The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 by Tim Madigan

Publication Date: February 1, 2003

 

The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 by Tim Madigan takes place in 1921. On June 1, 1921, an estimated 10,000 white citizens of Tulsa, Oklahoma, destroyed the black Greenwood neighborhood known at the time as America’s Black Wall Street. The actual number of casualties is unknown, but the cruelty and indiscriminate horror of the attack lived in the minds of the survivors, who lived in a community whose only crime was a success.

I will never know what it is like to be Black in America. In history, it has always seemed like being one of Henry VIIIs’ wives. He would put up with them as long as they were pretty and docile without opinion and if they in any way displeased or bored him, they might lose their head. That, it seems, is a trivialization and I am sorry for making that comparison. It seems in history and now there is a burning hate and dangerous unrest in the white community. This work shook this reader. The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 should be required reading in every high-school history curriculum. I write this review with horror knowing there was no real recrimination for this vile event where the true number of casualties will never be known. Tim Madigan postulates the secrecy may be due to the fear of being very appropriately charged with murder. The least that can be done is for this horrible event to never again be a open secret. For it to be taught and treated with the same abhorrence of the awful, tragic and cruel events in history.

Madigan tells us that people that moved the area soon after were surprised to hear of the event at the time he was writing the book. 

Madigan paints an alarming picture in The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 by just reporting the facts. So how did it start? A black male shoeshine operator fell into a white elevator operator when the elevator made a sudden move. She called for help and he was jailed. Word started going around Tulsa that a lynch mob was gathering. When word reached Greenwood, seventy-five black men gathered arms and made their way to the jail in order to protect the accused. The Sheriff convinced the men that no one would reach the accused and when they started to leave. One of the white men that had gathered tried to disarm one of the black men and shots broke out leaving several men, mostly white, dead. 

What followed seems to have been more organized than perhaps a group of men could have come up with on the spur of the moment. At first, the black community was holding its own but the large group of people entered buildings and killed those they found, wholly destroying the community. Shots rang from the sky from airplanes flying overhead and while the author doesn’t make a definitive judgment, he certainly points out that the men seemed to be receiving instruction from someone.  

The stories that Madigan relates are disturbing. Honestly, everyone should read this book. The attackers were no discriminators of person. They killed children and just anyone they met not their color. White men died too but approximately 75 percent of the casualties were from the Greenwood community. In the aftermath, a commission was put together to examine the events in the day and in recent years reparations were ordered for the community. Madigan is a reporter and relates events in a very factual manner, but the nature of the event is just devastating. Madigan does pose in his narrative that this was Jim Crow America. In 1921, the most popular Halloween costume was to dress up as a Klan member. They were respected and revered and so wrong. We know where the hate comes, from but the cruelty is just not something I can comprehend.

I am aware that this is less a review and more a reaction piece. The work flowed well. The author is a professional writer. I think his attention to detail speaks in the impact on the reader of the piece. Madigan reached out to the victims in his research as well as those in Tulsa at the time (really, the perpetrators have kept their involvement a close secret for years). I don’t think there could be a more complete work covering this horrible event.

Pick this book up today. I don’t know about you, but I am going to work against hate in my community. For those of us who live internationally, please do not see this as an American problem. We all have hate in our communities and we can all work for change.

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