Tulsa and the Open Question of Justice, 1921–2021

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This week marks the 100th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa race riots, a massacre orchestrated by a white mob against African Americans and their businesses in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Deputized by their claims to coercive power and justice, the armed mob was both trial judge and executioner, killing hundreds, looting, and burning even more homes and businesses. Members of the mob acted on their own sense of justice, but what is justice for the survivors and descendants of those murdered? Justice for peoples of African ancestry in the United States and elsewhere is an open question, though the persistence of racial and other forms of violence are not.

The deputized white mob and the police support exercised in Tulsa were a part of slavery’s ongoing violence, what historian Vincent Brown called the “anti-Black militarism as a cultural logic that grows out of slavery.” In other words, we can trace this cultural logic from men like Willem, an enslaved healer on a Berbice plantation in 1822, to Black physician Andrew C. Jackson, who was shot and killed with his hands up and dying in great pain in Tulsa, to George Floyd, who was killed by Minneapolis police officer Derrick Chauvin in May 2020.

Willem had wielded some spiritual power over whites and their captives, a presence that struck fear in both and that threatened white authority for they could not control it. He was found guilty for fear of unleashing that power. The kangaroo court sentenced him to be hung and to have his head “severed from his body and stuck on a pole . . . until destroyed by the elements, or birds of prey.” This execution, and its spiritual and psychological terror, was not about Willem or those in attendance, watching modern-day executions as we do on our TV screens, smartphones, and tablets. This was justice by way of violence and fear, but Willem was fearless. As he listened to his sentence and was brought to the mango tree, he “walked firmly to the tree, and told the Executioner to fasten the rope well.”

George Floyd was similarly executed by a court of four officers and a system that nurtures and rewards conditioned responses. Like Willem, George’s neck was the target, that part of the body between breathing and living, where the animating spirit travels. On that target, the world witnessed as—for more than 8 minutes—George’s spirit departed his body, which was then played on loop on every news outlet and social media platform, and on the phones of the very bystanders who captured the moment. That video was not simply a window into a single officer’s thrill kill, but into a serial killing society, whose history offers us a corpus of consistently arbitrary executions.

Whereas Willem’s head was left on a pole, George’s was left on a playback loop. These public displays of the dead and the dying share a common storyline: their presence threatens the claims to power of those who need their essential labor, even underclass position, but do not desire them.

What do Andrew C. Jackson of Tulsa, Willem, and George Floyd share? A lot. All history is present because it lives with us. We are only shocked or unnerved because we want to hope against hope, believe against the evidence that our nation continuously offers. Sadly, if there is a moral arc to the universe, it has not bent toward justice. Justice might be what Willem has shown us: we are always in the face of death, whether the death of individuals or communities in Tulsa, for we do not control our entry or exit from this world. If Willem’s idea of justice is an attitude, a perspective if you will, then we face it, conceding nothing to fear or to slavery’s ongoing violence.

And that ongoing violence peaked in the summer and fall of 1919, preparing the grounds for Tulsa in 1921. Commonly called the “Red Summer,” some 25 white-initiated and racist riots swept across the U.S. North and South, where peoples of African ancestry were lynched and shot, where their homes and businesses were destroyed. We may never know the total loss of African American lives and livelihood, but we know this: In places like Nashville, Chicago, and Washington, DC, armed African American men, including some ex-servicemen from World War I, defended their communities, pushed back against the collective anti-Black violence of white rioters, and feared not in the face of white terrorism. 

When the white mob did launch into their ritual violence in Tulsa, the target was also the presence of racially-coded “Black” people, their homes and businesses that threatened—and always threaten—unjust claims to power. The area in Tulsa named Greenwood, called “Little Africa” by whites, but tagged “Black Wall Street,” was owned by its inhabitants. The independence and success of “Little Africa” or “Black Wall Street” was justice—the institutionalization of the right to be. The assertion of that right is a trigger for mobs, looters, and destroyers. The story of Tulsa’s Little Africa teaches us to expect this ongoing violence and to be justified in the defense of community.

If the question of justice remains open-ended, Tulsa in 1921 and slavery’s logic and violence tell us what Andrew, Willem, and George confronted was coercive power, the filament along which society’s justice is dispensed. The fault line is always the specter of coercive power. Willem, George, and hundreds in Tulsa were hurled into eternity by this coercive power. Lawsuits seeking reparatory justice for the massacre have thus far failed, begging the question, can there be any justice claimed for those beyond its mundane reach?

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Kwasi Konadu

Kwasi Konadu is John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Endowed Chair and Professor at Colgate University, where he teaches courses in African history and on worldwide African histories and cultures. He is the author of Our Own Way in This Part of the World: Biography of an African Community, Culture, and Nation (Duke University Press, 2019), (with Clifford Campbell) The Ghana Reader: History, Culture, Politics (Duke University Press, 2016), Transatlantic Africa, 1440-1888 (Oxford University Press, 2014), The Akan Diaspora in the Americas (Oxford University Press, 2010), among other books. His website is www.kwasikonadu.info.