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Tuesday, February 8, 2000 FULL SHOW | HEADLINES | NEXT: Randall Robinson On Reparations for Slavery
2000-02-08

Tulsa Race Riot Commission Recommends Reparations

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After two years of meetings, the Tulsa Race Riot Commission recommended Friday that direct payments be made to survivors and descendants of riot victims. The 11-member panel also called for a memorial to the dead, scholarships and a tax checkoff program to fund economic development in the Greenwood district, where the 1921 rampage by a white Tulsa mob killed as many as 300 people, most of them black. [includes rush transcript]

The riot broke out on May 31, 1921, when a white lynch mob clashed with blacks who were protecting a black man accused of assaulting a white elevator operator. Over two days, white mobs set fire to homes, businesses and churches in Greenwood, a thriving African American business district known at the time as the Black Wall Street of America. When the smoke cleared, the area lay in ruins. Many blacks left and never returned. The National Guard rounded up thousands of others and held them at various locations around the city.

In its decision to recommend reparations, the commission gave priority to making direct payments to survivors. There were no specifics on who would get the scholarships, how much the reparations package should cost and who should make the payments.

The commission also passed a resolution that said the racial hatred then was tolerated through laws of local, state and federal governments and said restitution would be good public policy and help repair the emotional and physical scars of the riot. The panel’s recommendations will be presented to the state legislature, which must vote on the issue.

Guests:

  • State Rep. Don Ross, Oklahoma House of Representatives and a member of the Race Riot Commission.
  • State Rep. Bill Graves(r), Oklahoma House of Representatives. Rep. Graves is against reparations for the Tulsa Riot survivors.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, after two years of meetings, the Tulsa Race Riot Commission recommended Friday that direct payments be made to survivors and descendants of riot victims. The eleven-member panel also called for a memorial to the dead, scholarships and a tax check-off program to fund economic development in the Greenwood district, where the 1921 rampage by a white Tulsa mob killed as many as 300 people, most of them black.

The riot broke out on May 31, 1921, when a white lynch mob clashed with blacks who were protecting a black man accused of assaulting a white elevator operator. Over two days, white mobs set fire to homes, business and churches in Greenwood, a thriving African American business district known at the time as the Black Wall Street of America. When the smoke cleared, the area lay in ruins. Many blacks left and never returned. The National Guard rounded up thousands of others and held them at various locations around the city.

In its decision to recommend reparations, the commission gave priority to making direct payments to survivors. There were no specifics on who would get the scholarships, how much the reparations package should cost and who should make the payments.

The commission also passed a resolution that said the racial hatred then was tolerated through laws of local, state and federal governments and said restitution would be good public policy and help repair the emotional and physical scars of the riot. The panel’s recommendations will be presented to the state legislature, which must vote on the issue.

We’re joined right now by two people. Oklahoma State Representative Bill Graves is with us. He is against reparations for the Tulsa riot survivors. And we’re joined by Oklahoma State Rep. Don Ross, who is a member of the Race Riot Commission. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

Let’s start with Oklahoma State Rep. Don Ross. Can you tell us about these findings and what you’re recommending?

REP. DON ROSS: Well, I agree in theory with the findings. We have to understand that a deputized white mob destroyed the black community. In doing so, it institutionalized hate in parts of the soul of the city, an evil of which neither race has fully recovered. And I think reparations of some kind repairs that inhumanity and brings some closure to this sordid, hard affair of some eighty years ago.

AMY GOODMAN: Again, for listeners who aren’t familiar with the story, because I think it’s, to say the least, extremely shocking, and I certainly didn’t learn about it when I was growing up from my history books, go through it with us.

REP. DON ROSS: Well, the black community was tagged the Black Wall Street of America by no less than Booker T. Washington, who was here at the time to name — for a school named in his honor that still exists in the thriving community.

In my view, the racial riot was less about the rape of a white woman in broad daylight and more about stealing the prime land that blacks owned. And, indeed, reparations or restitution was promised, but shortly after that, the city commission fired the first reconstruction committee and attempted to steal the land. Only B.C. — through the efforts of B.C. Franklin, the father of John Hope Franklin, the historian, did they turn that back. And at that time, all the commitments that they had made before went down the drain, and a cover up ensued.

We have found lists in the archives at Tulsa University, where most of those people who made those decisions were active members of the Klan. And we found — and those records initially were found in the home of Tate Brady, who’s a member of the restitution committee and one of the leading citizens of the town. There’s a street named after him.

So, the story they tell us, there’s a lot of white ruffians gathered at the courthouse, and the good citizens didn’t like it. Well, the real story is different. But what is clear is that the National Guard moved in early, began to arrest blacks, leaving their home unprotected. Tulsa became the first city in the world to be bombed from the air, and everything is implicit in that riot. It is—

AMY GOODMAN: Explain who bombed them.

REP. DON ROSS: There were six airplanes in the air, allegedly police surveillance. But the story of riot survivors — this is long denied, that there were no airplanes. I think it’s generally agreed there were airplanes. And they dropped TNT and straight from the air, accordingly to survivors. So Tulsa became the first city in the world to be bombed from the air. Bombing from airplanes didn’t even begin ’til the next month, when Billy Mitchell sank the ship in the Atlantic Ocean and proved it could happen.

AMY GOODMAN: State Representative Bill Graves of Oklahoma, what are you thoughts about the Tulsa riot survivors and reparations?

REP. BILL GRAVES: Well, I — you know, what Representative Ross has described is an outrage and a disgrace to the city of Tulsa, and I sure could never ever condone any kind of action like that. I think it’s terrible, a terrible injustice on the black community up there. And one thing that makes it even worse, in my mind, is that these people were working hard to pull themselves up and become productive citizens and working hard. And as they called it, Black Wall Street there, they were following the philosophy of Booker T. Washington, who was one of my heroes.

And then they had an outlaw element up there that came in and destroyed what they were doing. I think it’s a terrible injustice. At the same time, I think it would be an injustice on people now, eighty years later, to ask them to pay reparations for something they were not responsible for, which is what would be happening here. And that’s why I would — I oppose reparations being paid now. And, you know, it was a wrong occurred in 1921, but two wrongs don’t make a right. And so I would oppose reparations only we — you know, if we pay them now based on a sense of guilt, which I think is a sense of false guilt, since the people now alive are not responsible for what occurred in 1921, and that’s kind of my position on it.

REP. DON ROSS: Well, let me respond to that this way. The state had nothing to do —

AMY GOODMAN: State Rep. Don Ross.

REP. DON ROSS: The state had nothing to do with the Oklahoma City bombing, nothing. However, the state took full knowledge the summer its citizens were unjustly killed in that notorious and horrific event. I voted and the legislature voted to put $5 million dollars in that memorial. We have disasters here, particularly tornados, had one a couple of years ago. All the resources available from the state goes into repair that damage from tornados or hurricane or flood.

So it seems to me if we do it for a national disaster routinely, why can’t we do it for a human disaster, a disaster provoked by hate, whenever it happened? Bill well knows that the spirit of racism at that time and now, and that a full cover-up that this is — this is — eighty years it’s taken. It’s taken eighty years for those citizens to petition their government to reconcile this good state with its history.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Bill Graves —

REP. BILL GRAVES: Well, let me — if I can say, I agree with Don, it was a spirit of hate back then. Fortunately, that’s an age that’s dead and gone, and we Americas and Oklahomas moved forward and granted a great deal of equality to blacks.

AMY GOODMAN: Representative Graves, let me just ask you a quick question. Are you against reparations, for example, to Jewish Holocaust survivors from Germany and the Swiss banks or to the—

REP. BILL GRAVES: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —- Japanese Americans -—

REP. BILL GRAVES: I would be.

AMY GOODMAN: — in the internment camps? You don’t think any of these people should get reparations.

REP. BILL GRAVES: In the matter of the Japanese Americans that were relocated, or interned, as some people say, that was the federal government that did the relocation or internment. In Tulsa, it was the private citizens that instigated the riot.

REP. DON ROSS: However, Bill, your core argument is you wouldn’t want the people to pay, the principal of your argument. By virtue of the $1.6 billion dollars that the Japanese Americans had gained, those are your dollars or something you had nothing to do. Those are dollars from the state and the citizens. There are Oklahoma dollars in that 1.6.

REP. BILL GRAVES: Well, if I had been in Congress, I’m not sure I would have voted for the reparations for the Japanese on the relocation.

REP. DON ROSS: No doubt, Bill. That’s probably one reason you’re not in Congress.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Oklahoma State Representative Don Ross, who also serves as a member of the Race Riot Commission in Oklahoma State.

REP. DON ROSS: I am not on the commission. I chose not to serve on it, where I could —- I could biasly argue my good friend Bill Graves and others -—

REP. BILL GRAVES: Glad you clarified that, Don. I was beginning to think you were. I didn’t think you were, but —

REP. DON ROSS: No, no, no, I chose — I could have been on the commission. I chose not to serve.

AMY GOODMAN: So what is going to happen right now? It’s going to go to a debate in the House of Representatives in Oklahoma, the decision of reparations?

REP. DON ROSS: Well, not this year. It will not go this year, because the commission has not submitted a final report. And I have said that I would not present the commission recommendation, whatever they are, until legislators had the opportunity to read the final details of what happened and that — the commission report has not been filed. I’ve asked Bill Graves to join me in extending the life of the commission, where they can do their work and we can have this formal debate.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Graves, will you vote to extend the life of the commission?

REP. BILL GRAVES: I think probably since they’ve made their investigation — I was hoping they’d have a report last Friday, and I understood they would, but I’m not sure why they haven’t had one yet, but they’ve had plenty of time to make a report. I’d certainly — I think they should make a report, since they’ve gone to the trouble they’ve had so far, you know, all the work they put in. I think there should be a report made.

AMY GOODMAN: Don Ross, Democratic State Rep., last comment to the listeners around the country who perhaps never heard of this story. We’ve heard of Rosewood, Florida, the 1923 attack, and that has led to reparations of paying up to $150,000 dollars to survivors there. And in Arkansas, historians and residents are holding a conference next week to discuss a major race riot in 1919 in Elaine, Arkansas, which a death toll around somewhere between twenty and 200.

REP. DON ROSS: Well, Tulsa — you didn’t — you forgot to mention Rosewood would have been a neighborhood in the Black Wall Street. This was — this riot in Tulsa was a thousand times greater than Waco. It was a mini Hiroshima. Everything that had happened where reparations have been paid happened in Tulsa. As with the Japanese, blacks were placed in concentration camps and could not get out unless a white vouched for them. They — as in Germany, blacks were incinerated in the burn building and in public incinerators. I mean that the death toll ranged anywhere from 200 to 300. Everything that’s happening, every horrific event in this nation’s history, happened in that one place. It was the worst civil disaster since the Civil War and covered up, covered up.

REP. BILL GRAVES: One thing, if I could interject something here.

AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds.

REP. BILL GRAVES: — is that he pointed out these other areas in the country where they’ve had riots, you know, pointing out the white man’s sins is supposed to eliminate racism and create social harmony, but you kind of have to wonder sometimes if it doesn’t just make blacks hate whites. And I’m concerned about that, whether it’s really accomplishing the healing process that we need, as far as racial relations are in this country, one of my concerns.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, on that note, I have to wrap this discussion up. Oklahoma State Representatives Bill Graves, Republican, and Don Ross, Democrat, dealing with the issue of the May 31, 1921 attack on African Americans leading to perhaps 300 people dead. Will there be reparations? We’ll take up the issue of reparations, in general, in just a minute.

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