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“Reconstructing the Dreamland: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921″ by Alfred L. Brophy Oxford University Press, New York On the morning of May 30, 1921, a 19-year-old African-American bootblack named Dick Rowland tripped while exiting the elevator of the Drexel Building in downtown Tulsa, Okla., stumbling into the 17-year-old white elevator operator, Sarah Page. Page screamed. Rowland was arrested and held in custody at the Tulsa courthouse. The following afternoon, the Tulsa Tribunepublished a sensational story claiming that a Negro had assaulted Page — a story later proved false when charges against Rowland were dropped — and probably also published an incendiary editorial entitled, “To Lynch Negro Tonight.” Within three hours a lynch mob of about 800 vigilantes had formed outside the courthouse. The black community of Tulsa, segregated into a neighborhood called Greenwood, was well aware that people accused of violent crime in Oklahoma, especially black people accused of sexual assault, were frequently lynched before their trials. Moreover, local leaders, black-owned newspapers and national activists had recently exhorted the Greenwood community that they should use self-defense to prevent lynchings. Consequently, some 50 to 75 black men armed themselves and went downtown to protect Rowland. The white sheriff of Tulsa, Willard McCullough, rejected the black men’s offer of assistance, but nevertheless resigned himself to protect Rowland or die trying, by barricading himself in the courthouse and threatening to shoot any man who entered. He soon hit upon a different strategy — convincing the white crowd to disperse, while having his black deputy sheriff, Barney Cleaver, disperse the black defenders. During the tense negotiations, a white man tried to disarm a black man; a shot rang out; and running gun battles broke out between the two groups. The Tulsa race riot of 1921, one of the worst in U.S. history, had begun. According to a new book by law professor Alfred L. Brophy, “Reconstructing the Dreamland,” survivors of the riot have a uniquely credible claim for reparations because of the role played by city and state officials. Contemporary Americans tend to think of race riots as violent disturbances initiated by black or other minority communities in their own neighborhoods. In the early 1900s, however, race riots, such as the Chicago race riot of 1919 and the Rosewood, Fla., massacre of 1923, usually involved white mobs invading black communities to enforce racial hierarchy or to avenge alleged sexual assault. In this way, the Tulsa riot was not unique. What was unique was the role played by the Tulsa Police Department and National Guard who lacked Sheriff McCullough’s enlightened views. The Tulsa police deputized scores of white men, many of them members of the courthouse mob, as “special deputies,” to disarm the black community. The deputies, the National Guard and the rest of the mob then began an orgy of looting, burning and murder. According to Brophy, this means that Oklahoma and Tulsa bear a unique liability to pay reparations, because the Tulsa riot was a form of state action, rather than disorganized mob violence. The Tulsa riot was also peculiarly militarized both because of the role played by the National Guard and because both white vigilantes and black defenders included many recently demobilized World War I veterans. In eerie echoes of warfare, the deputies and National Guard saw their task as suppressing a “Negro uprising;” used a machine gun and an airplane; referred to the black defenders of Greenwood as the “enemy;” systematically moved through Greenwood, burning down buildings to deny their opponents cover; and rounded up all other black citizens as “prisoners.” The riot only ended when a National Guard regiment from Oklahoma City arrived, relieved the Tulsa regiment and restored order. Thirty-five square blocks, almost all of Greenwood, had been looted and burned; 6,000 black survivors, almost the entire black population, were interned in a baseball stadium where they remained for several days. Estimates of the death toll range from 38 to as high as 300. Professor Brophy originally developed his arguments in favor of reparations as a consultant to the Tulsa Race Riot Commission, established in 2000 by the state of Oklahoma to document the riot and investigate whether Oklahoma should pay reparations to Greenwood survivors along the lines of Florida’s payment of reparations for the Rosewood massacre. (Florida awarded Rosewood survivors $150,000 each; so far, Oklahoma has awarded each Greenwood survivor a gold-plated medal.) The commission has done a truly remarkable investigative job, accumulating a massive amount of primary materials and drafting a comprehensive report, which in turn sparked several new Tulsa riot books, including Brophy’s. In the context of the new Tulsa riot studies, what does Brophy’s study add to the literature? While his narrative of the riot itself is not as detailed as other accounts, he provides more detail about Greenwood’s political culture and economic vitality and he skillfully uses court testimony to create firsthand narratives. Ultimately, however, what distinguishes Brophy’s book is his argument in favor of reparations. While Brophy’s overall argument that the state is liable is convincing, the Tulsa reparations claim raises complex issues that are not addressed in this thin volume. For example, why should only survivors and not other victims receive reparations? Brophy does not explore why Oklahoma might not, following the model of South Africa’s land-restitution program, compensate both victims and descendants of victims. Another difficulty with Brophy’s legal argument is that reparations claims are typically as political and moral as they are legal, precisely because the wrongs that gave rise to the claims were not redressed by then-existing law. Beyond the reparations arguments, future studies might also focus on the social history of 1920s-era Tulsa — a semi-lawless oil boom town in which most of the rootless population was from somewhere else; whites as well as blacks were routinely lynched; and it seems everyone carried firearms. When Sheriffs McCullough and Cleaver looked out at a sea of angry, armed whites and blacks, McCullough made one of the most poignant observations about rule of law under conditions of too-rapid urbanization: “You are all strangers to me,” he shouted to the crowd. Howard P. Venable is associate professor of law at New York University and researches land-restitution issues in post-apartheid South Africa. More information on Brophy’s research into the Tulsa race riot is available at: www.law.ua.edu/staff/bio/ abrophy/abrophy_links.html.

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