Tuesday, May 31, 2005

 

Justice Delayed

Even the Germans came to terms (mostly) with their barbarous past. When will we?
In Tulsa, Keeping Alive 1921's Painful Memory
Recognition, Reparations Sought for Race Riot


She heard tapping on the roof of her home in Tulsa, and in her young mind Olivia Hooker thought it was hail from a Midwest storm. Her mother grabbed her hand, crept to a small window and explained, to the 6-year-old's horror, that it was actually raining bullets.

"Up on the hill was a machine gun with an American flag on it," Hooker, now 90, said in testimony at a recent hearing in the House before members of the Congressional Black Caucus. "My mother said, 'They are shooting at you.' "

It was Tuesday, May 31, 1921, and the worst race riot in U.S. history was underway. It is an event that hardly anyone commemorates on Memorial Day weekend, because its existence has been all but erased.

More than 1,000 homes and businesses were destroyed in less than a week, and at least 300 people were killed, and then buried, possibly in unmarked mass graves, according to a 2001 report on the incident by an Oklahoma state commission.

The official death toll surpassed the totals of the 1965 Watts riot, the 1967 Detroit riot, the 1968 Washington riot and the 1992 Los Angeles riot combined. Some historians estimated that the toll reached 1,000, based on photos of trucks full of bodies as they rolled out of town, according to a member of the commission.

A quest for reparations by surviving victims ended two weeks ago. The U.S. Supreme Court dismissed without comment a class-action suit against the city of Tulsa, its police department and the state of Oklahoma.

The rejection left in place a lower court's ruling that a two-year statute of limitations on claims had expired in 1923. According to law, the judges ruled, it mattered little that segregated courts in which Ku Klux Klan members held judgeships refused to hear claims of black victims immediately after the riot, or that evidence of its devastation was erased or hidden until the 2001 report.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, based in Denver, said that legal avenues had opened to black complainants over time, citing the 1960s as an era when claims could have been brought, or perhaps the 1980s.

"Why did they just pick that date?" asked Eddie Faye Gates, who sat on the commission. "Seems to me they were looking . . . for a loophole." Charles J. Ogletree, the Harvard law professor and civil rights lawyer who argued the case for victims, said the ruling "doesn't make sense."

Before the rulings, Larry V. Simmons, the Tulsa deputy city attorney who fought the case, told the Tulsa World newspaper that "this complaint should be disposed of as a matter of law." He was out of the office last week, according to an assistant, and could not be reached to comment.

Ogletree promised to try to bring the case before the House Judiciary Committee to keep the case in the public eye. "I think now we have even more compelling reason to not let this disappear," he said.

Tulsa's prosperous Greenwood community was the prairie's own small turn-of-the-century Harlem. It began to grow when slaves who had been owned by Seminoles, Cherokees and other Indian tribes populated the area. The Indians themselves had been forced to march from the South to the Plains by U.S. officials in what is known as the "Trail of Tears."

Over time, black hotels, restaurants, grocery stores and law offices sprang up. In those days, according to the Greenwood Cultural Center's Web site, the neighborhood featured "what may have been the first black airline in the nation." "We had everything the whites had, and I suspect more," said Otis Clark of Tulsa, a 105-year-old riot survivor who testified at the hearing.

On the last day of May 1921, an African American delivery boy, Dick Rowland, was accused of assaulting a white woman, Sarah Page, on an elevator after a clerk heard Page shout and saw Rowland hurriedly leave the building.

There is no report of what Page told police, but charges against Rowland were eventually dropped, according to historians. The Tulsa Tribune ran a story with the headline "Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator." About 10,000 white men gathered at the courthouse where Rowland was held and demanded that the sheriff turn him over.

A group of 80 black men, some of them World War I veterans, armed themselves and went to the courthouse to protect Rowland. At the time, shootings and lynchings of blacks were common on the prairie.

A white man tried to disarm one of the black men, a shot rang out and the riot began.

The police chief deputized white men who could get a gun and ordered them to go get a Negro, using a less polite racial slur. The state's National Guard was called in, and its soldiers disarmed African Americans and marched them through the streets to a holding area.

Black survivors and newspapermen spoke of incendiary bombs being dropped on houses from private airplanes, but the commission found little evidence to support those allegations. But there was ample evidence of marauders with torches made of oil-soaked rags.

"The first thing they did was burn my doll clothes," Hooker, who now lives in White Plains, N.Y., recalled in her testimony. "Then they came in the house. My mother put us under the table. We had not fled because my mother was trying to save the house."

Hooker's home was spared, but her family ultimately moved to Topeka, Kan. "We didn't stay because they had blown up the schools, and my parents couldn't stand the idea of having five children and no schools," she said.

Thousands of others were left homeless, Clark said. "When we got back to Tulsa our homes were burned down," he said. "Nobody saw the older folks. We never saw them again. They say they put them in a grave. We didn't have a funeral for nobody. They never did nothing for people there. Never gave us nothing."

Throughout the reparations case, Tulsa officials seemed unmoved, said Michael Hausfeld, a Washington lawyer who was part of the legal team that sued for reparations. Hausfeld had helped win reparations for Holocaust victims from Swiss banks that accepted money stolen by Nazis during World War II.

"We clearly heard remarks by Tulsans that were racially directed, like 'It's time that you people let this rest' and 'Don't push too hard - you may regret it,' " he said.

Hausfeld said the Tulsa case seems more egregious than the case against the banks because African Americans were "blamed for their own mass murder" and the court system failed to respond.

"If these victims were white, in my judgment, no one would be arguing that they be denied an opportunity to have their case heard," he said. "We haven't even been given a right to present the issue."
If this happened in another country (except, perhaps, Darfur or Uzbekistan or Pakistan, you know, where we need the local dictators' help even after "9-11 changed everything), U.S. conservatives would be shrieking. But it happened here, so we can whitewash (forgive the expression) our own filthy racism.

It's not that America is worse than other countries, or even as bad. It's that our own rhetoric and self-image demand that we be better. Otherwise, it's not a self-image - it's a self-delusion.
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