The Term Massacre: A Misplaced Narrative

As this country becomes more involved with the one-hundredth year of the destruction of Black Wall Street by over 7500 white cowards who invaded that section of Tulsa, I am concerned that the emphasis will be poorly placed. It all evolves around the new narrative being used to bring attention to what happened that fateful day on June 1, 1921, Over the past few years, the designation has moved from Race Riot to Massacre. It certainly was not a race riot, but I feel emphasizing massacre is also misplaced. Let me make it clear that I am very much aware of the damage done by that cowardly crowd of vicious white Tulsans race haters. After ten years of research and having written a novel and a screenplay on the killing of over 300 men, women and children, and the burning of businesses and homes within at 33 block area, I am far from naïve as to the damage done. However, isn’t there something important that happened the day before the invasion? That something is the defense that the Black citizens of Greenwood mounted against the first attack by the cowards during the evening of May 31, and the brave Black veterans who crossed the Frisco Railroad Tracks and stood between the cowardly mob insisting that Dick Rowland be handed over to them and the courthouse where he was locked up.

My point is that I do not want for us to tolerate a bunch of white liberals, who finally have a conscience, to use what happened to Black Wall Street as a means to separate themselves from the cowards who carried out this dastardly act, by stressing the massacre as what is important. I am pretty much fed-up with the “oh those poor Negroes look what happened to them,” crowd who tend to dominate the narrative in these kinds of cases. I am tired of movies depicting blacks running scared of the evil white man. Instead, I am looking forward to stories and movies that show Black men, standing up and fighting back. In the movie Harriet, there are numerous scenes that show Blacks running scared, trying to escape the white slave hunters. That was appropriate for that particular movie, but not for any film that creates on screen what happened in Tulsa. We have an alternative to stressing the destruction, and that is to highlight the fighting Black men like O.B. Mann and the World War I Veterans, with John Williams and J.B. Stradford, who repelled the attack on the night of May 31, and were only finally defeated when the cowards used airplanes and over 7500 whites to attack them. A film that can also bring to life the many successful black men and women who built that vibrant, independent black community from 1906 to the destruction in 1921. Black women like Mabel Little who built a very successful hair salon and a restaurant and also Loula Williams, who managed the Williams Confectionery and the Dreamland Theater. There was also Andrew Smitherman, owner of the Tulsa Star, whose motto, printed on the front page of all his newspapers was, “You Push Me and I’ll Push You,” who wrote just how he felt and that was to challenge the bigotry and ugliness of the white Tulsans. And the few just named were the tip of the iceberg in the number of successful businesses owned by Blacks along Black Wall Street (originally titled Negro Wall Street by Booker T. Washington, but later changed to use the word Black when Negro no longer was in vogue).

Let us take a page out of white America and Hollywood’s treatment of the Alamo. Even though Davey Crockett, Jim Bowie and over 150 men were killed in that battle, you have never heard it referred to as the Alamo Massacre. What you have seen on screen depicting that defeat are creations of the perceived heroes. White America, after seeing the movies on the Alamo, could come out of the theater feeling good about their people. How about the defeat of General Custer? It was a massacre but is always referred to as “Custer’s Last Stand,” as a brave soldier fighting the evil Native Americans who attacked his troops. If that can be accomplished for the sake of young white children who want to feel proud of their history, why can’t we do the same for the millions of young black Americans. Let’s give them something to believe in, and not something to increase the anger they feel about being Black in America. If for the next ten months, leading up to the commemoration of those two days, all they read and hear is massacre, then we have done them a disservice. The term will dictate the narrative.

In the June 1941 issue of Crisis Magazine, and writing a review of Richard Wright’s, Native Son, Langston Hughes asked the question, “Where are the Black heroes in literature?” One of the greatest of all our cultural icons was alluding to the failure of Black writers to create heroes in their works. Hughes went on in that article to elaborate. “Where, in all our books is that compelling flame of spirit and passion that makes a man say, “I too am a hero because my race has produced heroes.”  Substitute literature for movies and the same question can be asked of us today. Where are all those heroes that our young can see and come out of the movie wanting to be like them. We, as Black Americans, have a great opportunity to accomplish that by taking control of the narrative as it pertains to the destruction of Black Wall Street. But we must be willing to step forward and let those, who now are so anxious to control that narrative, know that we will have nothing to do with an emphasis on the negative. We want to accentuate the positive, which is to highlight the heroes who stood up and protected their families, businesses and homes until the airplanes came.

July 4th For What?

This July 4th celebration is going to feel quite different for a large segment of Americans. With the inordinate number of police killings of blacks, the question as to what the Fourth of July means to our culture and our people is appropriate. This issue was addressed by Frederick Douglass in 1852 with his famous speech, “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?” before the Rochester, New York Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. His speech, in many ways, pointed out the hypocrisy of a country enjoying a day predicated on freedom, when over four million men, women and children languished in an oppressive system throughout the south. Today, one-hundred and sixty-eight years later, with the killings of our black men and women, murdered at the hands of the various policemen throughout the country we might legitimately ask,” What to the families of these slain brothers and sisters of the race is the Fourth of July?” We can easily expand that to include the entire Black race in this country.

An additional question we might ask, is there any hope in the future that white racism will be eradicated in this country and Black Americans no longer must fight these senseless battles with senseless sick individuals? Is there a place in this country for Black Americans? This issue was first addressed by two wise men as early as 1852, when it appeared that soon slavery would come to an end. The first position was articulated by Dr. Martin DeLaney. He was born a free man in Charlestown, Virginia in 1812, but his family was forced to flee their home because his mother taught all her children to read and write. In 1852 Dr. DeLaney wrote his famous tract, “The Condition, Elevation, Emigration and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Politically Considered.” It was his position that in this country the black man and woman always functioned from a position of weakness, because of the overwhelming control of the whites, who functioned from a position of power. It was his belief that the black race would never be equal to the whites, because the latter clearly enjoyed their position of strength within the economic, political and social structure of this country. The use of police power over the Blacks was and still is a weapon they readily use to maintain their superior position. Dr. DeLaney concluded that whites were incapable of changing, and the best that blacks could do was to leave this country and seek another land for themselves. However, he was never able to identify just where that could happen.

The other position was articulated by Frederick Douglass, the man known as the leading proponent and spokesperson for freedom for the slaves. Douglass stood in strong opposition to the idea of emigration. His main objection was that it falsely assumed that “there was no hope for blacks in America.” Douglass also was convinced that moral suasion was possible. Unlike DeLaney, he was convinced of the strength of the moral argument. Echoing the human rights argument found in the Declaration of Independence, Douglass explained that it was self-evident that Blacks had human rights and therefore were entitled to all the rights and privileges, which are a part of human nature. Douglass’s view that all persons have human rights, gave him reason to reject DeLaney’s view that moral appeals from one group to another are pointless and delusional. He also rejected DeLaney’s belief that prejudice was permanent. Douglass also rejected the notion that blacks could not be politically assimilated into the country. Douglass declared: “I shall advocate for the “Negro” his most full and complete adoption into the great national family of America. I shall demand for him the most perfect civil and political equality, and that he shall enjoy all the rights, privileges and immunities enjoyed by any other members of the body politic.”

Based on Dr. DeLaney’s assessment of the condition of the black man in America, the answer to our question is that there is no hope for the black race in this country. However, according to Frederick Douglass’s belief in the ability of white America to change, there still is hope. As we acknowledge the Fourth of July this year, the question remains, for what?