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In Oklahoma, Another Debate About Reparations

by Alfred L. Brophy on Jul 21, 2000

Alfred L. Brophy

 We are hearing lots about apologies for slavery these days. The Hartford
Courant, one of the oldest newspapers in America, has apologized for
advertising for runaway slaves. That apology was inspired by a story about
another great Connecticut institution, Aetna Insurance, which had written
policies on slaves' lives. Now Congress is investigating the role of slave
labor in constructing the U.S. Capitol.

            In Oklahoma, the discussion about apologies and reparations relates to a
more recent tragedy: the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Oklahomans are asking how
their riot happened and what should now be done? Debate over reparations
for the Tulsa riot centers on the city government's culpability in fueling
the destruction.

            On the evening of May 31, 1921, a mob gathered at the Tulsa courthouse,
threatening to lynch a young black man who worked shining shoes. He was
accused of attacking a white woman who worked as an elevator operator.
Rumors began to circulate in the city that a lynching was imminent. The
proud black community, which was reading "radical" literature such as the
NAACP's Crisis magazine and talking about upholding the law against
lynchers, decided to take a stand.

            When black World War I veterans appeared that night to stop the lynching,
"all hell broke loose," to use the parlance of the day. The Tulsa police
department deputized several hundred white men, to help put down what it
called a "negro uprising." According to widely circulated reports the new
deputies were told to "Go out and kill you a damn nigger." Throughout the
night groups of armed men went into the police station, planning their next

            The next day, around 5 a.m., those deputies, with other white mobs,
invaded Greenwood, the black section of Tulsa, and left it in ruins.
Greenwood residents were arrested and taken to detention centers. Those who
had a white employer vouch for them were issued green tags, which they were
required to wear, and released into the custody of their employers. Black
men without employers were required to work cleaning up the burned area for
no compensation other than meals and housing. By noon, more than a thousand
homes had been burned to the ground and thousands were left homeless.

            Now, a commission funded by the Oklahoma legislature is investigating the
riot, seeking to "excavate a history that had been consigned to oblivion
for the past 75 years," according to the
distinguished historian John Hope Franklin.

            In February the commission recommended paying reparations to survivors. It
looked to precedents such as the Civil Rights Acts of 1988, which paid
$20,000 each to Japanese Americans who were interned during World War II;
the settlement of claims of Holocaust survivors from Swiss banks, which had
retained money deposited before the war by the survivors' families; and the
two million dollars set aside by the Florida legislature for survivors of
the 1923 attack on Rosewood, a black town burned during a week of rioting.

            The case for reparations in Tulsa is particularly strong because the
police deputies were responsible for much of the riot's destruction.  As
the Oklahoma Supreme Court acknowledged in a long-forgotten insurance case,
after the deputies arrested Greenwood residents, some set fire to
Greenwood's houses. The well-orchestrated attack left more than thirty
blocks destroyed and perhaps as many as 175 dead.

            Some Oklahomans say they should not be taxed for the sins of their parents
and that current taxpayers did not commit the crimes that destroyed
Greenwood. But successors often pay for their predecessors' actions.
Current stockholders of companies, for instance, are held liable for
pollution that occurred decades ago. Just because taxpayers did not
themselves participate in the riot does not mean that the city as a
political entity is freed from legal or moral responsibility.

            As they decide what to do, Oklahomans are in good company. International
discussion over apologies and reparations spans slavery and Native American
land in the United States, apartheid in South Africa, Nazi slave labor, and
war crimes China, Korea and the Balkans.  Meanwhile, Tulsa and the Oklahoma
legislature have the opportunity to restore something to the sixty
survivors of the riot who are still alive and repair the city's good name
as well.

Alfred L. Brophy is a professor of law at the University of Alabama and a writer for the History News Service. His book on the Tulsa race riot of 1921 will be published later this year.