Revolution #266, April 22, 2012

Racist Murders in Sanford and Tulsa: 
Then and Now

In February, a neighborhood-watch captain in Sanford, Florida, shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. A little over a month later, in early April, two white men drove a pickup through a Black area of north Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the middle of the night and began shooting at people. William Allen, Bobby Clark, and Donna (Dannaer) Fields were killed in the rampage, and two others were wounded.

There is a long history in the USA to this racist violence, from brutal life under slavery to lynchings and KKK terror to the epidemic of police murders in recent decades. In particular, Tulsa and the central Florida region near Sanford have been the scenes of several of the most horrific massacres perpetrated against Black people. These crimes were systematically covered up in official histories by those in power.

The three massacres depicted on this page took place in the 1920s, at a time of open segregation in the Jim Crow South. Focusing back to today, the forms of oppression of Black people have changed in various ways, but the systematic targeting of African-Americans for racist brutality and discrimination as a people is a continuing reality. The north side of Tulsa—not far from where the 1921 Greenwood massacre took place—today is a devastated area of nearly 1,000 abandoned homes and businesses, rampant unemployment, and deep poverty. And this is repeated, and multiplied, across the U.S. This system closes the door on millions of Black and Latino youth to any decent future—and then demonizes them as "criminals" and targets them for mass incarceration. More Black men are in prison or jail, on parole, or on probation today than were enslaved before the Civil War.

The history and present-day reality of the USA shows that this system will not—and cannot—end the intolerable oppression of Black people.

The Tulsa, Oklahoma Massacre, 1921

In 1921, the Greenwood district in Tulsa was a community of 15,000 Black people—a small city within a segregated city. There were working people, those who had fled the slave-like chains of sharecropping, veterans back from World War 1, as well as doctors and lawyers and business owners. Some called it the "Black Wall Street." The white racists of Tulsa hated Greenwood, and the powers openly expressed a desire to drive the Black people out.

On May 31, 1921, a Black shoe shiner named Dick Rowland rode an elevator operated by a white woman. When the elevator reached the lobby, some people allegedly heard the woman scream and saw Rowland run from the scene. No charges were ever filed against Rowland. But he was arrested and taken to the county jail.

The next morning, the headline in the Tulsa Tribune screamed out: "To Lynch Negro Tonight." That night, a white mob of some 2,000 descended on the courthouse, intent on lynching Rowland. But then a group of Black men, some in World War 1 military uniforms, marched from Greenwood, courageously confronting the lynch mob. Shots were exchanged, and the Black men, greatly outnumbered, retreated to Greenwood.

The lynch mob got official backing when the police deputized hundreds of the men. One "deputy" said after being sworn in: "Now you can go out and shoot any nigger you see and the law'll be behind you." At dawn, about 10,000 racists armed to the teeth, including with machine guns, invaded Greenwood. There was even strafing and bombing from aircraft.

The people of Greenwood tried to resist—but they could not hold back against the overwhelming force of the enemy. Gangs of white people, many of them Klansmen, went house to house, looting and killing. The fires set by the invaders would destroy about 1,200 houses and businesses, wiping Greenwood off the map.

The Ocoee, Florida 
Massacre, 1920

Ocoee, near Sanford, Florida, had about 1,000 residents, about half Black. Two Black men, Moses Norman and Julius "July" Perry, registered to vote and paid the "poll tax"—which was a way used in the Jim Crow South to prevent Black people from voting, even though they had a legal right to vote under U.S. laws. On November 2, 1920, Norman and Perry went to the polls to vote, but were turned away. Word spread about the incident, and by that night 250 Klansmen gathered in Ocoee. They began to burn and kill, destroying 25 homes and murdering some 50 people. According to one account, "On the morning of November 3rd, July Perry's body is found hanging from a light pole. Nearly a week goes by as 250 deputized Klansmen hold the city, not allowing people to enter or exit, without special permission. The land that was fled by the black citizens was divided up and sold for $1.50 an acre. Blacks would not inhabit the city until sixty-one years later in 1981."

The Rosewood, Florida Massacre, 1923

Rosewood was a small town in the swamps of northwest Florida, about 140 miles west of Sanford. The name came from the cedar trees that grew in the swamp and provided the basis for the logging, sawmill, and related industries in the area. By the 1920s the town had a population of 150, all but one of the families Black. Many of the men worked in the sawmill or as lumberjacks and many women cleaned the homes of the white people in the neighboring town of Sumner. The people of Rosewood also owned their land, although violent oppression and the whole system of white supremacy permeated their lives—Rosewood was still a part of the Amerikkkan South, just a little more than 50 years after slavery was ended. But their relatively independent position in relation to white people gave the people of Rosewood a basis to resist attempts to drive them back into virtual slavery. This made Rosewood a target in the eyes of the white supremacist forces in Sumner and the surrounding areas.

On New Year's Day 1923, a young white woman in Sumner falsely accused a Black man of breaking into her house and beating her. Within the hour a lynch mob with the classic racist mission of "protecting white womanhood" set off to terrorize the Black people in Rosewood. They claimed to be looking for an escapee from a local chain gang named Jesse Hunter, but in reality they unleashed their fury on every Black man, woman and child in Rosewood. Soon the mob grew to include about 1,500 whites—including many KKK members. After a week of lynchings, rapes, mutilations, and other tortures, shootings, and burnings, the town of Rosewood was erased.


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