“LAS VEGAS shooting is easily the deadliest massacre in US history,” proclaimed an online headline in The Independent this week, while the Daily Mirror and others wrote about America’s “worst ever gun massacre”.
While the Mandalay Bay attack was the deadliest of its kind in contemporary history, a few voices on social media argued that the news coverage did not offer a complete picture of the US’s tragic history of mass murder reports The Week.
READ YOUR HISTORY @CNN!! This is NOT “the deadliest mass shooting.” Read about the Tulsa Race Riot and Elaine, AR massacres and others!
JoeInWV @wvjoe911 Fox News uses Las Vegas massacre to crassly attack patriotism of athletes who protest
BLACKKING__666 @666Blackking It was not the deadliest shooting in American history the 1921 Greenwood Race riot was 300 black people got murdered by white people
The tweets refer to an explosion of mob violence against black people in American towns and cities that reached its height in the “Red Summer” of 1919, and ended with one of the deadliest gun massacres on US soil – the Tulsa riots of 1921. So what were these massacres – and why have they been forgotten?
The broader definition of “mass shooting” includes incidents such as the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864, in which soldiers in eastern Colorado opened fire and killed more than 165 Cheyenne and Arapaho tribe members, according to Grant Duwe, author of Mass Murder in the United States: A History, reports the Los Angeles Times.
But there was another deadly period in US history, coinciding with the end of slavery, in 1865, following the South’s defeat in the American Civil War. A spate of racial violence erupted in a period that historian Rayford Logan famously termed “the nadir of American race relations”.
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It started with the end of federal occupation of the defeated Confederate South when the southern states enacted a series of “Jim Crow” laws designed to enforce segregation and keep former slaves in their “place”.
“In South Carolina, black and white textile workers could not work in the same room, enter through the same door, or gaze out of the same window,” according to the Constitutional Rights Foundation. A curfew forbidding black people from going out in public after 10 pm was passed in Mobile, Alabama. Other newly introduced laws were designed to undercut black citizens’ constitutional rights, such as limiting their right to vote.
Violations could be deadly. From the late 1870s up to 1930, more than 3,000 black people were tortured, burned, shot or hanged by white lynch mobs for crimes real or imagined.
Tensions came to a head during the First World War. The flow of immigration from Europe was cut off and around 2.8 million men of working age were drafted, leading to a shortage of labour in America’s industrialised cities.
Given the difficult living conditions in the rural South, about 500,000 black Southerners migrated north and west to fill vacant jobs, many in industries previously dominated by white workers.
When the War ended, white veterans struggling to find a job resented the influx of black faces into the workforce, especially when employers used black labour to break strikes.
In July 1917, following months of run-ins between black workers and white trade unions, a white mob descended on East St. Louis’ black district, where they shot, clubbed or beat black people to death, including children. The official death toll was 39 black deaths and nine white, although police estimated a death toll closer to 100, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The sight of returning black servicemen in uniform also disturbed many whites, who feared that veterans would not accept their prewar status as second-class citizens.
Military service had given black men a “more exalted ideas of their station in life than really exists”, Louisiana’s True Democrat newspaper said at the time, warning that acts of “self-assertion, arrogance and insolence…. will be followed by consequences to them, more or less painful”.
The Red Summer of 1919
In the summer of 1919, the simmering racial and economic tensions exploded. Between May and October, the US Department of Labour recorded at least 25 incidents of mass racial violence in cities including Chicago, Washington DC, Omaha and Knoxville.
The Elaine race riot of 1919
In Elaine, Arkansas, a posse of white men tried to break up a meeting of black sharecroppers attempting to form a union, according to various reports at the time. One white man was shot and killed in the stand-off.
As news spread, armed white men from neighbouring towns poured into Elaine to help suppress what was being described as an “uprising”. The confrontation led to one of America’s most deadly massacres.
Walter F. White, an NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) official dispatched to Elaine to interview witnesses, reported that “negroes were being hunted, and 250 shot down like beasts”. The exact number of deaths is not known, but those who survived were severely treated.
“In all, 77 black citizens – and no whites – were tried and sentenced for their alleged role in the riot,” according to HuffPost.
The Tulsa race riot of 1921 Two years later, the last of the major postwar riots occurred, in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
It began on 31 May with an encounter between Dick Rowland, a black 19-year-old shoeshiner and a white 17-year-old elevator operator, Sarah Page. Although the exact nature of the encounter is unclear – some reports suggest he accidentally stood on her foot – rumours spread that Rowland had raped Page and an angry crowd formed outside the local courthouse.
After several hours, “a white man approached a tall African-American First World War veteran who was carrying an army-issue revolver”, writes Scott Ellsworth, a lecturer at University of Michigan. The pair exchanged words and, in the ensuing scuffle, a shot rang out.
“Almost immediately, members of the white mob – and possibly some law enforcement officers – opened fire on the African-American men, who returned volleys of their own,” says Ellsworth. The rioting spread to the black district of Greenwood, nicknamed “Black Wall Street” for its prosperous businesses and thriving professional class.
A 2001 report commissioned by the Oklahoma state government found evidence that officials actively colluded with the mob, making scores of white men “deputies” and providing them with arms and ammunition. Eyewitnesses would later testify that biplanes from a nearby airfield dropped incendiaries on Greenwood from the sky.
Official reports put the death toll at 39, but the 2001 commission’s report, and historical accounts reported by various media, including CNN, say the number is likely to as many as 300.
“More than 35 blocks were destroyed, along with more than 1,200 homes,” according to Smithsonian magazine.
Gone but not forgotten
While the deaths in the Elaine and Tulsa massacres may outnumber both the Pulse nightclub attack in Florida in 2015 and the Las Vegas attack, they do not feature in most lists of deadliest mass murders in the US.
The explanation may lie in a historical narrative that minimized the one-sided nature of the violence, or historians and the media may be omitting the riots because the exact number of deaths are not known.
Whatever the reason, as Metro online says, “it is important to remember these tragic mass killings, and not let them be forgotten in the annals of history”.