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November 11, 2001, Sunday

Something Tulsa Forgot


By Adam Nossiter


THE BURNING
Massacre, Destruction, and
the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.
By Tim Madigan.
Illustrated. 297 pp. New York:
Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press.
$24.95.

FIRE IN BEULAH
By Rilla Askew.
376 pp. New York:
Viking. $25.95.


YOU won't find any mention of what has come to be called, erroneously, the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 in a number of standard histories of the 1920's. This hideous episode doesn't fit well with images of flappers, colorful speakeasies and giddy prosperity. And yet, as one of the more appalling incidents in the nation's racial history, it has good claim to be considered emblematic, at least of what can happen when everyday race hatred is augmented by still darker impulses.

On a hot spring day in June 1921 the whites of Tulsa, Okla., gave in to those impulses: in a frenzy of violence rich and poor, men and women, waged full-scale war on the city's blacks, shooting, burning and looting for hours. When it was over, the once thriving black district called Greenwood was a smoldering ruin, perhaps several hundred black citizens were dead, and thousands more had been herded like animals into various holding pens in the city.

Even after 80 years, the facts still shock, and not like some terrible, distant episode in a history book. There is something contemporary about what happened in Tulsa, perhaps because the context -- a thriving, optimistic Southwestern boom town -- is so recognizable. White Tulsa knew that this story had more than enough ugliness to linger, and aided by a forgetful nation, it persisted until quite recently in what the Texas journalist Tim Madigan calls a ''remarkable conspiracy of silence.'' For decades, memory of the Tulsa Race Riot was forced into hiding, an unmentionable subject even in private settings.

''The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921'' is a powerful book, a harrowing case study made all the more so by Madigan's skillful, clear-eyed telling of it. The principal character is the white mob, an army of fire ants: here spreading gasoline or kerosene, there shooting an elderly couple praying by their bed, dragging blacks behind cars, looting homes and businesses. The instant transformation of a rough-edged community, fitfully prone to violence, into something far worse is one of the sobering mysteries of this terrible tale. It is also an underlying theme of Rilla Askew's novel ''Fire in Beulah,'' which is set in Tulsa and environs around 1920 and culminates in the destruction of Greenwood. Like Madigan, Askew is haunted by the sheer ferocity of the mob, and she sets out, in a series of sketched characters and relationships, to get behind it.

Madigan's main focus is on what happened in Greenwood on June 1, 1921, and the elements of that story are powerful enough. There is Tulsa itself, a brash young town full of oil money and oil field roustabouts, a place where post-World War I nativism was second nature and Ku Klux Klan recruiters found a happy hunting ground. There is Greenwood, the bustling black district across the tracks, where professionals and businessmen were making money in solid brick buildings, a neighborhood whose very success inspired dangerous resentment among the whites.

And there is the swaggering publisher of The Tulsa Tribune, Richard Lloyd Jones, a cousin of Frank Lloyd Wright and a celebrity journalist in his day. Madigan pins a large amount of blame for the destruction of Greenwood on Jones, and he may be right. Jones was a Klan sympathizer who sought to win a circulation war with thundering morality and racism. When a black shoeshine boy was arrested for assaulting a white elevator girl, he published a front-page editorial with the headline ''To Lynch Negro Tonight.'' (The exact contents of the editorial are uncertain, since copies of that day's paper survive, mysteriously, only in altered form.)

Soon after the paper hit the streets, whites began to gather outside the courthouse where the shoeshine boy was being held. Blacks in Greenwood, World War I veterans among them, were determined not to let the mob get away with a lynching, and they flocked to the courthouse too. A shot was fired, a barrage of gunfire followed, and Greenwood's hours were numbered. At first blacks tried to hold their own, firing back. But they were overwhelmed by superior white numbers -- the mob was over 10,000 strong, Madigan reports -- and firepower, along with a white police force happy to lend a hand.

It is possible that the frenzied mob did not initially intend to level the black district. But Madigan reports: ''It soon became evident that the whites would settle for nothing less than scorched earth. They would not be satisfied to kill the Negroes, or to arrest them. They would also try to destroy every vestige of black prosperity.'' He is particularly successful at conveying the mob's methodical efficiency, describing the white women carrying shopping bags for loot, accompanied by armed men toting gasoline. Our engagement with this horrific vision is only slightly marred by the author's acknowledgment of having in some places ''taken the license of approximating dialogue for the purpose of maintaining the narrative'' -- a dubious practice for a journalist.

What fueled the mob? A dehumanizing vision of blacks, accompanied by spasms of hatred, is the answer provided in the historical novel by Rilla Askew, a native Oklahoman and the author of several previous works of fiction. ''Fire in Beulah'' features a lynching oilman, a satanic white roustabout and smug, cruel white ladies. The novel centers around the relationship between the troubled wife of a white oilman and her black maid, who is initially treated with a savagery worthy of Simon Legree.

The best parts of Askew's book come near the end, where she gives us a mob member's internal monologue, effectively getting inside the mind of the beast. Elsewhere, she is not well served by prose that can be overwrought, and by a tendency to spell out internal states that the reader should merely sense.

Yet Askew, in her suggestion of a heedless and profligate white elite, does penetrate the willful amnesia that forms a bitter coda to Madigan's narrative. The oilman's wife, getting over an encounter with her maid, ''pushed it quite comfortably to a confined corner of her mind, and dismissed it.'' This talent for forgetting is itself a partial explanation for the horror of June 1, 1921: a society so deeply unreflective is capable of just about anything.



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