Phil Kaveny

The Works of Philip Kaveny

Reflections on The Tulsa Race War by Philip Kaveny

Reflections on The Tulsa Race War

Reading and then doing follow-up research on The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy: by James Hirsch © 2002 is really a step in my process of yearning for social justice, which means for me to be able to love my country and love justice at the same time. I make no apologies for sharing the belief that” Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.[1] I further believe this is true of the events portrayed in Riot and Remembrance by James Hirsch even though the events took place nearly ninety seven  years ago.


I am dismayed that the 1921 Tulsa Race War was not on my event-horizon until two months ago though I have deeply aware for my entire adult life of some other events to which it appears to have a family resemblance.  These include Kristallnacht[2], or, for that matter, the 1943 Warsaw Jewish Ghetto Uprising.[3] Some of the events reported on by author James Hirsch also resemble events that to took place during, and immediately after. General Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 Chilean Coup, like rounding up suspects, taking them to athletic facilities, and using air strikes to support the operation, though in the case of “The Tulsa Race War “the use of military aircraft may have been limited to reconnaissance purposes.[4]     I was unaware that there was a 1921 Tulsa Race War (or race riot, rebellion, uprising, or genocide), depending on how the, eyewitnesses, contemporaries, journalists, perpetrators, victims, media, producers, or historians frame it.[5] I was unaware that the Tulsa Race Riot which, according to most reliable sources was America’s most deadly and costly racial incident in terms loss of life (estimates range from thirty-four  to three hundred dead). Further I was unaware that it is nearly impossible to equitably express the economic cost of the “Tulsa Race War” in terms of dollars or lost family- and generational-capital. Insurance claims on over fourteen hundred residential, and commercial properties located in the in the nearly exclusively African American section of Tulsa, where nearly all of Tulsa’s blacks resided, were not honored since the Oklahoma courts declared the disturbance a “riot, or an unlawful uprising, by Negros” rather than for example arson or criminal damage to property (Hirsh 141, see also[6]).

It is not too much of a stretch to declare at least one of the necessary, but not sufficient, causes of this great destruction was the first act of the Oklahoma State Legislature, upon its inception in 1907, which was to institute racial segregation, black codes, and Jim Crow legislation. We have heard of these paralegal/illegal actions in our classroom lectures, media presentations, and discussions. Perhaps the most profound aspects of the riots are that they are a case study in the concept of raced being used to maintain a non-egalitarian, highly immobile class system through a system of prescribed deference and based on the perception of race rather than any biological reality.

I was unaware of any of these facts until I came upon a reference to the Tulsa Race Riot   that placed African American novelist and 1953 National Book Award winner Ralph Ellison at the scene immediately before and shortly after the event. At the time, he was a seven-year-old passing through, on the way to and returning from Gary Indiana with his widowed mother and little brother where they had made a failed attempt to fulfill the American dream in pursuit of a better life.

In a way, his family was doing the exact same thing that most American family’s dream of doing. The same thing they work their entire lives to achieve, including what the twelve thousand black residents of the destroyed (Greenwood, Little Africa), section of Tulsa was doing before their homes and their section of Tulsa were destroyed as certainly as sections of London’s East End during the Second World War, or perhaps the Warsaw Ghetto during the uprising against the Nazi’s. That was my phenomenological response to watching Black Wall Street – The Tulsa Race Riot HBO documentary[7].  Reading James Hirsch’s book did not change that response much as he seemed, at least on the surface, to direct me away from it. And yet not entirely, in both a live-interview and on a sub-textual level, and along the margins of his narrative, he goes so far as to undermine his main narrative thrust, which I think is constrained by readers’ expectations and the thorny issues of reparations for black survivors of “The Tulsa Race War and the families of its victims.  For example, in the Feb 22nd, 2002 C-SPAN (73- minute video interview taking place at the Novel Idea Bookstore in Tulsa before survivors and descendants of victims,[8] James Hirsch backs away from his idea of the “Tulsa Race War,” taking place because of the isolation of Blacks from Whites, and legitimate fears from their respective perceptual standpoints, and as he says, “No the Whites did not want the black businesses, they wanted the land.” (The Whites wanted them destroyed).



On a descriptive level Hirsch’s Riot and Remembrance is an excellent piece of historical work. He directs us to available resources and he gives equal weight to all evidence. For example, there are numerous accounts of Tulsa Tribune publisher Lloyd Joni’s 3: PM News Story NAB NEGRO FOR ASSULTING WHITE GIRL IN ELEVATOR (Hirsch, p. 79) which appeared in the bottom corner of the front page of the 3: PM May 31St editions The Tulsa Tribune, which gave the identity and race of the suspect James Roland, a lurid account of the alleged event, and the location where the suspect was being held. There are also numerous accounts, mostly from 1921 riots survivors, indicating that a more inflammatory article was written by publisher Lloyd Jones of The Tulsa Tribune, calling for the assembly of a lynch mob, though there are no extant copies, as Hirsch repeatedly indicates.  In a sense, this is perhaps symptomatic of Hirsch’s lack of analysis. Perhaps Hirsch is looking at the way we study the social function of lynching in maintaining Black Codes and hegemony of the white upper class economic privileged by placing obstacles between potential political alliance between populist poor Whites and Blacks.

The front-page story In the Tulsa Tribune reads more like a code which calls for the assembly of a lynch mob and at the same time a clarion call for Blacks to prevent one more horrific, illegal, execution, I do not think it is a signifier of a rather unfortunate series of accidents, exacerbated by jealousy, bad economic times, and hot weather. This caused a group of Whites (a lynch mob) to go to the Tulsa jail late in the day. A group of Blacks also went to the Tulsa Jail at about the same time, seemingly willing to use deadly force to stop that lynching.

I would like to take a distinctive look at New Negro discussed in our Harlem Renaissance readings. It seems that ‘The New Negro” was not simply a literary or artistic creation Rather I would suggest that “The New Negro” represented a manifestation of a culture of resistance present and progression against odds, against the objectifying forces of slavery and its de-facto re-institution through U.S. v. Cruikshank: 1875 the failure of congressional reconstruction, the bloody compromise of 1877. I would further suggest that “The New Negro (both men and women represented as much of a threat to those individuals who materially benefited de-facto re-institution of slavery as an antebellum slave revolt. In an ironic sense the admission of The State of Oklahoma 1907, was a bit like allowing a new de-facto slave state into the union forty-two years after Appomattox Courthouse.


Perhaps esteemed historian of European revolution can tell us something about the apparent ferocity up and unto its annihilation resisted overwhelming military and paramilitary who in my opinion behaved like the returning World War One German Freikorps fighting a Civil War. The name “Black Wall Street”, really says it all nearly because it signifies the economic gains Black community had made despite all the de-facto restriction.

In some the African American individuals had fought along with and other Americans’ for freedom against the imperialism of the central powers in segregationist Woodrow Wilson’s (Jim Crow Army as Ralph Ellison later called it).   These same individuals were willing to fight, with their comrades, and community members to assert these constitutional rights denied them. It would have been impossible for this event to have taken place if the Supreme Court and not castrated and lynched the Bill of rights and other constructional protections through U.S. v. Cruikshank I suspect African American Militias would have made the racially motivated lynch mod an impossibility.

But then why was May 31st the flash point.  Perhaps because things had gotten a little bit better in the Greenwood section of Tulsa that appeared to be worth the fight, which I think is one of the reasons that the beneficiaries of oppression could not allow things to get better.



What you learned about history

Self-assessment has not been my strongest suit since I am my own favorite author. I have kept myself awake late into the night and early into the morning thinking about history and progress. I have learned that violence is a perpetual motion machine and as tool of fighting oppression its human cost is appalling. Yet I feel that self-defense is constitutionally justified since the days of John Locke. I also think there is a need for a Forensic historical approach to events like this. He is what I meant by that.

James Hirsch gives convincing evidence that he is a person of” Philosophical Good Will” making the best choices he could writing the central narrative of the book which treats The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy as a case tragic case study in race based miss-understanding yet in doing that he undercuts the class based and economic narrative which race rests upon. I truly believe that he did the best he could have and kept his book contract. I learned big lesson here which I can apply to my own my own experience. I know have had several of my articles which rejected for publication even though I had a contract, which meant it cost me four hundred dollars. James Hirsch has taught me a lesson in how to be sub textually counter hegemonic.  What I mean by this is that Hirsch includes a Reference to Eighty-Two-year-old Clyde Snow an internationally famous forensic anthropologist, human rights advocate who testified as expert witness against Saddam Hussein and many others charged with war crimes over the years. Clyde Snow had taken on the task looking evidence to co-operate the contention the official death toll for The Tulsa Race War was off by a factor of ten. Snow was greatly restricted by where he was allowed   look for bodies, but he did say was not examining the site of a race war but a murder, but rather a murder scene.

My most interesting course of future research would be to study the legal precedent for reparations for nearly four hundred years of de-jure and de-facto slavery. The present German Government recently making its last Versailles treaty payment ninety years later set the precedent.[9] .


[1] Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963


[2] On the nights of November 9 and 10, rampaging mobs throughout Germany and the newly acquired territories of Austria and Sudetenland freely attacked Jews in the street, in their homes and at their places of work and worship. At least 96 Jews were killed and hundreds more injured, more than 1,000 synagogues were burned (and possibly as many as 2,000)

[3] “On April 23 Himmler issued his order to complete the combing out of the Warsaw ghetto with the greatest severity and relentless tenacity. I therefore decided to destroy every block on fire.” The last battle ended with the destruction of the Great Synagogue today (July 23.1943.






[7] Black Wall Street – The Tulsa Race Riot – 1/8




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