Virginia Woolf & Tulsa Massacre
I had never read A Room of One’s Own. For decades it was on my “someday” list of works to read. Now that I get books from the library only by ordering them, I finally read Virginia Woolf’s famous book, doubting I would find it as groundbreaking as everyone said.
Its emotional effect on me surpassed my expectation, shaped as I am now by the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing fallout. Written in 1928, A Room of One’s Own still applies today, in 2020.
Woolf wondered why women are so interesting to men. “Have you any notion of how many [books about women] have been written by men?”
She studied a few learned tomes by men about women:
Alexander Pope wrote, “Most women have no character at all.”
Dr. Samuel Johnson regarded a woman composer “like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.”
Oscar Browning, professor at Cambridge, declared after looking over examination papers that “the best woman was intellectually the inferior of the worst man.”
“All that I had retrieved from that morning’s work had been the one fact of anger.”
She wondered, Why were they angry? They had all “the power and the money and the influence.”
It seemed absurd to her,
"that a man with all this power should be angry. . . .
Possibly when the professor insisted a little too emphatically upon the inferiority of women, he was concerned not with their inferiority, but with his own superiority. That was what he was protecting rather hot-headedly and with too much emphasis, because it was a jewel to him of the rarest price."
Parallels between sexism and racism leap to mind. Commonly implied in racist talk:
“The best black man is intellectually the inferior of the worst white man.”
During this national outcry for racial justice, I have been focusing on Black experiences even more than I had before. I have the radio on and tuned to MPR whenever I’m not reading or writing, so without trying, I learn things I didn’t know were missing in my education. I didn’t think I could be surprised by the level of white cruelty in our nation’s history. I was wrong. How ignorant we educated whites are because of white-centric history taught in schools!
I didn’t know that a Black Wall Street flourished in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was burned down in 1921 by white mobs furious that African Americans lived prosperous lives. I didn’t know about the Massacre of 1921. Why was I ignorant of it? I don’t blame myself or any single individual. The racist structure of our entire American system kept us white Americans—and black Americans too—ignorant of how our nation treated—and treats—our black citizens.
One part of the history we should have been taught came to my attention by president Donald Trump’s ill-fated choice of Tulsa, Oklahoma, as the place to stage his return to campaign rallies—on Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the end of slavery.
In the early part of the twentieth century, African Americans turned Tulsa, Oklahoma, into one of the most prosperous black communities in the country. Along Greenwood Avenue flourished 150 businesses, called Black Wall Street.
. . . there were luxury shops, restaurants, grocery stores, hotels, jewelry and clothing stories, movie theaters, barbershops and salons, a library, pool halls, nightclubs and offices for doctors, lawyers and dentists. Greenwood also had its own school system, post office, a savings and loan bank, a hospital, and bus and taxi service.
The Greenwood District in Tulsa included residential black neighborhoods of about 10,000 souls spread out over 35 city blocks. Affluent African Americans with upscale lifestyles triggered resentment among whites who, to soothe their own emotional needs, wanted black people to keep their inferior status (echoing sexism). In a little more than 12 hours, white mobs invaded Greenwood, burned it down, and murdered 300 people.
This happened in 1921. Almost a hundred years later, Donald Trump boasted that a million people requested tickets to his campaign rally. He had no idea how fraught was his choice of Tulsa on the nineteenth of June, or his boast. He moved his event to June 20, but many registered for it with no intention of going, making his boast an embarrassment.
The Greenwood District evolved on Indian Territory in Oklahoma, an area bearing its own painful history. When Andrew Jackson initiated the federal government’s relocation of Native Americans onto their Trail of Tears, this was their forced destination. It later attracted American Blacks, who later still built the Greenwood District.
The Tulsa Race Massacre started as white crimes against Blacks usually do, with an incident distorted to foment hatred of African Americans.
In an elevator a black man, Dick Rowland, inadvertently touched a white woman in a way that scared her. Someone called the police. Rowland was found, accused of attempted rape, and arrested; stories were spun whipping up white fear, envy, and hatred; mob riots exploded as white people set fires, looted, and murdered black citizens.
White power overwhelmed the few Blacks who fought back. The facts are cloudy but include deputized and weaponized white men, machine guns, the National Guard, and airplanes dropping mayhem from the skies. According to black victims, city officials and military officials participated in the destruction of Greenwood.
A CBS report leading up to a 60 Minutes story said,
The first time Americans were terrorized by an aerial assault was not Pearl Harbor.
Scott Pelley reports on a race massacre in which an estimated 300 people, mostly African American men, women and children, were killed, and aircraft were used to drop incendiary devices on a black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Greenwood Massacre of 1921 has been largely ignored by history, but Pelley finds a Tulsa community seeking to shed more light on what's been called the worst race massacre in history.
Another historical document relates,
So intent were the white rioters on destroying Greenwood that they stopped firefighters from getting to the blazes.
Firefighters testifying in an insurance case several years later said they were threatened and even shot at when they arrived on the scene of the earliest fires. Later, they received orders from Fire Chief R.C. Alder not to respond to alarms from the black district because of the danger.
That order remained in effect until the fires were out of control.
Thousands of black Tulsans were herded into Convention Hall and detained, purportedly in protective custody. In the aftermath of the massacre, no one was prosecuted for the killings. Insurance companies rejected claims by black property owners. Criminal investigations of whites fizzled out. Black men were indicted for inciting a riot, charges that all had been dropped by a decade later.
A welfare fund to assist recovery was started but raised only a tiny fraction of the damage. On their own, Black Tulsans had to repair and rebuild themselves and their property. They persevered. Readers who can stand more outrage can learn more by following the links above.
I am glad that white people today finally seem ready for indignation on behalf of black people. But conversion of hearts does not depend on knowledge alone. We humans are driven by emotional factors hard to fathom. Still, knowledge helps, and I’ll keep educating myself and trying to educate others, as I do in my battle against sexism.
I see a real step forward in national compassion for the abuse black citizens endured while most of us were oblivious. The Trump presidency brought on this moment of national reckoning. Historian Jon Meacham says the Trump presidency is the last gasp of white America that wants to keep America white. They are a besieged minority who fight what they know—that they’re on the way out.
Dawson Church, genetic researcher and ordained minister, writes in Unity Magazine that we are
at a turning point in global human consciousness . . . [we are] becoming more compassionate as a species. . . .
Never before in human history have so many people been prepared to sacrifice for so few. This is a pandemic of compassion that has broken out in the human race in 2020.
I cling to this.