“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Tulsa, “The Oil Capital of the World,” “The Magic City,” shone brightly at the dawn of the twentieth century. Black gold oozed from Indian Territory soil, land once set aside for American Indian resettlement. J. Paul Getty. Thomas Gilcrease. Waite Phillips. They were among the men living on Tulsa time and extracting fabulous fortunes from Oklahoma crude.
As Tulsa’s wealth and stature grew, so, too, did political, economic, and, particularly, race-based, tensions. The formative years of this segregated city coincided with the nadir of American race relations—a period of marked civil rights retrenchment and anti-black violence.
Even amidst this “blacklash,” Tulsa’s African American community, the Greenwood District, thrived, becoming a nationally-renowned entrepreneurial center. This hotbed of black entrepreneurial activity, dubbed the “Negro Wall Street,” attracted visionary trailblazers from all over America who sought new opportunities and fresh challenges. African Americans did business with one another in an insular service economy. The black district? prospered as dollars circulated within its confines. A talented cadre of African American entrepreneurs emerged.
Fueled by jealousy, fear, and covetousness, and enmeshed in a national web of white supremacist rhetoric and reality, mobs of white Tulsans seized up the city’s “Negro quarter” with seismic fury. In a sixteen-hour eruption of volcanic violence euphemistically dubbed “The 1921 Tulsa Race Riot” (the “Riot”), marauding white hooligans set upon black Tulsa. Their scorched earth assault on the Greenwood District left little unscathed: homes and businesses reduced to charred rubble; scores dead, dying, and wounded; and hundreds homeless and destitute. The breadth and brutality of it all etched psychic scars palpable even today.
Any mention about many of the Tulsa police belonging to the Klu Klux Klan?
The Riot dimmed the City’s luster and threatened her reputation as America’s economic darling. What happened in its wake shaped race relations in Tulsa going forward.
For decades, the catastrophic Riot, the worst so-called race riot in American history, remained shrouded in mystery, cloaked in secrecy, and draped in conjecture. Despite its significance as a defining moment in history of the City of Tulsa, the State of Oklahoma, and the United States generally, some Tulsans, even more Oklahomans, and most Americans remain largely oblivious to this watershed event.
In recent years, Tulsans have begun to grapple with this horror on the home front—this terrible human tragedy. The full cost of our reluctant reckoning has yet to be calculated. Perhaps the greatest casualty, trust, has yet to be fully recouped. The once-vast chasm of distrust between black and white still lingers, marginally diminished, but no less real.
Today, almost a century removed, the specter of the Riot looms large. How do we heal the haunts of our history? How do we atone for the intergenerational damage inflicted so long ago? How do we restore trust and move toward reconciliation? Our answers to these critical questions will determine whether we further narrow existing racial gulfs or allow the great chasms of color-based mistrust to span future generations.
Providing reparations of some sort—making amends—is essential to rapprochement—reconciliation. That said, even reparations proponents understand the “make whole” aspiration behind reparations cannot be literally realized. Lives, once lost, cannot be resuscitated. Minds, once subjected to psychological trauma, cannot be returned to the status quo ante. Economic momentum, once blunted by physical devastation, cannot be fully recaptured. Nonetheless, absent reparations, old wounds continue to fester; grievances magnify and multiply; present-day healing cannot occur.
Some, however, fear that debating reparations, let alone offering them, opens a Pandora’s box of historical horrors and embarrassments best left buried and forgotten. “Where will it all end?,” they ask?
The case for Riot reparations, documented in Tulsa Race Riot, the Final Report of the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (the “Riot Commission Report” published, 2001) and elsewhere, rests principally on the following:
- Compelling, documented evidence of governmental complicity at the city and, arguably, the state level;
- Identifiable Riot victims and their heirs;
- A defined, discrete geographic community adversely affected by the Riot (i.e., the Greenwood District);
- Measurable and/or estimable economic losses attributable to the Riot; and
- A thorough record of the people, places, and events associated with the Riot.
What, then, are the countervailing considerations—the arguments against reparations? What might detractors find objectionable about the desire to “make things right”?
Following is a representative sampling of salient objections to Riot reparations (most aimed at monetary reparations), coupled with rejoinders to each. Framed as colloquy between reparations opponents and proponents, these arguments crystallize often unspoken, sub-textual positions that, left unarticulated, undermine relationships and torpedo trust.
The Exploitation of African American Victimhood
- Reparations Opponents: Riot reparations promote a sort of perpetual African American victimhood, stifling initiative, independence, and self-help.
- Reparations Proponents: Reparations—a deserved making of amends—are not inconsistent with African American initiative, independence, and self-help. Quite the contrary, the failure to provide reparations provides further evidence of the institutional nature of racism and the unwillingness of complicit governmental units to remediate past misdeeds. Empowerment and appropriate redress are complimentary, not contradictory.
The Commercialization of African American Suffering
- Reparations Opponents: Monetary Riot reparations reduce legitimate African American suffering to a crass commercial calculus.
- Reparations Proponents: Reparations, like civil damages, may not always equate precisely to the value of the harm caused. That said, in a capitalistic economy, money symbolizes the value we attach to both things and people. The language of money is a tongue we all speak, even if the translation is sometimes less than perfect.
The Sins of the Fathers
- Reparations Opponents: Riot reparations visit the sins of the fathers and mothers on the sons and daughters. People should be held responsible only for those harms they cause.
- Reparations Proponents: Society and its constituent governmental units are imbued with continuous life. Sometimes our sons and daughters must be held accountable for things over which they personally had no control. In a democracy, we are responsible collectively for the actions of those in whom we invest political power. We accept the benefits of power and privilege that accrue across generations. We must likewise accept the burdens of responsibility for the structural and institutional factors that skew the distribution of that power and privilege. If amends are to be made, if injustices are to be remedied, if wrongs are to be righted, it is our shared responsibility to do it. Whether or not we played a direct role in fomenting, executing, or profiting from the Riot, we all have a stake in the community that owns its legacy.
Race Relations & Remedies
- Reparations (s) Opponents: Riot reparations would open old wounds and polarize race relations. Let sleeping dogs lie.
- Reparations Proponents: Race relations in Tulsa, in Oklahoma, and in America leave much to be desired, in part because of our failure to address Riot reparations and other issues related to once-prevalent race-based violence and exclusion. Properly pursued, reparations are a way of uniting and healing rather than dividing and wounding.
Balkanization & The Opening of the Floodgates
- Reparations Opponents: Monetary Riot reparations would cause a flood of similar claims, locally, at the state level, and nationally. What if every historically marginalized demographic group raised its claims of historical maltreatment? If proven, how would such a rash of such claims be paid?
- Reparations Proponents: The legitimacy and appropriateness of awarding monetary Riot reparations rests on particular history and specific proof. To the extent others are entitled to reparations, that discussion must likewise be had on its own merits and in its own time.
A Question of Priorities
- Reparations Opponents: Riot reparations shift the focus of the African American community away from devastating and critical internal issues like unemployment, health care, and crime to attenuated, theoretical matters of dubious practical import. The African American community should work on solving its own seemingly intractable social and economic problems instead of waiting for outsiders to come up with pots of gold.
- Reparations Proponents: The African American community has always been beset by multiple challenges, and is fully capable of multitasking. The pursuit of reparations need not and will not preclude a simultaneous pursuit of other critical issues by the African American community, for the African American community, and within the African American community.
A thoughtful, vigorous, and productive reparations dialogue requires an understanding of the promise, possibilities, and parameters associated with these ameliorative measures. The conversation around Riot reparations began even before the necessary definitional foundation had been laid.
Talk of Riot reparations drew swift and vocal opposition, attributable, in part, to ignorance about the Riot and an unnecessarily narrow construction of the word “reparations.” Some reparations opponents failed to acknowledge the scope of the damage wrought by the Riot and its lasting bequest. Having minimized the seminal event, it surprised no one that these critics discounted the need for reparations. Some reparations proponents unwittingly fueled resistance with a near-singular focus on cash payments to Riot survivors and their heirs as the essential, if not the quintessential, form of reparations.
The statewide body appointed to look at the history of the Riot fully supported the moral necessity of Riot reparations. An eleven-member, bi-racial, legislatively-created Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (the “Commission”) convened in 1997. Through its work, that assemblage changed the trajectory of Riot coverage. It prompted a groundswell of public interest in Tulsa’s community dynamics—how the City has dealt with its past, and the impact of the past on the present and future of Tulsa.
The State of Oklahoma charged the Commission with investigating, assessing, and evaluating the Riot, and then making recommendations. The Commission’s sometimes-contentious deliberations drew world-wide media attention and rekindled local curiosity. In 2001, the Commission issued its award-winning Riot Commission Report. Among the recommendations catalogued in the document were various types of reparations, in priority order:
- Payments to living survivors;
- Payments to descendants of those who suffered property damage during the Riot;
- A scholarship fund;
- Business tax incentives for the Greenwood District; and
- A memorial.
These recommended reparations, though fairly broad in scope, exalted monetary payments to first-priority status. The Commission’s approbation of cash reparations, the most contentious of its list of five, drew particular and immediate attention. That the Commission stamped its imprimatur on cash reparations emboldened organizations like the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (“N’COBRA”). N’COBRA saw the push for Riot reparations as precedent for a broader embrace of monetary reparations for American slavery.
Sensing controversy and conflict, early print and broadcast media coverage of the debate over monetary Riot reparations dwarfed coverage of alternative mode of making amends. This near-exclusive focus drowned out discussion of broader philosophical questions centering on the definition of and rationale for reparations.
A high-profile lawsuit further coalesced media attention around monetary reparations as the lynchpin of Riot justice. In February of 2003, a coterie of star-caliber national attorneys galvanized by the Riot Commission Report, joined forces with local legal talent in filing Alexander v. Governor of State of Oklahoma, a money damages lawsuit on behalf of Riot survivors and their descendants against the City of Tulsa and the State of Oklahoma.
On March 22, 2004, a Tulsa federal district court dismissed the case, holding the applicable two-year statute of limitations barred all claims. Subsequently, a federal court of appeals sustained the dismissal, and the United States Supreme Court declined to review the case, ending the push for court-mandated Riot monetary reparations. The courts’ rulings suggest reparations claims may be better suited for the political, rather than the legal, realm.
The Riot litigation raised two compelling questions about reparations: (1) Is litigation, as opposed to, say, legislation or conciliation, a viable approach to securing reparations?; and (2) Are cash payments—monetary reparations—the only acceptable form of reparations?
Litigation over Riot reparations was, arguably, counterproductive, particularly if the ultimate aim is community reconciliation. Litigation, by its very nature, leads inexorably to adversarial relations, not the kind of sustained, rational dialogue antecedent to reconciliation. Moreover, securing monetary damages (i.e., reparations) in courts of law for events like the Riot (and there were many such events in the early twentieth century) would require a sort of national vivisection. Courts would have to open up our history to examine the effects of systemic racism. Those same courts would then have to diagnose (i.e., acknowledge) and prescribe (i.e., offer a remedy). Decisions in such cases would affect not just individuals, but cities, counties, states, and even the federal government, too. Is the judiciary equipped to carry out this kind of de novo examination of our racialized past and, assuming it is, how likely is it to do so?
The Riot lawsuit, some argued, widened and deepened racial fissures in the City and State, if only temporarily. Critics perceived the litigation as having been instigated by a group of outsider rabble rousers and claimed it stymied private fundraising, hampered legislative efforts, and clouded organic, community-based reparations initiatives focused on memorializing the Riot and promoting reconciliation.
Beyond doubting the wisdom of using litigation as a strategy for securing reparations, some took issue with the narrow, monetized, definition of reparations pursued in court. Monetary reparations are by no means the only way to make amends. Other approaches exist: forms of reparations more likely to be accepted and implemented by a broad community consensus.
Of late, the conversation around Riot reparations has broadened. Data gathered and compiled by Chad V. Johnson, Ph.D., his University of Oklahoma colleagues, and community partners suggest widespread support for reparations of some sort. The Johnson team conducted an ambitious community-wide survey investigating knowledge of the Riot and attitudes about race relations in Tulsa. Two-thousand respondents engaged in the process. By overwhelming margins, respondents agreed:
1. The Riot adversely affected social and economic dynamics in Tulsa.
2. The Riot story has not been adequately shared.
3. All Tulsans should know about the Riot.
4. The Riot should be taught as part of the education curriculum.
5. Race relations in Tulsa are poor to fair, and amelioration will require dialogue and other programs/actions.
Locally, most citizens support a variety of reparation measures. Monetary reparations, however, appear to be less important and more contentious.
Both the City of Tulsa and the State of Oklahoma have likewise embraced a passel of non-monetary reparations without labeling them as such and without formally admitting culpability for Riot-related offenses. For example, former Tulsa Mayors Susan Savage and Kathy Taylor offered public apologies for the Riot during their respective tenures.
At the State level, the Oklahoma Legislature created several vehicles and entities to address the Commission’s recommendations: (i) The Tulsa Race Riot Memorial Reconciliation Design Committee, out of which emerged the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation; (ii) The Greenwood Area Redevelopment Authority; and (iii) The Tulsa Reconciliation Education and Scholarship Program. The Oklahoma Legislature also awarded medals of distinction to several Riot survivors in a 2001 State Capitol ceremony.
Educational reparations have also been pursued. Teaching about the Riot is now part of the State of Oklahoma’s “Priority Academic Student Skills,” common education proficiency expectations. Some Oklahoma History textbooks include a discussion of the Riot. Creative teachers supplement regular curricula with Riot-related lessons.
The Tulsa City Council passed a Riot-inspired resolution in 2008 supporting the teaching of an appropriate curriculum to ensure the Riot is adequately covered in Oklahoma’s educational institutions as an historical event. Similarly, the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation is working with Tulsa Public Schools to make curricular materials on the Riot widely available to educators.
When it comes to the question of reparations, we are left with a question of morality and justice: As a civilized society, what actions must we take to salve the wounds of our own making? If we are as civilized as we profess to be, then we are responsible, collectively, for the actions of those in whom we have, over time, invested political power. We accept the benefits that accrue across generations. We must likewise accept the burdens. As such, if amends are to be made, if injustices are to be remedied, if wrongs are to be righted, the ultimate responsibility rests upon each of our shoulders.
Most Tulsans agree that reparations are essential if we are to triumph over our tragic past. Indeed, we have begun making amends. Striking the appropriate balance—creating the right mix of measures that will help us heal our history—remains a challenge. So, too, does following through on our good intentions.
Hannibal B. Johnson, a Harvard Law School graduate, is an author, attorney, and consultant specializing in diversity issues, human relations, leadership, and non-profit management & governance. He teaches at Oklahoma State University and The University of Oklahoma, and has taught at the University of Tulsa College of Law. His books include: Black Wall Street—From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District, Up From the Ashes—A Story About Community, and Acres of Aspiration—The Black Towns in Oklahoma; Mama Used to Say—Wit & Wisdom from the Heart & Soul; No Place Like Home—A Story About an All-Black, All-American Town; and IncogNegro—Poetic Reflections on Race & Diversity in America. Johnson’s play, Big Mama Speaks: A Tulsa Race Riot Survivor’s Story, was selected for the 2011 National African American Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
 Reparations generally serve one or more of the following specific objectives: (i) Acknowledge an injustice; (ii) Apologize for an injustice; (iii) Make retribution for an injustice (i.e., make amends); (iv) Educate the community on the cause for which reparations are made; (v) Deter future occurrence of the injustice for which reparations are made; and (vi) Promote moral integrity by lending clarity and credibility to our professed concerns for human rights.
 The Commission’s list did not include perhaps the single most powerful and enduring mode of reparations imaginable: curriculum reform. The generation-spanning potential of curriculum enhancements that incorporate the Riot to transform race relations in Tulsa and beyond is enormous. Like Holocaust curricula, the idea behind Riot curricula is straightforward. It is imperative that we learn about our past so that we may learn from our past. To paraphrase Maya Angelou: Our history, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived; but, if faced with courage, it need not be lived again. No matter what else we may do, we will not be whole unless and until we own our past, process it, and integrate its lessons into our present and our vision for the future. Teaching and learning are essential to this process. So, so true. This quote needs to be on billboards all over the city of Tulsa.