Why the Tulsa massacre is not better known

Trump’s recent fiasco of a rally in Tulsa, OK had the effect of shining a light on the 1921 Tulsa massacre that I wrote about here. What is astonishing is how little known that massacre was, despite its horrific nature and the blatant racism that drove it. During it airplanes even dropped incendiary devices on the black community to start fires. The radio program On The Media says that there is a reason for this ignorance of one of the worst racist massacres in US history.

When President Trump announced that he would be rallying his supporters on June 19th in Tulsa, it scanned to many as a vicious one-two punch. After all, June 19th, or Juneteenth, marks the day in 1865 when Union general Gordon Granger told the enslaved people of Texas that they were finally free. And Tulsa is the city where, in 1921, a white mob decimated the prosperous Black community of Greenwood, known by many as “Black Wall Street.” But if Trump didn’t know about the wholesale decimation of Black Wall Street, he wouldn’t be alone; devastating as it was, the complete story of the massacre is a little-known chapter of American history.

According to Russell Cobb, native Tulsan, professor at the University of Alberta and author of The Great Oklahoma Swindle: Race, Religion, and Lies in America’s Weirdest State, the massacre wasn’t some spontaneous crisis, as the term “riot” suggests. Rather, it was an outgrowth of long-simmering prejudices, stoked by a bigoted local press. Cobb talks to Brooke about the massacre, and how the local, regional and national media obscured the anti-Blackness at the political and socioeconomic core of an up-and-coming American city.

Cobb, who is white, says that he grew up Tulsa just a couple of miles from the part of the city that was burned down by whites, and yet he never heard a word about it in the community or in school even when they discussed Oklahoma history. It was only when he went away to graduate school that he stumbled across a book in the stacks of the library that had a title that referred to the 1921 Tulsa massacre. At first he thought that the book must be fiction or an alternative history and was shocked to discover the reality. He said that it affected his own sense of identity and began to study how deeply the event had been purged from local and national historical accounts. He says that from the beginning, the white civic leaders and the newspapers in that in that town adopted a two-prong strategy, stoking racial tensions at home with incendiary racist language while sending out false stories over the wire services to the rest of the nation about what had happened and blaming things on a black uprising.

This episode illustrates yet again that one of America’s greatest talents is shielding from its own people the ugliness of its past.

You can listen to the absorbing 19-minute interview.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    A comparable episode, in terms of national shame and a painful legacy, is the Wounded Knee massacre. My understanding is that that one also was little known until around the 70s, when there was an explosion of media attention. Nowadays, I hear about it reasonably regularly. I hope that Tulsa follows the same pattern, and it becomes a major portion of any history class that covers the period.
    The gatekeepers are, first, historians --> textbook writers --> teachers. The media can also play a major role — the recent Watchmen, I suspect, was the first time many people found out about Tulsa. Now that we know, it must not be swept under the rug again.

  2. flex says

    They say that Truth is the Daughter of Time.

    Regrettably, when truth takes a century to be known, there is really no chance of restitution for the victims.

  3. jrkrideau says

    @ 3 mediagoraS
    I remember being in the USA and watching this on TV in a rather stunned feeling of disbelief. Bombing?

  4. mediagoras says

    @ 4 jrkrideau
    I was fairly young in 1985 and don’t remember hearing about it at the time (although at that age, I was pretty ignorant of news and current events). When I did finally learn about it, I too was stunned, as well as disgusted and angered. If you haven’t seen it, here’s a good documentary on the events leading up to and following the attack: https://www.pbs.org/independentlens/films/let-the-fire-burn/

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