In two years, the city of Tulsa will have to recognize the centennial anniversary of the most brutal episode in its history — the violent destruction by white Tulsans of the Greenwood District, also known as Black Wall Street. As the anniversary approaches, the slaughter of dozens of black residents is re-entering the public consciousness. The HBO show, “Watchmen,” opens with a re-enactment of the incident, which led The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Washington Post to shine further light on the horrors.
Tulsa is finally bringing attention to the darker details of the riot — searching for mass graves and changing the dialogue from “riot” to “massacre.” While massacre is a better description of what happened from the late days of May to the early days of June 1921, neither of these words describes the horror that befell the Greenwood District. The violence inflicted on Greenwood community members as a result of their race was meant to terrorize African American citizens into submission and destroy any sense of belonging that Tulsa once afforded them. This was more than a riot. It was an act of domestic terrorism.
Terrorism is defined by the Global Terrorism Database as “the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation.” For an event to be considered terrorism it must be intentional, contain violence or a threat of violence and the perpetrators must be sub-national actors. Additional factors must also be present: The act must be aimed at attaining a political, economic, religious or social goal; there must be evidence of coercion, intimidation or relaying some message to a broader audience; and it must occur outside of wartime activities.
The destruction of Greenwood was intentional violence orchestrated by sub-national actors: white Tulsans. Moreover, the goal behind the massacre was to intimidate black Tulsans and destroy Black Wall Street, thereby removing the affluent African American community from Tulsa forever. This clearly occurred outside of wartime activities as well. By the Global Terrorism Database definition, it is evident that the Tulsa massacre should be labeled as an act of terrorism.
The events in Tulsa are comparable to more recent incidents of racial violence that the media has been quick to label as terrorism. However, a quick search on recent news articles covering Tulsa contains no mention of the words “terrorist” or “terrorism.” I am not trying to rewrite the past or call for additional action based on the label of terrorism; I simply want Tulsa to look at its history and reflect on what it actually was: an act of terrorism designed to drive black citizens from their prosperous community. Reframing the atrocity may help us have a more honest conversation about the brutality of our city and country’s past.
Melissa Rolseth lives in Owasso. She is a senior at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., double majoring in political science and history.