American History Through an African American Lens

Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture

Tulsa Pennies: Remembering the Tulsa Race Riots

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Photo caption:  The race riots of Tulsa, Oklahoma, raged through the thriving black community of Greenwood from May 31 through June 1, 1921.  The violence left at least 300 people dead and scores of businesses destroyed. Ninety-three years later, charred pennies collected shortly after the mayhem ended by young George Monroe – a five-year-old survivor of the riots – have come to the NMAAHC.  Here they will help tell a story of race-based horror and African American resilience.

When curators at the National Museum of African American History and Culture search for a symbol of an event or person, they look for evocative connections that will draw visitors to a time and place that they may know nothing about.

With that expectation, Museum Curator Paul Gardullo has collected charred pennies from the Tulsa Riots of 1921. They were gathered just after the riots by George Monroe, then a 5-year-old who survived the horrors of the country’s worst race riot on record.

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Photo Caption: Photographic postcard of Tulsa race riot, 1921. Collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. 2011.175.3

The pennies came to the museum from Monroe, donated by historian Scott Ellsworth, who befriended Mr. Monroe when writing one of the first histories on the Tulsa Riots, “Death in a Promised Land.” Ellsworth was a friend of Monroe and a student of the esteemed historian Dr. John Hope Franklin, head of the NMAAHC Scholarly Advisory Committee until his death in 2009.

Dr. Franklin also knew and valued this history personally. His father, Buck Colbert Franklin, lost his law office in the riots and successfully fought to have black businesses rebuild in the riot-torn neighborhood. The violence shook a thriving black neighborhood, anchored by so many successful businesses that it was widely known as “Black Wall Street.”

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Photo Caption: Photographic postcard of Tulsa race riot, 1921. Collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.2011.175.14

During the riots, both blacks and whites were armed. When a band of white rioters burst into George Monroe’s home, setting fire to the curtains, he hid under a bed with his siblings. When a rioter stepped on his hand, his sister saved his life by putting her hands over his mouth so he couldn’t scream. “When we went outside, there were a lot of bullets flying, commotion and a lot of fires. I remember that as if it was yesterday,” Mr. Monroe recalled when interviewed in the late 1990s before he passed away. Young George and his siblings survived but the family business, a skating rink, was destroyed. When the fires subsided, George Monroe and other boys went up and down the burned out streets picking up pennies.

“Though these objects are humble, Mr. Monroe’s pennies are powerful touchstones that will allow people to remember this violent episode in our nation’s history,” says Gardullo. “Through them and other objects and stories collected from Tulsa families, visitors will come face to face with personal stories of both pain and violence, survival and resilience that will be part of the Museum’s inaugural exhibition focused on “The Power of Place”.

Written by Jackie Trescott.

Notes

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