This weekend was the anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, one of the most horrifying episodes of organized violence against African-Americans after emancipation.
Linda Christensen, a high school teacher in Portland, has some excellent thoughts on the importance of this event and the potentials of teaching it, especially to her group of mostly African-American students.
Like pearls on a string, we can finger the beads of violent and “legal” expulsions of people of color from their land in the nation: The Cherokee Removal and multiple wars against indigenous people, the 1846-48 U.S. war against Mexico, the Dawes Act, government-sanctioned attacks on Chinese throughout the West, the “race riots” that swept the country starting in 1919, Japanese American internment, and the later use of eminent domain for “urban removal.” The list is long.
This year, Tulsa was one of the instances we studied to probe the legacy of racism and wealth inequality. To stimulate students’ interest in resurrecting this silenced history, I created a mystery about the night of the invasion of Greenwood. I wrote roles for students based on the work of scholars like John Hope Franklin and Scott Ellsworth that gave them each a slice of what happened the night of the “Tulsa Race Riot.” There’s a jumble of events they learn: the arrest of Dick Rowland, a young African American shoe shiner, who allegedly raped Sarah Page, a white elevator operator (later, students learn that authorities dropped all charges); the newspaper article that incited whites and blacks to gather at the courthouse; the assembly of armed black WWI veterans to stop any lynching attempt—26 black men had been lynched in Oklahoma in the previous two decades; the deputizing and arming of whites, many of them KKK members; the internment of blacks; the death of more than 300 African American men, women, and children; the burning and looting of homes and businesses.
Because not all white Tulsans shared the racial views of the white rioters, I included roles of a few whites and a recent immigrant from Mexico who provided refuge in the midst of death and chaos. I wanted students to understand that even in moments of violence, people stood up and reached across race and class borders to help.
That’s some good teaching there. But this is even more important:
Sarah feared that bringing up the past would open old wounds and reignite the racism that initiated the riots. Vince and others disagreed: “This is not just the past. Racial inequality is still a problem. Forgetting about what happened and burying it without dealing with it is why we still have problems today.”
And this was exactly what we wanted kids to see: The past is not dead. We didn’t want students to get lost in the history of Tulsa, though it needs to be remembered; we wanted them to recognize the historical patterns of stolen wealth in black, brown, and poor communities. We wanted them to connect the current economic struggles of people of color by staying alert to these dynamics from the past. We wanted them to see that in many ways that historical black communities like Tulsa are still burning, still being looted.
For most of you, I don’t need to make the case why history is important, but I do get not infrequent comments from random people here on the irrelevancy of studying the past. The work I do on the history of organized labor and environmental history has important implications of understanding these issues in the present; in fact, I’d argue that an argument about what to do going into the future about the present without a grounding in the past is an argument likely to fail. Similarly, not understanding the history of discrimination and violence toward people of color in our nation founded on white supremacy allows people to blame current inequality on people’s laziness, bad morals, or racial characteristics.
This came up in comments to the anti-Chinese post from yesterday. Some of you have no doubt seen this, others have not. From Time Magazine, December 1941.
Building off my Chinese Exclusion Act post from the other day, here is a good example of pure, unadulterated anti-Chinese racism, from the New York Times, August 26, 1885. In short, they all look the same.
Credit to the Times for making this stuff available, even when it is less than flattering to their ancestors at the paper.
On May 6, 1882, President Chester Alan Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act. Although not often seen by the general public as part of our labor history, the Chinese Exclusion Act was the first legislative victory for organized labor in this country. It generated out of the discontent of white labor in the American West toward Chinese competition in general and specifically out of the Workingmen’s Party, a political organization of California’s white working class that threatened to overthrow the state’s two-party system if its major concern was not addressed.
It is useful to think of Chinese exclusion in the context of Gilded Age capital and labor. With capital so overwhelming labor and the free labor ideology of whites controlling their own future through hard work, white labor looked for any solution to the crisis. Generally, they hoped for a single, simple solution that they could grasp onto. That might be Henry George’s Single Tax, the monetaization of silver, the ideas of Edward Bellamy, the 8-hour day, or Chinese exclusion. Workers might swing from one idea to the next, looking for a panacea to industrial capitalism that allowed them to retake control over their own lives. Why Chinese exclusion? The idea of a white man’s republic seemed under threat from racialized labor who would seem to take any job at any price, driving down wages for white men, channeling profits into the capitalists’ arms, and undermining the ability of white men to control their own lives. Eliminate the Chinese and you go a long ways to resetting the balance of power between labor and capital.
When whites moved to California in the late 1840s, most saw it is as a white man’s country. This meant that any job done by a non-white was stealing a job from a white person. When they flowed across the nation during the Gold Rush, they assumed the gold was there for the taking, without competition. Lo and behold, news of the gold had traveled around the world. Native Americans were already there. Miners streamed northward from Mexico, Peru, and Chile. They came from France and Germany. They traveled across the Pacific from Hawaii, Australia, and especially China. While the Australians and Germans and most other Europeans were acceptable to the miners, the non-whites and the French were not. Mexicans and Chinese found their claims stolen, the French (who were seen on the same level as Mexicans) were made unwelcome. Most of the competitors went back home by the early 1850s in the face of American white supremacy.
There was one caveat for this. California was a nearly all-male space. Miners were totally out of sorts because there were no women to clean and cook for them. It really affected them profoundly, as one can see if you read their diaries. Mostly, they lived in filth. But over time, the Chinese were feminized to take over the jobs the whites did not want. This is the origin of the Chinese restaurant and Chinese laundry. Although gender ratios slowly equalized, the Chinese had developed strong communities in California cities. The Chinese also became the cheap labor of choice for industrialists looking to build railroad with inhumane working conditions that most whites would not accept.
So-called “anticoolie clubs” became common among whites resentful of Chinese labor. For example, in 1867, a group of white San Franciscans in an anticoolie club drove a gang of Chinese laborers from their railroad work. These ethnic-based clubs were not so different from the Protestant-supremacist riots of pre-Civil War New England against the Irish. These clubs engaged in a boycott of Chinese-made goods beginning in 1859. They also became connected to the burgeoning trade union movement in California. But unionism had a very difficult time getting established in California and the anti-coolie organizations helped fill that working-class vacuum.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, the Chinese question came to dominate California politics. Into this debate came the Workingmen’s Party. Began among German immigrants in the east in 1876 as a sort of socialist big tent party, in California, the leadership of Denis Kearney turned it into a 1-platform political movement: kick out the Chinese. Kearney, an Irish immigrant, arrived in San Francisco in 1873 and immediately became involved in politics. Combining fervent anti-Chinese hate with violent threats against his political opponents, Kearney took over the Workingmen’s Party to unite white working-class and anti-Chinese politics. At the 1879 California Constitutional Convention, Kearney and his supporters inserted a variety of anti-Chinese laws into the document. The most important of the clauses in the new constitution banned the employment of the Chinese. But business leaders opposed all of this and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned these provisions.
For Kearney and his followers, eliminating the Chinese was just the first step in retaking control of the republic for the working man. Once the Chinese question was settled, Kearney wanted to go after the capitalists. Said Kearney,
”When the Chinese question is settled, we can discuss whether it would be better to hang, shoot, or cut the capitalists to pieces. In six months we will have 50,000 mean ready to go out. . . and if ‘John’ [the Chinese] don’t leave here, we will drive him and his aborts [sic] into the sea… We are ready to do it… If the ballot fails, we are ready to use the bullet.”
Although primarily a California movement, by the late 1870s, the anti-Chinese fears began to spread among whites throughout the nation, despite the fact that outside of New York City and western mining towns, the Chinese population was near zero. In 1876, both parties adapted anti-Chinese planks to their party platforms. Kearney took an eastern tour in 1878, speaking to a crowd of thousands in Boston and campaigning with future Greenback Party presidential candidate Benjamin Butler, although his national star faded quickly, in part because of his anti-capitalist views, and he returned to San Francisco without the national popularity he craved. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. Among its provisions was to bar the Chinese from citizenship and required each Chinese to acquire a certificate of residence or face deportation. In 1902, the Geary Act made the Chinese Exclusion Act permanent, as opposed to the 10-year extensions mandated in the original law.
Workingmen’s Party poster
Organized labor strongly supported most laws to end Chinese immigration. The Knights of Labor were strongly anti-Chinese and banned Asians from the organization. A group of Knights in Tacoma, Washington spearheaded anti-Chinese violence in Tacoma, Washington in 1885. The American Federation of Labor began in 1886, after Chinese Exclusion, but AFL head Samuel Gompers supported the extension of the law, as well as other anti-immigration legislation through the 1920s.
The passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act was hardly the end of violence against Chinese labor, as the Chinese community in Rock Springs, Wyoming would find out in 1885. But it was the effective end of the Workingman’s Party and the end of anti-Chinese groups threatening the established political system.
Kearney’s star faded rapidly after the Chinese Exclusion Act. He died in obscurity in 1907.
Legal Chinese immigration effectively stopped until 1943, when the nation’s wartime alliance with China made exclusion politically untenable and when anti-Japanese sentiment put the Chinese in a new light for many Americans. However, with exclusion, the Chinese began to migrate to northern Mexico and British Columbia and crossing into the United States, forcing the U.S. to create the Border Patrol.
This is the 59th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.
A conservative group connected to Colorado’s Secretary of State has been sending political mailers — including a picture of a darker-skinned woman whose face was digitally removed and replaced with a white woman’s face — in an attempt to oppose a landmark voting bill that may soon become law.
Colorado is currently considering a major piece of legislation to improve the state’s voting laws by implementing Election Day Registration, automatically sending mail ballots to every voter, and creating a real-time voter database to detect and prevent fraud. It passed the House last week and will now be taken up by the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Secretary of State Scott Gessler, a frequent speaker at True The Vote events who uses his perch to warn about the supposed threat of voter fraud, is leading opposition to the bill, which is supported by a number of Republican County Clerks and the Colorado County Clerks Association.
Now, a dark money group named the “Citizens for Free and Fair Elections”, which lists its address as that of Gessler’s former firm, the Hackstaff Law Group, is sending out photoshopped mailers in an attempt to pressure the election clerks into switching their position.
You can see the photoshopping job in a series of images in the attached link. Classy stuff.
Frank Gaffney is working his racist magic in Oklahoma, convincing the Oklahoma legislature (a willing group no doubt) to pass an anti-Sharia law by enormous margins, thus protecting the good people from Oklahoma from the impending horrors of global islamofascism or something.
This is a pretty amazing story of the discovery of a mass grave of Irish laborers who died in the 1832 cholera epidemic. Basically, the Irish found whatever jobs they could when they arrived in the United States. A lot of this was in the growing industry of building transportation infrastructure, mostly railroads but also canals. There were almost no safety precautions in construction at this time. Over 1000 workers died building the Erie Canal, a point rarely brought up. 1000! That’s a lot of dead people.
I want to focus on one piece of the story. During the epidemic, the Irish laborers were not allowed to leave their camp.:
Dr. Monge found signs of blunt head trauma in three more sets of remains, as well as a bullet hole in another. For the researchers, these forensic clues, coupled with contemporaneous news accounts, conjure a possible sequence of events in which a few workers escaped from an enforced quarantine, were subdued and killed, then returned in coffins to Duffy’s Cut, where the rest soon died of disease. Then all were buried in an anonymous grave.
“I actually think it was a massacre,” Dr. Monge said.
When the Irish sought to escape death in their makeshift concentration camp, they were murdered in cold blood.
The 1832 cholera epidemic was the first of the three great cholera epidemics to ravage the United States in the 19th century. And it was really scary. Cholera only came to Europe from India in the 1810s and 1832 was the first true year of the epidemic. So people didn’t know what was going on. When you combine that with the other epidemic of the early 19th century–racism against the Irish–you have the recipe for an even greater disaster. With Irish lives worth so little in the United States, shooting and beating them to death to keep them away from the non-infected was an all too easy decision for a lot of Americans.
The everyday violence of 19th century America is largely lost to us, which is one reason why I respected the show Deadwood so much–it was really only the second major cultural event to display the sheer ugliness of the 19th century (Gangs of New York being the first). For most of the 20th century, you really couldn’t honestly display that stuff and now it seems very distant. The lack of accessible media for the period doesn’t help; not only were there no photographs and recorded music and movies, but even the editorial cartoons of the time are completely opaque for the modern reader.
It wasn’t until Thomas Nast that this began to change. Not coincidentally, editorial cartoons are really only teachable beginning with Nast.
So this story made me really sad. But it also at least provides a window into a lost bit of American history, even if it is something we’d probably rather forget.
It’s true that busing didn’t really work very well. It was a clunky approach to a horrible problem of school inequality. It was an incredibly brave plan, particularly in the face of the extraordinary racism in Boston during the 1970s. I’m not sure how it could have really worked in a functional way though.
Meanwhile, for all our patting our own backs about racism not being as bad as it was forty years ago, school segregation and inequality remain intractable problems.
As a white male, being attacked by the hate-spewing mouthbreathers of the internet gun lobby was horrible. Were I a black woman like Zerlina Maxwell who rejected the ludicrous notion that women should be responsible for preventing their own rapes by carrying a gun, the awfulness would have been magnified 100-fold.
In a world where the key provision of the Voting Rights Act is about to be overturned, repealing civil rights won with the bloodshed of thousands of victims, it’s hardly surprising that open racism would come back into vogue. Take the brand-new cover of Bloomberg Businessweek:
Plutocrat created, Scalia approved!
To quote Yglesias: “The idea is that we can know things are really getting out of hand since even nonwhite people can get loans these days! They ought to be ashamed.”