Leadership by Tulsa, Oklahoma, Unitarian Universalist congregations, supported by a $20,000 contribution from the Unitarian Universalist Association, has made it possible for 130 elderly African-American survivors of a 1921 race riot in Tulsa to begin to be compensated for that devastating experience. It appears to be only the second time in U.S. history that survivors of racist violence have received compensation payments.
The 130 survivors, all over the age of eighty, received checks for about $215 in March from Tulsa Metropolitan Ministries (TMM). The Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church, Tulsa, is chair of TMM’s Committee Against Racism, which was instrumental in the creation of the payment plan.
In June 1921 a white mob of several thousand rampaged through the Greenwood section of Tulsa, then a prosperous black area, burning about forty square blocks of homes, businesses, and churches. Estimates of those killed range from 38 to 300. Property damage was estimated at $1.6 million, which in today’s dollars would amount to more than $16 million.
In the mid 1990s, after decades of silence, black legislators persuaded the state to investigate the riot. In April 2001, a state commission recommended five forms of reparations, including direct payments to survivors. That plan remains unfunded, but it helped inspire the Tulsa religious community to move ahead with its own plan.
In November 2001 TMM, at the request of Lavanhar’s committee, authorized collecting donations for payments to survivors. There was a sense of urgency. “In recent months seven of the survivors had died,” said Lavanhar. “We didn’t have years to discuss this. We had to take immediate action.”
The first contribution was the $20,000 from the UUA’s James Reeb Fund for supporting victims of racism. Other contributions include more than $5,000 from All Souls Tulsa and $1,200 from Church of the Restoration, a UU church established in 1988 in the former riot district. “We’re only a congregation of fifty people,” says the Rev. Gerald Davis of Restoration. “For us to raise $1,200 was remarkable. This has been a long road, but there’s a good collaborative spirit. It feels like a movement.” Tulsa’s two other UU congregations, Community UU Congregation and Hope Unitarian, are also committed to the effort.
The $28,048 collected by March was all disbursed to survivors. The plan is to make distributions quarterly if donations on hand total at least $100 per survivor. Contributions should be made to Tulsa Metropolitan Ministries, 221 S. Nogales, Tulsa, OK 74127.
The Tulsa UU and the UUA donations are consonant with an Action of Immediate Witness recommending reparations approved by delegates to the 2001 UUA General Assembly. The new payments are not being called reparations because to do so might bar the survivors from participating in a contemplated class-action lawsuit to obtain reparations from the state or city, Lavanhar said. Instead, the payments are being called “a gift to acknowledge that reparations are owed.”
Lavanhar said the reparations gift fund had generated discussions in many churches, synagogues, and religious groups in Tulsa. “The fund was an act of conscience by the religious community,” he said, “a way of inspiring the rest of the community to come forward.” After TMM’s fund was announced, a task force of the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce announced it was also starting a fund, to try to raise $5,000 per survivor.
Lavanhar has been spokesperson for the payment effort. “It’s been good publicity for our church and for the UUA,” he said. “The community knows we’re standing behind this issue. Most of all, it’s been a significant step in furthering the process of healing, justice, and reconciliation in our city.”
“The gift payments give us an opportunity to write one of the last chapters of the story,” says Lavanhar. In an opinion piece in the Tulsa World, he wrote, “Tulsans today are playing a part in the final chapter in the lives of the remaining survivors. If we do it well, we can make it an uplifting story of values, courage, integrity, and love. It can be an intergenerational, multi-ethnic, interfaith endeavor, just the kind of effort the world needs right now.”
For most of history, reparations have been something that was paid by losers to victors in war. But more and more they are compensation paid to those who have suffered loss of life, property, or cultural identity.
Just after the Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman proposed that each freed slave be given “forty acres and a mule.” Congress and President Andrew Johnson refused.
A century later, calls for black reparations came during the Black Power movement of the 1960s. In 1988 the issue of reparations came to the attention of the American people when Congress authorized restitution to 80,000 Japanese Americans who had been interned during World War II. Each survivor got $20,000.
In the past several years a coalition of prominent civil rights lawyers—the Reparations Coordinating Committee has begun planning national legal action on behalf of the descendants of America’s slaves. One committee member, Charles Ogletree Jr. of Harvard Law School, has said in interviews that reparations would not take the form of “a check in the mail,” but would probably be a renewed emphasis on solving urban problems such as unemployment, poor health care, and an inadequate education system, all of which harm African Americans disproportionately. Bills have been introduced in Congress to establish a national commission on slave reparations and formulate a national apology for slavery but none has made much progress.
Aetna Inc., the nation’s largest health insurer, has apologized in recent years for selling policies in the 1850s that reimbursed slave owners for financial losses when their slaves died. The Hartford Courant newspaper in Connecticut has published a front-page apology for running ads for slave sales and the recapture of runaways in the 1700s and 1800s. Such ads were common before the Civil War. Canada and the U.S. have paid millions to Native American groups for persecution in past centuries. The German, Austrian, and Swiss governments have apologized for actions toward Jews during the Nazi persecution.
There has apparently been only one case in the U.S. where monetary reparations have been made to blacks as the result of racist violence. In 1994 the state of Florida paid nine survivors of the 1923 Rosewood massacre, in which an entire black town was destroyed by angry whites, $150,000 each.
In addition to its $20,000 contribution, the UUA has provided $5,000 for anti-oppression and antiracism efforts in Tulsa. UUA President Bill Sinkford said, “I am delighted we’re able to be supportive of the energy in our congregations in Tulsa. This is a model of how the UUA can do its most effective justice-making work in partnership with congregations. Unitarian Universalism has once again taken a leading role in justice making.”
He noted that Unitarian Universalists are often able to recognize racism sooner than others because of the antiracism work done both by the denomination and by congregations. “We may have a higher level of consciousness on the impact of racism and its presence in the institutions of this culture. This is a sign of our success in this area.”
This article appeared on pages 45–46 of the May/June 2002 issue of UU World.