No one should be under the impression that the burning of “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa a century ago was a one-off atrocity. In fact, it was part of a long and shameful pattern in which white mobs used murderous violence to erase African American prosperity.
It happened in Atlanta in September 1906. Fabricated “reports” of sexual assaults by Black men against white women were used to inflame white vigilantes to attack African Americans. The mobs initially focused on Black-owned businesses that had established a foothold downtown — and were thriving in competition with enterprises owned by whites.
Store windows were smashed in what amounted to an American Kristallnacht. Men and women were randomly snatched from streetcars and murdered. One barbershop that the mob targeted — because of its burgeoning success — was closed, so the white rioters trashed the place and then moved on to another barbershop across the street, where they killed all the barbers.
When the mobs fanned out and headed toward other Black neighborhoods, the famed Black scholar W.E.B. Du Bois — then a professor at Atlanta University, later one of the founders of the NAACP — bought a shotgun to defend himself and his family. Afterward, he wrote a powerful poem, “A Litany of Atlanta,” about the riot: “Red was the midnight; clang, crack and cry of death and fury filled the air and trembled underneath the stars ...”
No one knows how many Black Atlantans were killed in the riot — at least 25, according to most historians, and perhaps many more. Two white people are known to have died, one from a heart attack.
It happened in East St. Louis, Ill., in the summer of 1917. White workers at steel, aluminum and meatpacking plants resented the fact that African Americans — part of the Great Migration moving north out of the Deep South — were filling jobs. Thousands of white men marched through downtown, attacking Black people on the street and setting fires.
A few weeks later, someone fired on an automobile occupied by white men, including two police officers, as it drove through a Black neighborhood. In reprisal, white mobs rampaged through African American parts of the city, killing indiscriminately. A reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote: “For an hour and a half last evening I saw the massacre of helpless negroes at Broadway and Fourth Street, in downtown East St. Louis, where black skin was a death warrant.” Estimates of the final death toll ranged from 40 to 250.
It happened in Chester, Pa., that same year. Once again, whites resented the influx of African American workers who were competing for jobs in the booming industrial sector. Once again, mobs attacked Black businesses and individuals at random. This time, however, an armed African American counter-mob fought back. The official final death toll was seven.
And it happened in two dozen cities across the country in 1919, during what came to be known as the “Red Summer.”
Perhaps the worst of the 1919 riots was in Chicago. By now, you can guess the context: the Great Migration, African American workers competing for jobs, growing Black prosperity. The spark came on July 27, when a Black teenager crossed the unofficial color line demarcating where whites and African Americans were allowed to swim at the 29th Street beach on Lake Michigan. That youth, named Eugene Williams, was pelted with rocks by a white beachgoer and drowned.
Black Chicagoans protested. Whites rioted and set fires throughout heavily African American neighborhoods on the city’s South Side. In the end, 38 people were killed and more than 500 injured, most of them Black.
Two years later came the horrific events in Tulsa, which claimed hundreds of lives and literally wiped one of the nation’s more prosperous Black business districts from the face of the Earth. Tulsa may have been the worst of the early-20th-century race riots — and that’s what “race riot” meant in those days, a pogrom by whites against African Americans — but it was part of a familiar pattern.
The aftermath of the riots saw the codification of Jim Crow laws and the intensification of unwritten practices such as redlining, intended to keep Black Americans “in their place.” The destruction of African American businesses amounted to theft on a massive scale — a theft whose impact was felt for generations. The Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa could have become an enclave of Black millionaires. But whites were not about to let that happen.
The point is this: There are those who deny that anything called “systemic racism” is a feature of the American landscape. They should be aware that history tells a very different story.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.