Date: Thu, 12 Aug 1999 21:40:46 -0500 (CDT)
Subject: !*Commission Probes Riot After 78 Years
Article: 72505
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Commission Probes Riot After 78 Years

Associated Press, 9 August 1999, 4:36 a.m. EDT

TULSA, Okla. (AP)—Veneice Dunn Sims thinks stirring up this city’s violent past isn’t such a good idea. The 94-year-old survivor of perhaps the nation’s worst two days of racial violence isn’t sure of the need to stir up stuff when the Tulsa Race Riot Commission opens its doors to survivors today. Nearly 80 years after white mobs torched Tulsa’s black business district, witnesses and survivors get the chance to share their stories with the panel for the first time.

The commission is hearing testimony in hopes of better determining what happened here on May 31, 1921, and if reparations should be made. I think with the progress that has been made since then, they ought to let a dead dog lie dead, Mrs. Sims said. The 11-member panel includes a survivor, historians, lawmakers and community members. It has been investigating the riot for two years, but today marks the first time it has invited survivors to testify. Sixty-two living black survivors have been located. John Hope Franklin, the son of a riot survivor and head of President Clinton’s national advisory board on race, also is scheduled to speak.

The commission, having looked into reports of airplanes bombing blacks and bodies tossed into the Arkansas River, also has searched for mass graves.

The official death count of about three dozen has long been disputed. Historian Scott Ellsworth, a commission aide who also has written a book on the riot, believes at least 200 to 300 people, mostly blacks, perished in the two days of fighting. We’ve had an intense study for over a year just looking at death figures, Ellsworth said. I think we are now convinced this is the largest single incident of racial violence in American history.

The riot broke out May 31, 1921, when a white lynch mob clashed with blacks who came to help protect a black man accused of assaulting a white elevator operator. The woman later refused to bring charges against him. Mobs set fire to homes, businesses and churches in the thriving black business district called Greenwood. When the smoke cleared, more than 35 blocks were in ruins and dozens lay dead. Many blacks left and never returned. The National Guard rounded up thousands of others and held them at the fairgrounds, convention hall and a baseball stadium. For decades, the city seemed to bury those memories with the ashes of Greenwood. It was only in 1996 that it recognized the anniversary of the riot.

The next year, the Legislature created the commission when Tulsa lawmakers raised the issue of restitution. State Rep. Don Ross, inspired by Florida’s decision to pay the descendants of black victims of the 1923 massacre in Rosewood, originally sought payments for survivors. Ross, who is black, now supports tax breaks for businesses that locate in low-income areas, ones he feels were robbed of their economic legacy by the riot. The only record of anybody getting payment as a result of the Tulsa disaster was a white man who owned a pawn shop where guns and ammunition were stolen for an assault on the black community, he said.

State Rep. Forrest Claunch, leader of the Republican caucus, isn’t sure how controversial the issue will be when the commission submits its recommendation on reparations in January. But he sees no reason why this generation should pay for what happened 78 years ago. It becomes tantamount to saying we are entirely a product of our past and I don’t believe that’s true, he said.

Mrs. Sims can still recall the pale blue dress she had to leave behind as she and her family fled in advance of the white mobs. Her home—and the dress neatly laid out for a high school banquet she’d planned to attend—burned during the violence. While Mrs. Sims doesn’t see the need to stir up the past, if someone decides she should be paid for her losses, she wouldn’t mind having something to leave for family members. If they offered, well yes, I’d take it, she said.