Tulsa Prelude: the 1919 Race “riot” of my one-time home town

In 2007, I was in my car when NPR started a 15-minute segment on the shameful history of the 1919 race riot of Corbin, Kentucky.

That event wasn’t as bad as what would happen in Tulsa two years later, but that’s not saying much: Corbin is a small town, and somewhere between 6 and 8 percent of its population lost everything in a single night in an event that today we would call ethnic cleansing.

It was also a jaw-dropping revelation.

From age 9 to 11, I lived in Corbin, never hearing a whiff of its sordid past. As I reached my destination and sat in the parking lot listening to the end of the broadcast, all I could think was: how could it have been so thoroughly covered up that I didn’t know?

As the old newspaper clip I’ve used as the image for this post indicates, it was a national story. (If you can’t read it, it’s from the El Paso, Texas.)

The details can be found on Wikipedia or NPR broadcast. But the basic story is a lot like what happened in Tulsa.

Two black men were accused of a crime they may or may not have committed. Local whites reacted by deciding it was time to get rid of all blacks. So they rounded them up at gunpoint, forced them onto a freight train, and shipped them to Tennessee, with nothing but the clothes on their back and the money in their wallets. At least one was murdered.

At least 200 people were expelled in this manner (I’ve seen the figure as high as 260), in a town whose population at the time was about 3,500.

And jaw droppingly, when I was there in the 1960s, nobody peeped a word about it–especially not in the Kentucky history lessons that were a mandatory part of the curriculum. We heard lots about Cumberland Gap, Daniel Boone, and Davy Crockett, but nothing about this.

Looking back, I might have noticed a singular lack of Black faces, compared to what I saw bicycling around the surrounding countryside and visiting other towns. Even today, Corbin is only 0.26 percent Black.

But at that age, you take what you see around you as normal.

When the NPR show ended, one of my first moves was to call my parents, both of whom were then still alive, both of whom managed to infuse me with Martin Luther King’s dream, even though I don’t remember them talking about him directly.

I was expecting to shock them with unfamiliar information. But it turned out that they’d always known. “We didn’t want you judging your playmates by the actions of their grandparents,” they said.

I’ve spent 13 years trying to digest that comment.

I appreciate their intention. Even more, I appreciate the implicit assumption that at age 9 I was ethically mature enough that I might indeed judge my playmates that way, even as they were trying to convince me that the Civil War was actually the War of Northern Aggression–something they might not have know about. (Luckily, my playmates failed to convince me.)

Later, I went on to get what might have been a minor in history, if Michigan State, at the time, had awarded minors.

Which is why today, late on Juneteenth, I am writing about how the Tulsa Massacre–and its subsequent near-erasure from history–was not an isolated event.

I was appalled to learn that my seemingly hometown had also engaged is such behavior. But I am also happy to know that it was not truly erased.

It is only by looking at the past and realizing the depths of what people are truly capable of doing, that we can look to the future and do what is needed to move toward justice.

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