On This Juneteenth, Let's Recognize that Formal Emancipation Did Not End Black Suffering
Structures of racism persist even today
A group photograph of thirty-one people at a Juneteenth Celebration in Emancipation Park in Houston's Fourth Ward. Reverend Jack Yates, a freed man, minister and community leader, is pictured on the left. Wikipedia Commons.
By Rachel S. Ferguson and Marcus M. Witcher
To many Blacks—used to state-mandated segregation, discrimination, lynching, and other abuses—Oklahoma promised to be a fresh chance to start anew. Prior to Oklahoma becoming a state in 1907 there was no formal law mandating segregation. Some Blacks claimed land in the new territory, and many others travelled to this “land of opportunity and freedom.”
Black towns emerged across the state and even where whites and Blacks mixed, such as the town of Guthrie in which “the new arrivals of both races were too caught up in the promise of instant wealth, too distracted by the thrills of the raucous boomtown, to give bigotry much heed.” This isn’t to say that the people in Oklahoma were racially egalitarian—they weren’t—but without formal laws enforcing segregation, individuals of both races were free to hire, trade, and interact with whomever they wished.
Things were still far from ideal in Oklahoma. Racism was very much still alive, but for a time the West looked like a place where Blacks could secure a better life. In Guthrie, Blacks secured important positions in the local government. Captain Townsend D. Jackson, who had fled Memphis in 1889, was a jailor and also served as a justice of the peace. In time, Jackson would serve on the police force in Guthrie and formed the Oklahoma Territory’s first Black militia. Jackson watched as his children grew up and prospered. His daughter married a prominent young Black lawyer, and his son travelled to Nashville, where he attended Meharry Medical College. For a while Blacks prospered in Guthrie. Unfortunately, by the late 1890s, the territory’s government made laws to separate Black and white children in school. As racial mixing declined, Blacks focused on creating their own schools.
The question of race relations was central when delegates met in Guthrie at the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention to prepare the territory for statehood. By that time, a mixture of law and custom had resulted in the separation of Blacks and whites. This was not enough, however, for the Democratic Party, which sent the most delegates to Guthrie. Faced with President Theodore Roosevelt’s threat to veto statehood if the Constitution included segregation language, the delegates had to wait for statehood and rely on their legislature to enact the measures. Future governor and first speaker of the house, William H. Murray, aided the passage of Jim Crow legislation during the state’s first legislative session. Murray argued that Oklahoma “should adopt a provision prohibiting the mixed marriages of negroes and other races in this State, and provide for separate schools and give the Legislature power to separate them in waiting rooms and on passenger coaches, and all other institutions in the state.” Like many other whites, Murray longed for the “good old days” of the submissive Black man. He claimed that “as a rule they are failures as lawyers, doctors and in other professions” and concluded that he appreciated “the old-time ex-slave, the old darky—and they are the salt of their race—who comes to me talking softly in that humble spirit which should characterize their actions and dealings with the white man.”
Murray’s arguments won the day, and the state legislature passed laws mandating segregation in 1907. For Blacks like Captain Jackson this meant a curtailing of their authority and ability to influence politics in Guthrie. In 1912, the mayor asked Jackson to only police Black areas of Guthrie. He promptly resigned. Jackson decided to move his family to Tulsa—one hundred miles east. According to journalist Tim Madigan, “Jackson had heard that Negro prosperity without precedent was taking root there” and believed that “industrious Blacks in Greenwood [the Black section of Tulsa] had finally succeeded in placing themselves beyond the reach of white malice.” But Jackson and the Blacks of Greenwood only met dashed hopes. From 1890 to 1908 Blacks were almost completely disenfranchised across the South, and the number of atrocities committed by whites did not abate. In Wilmington, North Carolina, the legitimately elected government was overthrown in the only coup d’état in United States history. White supremacist Democrats suppressed Black voter turnout in the state elections but were unable to take the city government away from the Republicans (many of whom were Black). In response, they gathered and drafted a “White Declaration of Independence” that exclaimed that “we will no longer be ruled, and will never again be ruled by men
of African origin.” On November 10, 1898, an organized a mob of some two thousand armed white supremacists overthrew the local government—killing sixty people in the process. In 1898, Wilmington had been described as “the freest town for a negro in the country.” Black businesses prospered, Blacks held political office, Black banks loaned money to entrepreneurs, and Blacks and whites lived side by side. By the end of the year, however, all that was gone, and Blacks began fleeing Wilmington by the thousands. Two years later, the state of North Carolina passed Jim
Crow laws disenfranchising Blacks.
Despite the atrocities in Memphis and Wilmington, in Springfield (1908) and Slocum (1910) Captain Jackson was still optimistic that Blacks could improve their lot. Addressing community leaders in Greenwood upon his arrival, Jackson declared that “with money and property comes the means of knowledge and power.” Channeling the message of Booker T. Washington, Jackson exclaimed: A poverty-stricken class or race will be an ignorant and despised class and no amount of sentiment can make it otherwise. If the time shall ever come when we possess in the colored people of this country a class of men noted for enterprise, industry, economy and success, we shall no longer have any trouble in the matter of civil and political rights; the battle against the popular prejudice shall have been fought.
Jackson held his son up as an example. Dr. Andrew Jackson was admired by Blacks and whites alike and was considered one of the best Black surgeons in the country. For the time being, Greenwood flourished. John Williams was the finest mechanic in Tulsa, white or Black, and managed his own garage, where Tulsa’s leading citizens brought their vehicles to be worked on. Williams also owned the confectionery in Greenwood, which was the “headquarters for sweets, candies, nuts, fruits in season, ice cream, cold drinks, cigars, tobacco, and fresh butter every day.” The confectionary quickly became the most likely place for young Black men to propose to their sweet-hearts. Williams also owned the Black movie theater, where young and old alike gathered to view the latest silent films.
While Williams may have been Greenwood’s greatest entrepreneur, he wasn’t alone. Indeed, Greenwood sported a wide range of professionals and those who provided services to the community. Their consumers often worked across the tracks in white Tulsa where they found jobs as chauffeurs, maids, nannies, gardeners, laundresses, shoeshine boys, bellhops, and doormen. These laborers brought “their money home to Greenwood to spend on haircuts, barbeque, booze, prostitutes, groceries, jewelry, movie tickets, bootleg liquor, visits to Black doctors when they were ill, and on Black dentists when their teeth hurt” (perhaps from too many sweets at Williams’s Confectionary). All in all, life was good in Greenwood, and the prosperity of its citizens earned it the label of Black Wall Street.
As World War I came to an end, racial unrest across the United States exploded. There were over twenty race riots in 1919—the most prominent being in Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, and Washington, DC. The racial violence that broke out across the country might have served as a warning to Greenwood. Although many Blacks had achieved economic success, and some even garnered respect from Tulsa’s whites, all it would take was a spark to ignite racial hatred and resentment. In an instant their homes, schools, jobs, and even lives could be taken from them. This was the precarious reality of Black existence in 1920 America.
On June 1, 1921, that spark unleashed a firestorm of white violence that left Greenwood in ashes. The burning of Greenwood began with an altercation between a Black man and a white woman. Dick Rowland, a local Black man, was accused of assaulting Sarah Page, a white woman, in an elevator. Both worked in the Drexel Building. Page operated the elevator, and Rowland shined shoes. To use the Black-only restroom, Rowland used Page’s elevator a couple times a day. The two developed a friendship and may have had a consensual relationship—but this is unclear. On May 30, 1921, when Rowland was on his way back to his shoeshine stand, he stepped into the elevator and either fell into Sarah or intentionally assaulted her—accounts vary. Page smacked Rowland with her purse, and when the elevator stopped on the ground floor, she screamed, “I’ve been assaulted!” Rowland took off running to his mother’s home, where he spent the night. The next day he was arrested and taken to the local jail. The sheriff, Willard McCullough, made Dick’s mother feel a little better the next day by letting her know that the investigators were skeptical of Page’s story. McCullough assured her that they were holding Dick for his own safety.
Unfortunately, justice was not allowed to run its course. The publisher of the Tulsa Tribune, Richard Lloyd Jones, published the headline, “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator” in which they claimed that Rowland had “attacked” Page, “scratching her hands and face and tearing her clothes.” If Jones’s editorial itself wasn’t bad enough, the paperboys hawked the paper by exclaiming: “Extra! Extra! To Lynch Negro Tonight! Read All About It!” Minutes after the afternoon edition hit the streets, a white mob began to form: “The paper had cast a match to the dry kindling
of race in Tulsa.”
Sheriff McCullough transferred Rowland that afternoon to the county lockup that provided his prisoner with better security and protection. It was a good thing, too, because within hours crowds formed around the facility. In response to the formation of a white mob, Blacks in Greenwood grabbed their guns and made their way to the courthouse. McCullough spoke with Black leaders and promised them that if they could keep their people from engaging the mob, he would protect Rowland. But both whites and Blacks continued to gather. Finally, at 10:15 p.m. tensions boiled over. An older white man confronted O. B. Mann—a respected Black veteran—shouting, “Nigger, what are you going to do with that pistol?” Mann responded that he was “going to use it” if he “needed to.” The white man insisted that Mann give him the weapon, to which Mann responded, “Like hell I will.” The old man lunged at Mann, and the pistol discharged. In the next minute hundreds of shots could be heard, and chaos ensued. As the crowds dispersed and Blacks made their way back to Greenwood, twenty or so people, Black and white, were either
dead or wounded.
On the fateful morning of June 1, 1921, things were quiet in Greenwood—at least initially. At 5:08, however, a loud whistle broke the peace. It was a signal and, “[a] lusty cheer welled up among the thousands of whites poised at various locations on the edge of Greenwood.” The white mob moved through Greenwood taking hostages, burning buildings, looting, and killing those who resisted. Whites deployed a Gatling gun and a biplane in the assault. Whites from all sections of the Tulsan society joined the mob as did members of the national guard and local police. Captain Jackson’s son surrendered to the whites who came to his house, but two young white boys raised their guns at him and shot him twice in the chest. Blacks resisted, but the results were devastating. Around three hundred died, and over eight thousand Blacks were homeless as Black Wall Street lay in ruins. To add insult to injury, the atrocities were swept under the rug, and generations of Tulsans never heard about the Tulsa massacre.
So, what to do with these stories of atrocities committed against Black Americans? First of all, we must recognize that real injustices have taken place, and to the extent that we can, we should make efforts to make such injustices right, as the Tulsa
Race Massacre Centennial Commission aims at doing. These stories also demonstrate, however, that Black Americans were extremely successful in creating prosperous communities through the marketplace. It was often white resentment that fueled lynchings—as in Memphis. Ultimately, the lesson of this chapter is that markets can’t function without the rule of law and therefore cannot by themselves ensure Black betterment. Governments—at all levels—failed to protect Blacks’ right to life, liberty, property,freedom of contract, right to trial by jury, and more. The market didn’t fail Black people. Indeed, Blacks prospered as entrepreneurs, professionals, and laborers within the free enterprise system. It was America’s political institutions that failed them.
This is an excerpt from Black Liberation Through the Marketplace: Hope, Heartbreak, and the Promise of America by Rachel S. Ferguson and Marcus M. Witcher.
Thanks for this column. The lynching stories that truly give me nightmares are the ones where the victims didn't have a chance to fight back, so I wasn't quite sure why Tulsa in particular had become such a symbol. The significance is much clearer when you think of it as the place where black people had managed to become prosperous in spite of all the laws trying to bring them down.
Wouldn't it be nice if, after reading this, people would call for a reduction in the power of government to make rules in business and education, so they couldn't do things like separating the races?