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Riot and Remembrance by James S. Hirsch

Riot and Remembrance by James S. Hirsch

Author:James S. Hirsch
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

A culture of silence may have surrounded the riot in many parts of white Tulsa, but a palpable fear haunted other parts of the community—the fear of a second riot. When Nancy Dodson, a junior college teacher, arrived in 1950, her white friends would not talk about the event. “I was admonished not to mention the riot almost upon our arrival,” she later wrote. “Because of the shame, I thought. But the explanation was, ‘You don’t want to start another.’”

Ironically, those fears served to calm racial tensions. In 1957, three years after Brown v. Board of Education struck down segregated schools, black Tulsans began to trickle into white neighborhoods. They were met initially with cross burnings. Then, in January 1958, the house of a black family was bombed when an explosive was thrown from a passing car, landing one yard away from the front porch. All the windows were shattered, and the walls in the living room and kitchen were cracked; a fourteen-year-old girl who was typing in the dining room was treated for shock. Suspicion fell on the White Citizens Council, which had been organized to preserve the city’s Jim Crow laws. Its placards had appeared in the windows of white Tulsans’ homes, but after the bombing, many whites removed them and rallied behind the black family. These whites were still not pleased about living near a black family, reported the Oklahoma Eagle, Tulsa’s black newspaper, but according to one white Tulsan, “We don’t want anything like this [bombing] to happen and we don’t want a recurrence of 1921 when we had a race riot.” No one was ever arrested for the bombing.

The shadow of the riot was felt in the 1960s, when black activists used the possibility of a second clash to advantage in their demands for public accommodations, open housing, and other civil rights. Tulsa’s black leaders were less militant than those in many other cities—there was never open warfare in the streets during the civil rights movement—and many believe that the city averted violent demonstrations because both white and black leaders were willing to compromise to preclude a replay of 1921.

But the riot also left deep wounds in the city. It made the black and white communities more distrustful of each other and intensified their segregation. In a 1962 master’s thesis for the University of Oklahoma, Karl Thiele interviewed Tulsans of both races. “Fear, generated by the race riot, which has existed in the minds of many people cannot be underestimated,” he wrote. “This is the intangible result of the riot which was most often mentioned in the interviews . . . It is generally agreed that the race riot . . . has made it very difficult for the Negro and white communities to communicate. Most of the fear has been in the minds of Negroes who felt the total force of the disaster in 1921. . .‘What happened once can happen again,’ is the very real fear in the minds of many.”

Thiele wrote that white Tulsans could not be friendly with the blacks who were blamed for causing the disaster.


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