When We Shot Back: On the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of Tulsa

The Booker T. Washington High School parade processes along Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Image: Greenwood Cultural Center

FTP-STL and FTP-Oklahoma

The incident known to many, erroneously, as the “Tulsa Race Massacre” began on May 31, 1921, when a settler mob attempted to lay siege to the Black district of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This district was popularly known as Black Wall Street due to the material prosperity of many of its residents. However, this is only half of the story, and we should steer away from attempting to “rebuild Black Wall Street”, as we fight for revolution, not for material prosperity for a few under capitalism. This situation began like many other attempted pogroms committed against Black people, when a young shoeshiner named Dick Rowland was falsely accused of attempting to rape a 17 year old settler named Sarah Page. Rowland was arrested, and the settler lynch mob gathered, undoubtedly intent on storming the county courthouse and torturing Rowland to death. Black people gathered their arms and went to the courthouse to defend the lives of their own, naturally. This enraged the would-be lynch mob, and the settlers got their own guns. A shot was fired after a settler tried to illegally disarm a Black defender, and a shootout ensued. The settlers lost this fracas, with ten of their own lying dead in the street. The battle of Tulsa was on.

The settlers were frustrated initially in their attempts to storm Greenwood and massacre the inhabitants. Many of the residents were veterans of the First (Imperialist) World War, and used their military training to defend their people and their community. Snipers were posted, and guerilla tactics were deployed to stop the settler mob from entering Greenwood. Eventually, the mob was able, with the help of airplanes carrying armed men and firebombs, to breach the defenses and burn the district. This is where bourgeois/reformist narratives stop. Black people, innocent, unarmed victims of their own material success, at the mercy of armed settlers. This is an insult to the millions of Black people who have struggled for revolution and in defense of democratic and human rights throughout history, across the Continent and diaspora.
Vicky Osterweil writes of the consequences of this battle in her work “In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action”. She tells us of the history that is hidden, of the Communist African Blood Brotherhood, which led the armed defense:

“The ABB, a clandestine pan-African all-Black Marxist revolutionary organization, formed in direct response to the Red Summer of 1919. It arose as a self-defense organization to empower and protect Black communities from lynchings, collective punishment, and race riots. Though it was founded in New York City, branches spread across the Midwest and the South. A predecessor of the Black Panther Party, the ABB advocated and agitated for armed self-defense, with a long-term goal of armed insurrection and, ultimately, socialist revolution led by Black workers. A chapter operated in Tulsa almost from the ABB’s inception. Outside of the North, the ABB was an insurrectionary secret society—being an out Black
Communist in the Jim Crow South would have been a death sentence—with an internationalist bent, working to foment revolution while supporting and spreading information about the Russian Revolution and anticolonial struggles in Africa and the Middle East. It did so through local organization and its newspaper, The Crusader. Rumors of an imminent Black uprising or insurrection frequently factor into the buildup of white riots and lynchings—a direct legacy of lynch mobs’ slave patrol predecessors. Such rumors were particularly strong in white Tulsa in the months leading up to the riot and may reflect increased radicalization and on-the-ground organizing in the Tulsa chapter of the ABB. In any case, when, the day after Rowland’s arrest, his lynching was announced and planned in the local newspaper (as mentioned above, the May 31, 1921, Tulsa Tribune afternoon edition headline read “to lynch negro tonight”), the ABB pledged to resist the lynching, and organizers spread throughout Greenwood, urging residents to gather their arms and head to the jail to protect Rowland.”

So, we see Black Communists at the vanguard where it counted, organizing and mobilizing the people for revolutionary self defense. Undoubtedly, there was also ABB participation in the district itself, and undoubtedly, Communists fired many of the bullets that, in the words of Black commentator Buck Franklin, “made me swell with pride and hope for the race”. According to Osterweil, “a third to half of those killed were white rioters…many in Tulsa believed the true casualty numbers were covered up because they would have become a source of shame for the white community”. Essentially, they tried to bathe in the blood of Black people, and they lost in the long run, steeling the resolve of the Black people of Tulsa and demonstrating the revolutionary self-defense tradition of the people. Black people, on the other hand, spoke of their resistance with pride, and in many cases used it as leverage with settler authorities to extract concessions. There wasn’t another lynching in Tulsa for seven decades, and Greenwood has only recently started to face gentrification. In an additional slap to the face of settlers, the overwhelming amount of the property burned and destroyed belonged to them, rented by Black storekeepers and residents. In essence, they were destroying their own capital.

What is the relevance of this 1921 battle to us today? It demonstrates the necessity and righteousness of rebellion against reactionaries and the fascist state. In Malcolm X’s words, it is right to send our enemies to the cemetery. It also shows the lengths that the ruling class will go to in regards to hiding revolutionary history, and the continued importance of political education. Black youth must master knowledge of and learn about the armed resistance of the people throughout history,
revolutionary organizations such as the ABB and the Black Panther Party, and theoreticians such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Assata Shakur, Huey P. Newton, Amilcar Cabral, Winnie Mandela, Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, and countless others. In the continued upsurge of struggle blazed by the May Uprisings of last year, knowledge of previous incidences of struggle will continue to illuminate and guide the revolution and the formation of a fighting Party in which Black proletarians and
semi-proletarians remain vanguard.

The Emblem of the African Blood Brotherhood, Vanguard of the Tulsa Resistance

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