Dear Secretary Ben Carson:
I know that you fashion yourself as a living Horatio Alger story, one who rose from abject poverty to become a celebrated surgeon and while ill qualified, Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Your political rise is owed, in part, to the fact that Republicans love a Black man or woman who will blame the poor, especially “The Blacks,” for their impoverished states of being. I know this because I spent two decades as a member of the party, but I never developed the love from Republicans that you receive because I was completely unwilling to declare poverty a “state of mind,” as you did last week. Unlike you, I knew that poverty was a state of systemic structure endemic to capitalism and fomented by policies designed to keep the underclass of all races in their places–even if by violence.
There is no better example of this fundamental truth than the events that transpired in Tulsa, Oklahoma 97 years ago this week, when “Black Wall Street” was razed completely by so-called “Christians.”
You see, Dr. Carson, while the Roaring 20’s are fondly remembered in American History classes as a period in which the United States, fresh off of helping the Allies defeat Germany and the old Austro-Hungarian Empire during World War I, was experiencing a post war economic boon, the truth is that much of the US remained segregated. Many blacks during the war had migrated from the south to the midwest to obtain great paying jobs in factories that produced war materials, to labor in the automobile industry, and many enjoyed good wages in other fields of endeavor that catered to said factory workers and business leaders.
Perhaps no midwest city during this era better depicted the trappings of newly found wealth than Tulsa, Oklahoma which by 1921, was spurred on by the vast amount of oil discovered there earlier in the 20th Century.
While Tulsa’s oil, gas and refinery businesses employed few blacks, Dr. Carson, many of the newly rich white citizens provided well-paying jobs for black domestic workers. In time, Tulsa became home to 15 black physicians, several prominent black lawyers, two black newspapers and dozens of churches that catered to the thousands of blacks who migrated to Tulsa to work in the construction, railroad and land excavation fields. The black business district, known as Greenwood and often referred to as “Black Wall Street,” sported several high-rise buildings–built by black hands–that housed black restaurants, beauty and barber shops, as well as upholstery and garment businesses and grocery stores. Further, Booker T. Washington High School became the hub of Greenwood education and social activity for its black citizens as the races remained separate with respect to social functions per the prevalent Jim Crow laws of the era.
The seemingly peaceful social order between the races in Tulsa would be disturbed, however, on May 31, 1921 when Dick Rowland, who was black, was arrested on suspicion of raping a 17-year-old white girl named Sarah Page. The arrest was instantly polarizing as some blacks believed that the pair had been involved in a lover’s quarrel; several prominent white businessman doubted the allegation of rape based, in part, upon their affinity for Rowland, who was a highly regarded shoe shiner.
By nightfall on May 31st, nearly a thousand white citizens–some armed–stood near the local jail demanding vigilante justice on behalf of Ms. Page. Black citizens from Greenwood, including a number of World War I vets, armed themselves and proceeded to the jail to offer their services to the sheriff to protect Rowland from a lynching that had all but been called for by one local white newspaper.
Later that night, when a white citizen demanded that one of the black veterans hand his pistol over, the ensuing struggle led to a shot being fired and soon, the city was engulfed in all out violence that left 120 blacks confirmed dead. Several hundred black homes were burned down and the majority of the commercial buildings in the black business district were razed as well. Hundreds of black survivors were rounded up and placed into interment camps.
Among the black dead was prominent local surgeon A.C. Jackson, who was shot near his front porch after seeking to quell the furor among his white neighbors. Dr. Jackson’s murder was eerily similar to the death of the late actress Esther Rolle’s character in John Singleton’s fictionalized version of Florida’s 1923 Rosewood Massacre.
The black death toll in Greenwood included a number of elderly citizens, women and children. No whites–not one–were charged in any of the murders. Additionally, legal battles over property loss inured no benefits to black citizens, as much of the former black owned property soon was owned by wealthy whites who picked off the black holdings like ravenous buzzards to road-kill.
Adding further insult, a Grand Jury investigating the incident later concluded that: “We find that the recent race riot was the direct result of an effort on the part of a certain group of colored men who appeared at the courthouse on the night of May 31, 1921, for the purpose of protecting one Dick Rowland…There was no mob spirit among the whites, no talk of lynching and no arms…The assembly was quiet until the arrival of armed Negroes, which precipitated and was the direct cause of the entire affair.”
Lest we forget, Dr. Carson, that the Tulsa Riot is but one example of Black wealth being destroyed, as the same fate befell predominantly black Rosewood, Florida in 1923. Lest we also forget that during this same era, racist restrictive covenants prevented blacks from purchasing massive quantities of land, a prevention that directly impacted the accrual and passing on of wealth. Indeed, it was far easier for the federal government to erect housing projects for blacks to lease, than to forbid overtly racist policies that prevented wealth development. You would be better served, sir, to learn this history before blaming the poor for being poor.