A Lynched Black Wall Street
A Womanist Perspective on Terrorism, Religion, and Black Resilience in the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre
- ISBN: 9781725296039
- Published By: Wipf and Stock Publishers
- Published: May 2021
In her book A Lynched Black Wall Street: A Womanist Perspective on Terrorism, Religion, and Black Resilience in the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, Jerrolyn S. Eulinberg considers the Tulsa Race Massacre as a case study to both illustrate the role and legacy of white supremacy in the United States and to put forward the liberative possibilities which womanist methodologies offer for responding to racial terror. To do so Eulinberg presents an extensive history of Black people in Oklahoma and white racial terror throughout the United States that culminates in the massacre of May 31-June 1, 1921, when a white mob attacked the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, a district popularly called “Black Wall Street.” The book is at its best when Eulinberg weaves together her historical research with the writings of her womanist interlocutors. She covers such a breadth of American history that her book is less an account of Tulsa Race Massacre, the detailing of which takes up only a single chapter, and more of a reflection on the terror and evil of white supremacy and Black women’s sacred resilience in the face of it.
Following an introductory chapter, Eulinberg’s book consists of nine chapters discussing the longer history of the Tulsa Race Massacre. Seven of these chapters cover topics prior to 1921, often at a national scale, meaning that much of the book reads as a theological and historical reflection on the history of American white supremacy broadly, rather than an analysis of the Tulsa Race Massacre specifically. In general, each chapter consists of a historical overview followed by a reflection on its theological significance. Eulinberg offers a sweeping history of Black Oklahoma, beginning with the Black people, both enslaved and free, who walked the Trail of Tears, and continuing with the Black nationalist dreams that drew Black settlers to the dozens of independent Black communities that sprang up after the federal government opened Indian Territory to non-Indigenous settlers. Eulinberg then places the local histories of Tulsa churches and Black women’s leadership within their broader national context before turning for two chapters to the subject of lynching. Finally, three quarters of the way through the book, Eulinberg turns to the Tulsa Race Massacre.
As Eulinberg’s telling of the massacre covers less than 30 pages, readers desiring a detailed historical analysis of the Tulsa Race Massacre may want to look elsewhere. Still, several of Eulinberg’s arguments about the massacre warrant attention. She argues that the Ku Klux Klan was present and involved in some way in the massacre. She privileges historical voices who saw the massacre as planned, while stepping back from making that claim herself. And finally she emphasizes that a significant cause of the massacre was white people’s envy for the wealth, moderate though it often was, that Black people had acquired for themselves in the Greenwood district. By placing her discussion of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre immediately following her chapters on lynching, Eulinberg makes evident how the same dynamics which structured the lynchings of individual Black persons were at play when white Tulsa lynched Black Wall Street.
Eulinberg brings a womanist perspective and methodology to her work as a theologian. She engages closely with Katie Geneva Cannon and Stacey Floyd-Thomas, and she centers the voices of Black Tulsan women like Eddie Faye Gates, Vivian Clark-Adams, and Mary Jones Parrish in order to show how the survival of Black people in Tulsa reflected womanist ethics. Particularly effective is her work narrating Tulsa history through Black women’s experiences, which clearly demonstrates how the Black community in Tulsa survived the 1921 massacre through the strength of its traditional communalism.
Given the significance of the Tulsa Race Massacre to her argument, the book could have been strengthened by greater theological consideration of the event itself. Eulinberg’s most extended theological analyses come in earlier chapters, especially the second chapter about lynching. While she offers cogent theological reflections on Black suffering in the context of racial terror, the relative lack of a theological interpretation of the Tulsa Race Massacre leaves the reader uncertain as to what the author sees as the specific theological significance of the events that transpired in Tulsa on May 31-June 1, 1921. Similarly, given the extent to which Eulinberg considers the histories of Black settlement in Oklahoma, the development of Black churches, and the terrors of lynching, the Tulsa Race Massacre itself is almost swallowed by the book’s presentation of historical context. This shows the reader how the Tulsa Race Massacre was not a deviation from the white supremacist norm, a point Eulinberg wants her readers to take home. However, by pointing to white supremacy as the cause and explanation for the Tulsa Race Massacre, rather than using that event as a case study for theorizing and theologizing white supremacy, Eulinberg’s book makes an argument about how white supremacy led to the Tulsa Race Massacre, rather than how the Tulsa Race Massacre helps us understand and theologically respond to white supremacy.
Nevertheless, Eulinberg weaves together historical research and womanist theological reflection in a narrative that seeks to offer hope where hope would be least expected. The author’s central argument is that since white people have failed to see Black people as equals in their humanity, Black people have established modes of resilience that ensure the community’s survival. For Eulinberg, the resilience of Black people, and Black women specifically, is both sacred and powerfully demonstrated by the Greenwood community rebuilding after the massacre, illustrating the hope she holds for Black people’s survival in a white supremacist America, a hope that stems principally from theological convictions. As Oklahoma, and the United States more generally, begin to have an increased recognition, and a more open discussion, of the Tulsa Race Massacre, Eulinberg reminds us that this massacre, as singularly horrific as it was, is fundamentally part of a longer history of violent white supremacy. Furthermore, she demonstrates how Black women played a central role in both establishing the Greenwood district and ensuring its survival following the massacre.
Michael McLaughlin is a PhD candidate in American religious history at Florida State University.Michael McLaughlinDate Of Review:June 30, 2021