June 1, 1921: In just 18 hours, the thriving Black economic Mecca of Tulsa, Oklahoma – home to 10,000 residents, 200 businesses, 15 doctors, and the biggest Black-owned hotel in the U.S. – was burned to the ground by a white mob. Why? The preceding details are nearly interchangeable with that of any other lynch mob-turned-massacre (though you can find them here); the point is that white Tulsans saw Black wealth and couldn’t bear to relinquish the benefits that their privilege brought them.
In the name of “public safety,” the city of Tulsa deputized hundreds of white thugs with badges with explicit orders to “go out and kill [Black people].” Privately owned planes rained down bombs while government-supplied machine guns woke children with their chatter on the walls of homes. It was a horror scene. All in all, 35 square blocks were reduced to rubble, leaving hundreds of Black folks murdered and 10,000+ Black folks homeless.
Nervously, the Black community began to rebuild, filing insurance claims that were denied because the incident was labeled a “riot,” and were unable to access potential aid from other cities that the city of Tulsa blocked, saying that they would set up a “rebuilding fund” that somehow never materialized.
And then? A hush fell over the city. White Tulsans did not dare discuss it for fear of upsetting those who had husbands/sons/brothers who were involved. Black Tulsans were intimidated into traumatized silence, out of the fear that history would be repeated should they speak up about the atrocities.
It is now well documented that traumatic events can be passed down genetically and culturally across generations, having serious health consequences for descendants many years after the trauma took place. For Black Tulsans, that trauma only compounded with new traumas in each generation, from urban renewal projects (also referred to as “Black removal projects”) that tore through the rebuilt neighborhood to make space for highways, gentrification that elevated rents to untenable levels and forced Black folks’ relocation from the city center to ghetto-like conditions further out of the city, or growing awareness of the scope of police violence and the renewed visibility of white supremacist organizations… for Black Tulsans and Black folks across the country, it feels like it never ends.
This all collectively takes a toll on one’s soul and body, a process called weathering, or the strain that bodies endure when bearing the brunt of current and past racial injustice. Weathering makes bodies more susceptible to illness and can lead to many long-term negative health outcomes.
The intergenerational racial trauma of Tulsa, Oklahoma far predates 1921, however. The city was originally founded in the early 1830s by the Muscogee (Creek) Nation following their forced removal from their homeland of Florida because of the 1830 Indian Removal Act. Tulsa – an anglicization of “Tulasi,” meaning “old town,” and the same root of the word “Tallahassee” – is located at the intersection of three Nations’ borders: the Cherokee, the Muscogee, and the Osage. It remained a Native-majority town until the railroad came through in 1882 and brought oil-thirsty white folks who soon overtook control of the city. For both Black and Indigenous Americans, the recurring intergenerational trauma of forced removal from one’s home shows up all over health data: Black and Indigenous folks consistently experience some of the worst health outcomes of any racial/ethnic group.
Impressively, miraculously, Americans of Color have also built intergenerational patterns of resilience to mount a strong defense against a multitude of injustices. Today, on the 100th anniversary of this tragic massacre, Black Americans are speaking out about their experiences of police violence, in Tulsa and on Twitter, then and now, and unlocking the powers of storytelling in healing intergenerational trauma.
White folks have asked, why keep bringing this up, when it was so long ago? White supremacy has worked incredibly hard to suppress public discussion of these atrocities for so long; is that a legacy you are intentionally contributing to?
The only way forward is through, and we cannot go through without laying it all out for us as a society to come to terms with and begin to heal the harm that has been done.
Note: Image and the full story behind the mural are found here at the Black Wall Street Journal.