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SU African American Studies Professor Reflects On Racial Tensions That Led to Tulsa Massacre

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A Syracuse University professor of African American Studies is offering some perspective on what led to the Tulsa Massacre in Oklahoma that took place 100 years ago today.  A white mob looted and set fire to the black community of Greenwood, killing as many as 300 people and leaving an estimated 8,000 homeless. 

"What made this so devastating was the fact that in 18 hours, the place disappeared.  Greenwood, the Black district, disappeared!"

Herb Ruffin II is an expert on Black settlements in the Western US.  Tulsa was a post-reconstruction oil boom town in a young state that also had its share of political, social, and racial tensions. 

"Slavery was seen as good.  You had reconstruction seen as bad.  The Ku Klux Klan was made into heroes.  White women's virtue had to be protected.  This was a separate but unequal society, if you will.  Every place had what was like one of these  parallel communities.  What was interesting about this period, if you're talking about Black self-sufficiency emerging, it has to happen within one of these cities."

Ruffin says Tulsa was one of about two dozen cities that saw racial disturbances in cities across the country around this time.  He says it was defined by Jim Crow.

"One of the things that Jim Crow ends up creating is a situation where people don't know one another.  You're talking about deep racial stereotypes, deep-rooted prejudices that play into these social, economic anxieties."

He says the boom town did have its share of busts.  Ruffin says it didn’t help that an undersized police force turned its back on crimes against African Americans, which only added to the building racial tension.

"There's a major recession in oil.  Oil prices are going down.  People are desperate.  You also have a lot of white vigilante justice taking place, as well as a lot of lynching.  You have Black women who were hanged on bridges, basically telling everyone if you don't have it painted on a sign what the rules are inside this town, going into that town, you definitely know what it's about by the sight of these hanged Black people."

The Tulsa Massacre was almost completely covered up and ignored for decades, until the 50th anniversary in 1971.  That’s when Ruffin says the Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa, as well journalists began to acknowledge and uncover the riot.  He says it’s still a very sore issue in Tulsa, where no one was ever prosecuted, and reports show there was collusion between the mob and city leaders.  In recent years, Ruffin says a memorial has been erected, the city has apologized, and a scholarship fund has been set up for some 300 descendants of the victims.

Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at srwillis@syr.edu.