1921 riots shine fresh light on reparations issue

In Okla., elsewhere, payments to blacks raise tough questions

Who would pay, benefit?

February 22, 2000|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

The stories remained with Don Ross long after he heard them.

There was an elementary school teacher's tearful account of the 1921 race riot in Tulsa, Okla., how police shot and killed her physician uncle during an 18-hour vigilante spree that reduced the black Greenwood area of the city to a charred ruin. The owner of a shoeshine parlor told Ross about the burning of his business. His history teacher described how blacks were rounded up and confined in camps.

Now, decades after Ross first heard these stories, an Oklahoma state commission has recommended paying reparations to the survivors and descendants of the Greenwood riot, believed to be the worst incident of racial violence against blacks in U.S. history.

"A deputized white mob destroyed the black community," said Ross, an Oklahoma lawmaker who in 1997 persuaded his Statehouse colleagues to fund a state inquiry into the 1921 riot. "Hatred was institutionalized. And this is an evil that neither race has fully recovered from. I think the government ought to show some repentance with restitution."

The Tulsa reparations plan is not a first. In 1994, Florida offered $2 million to the victims of a 1923 attack on the black town of Rosewood. But it comes amid discussions of past racial violence in other parts of the country, continued attacks on affirmative action programs and renewed interest in the nation's debt to the descendants of slaves.

Days after the Tulsa Riot Commission announced its recommendation, a group of academics, activists and archivists convened in Helena, Ark., for a conference on a 1919 riot in the Mississippi Delta town of Elaine, which claimed black lives. And Randall Robinson, president of Trans-Africa Forum -- a lobbying group on African and Caribbean issues -- appeared in New York as part of a 10-city tour to promote his new book, "The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks."

"If the reparations with which to repair our children (slavery's damaged heirs) are ever to be won, we must first broadly demand them. Each of us must do his or her part. It is our only hope," Robinson's Web site says.

The payment of reparations has been debated by blacks for decades, first to address the legacy of slavery, then in response to racial violence such as the incidents in Tulsa and Rosewood.

Blacks have not spoken with one voice on the issue. Some consider the pursuit of slave reparations to be a waste of time, time that should be spent addressing the economic disparity between whites and blacks.

For others, the billion-dollar reparation fund for Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II and for the survivors of Nazi-era labor camps have made them rethink blacks' lost earnings.

"You cannot have that happening in front of your very eyes and not have blacks ask, `Hey, wait a minute, we were never compensated for our labor,' " said Ron Walters, a University of Maryland historian who sat on a reparations panel convened by Robinson last month.

But who would pay? And how much? And to whom?

These are questions that have relegated the reparations discussion to academic circles, classrooms and professional journals.

The first reparations involved an offer of land to freed blacks, an order written by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in 1865 that came to be known as "40 acres and a mule." The same year, Congress proffered a similar land grant in the Freedman's Act. But few blacks ever collected, said Ira Berlin, a University of Maryland historian and expert on slavery.

Around the turn of the century, a black woman, Callie D. House, spearheaded the Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Movement. It landed her in jail on fraud charges.

National study sought

More recently, black activists in Detroit persuaded Rep. John Conyers Jr. to introduce a bill in 1989 that called for a national study commission on reparations. The Michigan Democrat has reintroduced the bill in every session of Congress since.

In Helena, Ark., this month, the conference on the Sept. 30, 1919, riot in the farming town of Elaine was an attempt to settle disputed history. The violence in Elaine grew out of a black lawyer's attempt to unionize local black sharecroppers.

In Tulsa, the race riot commission became the forum for setting the historical record straight and acknowledging a debt owed.

The Tulsa race riot erupted on May 31, 1921, as a group of white Tulsans confronted a crowd of blacks that had gathered in support of young black man accused of assaulting a white woman.

The fighting left more than 1,000 homes and businesses destroyed in an area described at the time as "the Negro Wall Street." The death toll remains uncertain. The commission estimates that 75 to 300 people, blacks and whites, died in the confrontation.

The state Legislature has the final say on paying reparations, and no decision is likely before it adjourns in May. But that hasn't stopped some from speaking out against payments.

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