The Greenwood District of Tulsa, Okla., was burned by a white mob May 31-June 1, 1921.
Diversity, Inclusion and Equity

Past and present collide one hundred years after Tulsa Race Massacre

June 4, 2021 |2:35 min read

Legacy of inequity affects generations of Black Americans

There is too much important American history that we do not learn in school.

My generation is not the only one that did not grow up learning about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre (Tom Hanks agrees) or the 1898 Wilmington, NC, insurrection, both of which left thriving Black communities in shreds. White supremacists, with impunity – and with local and state government complicity – terrorized Tulsa and Wilmington, trampling rights, lives and livelihoods, determined to destroy the lively middle-class Black communities that had developed in their midst. There are many more cases, but these were among the most shocking.

A white mob destroyed the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Okla., one hundred years ago this week.

In Tulsa, the prosperous Greenwood District was referred to as Black Wall Street. The marauding white crowd destroyed 35 streets, 1,000 shops and more than 1,000 homes, murdered at least 300 men, women and children, and left thousands homeless, according to reports by the American Red Cross, which provided disaster relief. The true death toll is unknown because the remains of many victims were never recovered (although the search continues, and additional remains may recently have been found). Perturbations and repercussions of the tragic, horrific attacks still are felt to this day. Recent analyses attribute economic inequity and other inequities, including in health, in subsequent generations to what happened during those fateful days of May 31–June 1 a hundred years ago.

In North Carolina, the 1898 Wilmington massacre, about which I wrote previously, also targeted a thriving middle-class Black neighborhood, the local Black-owned newspaper and the democratically elected, biracial government in what was then the state’s largest city. The hateful, vicious and violent rampage was engineered by white supremacists who refused to accept the gains that Black North Carolinians were making as free and equal citizens after the Civil War and Reconstruction. Historians consider the event a turning point in North Carolina history:

In the months thereafter, political upheaval resulted across the state and legal restrictions were placed on the right of blacks to vote. The era of “Jim Crow,” one of legal segregation not to end until the 1960s, had begun.

The names of powerful white men associated with the Wilmington massacre and coup d’état found their way onto buildings around the state, including on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus. The Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Naming University Facilities and Units, of which I am a member, was charged with recommending names to replace those removed from campus buildings.

If we are ever to move forward together as a society in which every person has a chance to thrive and to achieve their potential, it is past time to confront history, make fair what can be made fair (e.g., via reparations) and ensure that we are taking every possible legal measure to end structural racism in this country. Far too much solid research has documented the differential application of business, health, housing, judicial and educational policies and practices to continue to deny racism in America, as some would have us do. It is not a slur against our country to call for and commit to ensuring a fair America where everyone has a chance.

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The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.