“What I saw was bad enough, and yet I cannot tell all that I saw.”
– “Events of the Tulsa Disaster,” by Mary E. Jones Parrish
By Channon Hodge, Breeanna Hare, Tami Luhby, Elias Goodstein, Priya Krishnakumar, Nadia Lancy, Toby Lyles, Amy Roberts and Clint Alwahab, CNN
Published May 30, 2021
“The South lost the Civil War. The South’s response to that loss was that it was going to win the race war.”
1863: Detroit, Michigan
On March 6, 1863, a tavern owner named William Faulkner was found guilty of sexually assaulting a White girl. Outside the courthouse, a mostly White crowd clashed with officials as they tried to get at Faulkner.
When they couldn’t, they roamed Detroit’s streets, attacking African Americans and setting buildings on fire, which left nearly 200 Black residents homeless. Local papers had called Faulkner a “negro,” though Faulkner said he was Spanish Indian. Faulkner’s accusers later recanted, and he was released from prison, as noted in research by the late Matthew Kundinger when he was a University of Michigan history student. (Michigan Journal of History)
1875: Clinton, Mississippi
On September 4, 1875, between 1,500 and 2,500 people, most of whom were newly enfranchised Black Republicans and their families, gathered at the site of a former plantation for a picnic and political rally ahead of an election.
A White Democrat who’d been invited to the event heckled a speaker, inciting a fight. Witnesses said the White Democrats turned their weapons on the crowd and started firing. In the days after, a “presumed race riot” became a “massacre.” (Mississippi Encyclopedia)
“Once upon a time in the West, there were over 200 Chinese communities until the Chinese [people] who lived in them were driven out.”
1877: San Francisco, California
Weary of the high unemployment brought on by a depression, White Americans and recent European immigrants turned on the city’s thousands of Chinese workers. On July 23, 1877, around 8,000 people gathered for a labor rally in front of City Hall. Violence broke out and the rally turned into an anti-Chinese mob that set fire to a city wharf before torching, looting and murdering its way through the city’s long-established Chinatown. (SF GATE)
1885: Rock Springs, Wyoming
In the mid-1800s, Chinese immigrants started flowing into the US in search of gold. When the gold rush ended, Chinese people found jobs throughout the country. At a coal mine in Wyoming, White Americans and European immigrants resented the Chinese laborers for accepting lower wages and lashed out.
When a fight broke out between the workers on September 2, 1885, White miners gathered weapons, surrounded the Chinese enclave in Rock Springs, killed 28 Chinese men and burned down 79 of their shacks and houses. (WyoHistory.org)
“Entire communities of people were being effectively reduced overnight to the lower class.”
1917: East St. Louis
“I saw negro women begging for mercy and pleading that they had harmed no one, set upon by white women of the baser sort, who laughed and answered the coarse sallies of men as thy beat the negresses’ faces and breasts with fists, stones and sticks,” wrote reporter Carlos F. Hurd — the day after watching a White mob stone and murder Black people indiscriminately on the streets of East St. Louis on July 2, 1917.
The mob killed nearly 50 people, mostly Black, and drove 6,000 from the city. The mob had formed because of an earlier incident that began with a White man in a Ford who’d been shooting into Black homes. Black residents had armed themselves and fired on two men approaching in a car, killing them. Those men later turned out to be police officers. (St. Louis Post Dispatch Archive)
1919: Corbin, Kentucky
Known for being the birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Corbin is still grappling with its history as a “sundown town.” On October 30 and 31, 1919, an armed mob forced out hundreds of Black residents, bringing in extra rail cars to send them out of town.
From that point on, Black residents simply weren’t welcome there. Corbin was one of thousands of White-only communities throughout the US that became known as a “sundown town,” and remains predominantly White.
1923: Johnstown, Pennsylvania
In early September, after four police officers were killed during a shootout with a Black man, the mayor ordered all Black and Mexican people who had lived in Johnstown for less than seven years to leave the area. He relied on the local Ku Klux Klan to enforce the order, which he said wasn’t directed toward Johnstown’s “law-abiding” Black population, according to the Pittsburgh Quarterly.
An estimated 2,000 Black and Mexican residents were forced out. Black newspapers relentlessly covered the story, drawing national attention. (Pittsburgh Quarterly)
Forsyth County, Georgia, is an affluent, mostly White community near Atlanta that was once home to a thriving Black community until a brutal attack in 1912. CNN’s Ryan Young went to learn more.
The acts of racial violence we’ve described here represent only a few of the atrocities historians continue to learn about today.
Anniversaries, like that of Tulsa, become an opportunity for entire towns to reinvestigate their pasts, and we found that individuals did a lot of this work – either professional historians or local history enthusiasts.
Local media have been key in publicizing historians’ work that has sparked conversations about these events. We’ve also seen newspapers that were able to rely on their own archives for these reinvestigations, like the Chicago Tribune.
Researchers who’ve long studied these events are increasingly combining them into digital projects, where patterns are more visible to a broader audience. The Racial Violence Archive was created by professor Geoff Ward at Washington University in St. Louis. He told CNN he created the archive because he saw that so many of these stories had been suppressed and “the digital archive offers another way into this research and hopefully the work of reckoning.”
James Loewen, who wrote the bestseller “Lies My Teacher Told Me” before his book “Sundown Towns,” has long had a database where he and his small, mostly volunteer team collect submissions on towns that tried to push out people of color. He told CNN he still hears of new incidents and puts them on his site.
Organizations like Blackpast.org, the Smithsonian Institution and PBS also have put free resources online about this history.
Like Forsyth, communities across the country are working with the Equal Justice Initiative and others to erect markers commemorating their violent histories, an interesting phenomenon as more and more monuments to the Confederacy come down.
Finally, whenever we researched an incident for this project, we looked to see if there had been any official repayment of funds or return of property. In many cases, governments have offered official apologies or recognized the victims of racial violence, but survivors and descendants have rarely received any monetary compensation for what they suffered.
That includes the 1921 Tulsa massacre, for which no one has ever been held accountable, and no compensation has been provided to those who survived despite ongoing efforts.