Their Lives Mattered: Black Birds in the Sky

On June 1, 1921, an explosion occurred that would shake the very depths of Tulsa, Oklahoma to its core. Tensions between the white and Black residents of the city had been approaching a boiling point and very little had been done to douse the flames. When the tensions finally boiled over, the Tulsa Race Riot happened.

I can’t remember the first time I heard about the Tulsa massacre, but it was a while ago. What I do remember when hearing about it for the first time is that I didn’t believe that it had happened. I could not believe that a group of people would be so hateful that they would destroy an entire town, a town inhabited by Black people. There would be stories. We would have been taught about it. Sure, it was at a time when race relations weren’t their best, but surely there’s no way an entire town would have been destroyed and no one was being taught about it.

I was very, very wrong.

I heard about the Tulsa Race Massacre again when it was featured in HBO’s rendition of Watchmen. It was like a fog was lifting. I heard my inner monologue talking: “I’d remembered hearing about this event, right? This is a fictional show, but…I don’t think that massacre was fictional.” The commentary about this event, obscured by history, seemed to blow up on social media. I was again reminded that this was a thing that may have actually happened. Because there were people to confirm that this event was true, my worst fears came true:

There really was a group of people so hateful that they destroyed an entire town.

University of Tulsa/McFarlin Library Special Collections

After this, I sought to get whatever knowledge I could about the massacre, all the while knowing that I might not like what I found. It seemed difficult at first, and something always seemed to get in the way, so for a little while, I decided to take a break from searching. Then, I was in Target one day and stumbled upon a book that was just what I was looking for. It was one of those serendipitous moments when something kind of just falls into your lop and the stars align.

I will admit that my reluctance to face the pain of this topic played a huge part in not finding anything out sooner, but having come face-to-face with a book in the store that was more or less exactly what I was looking for, I was fresh out of excuses. I bought the book.

I was apprehensive at best when I started reading, but start reading I did. This first half of this book sheds light on information regarding the history of Tulsa itself as well as Oklahoma. This leads up to the events that triggered the riot and then we end with the riot itself. The background information was interesting, but my appetite remained reserved for the second half of the book.

I wondered why this riot started? How did law enforcement let this happen? Had anyone survived? What happen to the town and its residents in the aftermath? Many questions are answered in this book.

The most detrimental part of the riot occurred on June 1, 1921, but it really began on May 31, 1921 when an angry mob of white men wanted to lynch a Black man accused of being inappropriate with a white woman. The area in which the riot had occurred was known as Greenwood, an area of Tulsa inhabited predominantly by Black people. It had been dubbed “Black Wall Street” as the area had Black-owned businesses and experienced a great deal of wealth. With the businesses being Black-owned and residents being Black, all of the money circulated within their community.

In a world dominated by segregation, this seemed a paradise for Black people and it was, but that was also the problem. It was believed that Black people shouldn’t strive for too much, that they should know their places. By owning businesses in a prosperous community, the residents of Greenwood figuratively thumbed their noses at any notions that they could not aspire to greatness.

Their success was offensive and we soon learn about the results of that.

The title of the book comes from a rather horrifying image. Tulsa Massacre survivor Genevieve Elizabeth Tillman Jackson describes a scene from that night, saying, “I saw what I thought were little black birds dropping out of the sky….But those were no little birds; what was falling from the sky…were bullets and devices to set fires, and debris of all kinds.” When reading about a massacre, one expects a description such as this, but that doesn’t make it easy to swallow. The author, Brandy Colbert, does not shy away from these graphic descriptions and it is evident throughout her writing that she has done her due diligence when researching this topic.

I found this book to be extremely informative–from the tensions that led up to the massacre, the events during the riot (which were more heartbreaking than I anticipated), and the aftermath. Oftentimes, I finish a book of this nature feeling confused and having more questions than I began with. I did feel that way when I finished this book, but it was for different reasons. All of my questions about the riot were answered, but I had more questions in general.

We don’t know what happened to some of the victims of this massacre. The official death toll was 37 at the time of the massacre, but it has been widely reported that that number is a mere fraction of the actual count. There were reports of mass graves being dug to dispose of the bodies of the Black residents, some of which have been uncovered only within the past decade. But ultimately, many people were unaccounted for and many of the descendants are still seeking answers and reparations for the damage done not just to their community, but to their families. For them, it is a wrong that was never set right.

Credit: Universal History Archive / Getty Images

This is a violent act of history that was buried for decades. The perpetrators of the crime were largely set free while the victims were charged. The majority of the town of Greenwood burned and whatever else was not burned was looted. People lost everything and it was very difficult to rebuild. This was made worse by the fact that Black people were held in internment camps following the riot and could not be released until or unless a white person vouched for them. Very few residents knew white people who could vouch for them, so they remained in these camps for weeks.

Everything I expected to feel when writing this book, I felt and then some, but I’m still glad I read it and I was left with the biggest question of all:

How far have we come as a society?

Asking myself this question made me sad. Colbert, in the afterword, even says, “[O]ne aspect I was struck by is how little things seem to have actually changed between previous centuries and the time I was living through. Or, rather, how many harmful elements of US politics and culture have endured despite the progress we have achieved.” With the Buffalo shooting still fresh in my mind, that’s exactly how I feel. The sentiments allegedly espoused by the Buffalo shooter were echoed by many of the residents of Tulsa around the time of the massacre.

photo provided by the Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa

This book was illuminating and incredibly important. In the midst of my sadness I felt anger and exhaustion. Anger because how does this continue to happen? With no one seeming to care? Exhaustion because…it keeps happening and I wonder when it will stop. 101 years later and it is still seemingly a problem for Black people to flourish. As true as these feelings are for me, none of those are reasons to shy away from learning about this history. If we don’t learn about our history, we are doomed to repeat it. As Colbert says, “It’s difficult to discuss and even harder to make sense of. But pretending so-called unspeakable things simply didn’t happen is not the way to grow, to become better people, or to make a better world.”

As a society, we have gotten much better, but we still have a ways to go. We cannot let the how difficult a topic is dictate whether or not we learn about it. The pages of history are written in blood and there’s no way around that. The only way to move forward is to make sure we are aware of what has happened in our past. I encourage everyone to read this book. The knowledge of this event has been buried long enough. It is our duty to tell these stories as well as any others that need telling.

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