The Tulsa Race Massacre

What do you do when you find out you’ve been lied to most of your life? Today I want to talk you about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. And I want to tell you why I didn’t know about it.

In 1921, May 30th, Tulsa was a booming oil money city that had about 100,000 prosperous citizens and a booming economy. About 10,000 of those citizens were African-Americans. They lived in a sharply segregated part of town called Greenwood.

On May the 30th in 1921 as racial tensions were reemerging across the country following World War I, there was an incident that took place in downtown Tulsa. A young black man entered the Drury Building on S. Main street and stepped into the elevator. The elevator had a young 17-year-old white girl who was the operator of the elevator. What happened next was sketchy at first. There was a scream by the girl. And the young man fled the building. The next morning, he was arrested by the Tulsa County Sheriff, put in jail, and that afternoon the Tulsa Tribune printed a front-page story that said that a young black man had been arrested and held on charges of sexual assault against a white girl, a minor.

Well, by the evening of May 31st there were crowds of Tulsa citizens gathering around the courthouse demanding that the Sheriff release this young man to the mob for some form of vigilante justice, probably lynching. Late that evening a group of black citizens from Greenwood arrived to offer their help to the Sheriff in protecting this young man. The Sheriff assured them that he had the situation under control. They had barricaded the building and he felt like they needed to go home and not allow any problems to be caused.

They came back later that evening. Seventy-five black men, mostly armed, were confronted by a group of fifteen hundred white people who had gathered downtown with the rumors of this sexual assault swirling.

As the Sheriff tried to send everybody home, apparently somebody tried to disarm somebody else and shots were fired. When the smoke cleared, there were ten white men dead and two black men dead. And the riot was on.

The black citizens retreated to the Greenwood area. But soon after, they were followed there by hundreds, even thousands of white citizens, some deputized by the authorities. Some given weapons by the authorities to go and respond to this altercation that had taken place at the Sheriff’s department.

What ensued was probably the worst racial incident in American history. Over about eighteen hours, through the evening and overnight on May 31, 1921, there were numerous acts of violence committed against black people in the Greenwood section of Tulsa. Unarmed people were shot. There was a fake news story that circulated that the African American population was fomenting an armed insurrection against the city of Tulsa.

The white citizens proceeded to loot and burn homes and businesses over a thirty-five-block area. Firefighters reported that when they showed up to put the fires out, armed citizens forced them to leave and let the fires burn. The Red Cross estimated later that 1,256 homes were burned. 215 others were looted. Two newspapers, a school, a library, a hospital, several churches, hotels, stores and many other black-owned businesses were among the buildings destroyed or damaged by fire.  

By noon on June 1st the Oklahoma Governor, J.B.A. Robertson had declared martial law and sent in the National Guard. The National Guard helped put out the fires. But in the process, they also interned 6,000 black citizens under armed guard at the County Fair Grounds.

Within hours after this massacre had taken place, we’re told in historical records that there were 36 confirmed dead, but estimates by historians today tell us that number was probably closer to 300 citizens killed that day.

Within hours after those events, the story came out that the young black man had stepped into the elevator and apparently stepped on the foot of this young girl accidently. Her scream was really more of a squeal that caught him off guard and he ran. He was released within hours. No charges were ever filed. And yet, 300 people dead.

Now here’s where it gets really bad. For decades there were no public ceremonies, no memorials for the dead or any efforts to commemorate the events of May 31st and June 1, 1921. Instead, there was a deliberate effort to cover them up. The Tulsa Tribune story that had been on the front page of the May 31st edition was removed from all of their bound archived volumes. Scholars later discovered that the police and state militia archives also had the records and reports from that day go missing. As a result, until recently the Tulsa Race Massacre was rarely mentioned in history books. It was never taught in schools or even talked about in polite society.

I was born and raised in Tulsa. I went to school in Tulsa Public Schools. And I was almost fifty years of age before I ever even heard of the Tulsa Race Massacre.

Well, we’re approaching the one-hundredth anniversary of those events. May 31st and June 1st of this year will be 100 years. Now that we know, what is our response?

Well, let me remind you about what we learned from the first century church. In the book of Acts there was a remarkable testimony about racial reconciliation as the greatest rivalry of ethnicities in history was between Jews and Gentiles. Jews hated Gentiles. And Gentiles disdained Jews. And yet, in Acts 10 we find Peter, a good young Jewish man, led by the Spirit of God, enters the home of a Gentile and sits down with his family and shares a meal.

In Acts 11, we find the Gospel being offered for the first time to non-Jews in the city of Antioch. In Acts 13 that same church in Antioch sent out Paul and Barnabas on the first ever intentional mission trip to take the good news of the Gospel to the nations. In chapter 15, the early church gathered in Jerusalem and decided to put the rivalry between Jews and Gentiles to rest forever by settling the issue of who the Gospel was available to.

The presence in the first century of Jews and Gentiles side by side in churches, worshipping together, living and sharing life as family was the greatest proof of the ancient world of the transforming power of the Gospel. We need today’s church to put that transforming power of the Gospel on display once again in the real world of racial division and segregation that has gripped our country. When the Church steps forward and makes this an issue, that’s when the world sees that these differences of skin color are not designed by God to create the separation that the prince of this world has been allowed to create.

I pastor a Southern Baptist church and Southern Baptists claim a document called The Baptist Faith and Message as our confessional statement. In Article 15 of that document it says,
In the Spirit of Christ, Christians should oppose racism. And we should speak on behalf of the unborn and contend for the sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death. Southern Baptists have long been known as a people who stand for the sanctity of human life, but we must also be known as a people who stand for the dignity of all human life regardless of skin color.

Let me be clear, Racism is Sin! It is blasphemy against the God who created each of us in His divine image. We cannot justify or rationalize racism, bigotry, or prejudice in any way. Each is ungodly, inhumane and stands arrogantly against the life and teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Now understand there is no way the government can fix this problem. Nor can your politics provide healing. It never has and it never will. This is a problem of the human heart. It’s a spiritual problem. Real change will only be seen through our conduct as believers toward one another. None of this will go away with violence, but by developing relationships with each other, working together and resolving to press forward together in the Spirit of Christ who is the Prince of Peace.

We, the churches of America are the ones that must be faithful to call upon God to come and give us guidance and provide the pathway to healing for our nation. We’re the ones who must answer this moment. And silence and passivity is not the answer. That’s not the prescription for healing. Pastor after pastor, preacher after preacher, evangelist after evangelist, teacher after teacher must boldly and courageously call upon every Christian to love God with all his heart and to love his neighbor as he loves himself.

Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

In 2 Corinthians the Apostle Paul gives us verses. In 5:17-19, this is what I want to leave you with. He tells us,

"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, and see, the new has come! Everything is from God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. That is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed the message of reconciliation to us."

What that means is that, we’re the ones with the responsibility of calling people to God to be reconciled to Him. But we are also the ones with the responsibility to call men of good faith, believers of every color to be reconciled together. You say, “Well, what about all those people out there causing all this segregation and hostility between the races that are not Christians?” I can’t speak to that. But I do know this. If white Christians, if African-American Christians, if Asian Christians, if Native American Christians… if we could leave our skin color behind and focus on the common bond we have in Jesus Christ, we could change our world.

Find real world ways to pursue reconciliation with people who are not just like you. And go do it in the name of Jesus.

This is TruthCurrents.
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