The Other Cheek

Lannie told me a story that happened some weeks after the tragedy. That’s what Lannie called it. The tragedy, as though it was some kind of sad movie instead of a mob of white people killing Negroes in the streets, burning down our homes and businesses.

Anyway, Lannie and his momma were shopping for groceries in downtown Tulsa because none of the Greenwood shops had reopened yet. Outside the fruit market, Lannie spots a white lady wearing a fur coat and a big rope of pearls.

“Momma, ain’t that your coat?” Lannie asks her. “The one Daddy got you when he sold the lot to the Shell people? And your pearls?”

“Shh,” his momma said. “Never you mind.”

“But Momma. They stole those from you.”

She glared up at him. “Don’t you say nothing about this, son,” she said. “You might start it all over again.”

Later his momma told him she was just glad to see they hadn’t been lost in the fire.

 

What Pegman Saw: Tulsa

 

Greenwood’s prosperity earned it the moniker “Negro Wall Street,” but the white people in South Tulsa called it “niggertown.” There was a brewing resentment among whites about the rising wealth and confidence of black Americans, not only in Oklahoma but around the United States.

The attack on Greenwood destroyed 1,256 houses and saw the looting of another 215, according to the American Red Cross, leaving 9,000 black Tulsans homeless. Virtually all the district’s businesses were gone. An accurate death toll will likely never be calculated, though eyewitnesses said they saw unidentified black bodies stacked onto trucks and dumped into unmarked graves.

But a new and better Greenwood rose from the ashes. When one person finished rebuilding their business, they grabbed the hand of their brother or sister and helped them do the same. By the end of 1921, Greenwood residents had rebuilt more than 800 structures in the neighborhood. By June 1922, virtually all of the area’s homes had been replaced. And by 1925, the National Negro Business League was holding its annual conference in Tulsa, indicating that Black Wall Street’s stature as an economic force had been restored.

But even as Greenwood prospered again, the riot morphed into forgotten lore. No one learned about it in school. At home, some black families chose to bury the trauma rather than expose it to their offspring. This tragedy is not taught in schools and has largely been forgotten.

 

 

5 thoughts on “The Other Cheek

  1. I love the way you’ve structured this – the story within the story (“The play’s the thing, whereby we’ll catch the conscience of the king…”). The way you show us how and why the details of murder, arson and looting were repressed by the community is masterful. Kudos, Josh!
    P.S. I was dismayed at first by the strong suggestion we should write on this topic, but it proved to be a fruitful challenge. Good call! (But don’t repeat too soon, if you don’t mind!)

  2. Incredible that this is not taught in schools. Great perspective, there is a lot of wisdom and restraint in the mother knowing that it is actually better to give up her belongings rather than risk more bloodshed.

  3. Dear Josh,

    I couldn’t resist an historical challenge. Thank you for introducing me to piece of history that shouldn’t be swept under the rug. Your story says a lot about the mother’s character in the story. I’m not sure I could be so forgiving. On the other hand a lot of fear informs that forgiveness, doesn’t it. Well done as always.

    Shalom,

    Rochelle

  4. As Penny says, a well written tale within a tale and interesting to see the aftermath those awful events left behind. Very well written, Josh. And thank you for sharing a piece of history I’d never heard about before

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