Tina Susman: Survivors of 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Hoping for Justice

Roundup: Talking About History

Eighty-five years ago, allegations that a black man had tried to assault a white woman in a city elevator spurred hundreds of whites to attack what was one of the country's most prosperous black communities, a bustling neighborhood called Greenwood.

Wess Young was only 3, but he still remembers his mother rousing him from bed in the middle of the night, and the gunshots crackling like fireworks as they ran through the burning streets to escape the riot. Otis Clark, who was 18, recalls blood spraying across him when a friend was shot in the hand as they tried to flee in an ambulance from a local funeral home.

Today, the two are among fewer than 100 known survivors of the May 31-June 1, 1921 riot, for which no one was punished and no reparations ever paid, despite the loss of hundreds of lives, businesses and fortunes. With survivors dying off, activists are hoping to change that, spurred not only by the injustice done to riot victims, but also by the plight of Hurricane Katrina's mainly poor, black survivors, who they say are a reminder that the inequality of 1921 isn't a thing of the past.

Critics of the government's response to the hurricane have said if those displaced by it were overwhelmingly white, the government would have done far more to help them.

"It's still here. We're still marginal," said Eddie Faye Gates, a Tulsa writer and retired teacher who has tracked down and interviewed scores of riot survivors. "There's still the racial litmus test."

A community's heartbreak

Riot survivors have provided eyewitness accounts used in the fight for reparations, which took an unusual turn last month when Global Rights, a Washington-based human rights group, asked the Organization of American States to rule on whether riot survivors should be compensated. The 35-nation organization represents Western Hemisphere nations and normally intervenes in human rights abuses outside the United States.

"I think when Katrina came and hit and sort of unveiled the reality of the lingering effects of Jim Crow on African-American communities, it made even more sense for us to do something," said Gay McDougall, executive director of Global Rights, which hopes an organization ruling in favor of survivors will pressure the city of Tulsa, the state of Oklahoma or the federal government to make amends.

[Editor's note: This is a short excerpt from a much longer piece. Please see Newsday for more.]

comments powered by Disqus