as they had done with slavery, took about a half a generation or so, but it came to full fruition with Jim Crow segregation and lynching within this culture of Jim Crow.
Robin Lindley: And you’ve studied white lynching culture. How did that culture evolve?
Professor Karlos K. Hill: Segregation was the ultimate symbol of white power, of white supremacy, as well as the white domination of Black bodies.
In our society, we don't understand how slavery and the power dynamics that were a part of slavery have persisted into the present and the ways it's encoded into systems and institutions. But lynching was its own system of domination.
I would argue that lynching was the most powerful symbol of white supremacy in the early 20th century. And you could see in lynching the ways in which whites sought to reassert the same dominance over Black bodies and Black lives that they had during slavery. And so, the will to master did not go anywhere. The desire to oppress and repress Black people did not die with slavery and instead continued into the future.
We must come to terms with the ways in which the slavery system ended. There is no sanction in our country today for involuntary servitude, but that doesn't mean it ended. It did not. It just continued in a new form, in a new way. And one way that domination was manifested was with Jim Crow segregation as Black people were restricted in their movements, in public accommodation, and other activities.
And lynching was also as a form of racial domination. Literally, being able to kill a Black person in public without any repercussions from the law became the ultimate symbol of white supremacy because there was no true accountability. There was more accountability for white slave holders who would have killed their slaves during the era of slavery than there was for a white person post-slavery who killed a Black person who was at that point a citizen.
You can just see how slavery militated against the senseless killing of Black people because slaveholders [valued their human property] and killing enslaved people could harm the system and certainly give ammunition to abolitionists to make arguments against slavery.
Slaveholders saw slavery as the future of American prosperity and they were doing everything in their power to protect their interests, and that meant holding accountable other slaveholders who deviated from the slave code. So there was more accountability for white slave holders who harmed an enslaved person than for whites following emancipation when a white person could kill a Black person with impunity. That's what we have to wrap our minds around to understand this country and the history of lynching.
So, the end of slavery not only did not bring to an end to the will to dominate and to oppress Black people who were deemed inferior, but it fully unleashed the violence of white people who had no monetary incentive to simply keep Black people alive. We then had lynching because whites lacked that economic incentive in which slave holders saw their futures tied to enslaved people that worked for them. And there was also a conviction that Black people were decidedly inferior. That’s the potent mix that produces the ugliness and brutality of the white lynching culture. We still aren't done with it and we still have a lot to unpack, but the work can only happen if we agree to do it together. As long as only people like me talk about it and activists talk about it, we're not having a conversation. We're talking at each other and we're not having a conversation.
Robin Lindley: Thank you for those powerful words Professor Hill. Everyone needs to learn this history. What may stun some modern readers is that the lynching of Black people by whites in the Jim Crow era was essentially accepted and not legally barred. And white people were sharing with friends and relatives photographs and postcard images of horrible atrocities such as Black people burning alive or hanging from trees and bridges, often with groups of gleeful white people smiling on.
Professor Karlos K. Hill: Yes. It’s hard to understand why the violence was so vicious, why it was so brutal. Why did people have to be burned alive? Why did they have to be killed in the first place, but second, why were they burned alive or skinned alive or hanged, and after being hanged and shot repeatedly by onlookers?
Why were Black people, men and women, mutilated to the degree that they were? Why were those results of mutilation held as souvenirs? It wasn't just photographs that whites kept as keepsakes. It was also body parts, pieces of hair—anything that could tangibly connect to a lynching. Much of that material, such as hair, teeth, appendages, has never seen the light of day, but we know from newspaper coverage and diaries that white people certainly kept souvenirs like that.
I still, to this day, do not have a good answer for this why this brutality occurred. The only answer that I have is that it wasn't just about domination. It was about terror and social control—about terrorizing Black people into submission.
I wouldn't say that enslaved people were mastered by the lash, but certainly, there was the whipping post. More profoundly, there was the auction block. A loved one could be sent away and that forced enslaved people to get along as best they could to keep their families together. And there was a sense of hope that perhaps they would be sold to a more benevolent master or perhaps they would find a way over time to buy their freedom.
But what kept enslaved people from running away? What kept them from rebelling was that terror. I don't think it was fear for themselves, but for what that rebellion would mean for their families, their loved ones. And so, the auction block and the whipping post were the most potent means of social control that the slaveholder had. And the auction block was probably the most potent because sending someone “down the river” to a sugar plantation in Louisiana, or a cotton plantation in Mississippi was like sending someone to hell where life choices were going to diminish. And an enslaved person’s choices were already diminished.
And so post slavery, lynching became the mechanism for social control and terrorism. How do you convince a population to embrace or not to embrace white supremacy and Black inferiority without question? It's through terror. You convince whites that the terror is normal and right. This is how things are and should be. You create such a boogeyman so that Black people are not only inferior but they're dangerous, and then the only way to keep Black people under control, and especially Black men, is through terroristic violence, such as lynching.
The rallying cry under slavery was “we need the slave patrols because of the ever-present nature of slave rebellion.” Post-slavery, the rallying cry was “we need lynching.” We need lynch mobs to terrorize Black men who are attacking and harming white people and white civilization. And there was no invention of new arguments for why Black people should be oppressed and repressed. There was just simply a continuation of the same logic.
When you look at the particulars of an individual lynching, and you look at the ways in which an individual’s body was treated savagely, you’re left scratching your head. What did the excesses of white supremacist violence really serve besides sadistic pleasure? That certainly was a part of lynching culture.
Robin Lindley: This history is heartbreaking.
Professor Karlos K. Hill: Probably historians have dealt least with the sadistic quality of lynching violence. We tend to frame and understand lynching from political, social, and economic lenses, and less a sociopsychological approach. But the answer for me is that the excesses, as well as just the terroristic violence, revolved around maintaining white supremacy writ large, and lynching became the primary mechanism by which to terrorize and control Blacks in the aftermath of slavery.
And lynching culture has not passed just like the cultures that created slavery have not passed. We're still living through them in new guises, so it's up to us to try to tease out and understand this history.
The history of slavery is no different from thinking about our own life history. There are things in our life that we need to confront, things in our life that we haven't dealt with, and they're always an issue for us and affect us in a negative way until we deal with them.
Slavery and lynching are the same. We don’t enslave people as we did 200 years ago, and we don’t lynch people as we did 100 years ago, but nonetheless, the culture, the values, the ideas connected to lynching and slavery did not die. And that's what we get confused with. The systems died, but the ideas and the culture that deployed them did not die.
Some people argue, “Slavery is over.” No, it's not. It's still here with us. It's still reverberating. And slavery will continue to reverberate unless we actually confront those attitudes that grew out of slavery. The ideas about white supremacy and Black inferiority did not begin with slavery, but they were institutionalized by slavery.
Slavery made Black inferiority common sense to white people, and even to some Black people who saw that this was how the world was, like having air and water. There are white people who are superior and Black people who are inferior. That's just how God made us.
You had 250 years of slavery in this country where it was common for Black people to be bought and sold like a car, or a boat, or a horse or a pig. Humans and animals were sold right alongside each other. You can see how over time the ways in which Black people as human beings were diminished and were treated as property. All that did was make repressing Black people commonsensical. And we must interrupt those cultural byways. We have made some progress, but we have not had an honest dialogue about it.
Things like the 1619 Project tell certain truths about slavery in unrepentant ways—some very bold and some would say harsh ways, and that’s exactly what we need. It does nobody any good to sugarcoat what actually happened and why it happened. If we try to make it sound less abusive and exploitative, all we are doing is going backwards rather than owning up to the sheer brutality and not just the brutality, but the ways in which slavery and the many cultures that produced slavery show up today. If we sugarcoat history, we're not having a serious conversation about the past. And that's what my work does.
I have to go back to the drawing board to figure out how to talk about this history in ways that are authentic and honest and highlight current day realities that the history has produced. In the nutshell, that's the work that I do. And I try to work with a community-engaged lens to shine a light on history and its present-day ramifications.
Robin Lindley: Thank you for those illuminating words, Professor Hill. And you have worked for social justice as a historian, and you've called on other historians to do the same. How do you see that role?
Professor Karlos K. Hill: Yes. I do not see myself truly as an activist or an organizer for social change. My work is to align my scholarship with struggles occurring in my community and to be a resource and an asset for those who are on the front lines in the struggle against these systems of racial oppression.
My day job and my true passion is to teach college-aged students about history and, to the extent that I can, to teach people in the public and the people that I get connected with. I’m under no illusion that I’m an activist but I am saying to activists in my community and around the country that I can be a resource for you as an academic, if you need me. I'm at the University of Oklahoma which has a wealth of resources, including human resources, but also financial resources. My goal is to leverage my expertise and whatever the University of Oklahoma offers to be an asset to the struggle on the ground.
And in Oklahoma, of course, the Tulsa race massacre has been the biggest story of the last year. I did a lot of work on the Centennial Commission and with a few activists in the community to help people in this country understand why the Tulsa race massacre is such an important piece of American history. And we tried to not only to educate people, but to institute curriculum in Oklahoma schools to teach the next generation and for years to come. And so, I think we've been successful in doing that.
I just wrapped up a project with University of Oklahoma Professor Barry Roseman who teaches in the School of Visual Art. He had the great idea of creating an educational poster on the massacre go to every middle school and high school in the State of Oklahoma. I co-designed the poster and provided all the content for the poster, and then we found generous sponsors. So, in the next several weeks, we'll be sending out these educational posters with a nice letter at no cost to every middle school and high school in the state. I hope it will spark conversation and action around this history.
We have also created an institute over the last four years with numerous presentations for kids, community groups, and educational institutions, and there’s been a lot of outreach on the race massacre.
By being a resource, I joined movements and I support these movements, but I don't consider myself an organizer or an activist. What I do on a day-to-day basis is teach in the classroom. I'm on the lecture circuit, and I will show up when I’m called and needed, but I'm not often on the street in the thick of it.
Robin Lindley: You’ve been acclaimed for your work with the community on this terrible massacre. I’d like to turn to your book on the Tulsa race massacre. You’ve created a deeply researched photographic history that vividly reveals the horror and devastation a white mob, abetted by local police and the National Guard, brought to the African American Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa in 1921. The photos with your text and survivor accounts bring the terror to life.
It seems that creating a photographic history adds another level of complexity beyond the usual text-only history books. Can you talk a little bit about that research process? Finding photos and other evidence must be difficult a century after an event.
Professor Karlos K. Hill: I would say that it wasn't difficult to find photographs of the massacre in 2016 and 2017 when the book started to come to life. What was difficult was looking at them every day trying to understand what I was seeing and also trying to find the courage to continue to look at them.
Many of the photographs had no caption or didn't have really good captions, and I felt a deep sense of responsibility for getting this right. I wasn’t just representing myself but I was also connected with the Centennial Commission and the Greenwood Cultural Center. They provided me many of my images.
What kept me up at night was: Am I doing justice to the story of the community that I'm a part of? Am I telling a community-oriented narrative, a community-focused narrative? That was my stress. And I was looking at the images over and over and that caused trauma, and there were many days that I cried, and so many days that I was just down, and so many days that I wanted to quit. And, through all of that, as I was working through the emotional turmoil and the feelings of vulnerability. I thought I could really mess this up and do a disservice to the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, the Greenwood Cultural Center, the John Hope Franklin Center—all those people and institutions that I was in daily conversation with.
That was my pressure because I wanted to create something that they were proud of and also told their story. Many people have said the book is beautiful, and well-written and well researched. As a historian who writes for a living, that's music to my ears.
Probably the best compliment that I've got on the book was from Scott Ellsworth who wrote the first scholarly account of the massacre in his groundbreaking book Death in the Promised Land. He's become a friend and a mentor over the last say two years. He called me out of the blue, after the book was published, and said, “I'm really proud of this book. I got my copy today. And I want you to know that, having talked to the descendants [of massacre victims and survivors], this is a book that they would have been proud of.” I'm almost about to cry right now, but that's what kept me up at night. I wanted to do justice to this history and to the community, and I wanted to tell the story in the most powerful way that I could.
I can tell you that. as a historian of racial violence, I did not understand the massacre in Tulsa before coming to Oklahoma, before teaching at OU, before becoming engaged with the Centennial Commission, and absolutely before I looked at those photographs and began to study them. I didn't understand the depth of the fatigue or the extreme violence. I didn't understand the loss of life or the loss of homes and businesses. I simply did not understand. And it's the photographs that made me understand and forced me to bear witness. I don't think I would have written a book had it not been for the photographs. The photographs transformed my thinking, and my hope was simply that they could have the same impact on other people who see what I saw beyond two or three stock images.
In 2016 through 2018, I was living in a world where we didn't know how much people would care about this history. It turned out that people cared quite a bit, but we didn't know that in 2016 and 2017 and 2018. Were we going to have to convince people that this was the deadliest massacre in American history, that hundreds of Black people died, and that the community they built was completely destroyed? Who was going to believe us? Who was going to care? The photographs became a key part of convincing people that this was one of, if not the deadliest, massacre of Black people and the story of survivors who lost their homes and their businesses. They lost everything.
The photographs became Exhibit A as a way to convince the public to care about this history, to bear witness to this history, and ultimately, to confront this history.
The book became my way of making the most compelling case for why what occurred was a massacre instead of a race riot. To the extent the book does that, it’s a success.
Robin Lindley: The book is a work of art and it's also extremely moving as well as a scholarly record in text and images of this horrific atrocity against Black people. Your words on lynching culture are pertinent to the white rampage in Tulsa. What sparked this massacre that led to the murders of more than 300 Black civilians—men, women, children—and the wounding of more than 800 people, and the leveling of their prosperous community of 35 square blocks by angry whites with torches and gasoline bombs? And local government abetted the carnage by deputizing hundreds of white mobsters “to kill Blacks” and calling in the National Guard to mow down Black people with machine guns and other weapons of modern war. What prompted this explosion of hysterical slaughter?
Professor Karlos K. Hill: I don't go into great detail about this in the book because I was writing to the general public and I was trying to create a very general framework that people could appreciate and understand. I didn’t go into great detail about the connection between Western culture and race, but for my response to make sense, I have to mention lynching culture because the race massacre was a mob attack on an entire Black community that resulted in that entire community being burnt to the ground.
We can't understand why a mob of thousands formed in the first place without mentioning lynching culture and that’s the key to what occurred. The spark for the massacre was the allegation that a young Black man, Dick Rowland, had sexually assaulted or attacked a young white woman, Sarah Page, in an elevator downtown. Per lynching culture, rumors began to circulate that a Black man had attacked and maybe even killed a white woman. People began to murmur about lynching the Black suspect.
And again, going back to what I said earlier, in early late 19th century America and early 20th century America, lynching took the place of slavery as the dominant mode of social white supremacy and racial social control. As these rumors spread around Tulsa, talk of lynching occurred as well, and as this talk of lynching began to filter into the Black community, Black people were concerned that a lynching was imminent. Black men then went downtown because of the fear that this Black teenager would be lynched by a mob of white men.
The desire to wreak vengeance on Dick Rowland and ultimately on the Black community for this affront was what sparked the massacre.
Lynching typically occurred for one of three primary reasons: the murder of a white person; the rape of a white person; or the theft or destruction of property of a white person. White people were lynched for the same things that Black people were lynched for, but Black people were lynched at a much higher rate for these alleged crimes. And certainly, there was not the same brutality visited upon a white person. In fact, after the turn of the last century, lynching of white people declined. Black people also engaged in extra-legal violence or Black vigilantism but that also declined by 1900. What skyrocketed in the 1880s and in certainly in 1890s, and the first decade of the 20th century was white on Black lynching for the crimes above. There were 5,000 lynchings of Black people documented in this country, and 66 percent were for those crimes. Lynching became a rallying cry by Jim Crow proponents who urged that segregation is necessary.
Lynching is ugly and there were all these apologists for lynching who believed they had a right to subdue and to control Black men. And obviously, in white culture there was no sense that a Black person could be innocent if a white person accused them of a crime against whites.
And so in Tulsa, when Black people heard news of about the arrest of Dick Rowland, they didn’t have to debate about whether he would be lynched. That was a part of American culture. They had witnessed lynching in other communities time and time again based on an allegation of sexual assault against a Black man.
Lynching became an expected and common practice in America. Therefore, you would often hear white men after a lynching say things like “we had to defend the honor of our community,” or “if we had not taken action, we would have been seen as weak.” Or, “We would have been seen as not doing our duty as white men to take justice into our own hands.” It becomes so common that if white people and white men in particular did not defend the honor of white women by taking vengeance on an alleged Black sexual deviant, if you will, that would have been a mark against the white community.
When you begin to understand this back story, this contextual story, the massacre makes sense. It’s horrific, but it makes sense that white Tulsans didn't end with shooting up the downtown area and killing some Black people in the process. Instead of doing that, they destroyed an entire African American community.
We have to understand that, even though a lynching did not occur in Tulsa because of the courage of the Black men who went downtown to protect Dick Rowland, that doesn't mean lynching culture didn't shape everything that happened. It certainly provided the rationale for why whites would come downtown in the first place.
For me, what was so helpful in writing a book on the race massacre, was my background, on the history of lynching and racial violence because everything about the race massacre was not an exceptional event and there were at least 12 other communities where similar attacks on Black communities happened just in Oklahoma.
But what makes the difference is the scale and the scope of what occurred in Tulsa, where a 35-block area was destroyed in less than 18 hours. Three hundred lives were lost. Many more were wounded. And those casualties were hidden. And not only was Greenwood a Black community, it was one of the wealthiest Black communities in America. It was known as Black Wall Street because of its prosperity. That wealth was liquidated in the violence. The National Geographic ran a story during the Centennial that estimated that $600 million in Black wealth went up in flames as a result of the massacre. That’s the scale and the scope of what occurred.
But certainly, Tulsa was not exceptional because it was a part and parcel of the lynching culture. It's just the scope and the scale the viciousness of the massacre that made it unprecedented.
Robin Lindley: The history is devastating. You deal with extremely traumatic issues. You're immersed in studying horrific atrocities in your work and racial violence continues. Where do you find hope today?
Professor Karlos K. Hill: I find hope in everybody who is committed to doing the work. I find hope in talking to white people who are waking up to these realities and are changing their lives to bear witness to this history. I find hope in my children who, I think, will create new realities that we haven't even imagined are possible.
But I'm also just a hopeful person. I couldn’t do this work without hope. It will beat you down if you don't have hope that we can learn racial history and then change the racial present. I find hope everywhere that I can, and doing work with people is where I get my strength.
Robin Lindley: Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Professor Hill, and congratulations on your remarkable history of the Tulsa race Massacre. It’s a book for the ages. It's been a pleasure speaking with you.
Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney. He is features editor for the History News Network (history news network.org), and his work also has appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Bill Moyers.com, Re-Markings, Salon.com, Crosscut, Documentary, ABA Journal, Huffington Post, and more. Most of his legal work has been in public service. He also served as a staff attorney with the US House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations and investigated the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His writing often focuses on the history of human rights, conflict, medicine, art, and culture. He can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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