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Oklahoma Eagle publisher James Goodwin remembers the Tulsa Race Massacre in anti-racism lecture series

| Monday, September 7, 2020

As the centennial of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre approaches, James Goodwin emphasized the importance of recalling the past in the path to racial justice.

A Notre Dame 1961 graduate, an attorney and the publisher of the Oklahoma Eagle — the only Black-owned newspaper in Tulsa, Okla. — Goodwin spoke to the University community in a webinar by the Klau Center for Civil and Human Rights Friday.

“You may ask, ‘Why is Tulsa the subject of this seminar?’” Goodwin began. “It is a place where Black Americans suffered the biggest and the deadliest racist terrorist attack in U.S. history.”

On June 1 and 2, 1921, mobs of white people murdered around 300 Black Tulsans, wounded hundreds and displaced thousands, according to recent reports Dory Mitros Durham, the seminar instructor and lecture moderator, cited.

Goodwin shared a description of the night of the massacre, from an editorial published in the Oklahoma Eagle last year.

“By 1921, although racially segregated, the people of [the] Greenwood [district of Tulsa] flourished against enormous odds,” he read.

On Memorial Day weekend 1921, a white 17-year-old girl and elevator operator claimed Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old Black shoeshiner, had assaulted her. Rowland had initially entered the building to use a segregated bathroom.

Inflammatory misinformation and rumors instigated white Tulsans to find Rowland at the jail where he was being held, with the intent to lynch him. A group of Black men showed up to defend Rowland, and after a scuffle ensued and shots were fired, the race massacre in the Greenwood district of Tulsa began.

“Suddenly, in the ‘twilight’s last gleaming,’ came thousands of white terrorists pillaging and utterly destroying it,” Goodwin continued, reading from the Oklahoma Eagle. “Their guns slaughtered hundreds of innocents. There were ‘bombs bursting in air.’ By the ‘dawn’s early light’ could be seen the ‘red glare’ of the smoldering ruins of [Tulsa’s] thousands of homes and businesses.”

This year, Tulsa has been the focus of national attention as efforts to remember the city’s racial history and to raise awareness of the massacre have been intensified by political figures.

Former Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg visited the city in January and proposed a plan that would include a “$70 billion investment in the nation’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods,” local television station KTUL reported.

President Donald Trump also brought attention to Tulsa when he announced he would hold a rally there June 19, a holiday also known as Juneteenth. Many celebrate Juneteenth as the day when news of freedom reached Black enslaved people in Texas in 1865, more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

The Washington Post reported many historians had been shocked by what they called the “insulting” and “outrageous” decision to hold a rally both an important date and an important place for U.S. racial history. Following the outrage, Trump decided to change the date of the rally to June 20.

Courtesy of Dory Mitros Durham
Publisher of the Oklahoma Eagle and Notre Dame alum, James Goodwin speaks at the Klau Center’s weekly series “Building an Anti-Racist Vocabulary.”

Time at Notre Dame

Goodwin’s 77-page senior thesis, for what was then called the General Program and is now the Program of Liberal Studies, focused on racial disparities in employment in Tulsa.

In his thesis introduction, Goodwin quoted University president emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, a member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, who said “that no American can escape taking a stand on civil rights, that no American can really disengage themselves from this problem.”

“To me, his words meant the same now as they did then,” Goodwin said. “One is either a racist or an anti-racist.”

In the first chapter, he wrote about a cross burning almost 40 years prior, a few days after the Tulsa Massacre. Ku Klux Klan members surrounded the cross, feeling jubilant and victorious, Goodwin said.

“I went on to say that Tulsans do not relish recollection of their ignoble past,” he said. “Whites do not, perhaps because of shame. Negros do not, because of the misery they were forced to endure.”

“But of a necessity, the past must be recalled. For how else can we explain the flagrant inequities between white and negro citizens, which now, and in 1957, exist in Tulsa?” Goodwin said. “Except, that they be explained by the still smothering coals of the cross burnings 40 years ago.”

Advocate in the community

Goodwin recalled his own familys experiences during the massacre.

“In 1921, my father never made it to his high-school prom. It was scheduled the same night of the massacre,” Goodwin said. “And when the massacre occurred, he and his father and mother and four siblings survived the massacre.”

But The Tulsa Star, the city’s first Black-owned newspaper, did not survive.

Goodwin’s paternal grandfather, who he referred to as Papa, had become the business manager for The Star earlier that year. Almost 15 years later, Goodwin’s own father purchased the Oklahoma Eagle, Goodwin said.

By the time Goodwin’s paternal grandparents had moved to Oklahoma, “according to the Oklahoma Historical Society, our state territory suffered through six massacres,” Goodwin said. “Black newspapers in Oklahoma informed Black people, chronicling these atrocities.”

When introducing Goodwin, Mitros Durham also mentioned his work as an attorney. She said Goodwin had successfully defended a Black speaker in a 1969 First Amendment case that reached the Supreme Court and had served as co-counsel in a 2003 suit that sought reparations for victims of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre.

“Although I’m an advocate of the law, I’ve also been an advocate in the community,” Goodwin said.

For 41 years, Goodwin has served as the publisher of the Oklahoma Eagle. 

“As with the law, the newspaper has provided the Black community with a continuous, challenging and undeterred voice to champion the issues that are important and critical toward an inclusive and equitable society,” he said. 

Keeping memory alive

With countless untold stories of racial violence in the U.S., Mitros Durham asked, “How can we ensure that the Tulsa Massacre and other key episodes of racial violence become and remain part of our anti-racist vocabulary, part of our ongoing reckoning with our nation’s history?”

Goodwin mentioned that the Tulsa Massacre is now being taught in the Tulsa public school system, and that “there will have to be a contingent effort to continue to do that.”

In February, CNN reported that Oklahoma state officials had announced plans to incorporate the history of the Tulsa Race Massacre into the curriculum of schools statewide.

“There is more scholarship to be had, more books that are being written about this horrific event,” Goodwin answered. “And I think the purpose of it is not to make people feel bad, but to know that racism has seriously affected this country and still afflicts it.”

Goodwin then reflected on the power of storytelling in teaching racial justice.

“We need to personalize. It will make people understand the human condition with some personal stories. And there are many, many personal stories that should be told and have yet to be told,” Goodwin said.

Mitros Durham asked Goodwin about the purpose of the city’s recent excavations into a possible mass grave site for Blacks killed in the massacre. These efforts started in July, according to NPR.

“Black lives do matter, even if they have been sacrificed,” he said. “It’s important to resurrect them, so that we can look reality in the face. It’s important to give dignity to those people who were not dignified by white folks back then.”

Looking ahead

“You have to have hope,” Goodwin told Mitros Durham, after she asked whether the current racial justice movement gives him reason for optimism.

“I’m very hopeful. It’s not going to be done without a struggle. That’s why people like our newspaper and myself, there are thousands of us out there working in the vineyards against these evils. We must continue to struggle and never give up hope.”

Goodwin expressed hope that the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre will be a “time for celebration of diversity.”

He referred webinar attendees to lectures by Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson and Greg Robinson and to books by Robin DiAngelo, Scott Ellsworth, Darnella Davis, Hannibal B. Johnson, Tim Madigan and Randy Krehbiel, in order to “get a good understanding of this whole issue of racism in America.”

“Hopefully, the more we talk about it, the more we analyze it, the better people will fight against it and understand the importance of being anti-racist,” Goodwin added.

Goodwin’s lecture on Tulsa was part of the “Building an Anti-Racist Vocabulary” series that the Klau Center for Civil and Human Rights is hosting this semester. According to Mitros Durham, approximately 400 students and around 1,000 faculty, staff and alumni have registered for the series, and as many as 700 people have attended the virtual lectures.

The series has already connected participants to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Notre Dame graduate Nikole Hannah-Jones ‘98 and Archbishop Wilton Gregory of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. Videos of all lectures will be made available on the Klau Center’s website.

“The overwhelming feeling that I get,” Mitros Durham told the Observer, “is that our student population wants to do better and wants to do the work necessary to do better…To me, the number one highlight is hearing from the students and hearing their earnestness and sincerity in really wanting to do this,” she said.

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About Adriana Perez

Adriana is a Notre Dame senior from Guayaquil, Ecuador, majoring in political science and minoring in the Gallivan Program of Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. She is currently serving as Editor-in-Chief of The Observer for the 2021-2022 term. You can find her at @adrianamperezr on Twitter.

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