Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa


"Frank Lloyd’s Revenge, (the Tulsa Massacre of 1921)" 

Scott Baxendale 

History always has been a skewed vortex, collated by the victors, excluding irksome narratives that wrinkle the supposedly smooth fabric of society. We are as children spoon-fed the myths and half-truths as a kind of benign dogma. Santa Claus exists along with the Tooth Fairy, and Christopher Columbus discovered America. The final fanciful fact belittles and eradicates the rights of the people who were already there on land that had been and was still rightfully theirs. The same applies to the Aztec and Inca populations of South America. The Aborigines of Australia. A list, long and sorrowful of Western arrogance, of theft and exploitation. 

The death of George Floyd, played out and replayed on a loop of shock across the world, has ignited a sense of rightful outrage and a desire to redefine, challenge, and analyse the past we are left to live with. Statues we walk past every day have begun to fall. It is no longer acceptable to ignore the canker beneath the gloss of bronze and marble.

Many years ago I was fortunate to catch the esteemed Canadian novelist Robertson Davies do a reading. The blurb on the flyer stated, "He writes like an angel and looks like God" which was the truth wrapped up in a neat remark. He read from one of his novels where a group of students under the cover of the night, dismantle and replace the plaques on statues. In the morning and in the succeeding days, no-one notices this minor act of humorous vandalism. It however made and continues to make a moot point. What was once sufficiently revered to be commemorated, with time slips from memory and becomes irrelevant. It is there simply because it exists. Marooned in a sea of contemporary amnesia and disinterest. 

Once begun, such backwards glances shine disconcerting lights into equally unpalatable corners. Many sacred and revered figures become unstable on their plinths. Winston Churchill, the epitome of whatever it was that made Britain great, had a wealth of unsavoury opinions and deeds. Be it the creation of what were the first concentration camps during the Boer War, or his attitude towards the striking miners of Wales whose stomachs he wished to fill with lead, and the people of India and Africa who sadly suffered such a fate. In more recent times his self-proclaimed heir Margaret Thatcher had her own troubles with miners, created the iniquitous, socially divisive Poll Tax, and the notorious, thankfully repealed, Clause 28 which forbade the teaching, or the mere mention of anything related to homosexuality in the classroom. This from a woman who was friends with the notorious sexual abuser Jimmy Savile, sufficiently so to entertain him over Christmas, yet managed to protect and absolve her Parliamentary Private Secretary, the late Sir Peter Morrison, a man whose interest in young boys was well known, but who was, even when caught, continued to go unpunished on account of his importance to his employer.

In America, Roy Cohn, actively gay, but in the closet, affiliate and cohort of Senator Joe McCarthy, was responsible for the hounding, exposure and sacking of scores of gay men. Cohn succumbed to Aids in 1986. Minorities were always easy targets for the self-righteous and the opportunistic. They wielded no power and couldn't effectively fight back.

During lockdown the thing that having time on ones hands permits is to stumble across new information, most of it illuminating, but some so shocking one is left to ponder why such a cataclysmic event could have been erased from wider public memory.

Singer and guitarist Scott Baxendale has written a perfect elegy for one such incident. Like Vic Chestnuut in cahoots with Nick Cave he eloquently questions the absence of what transpired in Tulsa almost a century ago, from recognition and recall. With the very public passing of George Floyd, mentions began to surface of the Tulsa Riot, and the hushed up deaths of hundreds. By received and conventional wisdom, Pearl Harbour was the first time America was bombed from the air. It was actually in 1921, near the birth of wartime flying, and the recipients of such action were American citizens, at least three hundred of them, and the obliteration of a district that was both prosperous and thriving. 

This shocking blemish on America's soul has been covered up. Newspaper reports have vanished from archives, the inflammatory journalism in the Tulsa Tribune that provoked and unleashed this act of brief, but successful genocide no longer exists. Yet Richard Jones, the reporter responsible is revered still in Tulsa, was gifted a house there by his cousin the architect Frank Lloyd Wright for his services to the town, post the incident, and remains a venerated citizen. Things only get hidden and removed because of a sense of shame. Jones even built a church even though the impact of his bile-laden journalism saw a fine one burn. His esteemed cousin had lost his mistress Mamah Borthwick murdered by a black servant, along with six others in 1914. Frank Lloyd Wright was no friend of minorities.

In Tulsa only now are initiatives afoot to deal with the incident that began over a white girl screaming in a lift in 1921. The mere proximity of a black boy to a white girl was sufficient to inflame simmering hatreds. She later refused to press any charges. Her supposed assailant Dick Rowland was the son of a prominent businessman in the district known as Black Wall Street and was in police custody for his own protection. A deputation from the area arrived to seek reason, but Smith's shoddy racist journalism was already in print suggesting "Nab Negro" and thus things escalated. The black community was destroyed for trying to defend itself. They weren't rioting, they were simply being eradicated.

Sometimes it is best to forget, but mostly remembering is a painful obligation that the living owe the dead. Tulsa should be taught across the world, it presently is a negated footnote. Unsavoury people are equally capable of good acts and therein lies the problem in apportioning blame and handing down judgement. Some actions betray the reason for a febrile society, and their negation simply compounds that as the ultimate act of disrespect. 

A song is perhaps the best means to stir a slow, but certain reaction. Scott Baxendale's measured gothic ballad deserves to be that provocation. Only time will tell if it helps to reveal what hasn't yet hasn't already been properly divulged. A National Day of Remembrance from now on on June 1st would be a fitting and respectful start.

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