So President Trump decided it would be a good idea to hold a rally on Juneteenth in Tulsa, Oklahoma, home of the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921.
The United States is in a tough place right now. The Covid-19 epidemic is still rearing its ugly head in many places. George Floyd was killed unnecessarily by overly aggressive police officers in Minneapolis, and it was caught on film by many witnesses. As a result, there are major demonstrations in most cities across the country. In such uncertain times, people are angry, and rightfully so.
The U.S. has a tradition of pulling together in times of difficulty. It helps Americans feel that we are unified and bigger when we work together. It also gives us a place to grieve and heal our losses. However, President Trump has done nothing to bring the country together, and in many ways has purposely used his seat of power to divide us.
I try really hard to stay out of publicly voicing my opinion on political issues, especially in this blog, but after seeing Trump’s actions over the last few weeks, it’s hard not to say something publicly. I was horrified when he used the military to clear out Lafayette Park so that he could cross the street and stand in front of the historic St. John’s Church. He then called in military forces to quell demonstrations in Washington, D.C. that night.
And if that wasn’t enough, I was even more horrified when I heard he purposely planned a rally for June 19th in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the site of the most outrageous act of hatred and violence towards African Americans in our country’s history. Supposedly, Trump’s visit to Tulsa was changed to June 20, which is still insulting to many people, but this does give us the opportunity to understand why visiting Tulsa on June 19th is such a slap in the face (or gut punch?) to so many of our own citizens.
What is Juneteenth?
Juneteenth is a holiday celebrated by African Americans in many cities across the U.S. Juneteenth stands for June 19th, 1865, the date that General Order #3 was read in Galveston, TX announcing the freedom of all slaves in Texas. While the Emancipation Proclamation freeing all slaves in Confederate states and territories went into effect on January 1, 1863, it took the rest of the Civil War to free a lot of people. Trying to escape fighting, many Southerners moved west and brought their slaves with them, so by the war’s end, it is estimated there were around 250,000 enslaved people living in Texas. Because the news was slow to travel and the population was so spread out, it took that long for slaves in outlying areas to find out they were freed.
A little known fact of interest- the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to slaves located in Union-held territories including Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri. It only applied to those states that left the Union. The 13th Amendment later freed all remaining slaves on December 18, 1865.
As a result of the June 19, 1865, General Order #3, African Americans in Texas began celebrating the date of their freedom each year. Juneteenth was originally known as Jubilee Day. As celebrations spread to other areas, various names came about- Emancipation Day, Freedom Day, Cel-Liberation Day, and finally Juneteenth. Juneteenth was originally commemorated mostly in Southern states and went in and out of fashion based on political and cultural pressures.
Today Juneteenth is celebrated by African Americans in many cities throughout the U.S. as a festival of heritage, food, and culture. I attended the Juneteenth Festival here in Syracuse, NY for the first time last year. I found it to be a fun day of community pride and celebration. Our festival includes a parade, great music and food, plus many vendors and educational booths.
What were the Tulsa Race Riots?
Just over 99 years ago this month, the most violent race massacre and incident of domestic terrorism happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma. At the time, the Greenwood District of Tulsa was the most prosperous African American community in the U.S. and known as “Black Wall Street.” Once oil was discovered in Oklahoma, Tulsa became a boomtown, and many African Americans moved there to seek their piece of the American dream. The Greenwood community became self-supporting in many ways, and as a result, very successful.
Since the days of Reconstruction and Jim Crow laws, resentment of African American success ran high in many cities. Riots between whites and African Americans happened fairly regularly as a way to keep black Americans repressed. Check out this extensive list to learn more.
The Tulsa Race Riots kicked off when a young black courier delivered a letter downtown. After riding just two floors, a white woman in the elevator screamed “Rape!” The news spread very quickly, elevated by a newspaper article published in the May 31, 1921, Tulsa Tribune. The young black man was arrested. Both blacks and whites gathered at the courthouse to protest the situation and shots were fired. The African Americans were outnumbered and retreated back to Greenwood. Then things got really out of control.
White mobs rallied and full out attacked the Greenwood district, looting and burning 35 blocks of homes and businesses. Though reports vary, historians estimate that upwards of 300 people were killed. As many as 9,000 African Americans were left homeless. And maybe most shocking, eyewitnesses reported that planes flew over the community and dropped dynamite on the buildings. Let me say that again- Americans purposely bombed the people and properties of Greenwood. And on top of that, many African Americans were arrested and held at the Tulsa Fairgrounds and Convention Center for up to 8 days.
Somehow, this and most other race riots were not included in our textbooks growing up. In fact, I had never heard of the Tulsa Race Riots or Greenwood district until I was watching a PBS special last year, 10 Streets That Changed America, and then did some more research online.
President Trump and Juneteenth
And that brings us back to the issue of President Trump wanting to do a Presidential campaign rally on June 19th in Tulsa. Even though it has supposedly been rescheduled to June 20th, just the fact it was placed on his schedule is disturbing.
President Trump likes to speak and act with very little, if any, filter. He loves the attention he gets from being controversial and adversarial, a formula he mastered while in business, and on his reality tv shows. Trump seems to appeal to the renegade, bad boy personality in many people, and the sad part is that so many people are taking his behaviors as permission to then turn and behave poorly towards others.
I get the desire to be a renegade. I am a free spirit and this whole blog is about embracing who you are as an individual. To breathe deep, be brave, and be yourself. However, that should never be at the expense of someone else.
We are living in a very dangerous time. President Trump is using his power and platform to discredit the media, discredit our political parties, and discredit all three branches of government. He acts because he wants to act. He seems to fire high ranking government officials almost every week. We can only imagine how strained the scene in the White House must be. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to come to the conclusion that his staff and advisors are barely holding things together.
And he says what he says when he wants to say it. Thanks to his tweeting and other public moments, he discredits many groups of U.S. citizens, especially along racial lines.
His desire to visit Tulsa, OK on June 19th, is literally incendiary. He knew it would appeal to his strongest base of supporters, upset minorities, and get him major media coverage. He lives for attention. I’m not sure he is capable of even understanding working for the greater good or loving thy neighbor. These are basic concepts in almost every religion and spiritual practice.
With so much going on in our country right now, we desperately need healing energy. We need to reach out and support one another. We need a sense that things will get better. We need hope. We don’t need anything that will continue to tear us apart. President Trump is purposely fanning flames to ignite resentment and fear of anyone we perceive as different or better than us.
Juneteenth and the Tulsa Race Riots are part of American history. They both tell stories of people who were resilient and determined and had every right to be. Juneteenth has become a day of remembrance as well as a celebration of African American culture and achievement throughout the U.S. While some people moved away after the riots, others stayed to rebuild their lives in Greenwood. The legacies of both show the importance of understanding our complicated history while looking toward the future with hope and humanity. But what we don’t need now is to ignore the lessons and end up repeating history.
For more information on Greenwood and the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921, check out these great articles, audio eye-witness interviews, videos, and resources:
*Read about, listen to firsthand accounts, view photos and resources of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots at the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum virtual exhibit.
*Learn more about The Greenwood Cultural Center and the history of the Greenwood District of Tulsa, OK here.
*Read the 2005 study issued by the National Park Service about the Tulsa Race Riots.
*View this Smithsonian Magazine article containing a powerful eyewitness account of the Tulsa Race Riots.
*Listen to an NPR interview of the last living witness of the Tulsa Race Riots.
Learn more about the history of Juneteeth here:
*Check out this article by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. explaining the history of Juneteenth.
*Read this article from the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture on the legacy of Juneteenth.
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