Remembering Greenwood: Why the Sins of the Past Still Matter

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“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”

– Isaiah 1:16-17

Today marks the eve of the worst act of domestic terrorism in American history. The Tulsa Race Riots nearly wiped out the entire African American community in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Angry, white mobs invaded the wealthy community of Greenwood, killed unknown numbers of people, bombed it from the sky, looted its stores, and burned down over 35 city blocks of buildings and homes. For decades after the violence, white women could be seen walking down the streets of Tulsa wearing the jewelry, coats, and clothing of the Black women whose homes were looted and destroyed. Ninety-five years later, the massacre is still disregarded by many as just a bunch of “riots” over race, instead of the terrible act of terror that it actually was, duplicated on a smaller scale in cities across the country.

I read an article the other day by a disgruntled white American who was tired of talking about race. Stop guilt-tripping me over things I never did, they said. I’m Italian. My family immigrated to the states in the 1950s. We were never slave owners. We had it rough too. Stop blaming us for something we never did.

The problem is that sin doesn’t work like that. Wrongdoing is infectious. The effects last like the smoke from a fire that lingers in the smell of your clothes. Maybe you didn’t start the flames, but the smell of it follows you even when you leave.

The point is that white Americans today didn’t start the fire that has been burning in our country, but it has kept them warm for generations. Such a statement is not meant to blame or guilt-trip. Neither is it meant to ignore the reality of poverty in many white communities. Instead, it is meant to dismantle the façade of equity that exists in our country. It is meant to condemn the smokescreen of equal opportunity as a lie.

Most Americans like to attribute their success to “hard work.” Perhaps hard work does play a role. But all people everywhere should ask themselves what else plays a role? What else has contributed to my place in society? If you are white, this means coming to terms with the reality that our systems have been designed to your benefit at the expense of other races. This doesn’t mean that every white person in the country is living in the lap of luxury. Nor does it mean that other social factors don’t exist that contribute to wealth and/or poverty. You will find rich black people just like you’ll find poor white people.

Many things intersect in society to elevate some and denigrate others. Things like hard work (or laziness) matter. Money and opportunity matter. Education matters. The point is that race matters too. More than what the majority of white Americans have been willing to acknowledge. More than what our whitewashed history has led us to believe.

White people control the vast majority of wealth in my city, and people of color make up the vast majority of those in poverty. This reality is directly traceable to the massacre that took place here nearly a century ago, and the laws and legislation that followed to transfer the wealth and power of the city into the hands of white people. It is a massacre that has been largely forgotten and—when it is remembered—often disregarded. But it happened.

My prayer is that we will remember the history of Greenwood this week. That we would reflect upon what it means for us as a country moving forward. That we would not push it aside, as people have done for generations, but that we would face it’s truth and ask ourselves, what now? What can be done to get rid of the smoke? What can be done to make ourselves clean?

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2 thoughts on “Remembering Greenwood: Why the Sins of the Past Still Matter

  1. LM Reply

    This hit me hard: “White people control the vast majority of wealth in my city, and people of color make up the vast majority of those in poverty. This reality is directly traceable to the massacre that took place here nearly a century ago…” What if the Tulsa Race Riot never happened? What would the African American people look like in Tulsa today? What ifs may not solve anything, but what about this one: What if Tulsans could do something to stop this perpetuated injustice? Would Tulsans do it?

    1. Traveling Nun Reply

      I think that is a question worth asking, and I’m not sure what the answer is. I would like to think that many Tulsans are at the very least trying to do something about it. But it can often feel that their collective voice is so small that it makes little if any difference. As a city and a state we must come together on these issues in order to find solutions, but this type of unity is hard to find.

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