American Pogrom

Here’s one way to define the word pogrom —” a violent riot aimed at the massacre or persecution of an ethnic or religious group, particularly one aimed at Jews. The Russian term originally entered the English language in order to describe 19th and 20th century attacks on Jews in the Russian Empire.” I was a little taken aback a few weeks ago when, speaking on a radio show about a little-remembered American race riot, my friend Alan Spears used the word “pogrom” to describe what happened in East St. Louis, Missouri in 1917, an episode which paved the way for the race riots that occurred a hundred years ago this summer in Washington, DC, Chicago and other places.

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There seems to be disagreement about the dubious honor of being the worst race riot in American history. DC wasn’t quite in that league — something like 12 people died in four days of rioting provoked, in part, by sensational headlines and irresponsible reporting in DC’s four daily newspapers about a black man attacking white women. In the aftermath of the violence, two black men were sentenced to jail for crimes they almost certainly did not commit. Within a few weeks, the Washington situation was overshadowed by five days of rioting in Chicago that left 48 people dead.

I was thinking of all this because earlier this week, in tidying up my desk, I found a newspaper clipping I had been saving. It was the obituary of a woman named Olivia Hooker and she was identified as “One of the last survivors of the 1921 Tulsa race riots.” Ms. Hooker had an illustrious career as one of the first black women to serve in the Coast Guard and as a senior lecturer in psychology at Fordham University. She had also served on the Tulsa Race Riot Commission that in 1997 attempted to determine exactly what happened in that city.

In May, 1921 a black teenager was being held in a Tulsa court house, accused of assaulting a white woman. The riot commission determined that, actually, he had stepped on the white woman’s foot in a crowded elevator. Nonetheless, he was arrested, detained and a white lynch mob formed outside. Black war veterans then began gathering to protect the prisoner and what followed was a gruesome rampage that left Tulsa’s affluent “Black Wall Street” in ruins and as many as 300 African Americans dead. Dr. Hooker remembered it all vividly. She was 6 years old when angry white men raged through Greenwood, the neighborhood where her father owned a department store. Her mother hid her and her siblings under the dining room table but she could see and hear as a mob ransacked her house. “They took everything they thought was valuable,” she remembered. “My mother had [opera singer Enrico] Caruso records she loved. They smashed the Caruso records.” The Washington Post report went on to describe how the rioters set fire to the doll clothes hanging on a line, precious things that Olivia’s grandmother had made for her. Rmembering what happened she told a Post reporter, “It took me a long time to get over my nightmares.”

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That certainly fits the definition of a pogrom, I think — deliberate violence against a particular community. A decade before the riots in DC, Chicago, Tulsa and, sadly, many other communities, Julius Rosenwald had made the connection between the violence that was bringing many Jews from Russia and Poland to this country seeking safety, and the emerging pattern of American violence against blacks. One of the first major race riots in the country occurred in JR’s hometown, Springfield, Illinois in 1908. He was not there at the time but it definitely caught his attention. After that, Rosenwald said in a speech that we look down on the Russians for the way they treat their Jews but what we are doing in this country to black people is not that different. This understanding was one of the things that pushed Rosenwald to invest a large part of his fortune in improving conditions for African Americans.He knew we would never be the fully realized Democracy he believed was possible while part of the population was not sharing in the country’s promise.

How right he was. The causes of riots are complex and multiple; each time it happens it’s unique, each time it happens it’s the same. It’s not always a pogrom but it’s worth remembering that racial violence has happened a lot in our country. Remember LA in 1992? Remember Rodney King? Can’t we all get along?