Washington D.C Bureau Chief and Senior White House Correspondent at theGrio April D. Ryan speaks with Chief Egunwale Amusan, a board member at the Center for Public Secrets and a member of the Tulsa Community Remembrance Coalition, on the 1921 Tulsa Massacre and its ramifications on his family.
April Ryan [00:00:00] Finally, what is your connection to Black Wall Street?
Chief Egunwale Amusan [00:00:06] My connection to Black Wall Street is my grandfather, Raymond Beard Sr., who is a survivor of the 1921 massacre. He was an infant raised by his surrogate parents who happened to be his eldest brother and sister. She owned a laundry operation inside of their home at 524 North Greenwood, in the heart of the district. And my uncle, my great-uncle, Matthew, who was his surrogate father during the massacre, he fought in the battle and he left and went to L.A.
They had children. One of their children became well known. His name is Stymie Beard from “The Little Rascals.” Yes. And so that’s their story. But it really broke our family apart. I mean, people went different ways out of fear, of fear of retaliation, fear of being extradited back to Oklahoma for criminal charges. People really just didn’t know what the outcome was going to be after that. So the idea of generational wealth was completely damaged.
The psyche of Black men who had gone from being enslaved not once but twice, so enslaved by Europeans in the South, then by Indians during the Indian Removal Act. So they became freedmen. And then they get experienced Black Wall Street…They come up and they develop and they grow and they raise families. And my family didn’t come back to Oklahoma until the ’40s — or they come back to Tulsa until the ’40s.
Ryan [00:01:40] I can imagine.
Amusan [00:01:41] Yeah.
Ryan [00:01:42] From that kind of pain, Chief Wale, can you tell me the story that’s been handed down in your family? I love stories that are handed down from generation to generation, and they’re so rich with the beauty of our survival in the midst of the struggle. Can you regale us with a story that’s in your family?
Amusan [00:02:04] So it’s interesting you ask that question because how I found out about it was not like people are finding out about it today. Right. This idea of a conspiracy of silence was a real situation. It was a real deal. Like the trauma that people experienced stayed in their — I mean, you talk about epigenetics, right, in passing down through your gene pool and, you know, collective trauma. My family did not talk about it. We talked about Greenwood. We experienced Greenwood.
I got to experience Greenwood at right before urban renewal or urban removal, as we call it. My family didn’t really talk about it until ’97. Yes, because my grandfather became a plaintiff in the reparations lawsuit. And then and I was primarily the only person really interested in the goings on, you know, And I was being security for Johnny Cochran, who was one of the attorneys with Professor Ogletree.
Ryan [00:03:04] So wait a minute. Chief Wale, that was 50 years, pretty much.
Amusan [00:03:07] Yes.
Ryan [00:03:08] Five decades, pretty much. There was silence about this great massacre that your family was a part of?
Amusan [00:03:18] Yes.
Ryan [00:03:19] The trauma…
Amusan [00:03:20] Yes.
Ryan [00:03:21] …Is what silenced them?
Amusan [00:03:23] Absolutely.
Ryan [00:03:25] So tell me about what you found out in ’97.
Amusan [00:03:30] What I found out in ’97. So I had a friend of mine in ’87 that I worked with, an elderly gentleman, about 80 years old, and he was talking to me about Sarah Page and Dick Rowland and the story of Black Wall Street and why it burnt down.
But it was real. It was real short because we were actually talking about interracial relationships. And he went back to Tulsa and what happened in 1921, and I kind of blew it over. You know, I was young. It was almost too difficult to believe, like.
Ryan [00:03:56] You thought it was myth or conjecture.
Amusan [00:04:01] Yeah. Like, this is, this is some urban myth. Urban legend. You know.
Ryan [00:04:04] I thought so too, I thought so too!
Amusan [00:04:07] So my grandfather, when he became a plaintiff. It got really serious and we started to talk about people like his surrogate parents. My aunt, my great-aunt, and his and my great-uncle. And because nobody really — we always knew about Stymie Beard. You know, we had that family reunion with the family Wall of Fame and all of that, but nobody.
Ryan [00:04:30] Was Stymie Beard, Buckwheat?
Amusan [00:04:32] No, that’s a different character. Stymie Beard was the one with the derby. With the black hat.
Ryan [00:04:37] I know — OK. I know who you talk about. Yeah, yeah, the little. The little one.
Amusan [00:04:42] The handsome one like myself. But anyway, he, so anyway, Stymie. I mean, look. So you got, we talked about Stymie, now he must be present. My grandfather’s just really opened up about a lot of things that helped me understand some of the some of the things that were happening in our family, especially amongst the men, because there was this real sense of self dependance, right? Not relying on other people and being prepared for the worst. Right.
And I didn’t, I never really understood where they came from, because in my mind, I’m like, well, we need to be more hopeful, you know, and prepare for the best, not prepare for the worst, you know? And that was that optimistic side of myself that, you know, my mother ingrained in me. But my father was, and grandfather, were very different. And it was because they had a unique experience.
But my grandfather said, “One of the interesting things about Tulsa. And this massacre.” Because I ask, “Why didn’t you talk about this? Why did we never have this discussion? Right. This is really important” so that we understand that that was actually a blueprint for success for us. He said what? “It wasn’t a big deal not talking about Greenwood. It was about what happened after.” And he said, “Don’t you know, at that time people would kill you just for having the discussion, just for the rumor.” You would get kidnapped, right?
Because the Klan would, had what they call weapon parties or kidnappings, you know, And the Klan has numbers increased by the thousand; 25,000 new members after the massacre joined the clan. So in ’22, most people don’t understand and this is what I learned. He said throughout that first year, the reason a lot of people never came back is because they terrorized Black Tulsans for an entire year to ensure they would never, ever talk about this again.
Ryan [00:06:33] And never rebuild like they were probably before.
Amusan [00:06:36] Well, that’s the other thing they did rebuild. They rebuilt Greenwood to 85%. Most people do not know that they rebuilt Greenwood to 85%, but there were two types of Blacks in Oklahoma. You had Native Blacks. Those are Blacks who are freedmen that lived amongst the Indians, people, Indian people. They had all the land and oil wealth, mineral rights.
Then you had state Blacks who are brought, who are recruited to come into Oklahoma. Blacks who are doctors, attorneys, entrepreneurs, real estate agents, had all these skills, right? They were recruited by a man named Edwin McCabe, who wanted Oklahoma to be an all-Black state because Oklahoma already had 27 Black towns pre-Jim Crow and 50 by the time ’21 occurred.
So you had all of these satellite towns of industrious Black communities all throughout Oklahoma, and you had all these Black folks who had been freed by the Native Americans who had 160 acres each, depending on what tribe you belong to. That’s millions of acres. That’s per household member. So if oil — if you had oil on your land like Sara Richter, little Black girl who was 14 years, she was a millionaire by the time she was 14 years old.
Ryan [00:07:53] Hm.
Amusan [00:07:54] There were a lot of people like that. You know, so my grandfather really just, he didn’t want to talk about so much about the massacre, because what it did is it incensed anger. And they knew that if they told the generation after them there was going to be retribution in some way, form or fashion, because most people don’t understand.
They think about Black Wall Street. Black Wall Street is not a linear street that goes north and south, east and west. The Greenwood Historic District was a three-and-a-half square mile area that was completely wiped out. That’s what people don’t really understand. That’s why when people talk about H.R. 40, they always bring up Tulsa.
Ryan [00:08:34] And retribution at H.R.40. So where are you, as relates to reparations for Tulsa and reparations for the descendants of enslaved Africans in this country? Where are you? Is it cash payouts to the descendants of both? Or is it infusing money into the community, or is it both?
Amusan [00:08:58] So I’ve been asked that question. You know, everybody’s doing a documentary now about the events of 1921. There’s like five right now currently, and I’m in probably every one of them, and everyone has asked that exact question. My answer is always the same. We have enough reference points to answer that question. What did you do for Rosewood? What did you do for the Japanese? What did you do for the Jews? Pick one. Pick a system, pick a, pick a format. Pick however you want to do it. We’ll take them all.
Ryan [00:09:30] Tuskegee. The Tuskegee Experiment.
Amusan [00:09:32] Yes. So whatever. It’s like going to court. You know, you always reference a case that had already been, you know, given and processed through the system. You say “Well, based on the state versus X, Y and Z, this was the outcome. And this is what our expectation is. This is what we’re asking for.”
Ryan [00:09:50] So the precedent has been set in your mind?
Amusan [00:09:52] Absolutely.
Ryan [00:09:53] Cash payouts have happened. But what’s happening today, in 2021, is the fact that there are segments of society who don’t want to deal with issues of reparations and let alone a payout that, there’s a thought that it could bankrupt the system for descendants of slaves. And then the next piece is how do you determine who is a descendant of a slave? And do you bring in the Mormon community that has been the curators and the keepers of the historical records? Of people here in this nation.
Amusan [00:10:29] Again, how do we determine who is a Jew? How do we determine who’s a Japanese? Right. How do we determine, how did we determine any of those things? When we addressed those issues. Right. They speak to us as if this is brand new. Right? We know that there’s a belief in reparations because slave owners got paid. Right?
They were the first to receive reparations. We know for a fact that when you have a group of people, a collective of people, and I’m gonna speak to Tulsa specifically, when you have what’s the most common excuse, there are not even people alive who experienced it. You have people alive who were, you know.
Ryan [00:11:10] So far removed from it.
Amusan [00:11:13] Yes, we have three living survivors in Tulsa. We have three living survivors. See, my grandparents didn’t lose in the Supreme Court because the Supreme Court said it was an invalid case. They lost because of the statute of limitations. That’s the only reason. And my grandfather died the same year that the Supreme Court denied them.
Ryan [00:12:05] Human rights violations and other violations, if you can qualify and quantify that, can make this case stronger.
Amusan [00:12:15] That’s a good question as well. One of the things that we did to campaign in Tulsa, the reason people use the word “massacre” today is because we started telling people, even authors and lecturers, we would go to their events and say, listen.
Ryan [00:12:30] Don’t use the word “riot.”
[00:12:31] Yes. You would never call the Jewish Holocaust a “domestic attack.” You would never marginalize the event, the things that happened.
Ryan [00:12:40] And it’s terrorism.
Amusan [00:12:42] Absolutely. It was terrorism. It was ethnic cleansing. It was genocide. It was the Holocaust. If you look up the definition, it fits every single one of those. That’s where our Human Rights Watch is working with us on on the ground level to address this issue. I’m currently a plaintiff on the current lawsuit by Demario Solomon, in the city of Tulsa. We have, we are currently suing the Chamber of Commerce, the Tulsa Police Department, the county Sheriff’s Office, and the National Guard.
We are suing them under a nuisance order because you know, now that reparations, the reparations case went through. You can’t repeat a case twice. Once has been denied by the Supreme Court. So we say, listen, Johnson & Johnson was sued in the state of Oklahoma because of the opioid addiction problem and the nuisance that it caused in our state of Oklahoma won $527 million in that case. We looked at the case. We looked at that nuisance order.
And say, “Guess what? The events of Tulsa, Oklahoma, fit the model completely. Long-term effects. The study of the effects. The cause and effects.” Because we’ve already done a study through the Race Riot Commission report. We don’t even have to do a study. That’s why Tulsa is actually the model for H.R.40. Because what is H.R.40?
Is to go annex and figure out and study the long-term effects of the enslavement of African people. Tulsa, Oklahoma, has already done that. They got a whole commission report that has said the city and the state is liable for what happened, is culpable for what happened in the city of Tulsa.
Ryan [00:14:22] What’s the financial numbers that you’re hearing since you say they’re liable? What are the numbers that you’re hearing?
Amusan [00:14:30] Well, so since we’re talking about finances for your listeners, people need to understand the damages. Property damages in that time period are, in excess with inflation, $100 million in loss. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, in Greenwood, Tulsa, Oklahoma. Compound that right with all the trauma that’s associated with it, the loss of generational wealth. Right? The loss of just the spiritual loss, the spiritual ramifications. You know, you have both physical and spiritual ramifications involved in this.
We can’t even, we have yet to even really dig deep into that, because now, this now we as descendants, we’re talking about it now we’re saying, OK, our predecessors have left the earth. There are three survivors left. We’re going to walk into the courtroom with them. And we’re going to continue this battle because they really thought they had us broken.
And as we prepare for the 100th, the centennial. People ask me, “What does the centennial mean to you?” What’s the difference between 99 years and 100 years of injustice? Nothing but 365 days of a reminder that you have failed to remedy, to give restitution, to give respect or repair. That’s what that means. There’s nothing special about it.
Someone else said “100 years is special.” To live that long, absolutely special. So if we want to talk about 100 years, let’s talk about the three survivors we have who one happens to be 100 years old. He was six months old when it happened. The other two, 105 and 106. So we do this while they live. What is it worth to them? When people speak as if this is a past event. Right? When that’s…when the Black experience has been concurrent, there hasn’t been a break.
People act as if all that’s in the past. If it’s in the past, why have we suffered concurrently? There has been no break in that whole system and that whole process. There’s been no break. And even when we rebuilt Greenwood, we rebuilt it better because they had an ordinance that said “You cannot rebuild unless you use fire-resistant materials, and we’re not selling it to you.”
So they built, rebuilt Greenwood out of brick. But the people who rebuilt it were not all the people who built it originally, because most of those people fled or were murdered and placed in mass graves.
Ryan [00:17:09] What should the Black community know about this because we, for the most part, as we talked earlier, we for the most part heard about this. And I, just like you, I was like, “Really? Is that true?” In my mind, many years ago, was myth or conjecture. But when I heard Senator Lankford say he wanted everyone, every schoolchild in the state to read about this. That was true. And I got the logistics from him. What is it that you want African Americans to know?
Amusan [00:17:52] I want America to know. Right? I want America to know. That the people who built and died in Greenwood, many of them had just returned from war. And I experienced what it meant to be a human being, what it meant to be a citizen of a nation, to vow to uphold the oath of this country, the constitution of this country. And they came back and they saw their community flourishing.
And they understood the Constitution and they said “We have to defend our country from tyranny. We have the right to the 14th Amendment.” They believed in it more than the people who wrote it.
So when the event of Greenwood happened, I want people to know we didn’t lay down in Greenwood. We fought. The only reason we lost Greenwood is because they got six airplanes and went to the sky because they knew they could not win. And they bombed Greenwood. Like they were bombing in Germany. Bombing in France.
Ryan [00:18:58] Was it civilian planes or was it military planes?
Amusan [00:19:03] Civilian planes. Flown by institutional government people. Police department. Or National Guard, or National Guard? That’s why you have to use the term Holocaust–domestic terrorism. You have to call it exactly what it is. We can’t afford to marginalize it. How do you destroy a community from 10 to 15,000 people? In a matter of hours and 24 hours.
How do you do that? Coordinate it. Methodical, well thought out. What do you do with the bodies? You dump them in rivers, you throw them in mass graves because, and you cut off the telegraph lines and you shut off the city so nobody can come in and out. And, you do not inform the governor. Because — and then you get rid of the bodies, because when you do call the governor and the National Guard comes in, you can’t say Black people invaded downtown Tulsa.
If you got a bunch of dead bodies in the Black community and not in the white community, you can’t say it was an invasion by Black people. Right? So this coordinated effort, this state-sanctioned murder that occurred in Tulsa, Oklahoma. When you understand how vicious and sinister that was, you become very cautious and your bloodline starts to remember, OK, in order to, the recipe for our survival is going to be us focusing on how we can redevelop what we lost, how we can rebuild, what we lost.
Because we can all, we can do one or two things. We can seek justice or we can seek vengeance. Today, we’re seeking justice. But the more they move away from it, the more vengeful we feel.
Ryan [00:20:59] It’s powerful. Do you have anything that you would like to add?
Amusan [00:21:04] They can communicate with the mayor of Tulsa and let him know; his name is G.T. Bynum. Let him know. That his statements in the media are wrong. He said, Reparations is an issue that divides people, not brings people together. When you paid reparations to former slave owners, the United States came together as a union. When you took out Black Wall Street murals off the city of Tulsa in the Greenwood District, that was divisive. Not unifying.
So how is it that paying reparations is divisive in a city that has yet to become prosperous because of its failure to recognize what needs to happen in this city? Many of you will hear words like “reconciliation” and things like that. To say reconciliation means that you have formally conciled. We never conciled in Tulsa. We’re looking for conciliation before we can have reconciliation. How do we repeat something we haven’t done yet? Impossible.
So justice for Greenwood, #JusticeForGreenwood. If people want to know about the lawsuit that we currently have, go to Justice for Greenwood and you will see the case. You will see the survivors. You will hear the survivors in their video footage telling you about their experience. You will hear descendants like myself speak. This is what this is about for us. The three R’s: “respect, restitution and repair.”
Ryan [00:22:48] Chief Wale.
Amusan [00:22:50] Yes.
Ryan [00:22:50] So succinctly spoken, so succinctly heartfelt. I get it. I get it. Thank you. Thank you for your time.
Amusan [00:22:58] Absolutely. Thank you for your time as well.
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