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Two days in Tulsa: Revelations and reflections on the 1921 race massacre

May 26, 2021

Listen as ASU professors revisit the violence and silence of Tulsa tragedy, 100 years later

“I have lived through the massacre every day. Our country may forget this history, but I cannot. I will not. And other survivors do not. And our descendants do not.”

On May 18, 2021, 107-year-old Viola Fletcher recounted the terror she witnessed as a 7-year-old child when a white mob violently attacked her all-Black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921. One of the few living survivors of the event known as the Tulsa Race Massacre, Fletcher told her story to a House judiciary subcommittee in Washington, D.C., that heard her case for justice for one of the worst acts of racial violence in the history of the United States — a story that is rarely told.

Burnings, bombings, bodies and the destruction of “Black Wall Street” — the Greenwood District of Tulsa — represent the recollections that continue to haunt Fletcher, along with younger generations who now are breaking the culture of silence that has all but buried the horror of the Tulsa Race Massacre over the past 100 years.

WATCH: Tulsa tragedy, 100 years later

historical photo of a street town with lots of smoke in background

Smoke engulfs buildings and the sky on Archer Street. Photo courtesy Oklahoma State University Tulsa Special Digital Collection (Creative Commons License via Flickr)

Olga Davis, professor of communication in Arizona State University's Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, learned details about her own family’s connection to the Tulsa Race Massacre through her aunt and Tulsa resident Willie Mae Thompson. Before she passed away in 2015 at the age of 104, “Aunt T” shared stories about the attack on the family home during Tulsa’s two days of terror, and of Davis’ grandfather, a physician who bravely carried the front-line role of tending to the living and the dead in the battle-torn streets of Tulsa on May 31 and June 1, 1921.

Listen to her story

historical photo of three Black women circa 1935

Olga Davis’ grandmother Henrietta (middle) and aunts Willie Mae “Aunt T” (left) and Delbert (right) on their way to church circa 1935.

Davis has been unearthing the tragedy of Tulsa for more than 25 years now. It’s a passion project that began with a suggestion from her father to explore the family’s narrative in Tulsa as Davis sought out ideas for her PhD studies at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. It was the first time in her adult life that Davis had heard of the event. And after knocking on many doors to learn more about it, she soon realized why she and so many others were deficient in this knowledge. Listen

Rashad Shabazz, associate professor of African American studies and geography in ASU’s School of Social Transformation and School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, says it wasn’t until the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 that the story around the Tulsa Race Massacre started to reemerge in the public consciousness as investigators and scholars looked at past acts of homegrown terrorism.

Pointing to television series such as HBO’s “Watchmen” and “Lovecraft Country,” both of which built story arcs around Tulsa’s history, Shabazz credits popular culture for bringing renewed and urgent attention to the tragedy in recent years. 

Magic City book cover

“Magic City,” a historical fiction novel by Jewell Parker Rhodes, professor in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, was one of the first novels centered on the race massacre and the first novel Rhodes wrote as an ASU professor.

Listen to her experience in conducting research for her book in Tulsa.

Rhodes’ novel is a fictionalized account of the riot triggered by a sensationalized newspaper report about an encounter between Dick Rowland, a Black 19-year-old shoeshiner, and Sarah Page, a white 17-year-old elevator operator — represented by the characters Joe and Mary in Rhodes’ book. Here she reads an excerpt from her book.

Like Joe in “Magic City,” the real Rowland reportedly came within inches of his life when an angry white mob mobilized with the intent to lynch him. According to various historical accounts, Black residents of Greenwood took up arms to protect Rowland from that almost certain fate. A gunfight ensued between the mob and the Greenwood residents, leaving several killed or wounded. When the Black residents returned to Greenwood, the white mob followed them and attacked the community.

Over a period of about 18 hours, bloodshed left hundreds dead, thousands homeless, and the affluence of one the wealthiest Black communities in the country a shadow of its former self.

a historical photo of a town in ruins after fire

Ruins after the race riots

Photo courtesy Library of Congress
American Red Cross Collection

Greenwood was a community built up by the descendants of enslaved people. Its residents had a professional class including doctors, dentists, lawyers, skilled tradespeople and those in the service economy. Listen to Shabazz talk about how Greenwood came to be.

In the aftermath of the Greenwood massacre, property losses amounted to $1.8 million, or between $100 million and $170 million by today’s labor or income value, according to Calvin J. Schermerhorn, professor and historian in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies.

He says the devastation to Greenwood was profound but, unfortunately, not uncommon for other Black communities across the United States. 

Schermerhorn also says the destruction of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street is one example of how the violent stripping away of gains robbed many African Americans of the opportunity to share generational wealth.

Today, a century after the tragedy, community members, investigators and scholars are examining the legacy of the Tulsa Race Massacre through dialogue and testimonials like those provided by Viola Fletcher and other survivors. But many say words are not enough and are calling for reparations to repair the breach. Shabazz discusses reparations

Others emphasize the importance of staying vigilant and educated in order to avoid the traps of resentments that led to terror in Tulsa. Schermerhorn expands on the subject

And still others say there are lessons to be learned from the strength of the survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre — and inspiration too, if you seek it and speak it.

Davis offers thoughts on the resilience of Tulsa survivors.

Video from C-SPAN: 107-year-old Tulsa Race Massacre survivor Viola Fletcher testifies before Congress on May 18, 2021

Top photo: Greenwood Community on fire, Tulsa 1921. Courtesy Oklahoma State University Tulsa Special Digital Collection (Creative Commons License via Flickr).

Camilla Fojas named director of ASU’s School of Social Transformation

May 26, 2021

This July, Camilla Fojas will join Arizona State University as the new director of the School of Social Transformation. She comes to The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences from the University of Virginia, where she was a professor and chair of the Department of Media Studies with a joint appointment in the Department of American Studies. 

MORE: 4 new directors join ASU's social sciences division portrait of Camilla Fojas, director of ASU’s School of Social Transformation. Fojas has long dark hair, is smiling and wearing glasses This July, Camilla Fojas will join Arizona State University as the new director of the School of Social Transformation. Download Full Image

“The School of Social Transformation is at the forefront of addressing significant social issues facing our country and our world. With her years of experience and insight on these topics, Camilla Fojas will bring the school to the next level with creative solutions and thought leadership,” said Pardis Mahdavi, dean of social sciences in The College. “I look forward to working with her and watching her flourish as director.”  

While at the University of Virginia, Fojas co-directed the Global South Lab and the surveillance and infrastructure research area of the Humanities Informatics Lab. She was previously a Vincent de Paul Professor at DePaul University, teaching Latin American and Latino studies as well as global Asian studies, LGBTQ studies and critical ethnic studies. In addition, she was a National Endowment for the Humanities summer scholar.

Fojas said she was drawn to ASU for the innovation taking place throughout the university and the opportunities available to people of all backgrounds.

“ASU is bold, and in this boldness achieves things that other universities have not yet been able to achieve in terms of access for first-generation students, like myself, and undocumented students, ambitions for broad-based diversity and gender equity, not just in the students and faculty, but in leadership. This is unique and very much what draws me to ASU and to The College,” Fojas said.

She completed her graduate education at New York University, where she received her PhD in comparative literature with a concentration in film and cultural studies of the Americas in 1999 and her master’s degree in comparative literature in 1996. She received a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature and philosophy from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1993. 

Her research interests lie at the intersection of explorations of racial capitalism and border colonialism and imperialism. She is also interested in mixed race studies, comparative ethnic studies and how surveillance cultures and the visual codes of surveillance shape how we see things like racialized borders, gender and sexual norms.

Much of her work is inspired by her background as a child of immigrants and a first-generation college graduate.

“My parents are immigrants to the U.S. from different parts of the world — from the Philippines and England. We also moved back and forth from Hawaii, where I was born, and California, where I was mostly raised,” she said. “When you are a child of immigrants, it’s hard to feel complete belonging in the place where you are born or the places your parents were born. In many ways, this experience informs my work and explorations of, for example, U.S. empire in the expanded boundaries of the U.S. into the Philippines and Hawaii, and the experience and ideas of borders of many kinds, across race and territories.” 

She has authored and co-edited nine books on these topics, most recently “Border Optics: Surveillance Cultures on the U.S.-Mexico Frontier.”

Fojas said her vision for the School of Social Transformation is to continue to elevate the cutting-edge research and activism of the faculty and students, while exploring new paths of curriculum and research.

“I am truly honored to be able to serve the faculty, staff and students of the School of Social Transformation. While I do have some very distinct ideas about the future of the school, I am also aware that any vision or mission is only accomplished in collaboration with others. The School of Social Transformation includes a number of areas of study and research at the fulcrum of some of the most urgent cultural, social and political issues of our time. We can bring principled and fully theorized analyses to the complex intersections of race, queer, trans, Indigenous and feminist issues, and should be present at any conversation that engages them — at ASU and beyond.” 

Emily Balli

Manager of marketing and communications, New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences