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Black History is American History is Our History

On May 31 and June 1, 1921, White residents of Tulsa, Oklahoma—including police officers and deputized citizens—pillaged the Greenwood District, a thriving Black commercial and residential neighborhood. Up to 300 residents were killed in the resulting massacre, many dumped in mass graves. Aided by National Guard soldiers, almost the entirety of the remaining 10,000 residents were arrested and removed to other locations.

While residents were killed and arrested, the neighborhood was razed. More than 35 city blocks were destroyed, including 1,256 homes plus churches, schools, and thriving businesses. The property losses amounted to $1.8 million (some $27 million today). As the smoke and dust cleared, what had once been America’s “Black Wall Street” no longer existed.

Yet this is a part of American history which, until recently, was rarely told. Beginning almost immediately after the event, White leaders set out to obscure the size, the scope, and the reality of the event. They taught their children a version of their history which erased the Greenwood District. There was no room for the stories of Black entrepreneurs because such stories would necessarily raise questions about the motivations of White citizens who destroyed what Black citizens had built.

Last year, during the centennial of that event, I learned one simple fact: My third-great grandfather was a police officer in Tulsa beginning in 1920 or 1921. That means there is every likelihood that my ancestor—a man whose granddaughter I remember well—participated in one of the largest single acts of anti-Black terrorism in our nation’s history.

What should I do with that information?

One long popular option is to ignore it. He wasn’t me and I’m not him. So what does it matter if he was there or participated in some way?

Another option is to seek out enough of his history to diminish or excuse his actions. Maybe there’s no evidence that he pulled a trigger or lit a match. If he did, perhaps he was just following orders. How much say could a 60 year old rookie cop really have had?

Neither of these options appeals to me as a person or a historian. I’m proud of my ancestral heritage. My family tree includes religious reformers and builders, including one who built the first Christian church on Long Island. They’ve defended our country and participated in its great events. But they also enslaved people, stole land and property, and killed others. If I’m going to rejoice in their triumphs, I must at least face their tragedies.

Ultimately, the story of the Tulsa Race Massacre is not just an obscure American story. It’s also a family story. It’s the story of a police officer who may have participated in a horrible crime. It’s the story of a 60 year old White man who suddenly found himself in demand as a police officer. James H. Crabtree was occasionally listed in city directories over the next decade as a policeman, a position that helped him support his wife, children, and grandchildren. A new means of financial support opened at the same time that Black wealth was destroyed. These two historical facts are inseparable.

Just as the story of Tulsa and of my ancestor cannot be properly understood without the inclusion of the Greenwood District and its destruction, so the story of America cannot be properly understood without the story of Black Americans. Blackness is not a prerequisite for learning Black history, just as whiteness is not a prerequisite for learning White history. The two are inseparable.

My aim in studying history is to accurately and fully understand the reality of the past as far as it is discernible. That is true whatever my subject. But I have found that considering perspectives which have frequently been excluded—like the experiences of Black Americans—is especially illuminating. New perspectives raise new questions, ones that do not come naturally to me and yet reveal themselves as essential for building understanding. Without knowing about and acknowledging the Tulsa Massacre, “Tulsa,” “1921,” and “policeman” would be just another set of trivia about my third-great grandfather. Instead, they are clues to a much deeper understanding of the man and his life.

To more fully understand my ancestor—a man whose name I carry—I’ll have to more fully understand the Tulsa Race Massacre. Because Black history is American history.

Waterford News

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