Earlier this year, I published a blog entitled, Black Wall Street, which introduced the story of the Tulsa Race Riots — a sad day in 1921 when the prosperous Black neighborhood of Greenwood was invaded by White mobs from across the railroad tracks. In April, I published my book, Living in the Middle, which told the story of this terrible chapter in American history. The subject of this month’s blog will be the most compelling question posed by readers during the initial reaction to my book:
How could this incident, which remains the most deadly race riot in the history of the United States, be virtually unknown just a few generations later?
I addressed this question in my opening paragraph in Chapter 53 of Living in the Middle:
In the decades following the riot, White Tulsa filed the incident away with a combination of fact and fiction. Those involved chose not to discuss it and those who participated in the subsequent humanitarian efforts considered them to be an atonement for the riot itself. Most Blacks who returned to Greenwood did not want to relive their trauma through a rehashing of events. This conspiracy of silence on both sides of the racial divide was so complete that children born in the 1930s found it hard to believe something of this magnitude ever occurred.
Think about what I’m saying here: One group found a way to dress up the riot and tuck it away so completely that no one would ever know it happened. Another faction discovered a path to absolution by performing “good deeds” during the rebuilding. Those who were harmed, however, couldn’t even think about it. The combination of these three reactions created the “conspiracy of silence” I mentioned above.
When terrible events like this take place, we should all hope that they are recorded well and analyzed appropriately. Any lessons learned should then be actively taught to future generations. The idea that something of this significance could happen and then be forgotten is disrespectful to the hundreds who lost their lives that day as well as the thousands who needed to change their lives in the days that followed.
I write historical fiction because I enjoy weaving a fictional story line into true past events. As part of my process, I try to document mistakes made, lessons learned, and point out new directions taken. None of these constructive activities took place with the Tulsa Race Riots. We chose to forget and we chose to be silent. Two things we can’t ever let ourselves do…and that, is something to remember.