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Senator Lankford Remembers on Senate Floor the 1921 Race Massacre

CLICK HERE to watch Lankford’s floor speech.

WASHINGTON, DC – Senator James Lankford (R-OK) spoke on the Senate floor in remembrance of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre as we approach May 31, 2019, the 98th anniversary of the tragic two-day event that devastated Tulsa’s Greenwood District, once known as Black Wall Street, and resulted in the deaths of as many as 300 people and the near-complete destruction of the community and surrounding areas. 

On February 24, 2017, Lankford joined State Senator Kevin Matthews, then-Mayor Bartlett, Oklahoma Historical Society Director Dr. Bob Blackburn, and others to announce the formation of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Centennial Commission. The purpose of the Commission is to educate Oklahomans and Americans about the Race Massacre, the destruction of Black Wall Street, and its impact on the state and nation; remember its victims and survivors; and create an environment conducive to fostering sustainable entrepreneurship and heritage tourism within North Tulsa. The 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Centennial Commission is now known as the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission

In May 2016, Lankford delivered a speech on the Senate floor to recognize the Massacre’s 95th anniversary.


I did want to tell a story, though. And it’s a little bit of a different story. It’s about 9,000 people in Tulsa that were suddenly left homeless. But it wasn’t this week, and it wasn’t a natural disaster. It was actually on June the first, 1921, when the worst race riot/massacre happened in American history. That story is still one that this body needs to remember.

And a few years ago, I brought this up, and I thought it may be time to bring it up again. The reason is, we’re approaching quickly the 100-year anniversary of a whole series of riots that happened around America in the summer of 1919. 

As the soldiers were coming back home from World War I—many of those being African-American soldiers that had served with great dignity and honor there—they returned back home with skills that they had picked up overseas and with a tenacious patriotism and work ethic and returned back to America to go back to work. But they were greeted by a lot of white business owners and a lot of white workers in the country who said, ‘You may have served overseas and fought the war, but you’re not welcome to work here.’ And white neighbors started setting homes and cities on fire.

There were riots; here were protests; and there was a national pushback that happened in the summer of 1919. Chicago, Washington, DC, some of the worst. Oklahoma really survived it well. Interestingly enough, in Oklahoma, we had 30 towns that were considered black towns scattered all across the state. 

The first of the folks that came to Oklahoma actually—that were African-American—actually came with the five tribes when they were relocated. They were brought by the Five Tribes who had held them as slaves. And when they moved from the southeastern part of the country and they moved to eastern Oklahoma and were relocated there in that tragic walk, they brought their slaves with them. And then when we became a state after 1889 and the land rush and in the years later when we became a state, land started opening up and individuals moved from all over the country that were African-American families coming for new hope and new opportunity.

And 30 different towns sprung up all over Oklahoma that were dominantly African-American towns, one of those being Greenwood, what was affectionately at the time known as Black Wall Street, one of the most prosperous communities in the country of African-American communities. It was right on the north end of Tulsa. When they left out from Greenwood and came into Tulsa to be able to work, to be able to shop, whatever it may be, though, they were limited. In Greenwood there were shops and stores and movie theaters and all kinds of activity—lawyers, doctors, everything was there in Greenwood. But if they walked a few blocks from Greenwood into Tulsa, they found themselves not being welcomed.

In fact, in downtown Tulsa there was only one place where a black man could actually go to the bathroom. One. And it was in that building that a gentleman named Dick Roland took the elevator up to go to the bathroom, and on the elevator, there was a white girl there named Sarah Page. We have no idea what happened in that elevator. But when the elevator door opened, she screamed and a crowd quickly grabbed Dick Roland and pulled him off, accusing him of all kinds of things, and hauled him off to jail in downtown Tulsa, where within a few hours, a lynch-mob gathered around that jail. To their credit, law enforcement in Tulsa went out to the streets and said, ‘Y’all, go home.’ But they did not. The mob stayed there. 

Soldiers that had served faithfully in World War I that were African-Americans that lived in Greenwood, picked up their rifles and gathered together to go in and support the law enforcement that was at the jail in downtown Tulsa to protect Dick Roland. And as they marched down to go help, the law enforcement there apparently said, ‘Y’all leave as well, we’ve got this handled.’ But as they left, there was a scuffle in the street. And a shot was fired, and we have no idea how it happened or who happened first. The news never reported that. But we knew that group of African-American men left out and ran back to Greenwood, and the mob followed them. They marched their way to Greenwood, and they burned it down, destroying Greenwood, wiping out that city.

That night, all night long, May the 31st into June the first, America experienced one of its darkest moments: 1,200 homes were destroyed that night in Greenwood; 9,000 people were left homeless; 6,000 African-Americans were rounded up by the police in Tulsa and jailed—“for their protection.” But they were the ones that were held. Not the rioters that actually led to the massacre.

Numbers are all over the place of how many people actually died that night. There are numbers as small as 35 and as large as 300. We’ll never know. But let’s just say, there were many, very likely into the hundreds of people, that died that night. A third of the people were gone. A third of the people, we have no idea what direction they went. A third of the people packed up and moved and left. And a third of the folks stayed.

But what’s interestingly enough is, that Sunday, after the fire, after the riots, after the destruction of Greenwood was left leveled, folks from Greenwood gathered that Sunday for worship.

Dr. Olivia Hooker—she passed away just this last November—she was one of the last survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre. In an interview shortly before she passed away, she told the story of hearing the men with axes destroying her sister’s piano during the riot. With her three siblings, she hid under a table as her home was literally destroyed around her. You would think that devastation would be the end of her story; it was not. In World War II, she became the first African-American to join the Coast Guard. She earned degrees from two universities and ended up being a professor at Fordham University. That’s tenacious resilience. She reminds me of a modern-day friend, my friend, Donna Jackson. 

Donna Jackson in 2013 determined that North Tulsa and Greenwood was known for its entrepreneurship. That’s why it got the name Black Wall Street. So she determined in 2013 she was going to challenge 100 new businesses to start in Greenwood to bring life back to that area again with business and entrepreneurship. For its 100th anniversary, there would be 100 new businesses. Donna lives in Breeze, Greenwood. She was born in Morton Memorial. She goes to church in North Tulsa; she works in North Tulsa; and she believes in North Tulsa’s future, as do I. She’s going to make her goal of 100 new businesses there. She’s doing the work to be able to help introduce people to North Tulsa and to be engaged.

And there are companies from outside the area coming in like the brand-new QT [QuikTrip] that just opened up there. There are lots of individual businesses that continue to be able to start and thrive again in North Tulsa.

North Tulsa is a place where we should practice basic reconciliation, where America should stop and look again and to say, ‘What can be done and what have we done.’ And to fix it.

Josh Jacobs, he was born in North Tulsa in 1998, graduated from high school in North Tulsa, ended up making a really bad decision—he left North Tulsa to go play football for the University of Alabama—clearly a terrible decision. Josh ended up being drafted 24th overall by the Oakland Raiders this last year. He’s a tremendous shining example of somebody that grew up in North Tulsa and is representing us well.

His dad made an interesting statement there, saying, ‘As he was growing up he was a great athlete. He could have traveled to anywhere in the area to be able to play football in high school, and he chose to stay there on the north side. He said why would we not want to build up our side of town? Why would we take off and leave?’ You would be pleased to know that Josh in his own Twitter account has on his Twitter account, 2 Peter 3:9. It’s what’s pinned to the top. ‘The Lord is not slow in doing what He’s promised, the way some people understand slowness, but God is being patient with you. He doesn’t want anyone to be lost, but he wants all people to change their hearts and their lives.’ It’s a pretty good message, Josh. 

I believe we are still a nation of reconciliation, but the first step in reconciliation is not forgetting who we were and who we have been as a nation and to make sure we take the steps necessary to resolve broken relationships. 

There’s not a law that we can pass in this body that will solve the race issue. There are ways that we can protect and make sure every person has every opportunity, whether it be in housing and employment, whatever it may be, but race is not a political issue; race is a heart issue. The primary issue with race begins in your own heart and in your own family.

So I started several years ago asking a very simple question of folks in Oklahoma, and I ask that same question of people here: has your family ever invited a family of another race to your home for dinner? Interestingly enough, the response I get back from most people when I say that is they’ll smile at me and say, ‘I have friends of another race.’ To which I’ll smile at them and say, ‘That’s not what I asked. I asked has your family ever invited a family of another race to your home for dinner, to be able to have just real dialogue so that your kids can sit with kids of another race and your kids can watch you interact as a parent with people from another race and see that it’s normal conversation.’ Because our kids only believe what they see. And if they never see someone from another race in their home, they just assume we don’t have friends of another race. I like to say, ‘We’ll never get all the issues about race on the table until we get our feet under the same table and start talking this out as friends.’

Reconciliation is not something we can legislate. Reconciliation is something we do and it’s who we are. And it comes about by action. 

Next week folks will gather in Tulsa, Oklahoma, again to recognize 98 years ago the city was on fire, and most of the white community looked away while Greenwood burned to the ground. In two years from now the entire country will probably pause for 24 hours, and we’ll look at Tulsa and we’ll ask a simple question: what has changed in 100 years? It’s a fair question. I think Tulsa will stand up and say, ‘Not just let me show you the structures that have changed, but we’ll show you the hearts that have changed because Tulsa is a very different community now that we still have a ways to go, as do the rest of the state. But we’re making tremendous progress.’ And while much of the world ignores race and chooses never to deal with race, we as Americans embrace each other and say, ‘What do we have to do to restore what is broken to make sure we see each other as friends and neighbors again.’ We’re doing it different, and that’s of greatest benefit to us.

In Mount Zion Baptist Church—it was founded in 1909 by Reverend Sandy Lyons. It was originally just a one-room schoolhouse. In 1916 the church began a $92,000 endeavor, which I can assure you was a lot of money in 1916. They took out a $50,000 loan to build a new church. Construction was completed in early 1921, and on April 4, 1921, they held their first service. And then on June the first of that same year, a riot burned it to the ground. 

Worse yet, the white insurance company refused to pay their insurance, saying it was their fault that the riot ever happened. That congregation could have been bitter, but instead they stayed put and they rebuilt that congregation. They first paid off the mortgage for what had been burned to the ground, and then they rebuilt the church on that same exact location. Vernon AME Church still stands in the same spot. The only thing left from that building is the basement. But they rebuilt by 1928, right on that same spot. And Dr. Turner there is a friend and is the pastor there, he made the statement, ‘I’m humbled every day to walk through a place that has seen so much terror but has also been a vessel of hope for so many people. After the massacre, people who lost their homes and their belongings still went to church on Sunday morning, believing in a God of reconciliation that I still believe in today.’

Let’s continue to get better. But let’s not forget where we’ve come from so it never ever, ever, ever happens again. And as we approach the summer of 1919 where the nation was on fire from so many riots around the country, let’s continue to finish what has begun in our hearts until it is complete.