Senator Lankford Recognizes 95th Anniversary of the Tulsa Race Riot with Senate Speech
Lankford: “Ninety-five years ago, this week, the worst race riot in American history broke out in Tulsa, Oklahoma”
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WASHINGTON, DC– Senator James Lankford (R-OK) today delivered a speech on the Senate floor to recognize the 95th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Riot, which took place on May 31 and June 1, 1921 in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma. It is estimated that 300 individuals were killed during the riot.
In the speech, Lankford told the story of the community in Greenwood and the riot that decimated it. Lankford discussed recent initiatives to fully revive the business community, including the work of Donna Jackson and the NorthTulsa100 nonprofit. Lankford ended the speech by challenging America to remember the riot; recognize there is more work to be done; respect those who survived and hope to revive the community; and continue to pursue race reconciliation.
On the story of the Tulsa Race Riot:
Getting back to my story on Dick Rowland. Working downtown in Tulsa, most buildings in Tulsa downtown wouldn't allow a black person to go to the bathroom there. But the Drexel Building would. So, he would go to the Drexel Building to go to the restroom. He would get on the elevator because the restroom he was allowed to use was up in an upper floor. And that particular day on May 30, 1921, he got into the elevator and the elevator operator was a 17-year-old young white lady named Sarah Page. Now, the elevator doors closed. And as they got to the upper floor, they got off and at that point Sarah Page screamed. To this day we don't know why. We don't know if there was an altercation. We don't know if Dick Rowland bumped her and she screamed. We don't know if she was just scared. We don't know why. But a friend heard her scream and came running and saw Dick Rowland stepping out of the elevator and accusations started immediately. And within 24 hours, the police arrested Dick Rowland and took him into the courthouse and to the jail in downtown Tulsa. By the time the afternoon paper had been released on the 31st of May, 1921, the word was out that a young African-American male had raped a white female in the elevator at the Drexel Building. And a mob began to form outside of the courthouse.
The police tried to quell this massive riot that broke out, immediately deputized many white men that were gathered around downtown Tulsa, gave them weapons and told them to go arrest as many black people as they could to stop the riot. And they ran into the Greenwood district and shootings began all over the Greenwood area. Many, the numbers are up over the thousands, of African-American men were arrested, dragged back into Tulsa and were put in temporary detention facilities there and held which left the Greenwood district completely unprotected. Looters and rioters moved through that part of Tulsa all throughout the night and into the next morning, literally looting every home, looting every business, doctor’s office, grocery store, department store, looting each one of them and then burning them to the ground. By the time the National Guard arrived the next day to stop the riot, almost every building, home, business, everything in a one-mile square that was the Greenwood District before was completely destroyed. It makes you wonder what happened then. Over 300 people, it is estimated, died that night in Tulsa. No one was ever charged with a crime. Dick Rowland that I mentioned before was released from jail because no charges were ever pressed on him. Sarah Page never pressed charges against him.
On how Oklahoma, and America, looks back at the Tulsa Race Riot:
What's also fascinating about it is the state of Oklahoma quietly ignored what happened that day. Most folks growing up in Oklahoma have never even heard of the Tulsa Race Riot. The Tulsa Race Riot in many ways is kind of like that uncle in your family that ended up in jail, that at Christmas no one ever talks about. Everyone knows they're out there but you never discuss, that's the Tulsa Race Riot for Oklahomans for a very long time until just a couple of decades ago the conversation quietly started again about a very difficult part of our history. Ninety-five years ago this week the worst race riot in American history broke out in Tulsa, Oklahoma. And in five years the entire country will pause and will look at Oklahoma and will ask a very good question: What's changed in 100 years? What have we learned in 100 years?
On how to respond to the Race Riot (Remember, Recognize, Respect, Reconciliation):
I would say we can remember. There's great honor to be able to say to people we have not forgotten about what happened. We have not ignored it. We have not swept it under the rug and pretended that it never happened. We remember. I think there's great honor in that.
We can recognize that there is more to be done, that we can't just say you know what, that was then, this is now. There is more to be done. Our own racial challenges, what have happened in many parts of the country just over the past few years reminds us again, we don't have legal segregation anymore, but we still have our own challenges as a nation. We still need to have a place in a nation where every person of every background has every opportunity. It's right for us.
We can respect the men and women who lived, worked, died and rebuilt. And pour respect on those individuals that are still working to rebuild. People like Donna Jackson, who’s leading a group she calls the North Tulsa 100 to say by the time we get to the 100-year anniversary, just five years from now, there will be 100 new businesses in the Greenwood area. The jewel of Black Wall Street was the number of businesses and entrepreneurs and family businesses that were there, and Donna Jackson and a group that is around her, of business leaders, church leaders, and individuals from the area, family members and some of them even connected to survivors of the Riot itself, all are committed to what can we do to reestablish the business community again in Greenwood and in North Tulsa. Not looking just for black businesses. Business, period. To reengage a community that is still scarred years later. To be able to have some respect for those folks that run the Greenwood Cultural Center, Reconciliation Park, and the individuals that are willing to be able to talk about it in a way that's open and honest and not accusatory.
But my fourth “R” after remember, recognize and respect and that's reconciliation. What are we going to do as a nation to make sure that we're reconciled? This simple speech on this floor is not going to reconcile our nation, and we have for years said this is something we need to talk about. Well, quite frankly, we do need to talk about it but we also need to do something about it. What can we do to make sure that our children do not grow up in a nation that forgets their past but also makes sure it's not repeated again, to make sure all individuals are recognized and respected and that every person has the same opportunity. There's no simple answer to all this but I bring to this body a story that I think is important for us to talk about.
The worst race riot in American history in my state and in all of our states. And I bring to us a question: Five years from now we as a nation will talk about this even more when it's the 100-year anniversary. Who are we as a nation? How far have we come? And what do we have left to go to make sure that we really are one nation under God, indivisible. With that, Mr. President, I yield back.
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