Race riot report urges reparations

Thursday, March 1st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY - A state commission gave a report to Gov. Frank Keating and lawmakers Wednesday that recommends reparations for the 1921 Tulsa race riot, one of the worst racial clashes in U.S. history.

Reparations ``will stand as symbols that fully acknowledge and finally discharge a collective responsibility,'' the Tulsa Race Riot Commission wrote in the report, which followed an investigation of nearly four years.

For a complete transcript of the report CLICK HERE

As many as 300 people may have been killed by a white lynch mob that exchanged gunfire with a group of blacks who sought to protect a shoeshiner who had been accused of assaulting a white woman. The commission said the exact death toll will never be known.

By the next day, the entire black business district known as Greenwood had been torched. Black churches, businesses and more than 1,200 homes lay in ruins. Blacks fled or were herded into detainment centers.

The report did not specify reparations but upheld last year's preliminary report, which recommended reparations ranging from a memorial to direct payments to survivors.

The commission's report was delivered during a State Capitol news conference attended by three survivors of the riot, some of whom wore red lapel buttons that said ``Reparations Now.''

``I remember quite a bit,'' said Joe Burns, a commission member who was 5 years old when the riot broke out. ``Gunshots, fire, smoke. People running, crying, praying.''

``I got shot at,'' said Otis Clark, 98. ``I didn't feel too scared, just trying to get out of the way.''

Commission member Eddie Faye Gates said property owned by Clark's family was taken by whites following the riot without compensation.

``They feel it is unfair. They were not given one cent,'' Gates said.

Legislative leaders said it is premature to consider reparations but said they look forward to debating the idea.

``Some compensation may be in order,'' House Speaker Larry Adair, D-Stilwell, said. ``I think we need to be very cautious on making any commitments on how money is spent in the state of Oklahoma.''

Keating does not support reparations to descendants of survivors.

``If you can show liability on the part of the state, city and county, I do support reparations to survivors,'' Keating said.

``We experienced here an act of shame and embarrassment.''

The commission has no legal authority to assign culpability or assess damages.

But it placed blame not only on those who pulled the triggers, but also those who stood silently by and also kept blacks from the polls and allowed Jim Crow laws and numerous lynchings before the riot.

In all such cases, the government took a role by either participating or performing the deed or failing to prevent or punish it, the commission said.

The commission's report describes how scholars, amateur historians and a dogged search for living survivors yielded the documentary record of the riot.

Black sources that were long dismissed by whites as unreliable were collected, offering new views of what happened.

The work moved the little-known riot from the victim of a ``conspiracy of silence'' into a ``light too bright to ignore,'' the panel wrote. The volume of documents received by the Oklahoma Historical Society from the commission's work is approaching 20,000 pages.

The commission said public officials did not stem the violence but added to it by deputizing white participants and providing them with firearms and ammunition.

``Not one of these criminal acts was then or ever has been prosecuted or punished by the government at any level, municipal, county, state or federal,'' the report said.

The commission was created by the Legislature in 1997 and extended last year. In addition to direct payments to the survivors - 118 of whom are living - it recommended last year that payments also be made to descendants of survivors.

It also called for a scholarship fund available to students affected by the riot, the establishment of an economic development zone in the Greenwood District and a memorial.