A bishop's goal in 1875
The United States
This year is the 100th anniversary of the American white-supremacist attack on Tulsa’s Black community in Greenwood. The city of Tulsa is in Oklahoma, a State close to or bordering on such other States as Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi. To my mind, that’s the Deep South and, again to my mind, is where much Deep Racism lies. Prejudice infests every State, but is worse in the south. For instance, Tennessee is where the first branch of the Ku Klux Klan was founded, in 1867, with Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest as the first “grand wizard.”
Today, information about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre is readily available online, through television documentaries and Scott Ellsworth’s 1982 book Death in a Promised Land. However, for many decades it was covered up so effectively few knew it had even happened. Even descendants of the people impacted by murder, homelessness and financial ruin, were not told the truth, because of the fear of further reprisals.
It began when a nineteen-year-old Black youth—a shoe-shiner—stepped into an elevator to access the building’s segregated washroom. He tripped and accidently brushed against the White female lift-operator, she screamed for help, he was accused of assault and hauled to jail.
Fearing his being lynched by mobs of White vigilantes gathering at the jailhouse, a group of Blacks arrived to request the young man’s release. The sheriff refused, tempers flared on both sides and gunfire erupted.
A simmering hatred towards people of colour exploded into violence, with many groups from Tulsa’s White neighbourhoods marching with weapons and torches toward Greenwood. Within twenty-four hours, a huge number of Black citizens were murdered or seriously injured and their thriving neighbourhood razed to the ground. Black businesses and houses were burned, and thousands of Black people were left homeless, widowed or orphaned, poverty-stricken and traumatized.
This race massacre occurred on May 31st, and overnight into June 1st, 1921. However, although unspeakable crimes were committed, the event was not reported and no mention at all was mentioned in history books. The account was covered up by governments, the police and the media. Until, that is, a White university student called Scott Ellsworth heard fragments of stories here and there, and finally coaxed an elderly Black man to talk to him in the late 1970s, to give him the leads he needed to find out more.
Despite widespread coverage and commemoration of the 100th anniversary of this dreadful event, racism continues to plague people of colour in the US. Murders of Black people continue, perpetrated not only by supremacists and the Klan, but also by the police. In 2020 alone, names of dead Blacks murdered by Whites include George Floyd (handcuffed by police and prone, yet unable to breath), Breonna Taylor (shot by police while sleeping in her bed), Ahmaud Arbery (attacked and shot by three White men while jogging).
French and British governments of Canada set up religious residential schools, starting around 1880, to assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture. The original peoples of this country were not given a choice in sending their children to these establishments. If they refused to do so, their homes were invaded and their sons and daughters forcibly taken to be boarded, often many miles away.
Created by the Canadian government and Christian churches, residential schools were intended to convert Indigenous children and to make them speak only English (or French).
Caucasian Canadians had no right to enforce their religions on another culture. They had no right to take children from their families. Monks and nuns assigned to oversee the schools had no right to treat the children in a continually cruel and neglectful manner. Today, the practice is viewed as cultural genocide and, through neglect, malnutrition and lack of hospital access, infanticide.
The Indigenous groups consisted of such bands as Mohawk, Cherokee, Salish, Haida, Anishnaabe and many more across Canada. They had already been driven from their original lands and were finding life in less hospitable regions more difficult. They were, nonetheless, experienced in living off the land. Their cultures, which included spiritual traditions tied to nature, were important aspects of who they were and remain.
As for their families—we know that children are the same everywhere. They become attached to their parents, brothers and sisters, and learn to speak and behave like their elders. They form strong bonds not only with nuclear and extended families, but also with teachers, neighbours, homes and surroundings. In the case of these original peoples, the children were accustomed to eating fish, game, berries, and crops such as corn. They sang songs and danced. They felt secure. They belonged.
The trauma of being taken to an unknown large and impersonal school and guarded by strict religious zealots who inflicted harsh punishments would have been terrifying. The children were made to forgo their way of life for many years. They were not allowed to go home. They were not permitted to see their parents. These children must have wondered what they had done, to be treated so badly. And they were maltreated continuously; we know this now, because their stories are increasingly being heard.
They’re adults now—at least, the ones who survived. They’re still scarred by the cruelty meted out, by a childhood consisting of hunger, malnutrition, lack of medical care, and abusive and/or pedophilic treatment. Their terrible experiences have caused the loss of a mother tongue as well as the loss of cultural heritage. A shared history of joyful memories with their families has been stolen.
The children who didn’t survive were quietly concealed in unmarked burial grounds around residential schools. These little girls and boys went to their graves having never seen their moms and dads again. If and when their parents were informed of their deaths, it was without any explanation of how they died.
Since the closing of the last residential school in 1996, former students have demanded recognition and restitution. It took a long time to see any results, but the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement occurred in 2007 and a formal public apology by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008. But although these are positive steps, they will never abrogate the scars, the PTSD and the long-term problems of those that suffered.
There were around 150,000 Inuit, First Nation and Métis children that attended residential schools. Thousands did not survive these places. Last month, May 2021, another of many burial sites was discovered, this time in the grounds of what was once British Columbia’s Kamloops Indian Residential School: evidence of 215 unmarked graves. This is along with 51 student deaths previously recorded at that site.
Right now there is much breast-beating and sorrow, but the fact is that discrimination and violence against Indigenous people continues to this day.
An example of this prejudice is the recent case of belittlement and callousness shown a dying Indigenous woman in a hospital bed in Canada’s French-speaking province of Quebec. Joyce Echaquan, alone and in extreme discomfort, had the wits to record how she was being treated so that her family would learn of it. And in Thunder Bay, an Indigenous woman called Barbara Kentner died after White men drove by and tossed a heavy iron trailer hitch at her. (Her sister heard one of them say “Oh, I got one.”)
Clean your own house!
Canadians cannot point their fingers at the U.S. because of Tulsa or George Floyd. We can’t boast of our multicultural society when so many living here still hold racial hate, and when the government itself remains apathetic towards the many problems still facing Indigenous people. (Some years ago, for example, I had high hopes for the newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau taking action regarding the polluted water depleting native people’s health in several communities.)
The fact is nearly all nations have been or are currently guilty of mistreating segments of their population. You only need to pick up a newspaper or go online to see what the authorities inflict directly on their citizens through violence, targeting grassroots groups, journalists and opposition parties—or indirectly through inaction or by simply maintaining the status quo.
Having been the target of abuse and inaction in a microcosmic corner of the world throughout my childhood, and knowing how many decades it took me to heal from it, I pledge to add my voice and spirit of solidarity through my blog posts, talks and creative storytelling.
UPDATE: More unmarked graves found – report of June 30. We know these findings will – sadly – continue.)
UPDATE: The Guardian article “Let the world know”: elderly survivors of the Tulsa race massacre push for justice (June 25, 2023)
UPDATE: The Guardian article on Tulsa – a miscarriage of justice! Judge rejects reparations for survivors and their families.
See these famous clips below. It’s important through each decade for activists to speak out against all kinds of racism.
Sacheen Littlefeather refusing the Oscar on behalf of Marlon Brando
Marlon Brando, interviewed after his refusal and regarding racism