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Many Americans are belatedly getting a lesson in black history as President Donald Trump initially scheduled a rally on Juneteeth — a holiday meant to mark the end of slavery — in Tulsa, a city where a maurading white mob killed and displaced thousands of black residents nearly 100 years ago.
The date and location of the president’s first campaign-style rally during the coronavirus pandemic are an outrage, especially as millions of Americans have taken to the streets to join Black Lives Matter marches and to protest police brutality against black Americans.
The rally, which has been pushed back a day to June 20, is also a threat to public health as coronavirus cases are increasing in Tulsa and local health officials have pleaded with the administration to postpone the gathering.
Intentionally or not, this rally sends a message that the president doesn’t understand or care about the current health of Americans or about the long and ongoing history of mistreatment of black Americans.
Juneteenth is a 155-year-old holiday, yet few Americans are familiar with the celebration that loosely marks the end of slavery in the United States.
The holiday — which is Friday — gets its name from June 19, 1865, the day the Union army arrived in Galveston, Texas, to announce that all African-American slaves in the state were free in accordance with President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which was issued nearly three years earlier. Texas was the last state in the Confederacy to receive word that the Civil War was over and that slavery had been abolished.
The day has long been celebrated in Texas, but is little known elsewhere, even though it is a holiday in 46 states, including Maine, where an annual commemoration has long been held in Brewer. Maine lawmakers passed a bill in 2011 to establish the third Saturday in June as Juneteenth Independence Day.
Despite this, recognition of the day remains limited.
Kyla L. Wright, who was then a sophomore journalism major at Hampton University, a historically black university in Virginia, wrote in 2017 that she’d only learned of the holiday the previous year.
“Nine out of 10 college students I know learned about the holiday just within the past five years,” she wrote on The Undefeated website.
“We as a people are lacking education on a holiday that’s supposed to be ours in our classrooms and in our communities,” she wrote.
While the Trump administration has rescheduled the rally for Saturday, it has not changed the location. That’s problematic because of another event that too few Americans know about — race riots in 1921 in Tulsa.
On May 30, 1921, Dick Rowland, a young black man who worked shining shoes, was headed into a downtown Tulsa building to use the “colored” bathroom. He apparently tripped entering an elevator and grabbed the arm of a white woman who ran the operator to steady himself, according to a state commission that reviewed the incident in 2001. The woman screamed and said she’d been assaulted. The next morning Rowland was arrested and charged with attempted assault.
Soon, a group of white men gathered outside the courthouse calling for the lynching of Rowland. The outmanned sheriff’s department repelled the angry mob, which grew to 2,000 and tried to steal guns from a nearby National Guard Armory. Later that day, armed African American men, many of them World War I veterans, showed up outside the courthouse and, after a shot was fired, mayhem ensued. When it ended, a 35-block area known as Greenwood, a prosperous black community, was destroyed. Between 100 and 300 people were killed, according to the commission’s review. Many were chased down and shot by white men, hundreds of whom were deputized and given weapons by local officials.
The police and other government officials offered little assistance to Greenwood residents, whose homes and stores were looted and burned. Instead, they labeled the event a “negro uprising” and some police officers joined in setting fires, according to the state commission’s report. A grand jury blamed the riots on the “colored men” who had gathered at the courthouse, calling the hundreds of white men who were there “purely spectators and curiosity seekers.” No one was ever prosecuted for the killings and destruction. Thousands of Greenwood residents lived in tents for months; many left town as local officials tried to enact ordinances to prohibit the rebuilding of businesses. The charges against Rowland were ultimately dropped.
The riots will formally become part of Oklahoma’s public school curriculum next year.
Against this backdrop, and with coronavirus still posing a threat, Trump’s rally in Tulsa is an irresponsible event that ignores a racist history that America is still struggling to overcome.