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The mass media coverage of how 32 students and faculty members were fatally shot and at least 15 injured on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, Va., is punctuated by phrases such as, “the worst massacre in U.S. history,” or, as the New York Times put it, the “Worst U.S. Gun Rampage.” CNN called it the “Deadliest Shooting Rampage in U.S. history.”
This was followed by San Francisco Bay Area’s FOX affiliate KTVU Channel 2’s claim that it was “the worst massacre ever in the United States.” TV commentary did not qualify these claims, and at least one Virginia Tech student, an Asian American himself, echoed the phrase when interviewed on national television, pondering his presence at the “worst massacre in U.S. history.” In reality, an accurate investigation of mass killings of this magnitude would quickly reveal that the Virginia Tech massacre, as horrendous as it was, was not the worst massacre to occur on U.S. soil.
There were much bloodier massacres before Blacksburg:
— In 1860, Bret Harte, a well-known California writer, had just begun his writing career, working as a newspaper reporter in Arcata (known then as Union). Harte was expelled from Humboldt County because he recorded the Gunther Island Massacre of Wiyot Indians, committed on Feb. 26, 1860, when a small group of white men murdered between 60 and 200 Wiyot men, women and children. The massacre was encouraged by a local newspaper. Extermination was once the official policy of the California government toward Native Americans, as Gov. Peter H. Burnett stated in 1851: “That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct, must be expected…”
— On April 12, 1864, at Fort Pillow, near Memphis, Tenn., Confederate troops under Gen. Nathan Forrest massacred 227 black and white Union troops with such ferocity that an eyewitness Confederate soldier said, “blood, human blood, stood about in pools and brains could have been gathered up in any quantity…Gen. Forrest ordered them shot down like dogs and the carnage continued. Finally our men became sick of blood and the firing ceased.”
— On April 13, 1873, 350 miles northwest of New Orleans in Colfax, Grand Parish, La., 280 blacks were victims of a group of armed white men that included members of the White League and the Ku Klux Klan. Known as the Colfax Massacre, it was said to be sparked by contested local elections, although more generally its cause was white opposition to Reconstruction, which in 1875 resulted in a legal ruling, United States vs. Cruikshank, an important basis of future gun-control legislation, because it allows that “the federal government had no power to protect citizens against private action (not committed by federal or state government authorities) that deprived them of their constitutional rights under the 14th Amendment.”
— In 1913, during another nationally publicized action known as the Ludlow Massacre, more than 66 people were killed, including 11 children, and two women who were burned alive. Sparked by a strike against the Rockefeller family-owned Colorado Fuel and Iron Corporation by the mostly foreign born Serb, Greek and Italian coal miners after one of their union organizers was murdered, it eventually involved the Colorado National Guard, imported strikebreakers and sympathetic walkouts by union miners throughout the state. The union never was recognized by the company, and a U.S. congressional committee investigation failed to result in indictments of any militiaman or mine guard.
— In 1921, a year when 64 lynchings were reported, the African American Greenwood business district of Tulsa, Okla., was the site of shooting deaths of at least 40 people, most of whom were black, although the undocumented death toll is said to be closer to 300. This site was then known as the “Negro’s Wall Street,” and was home to 15,000 people and 191 businesses. The rampage took the form of a riot, and was caused by economic tensions, particularly sparked by an article in the Tulsa Tribune regarding an alleged rape incident between a black shoe shiner and a white elevator operator. Because of this riot, Tulsa became the first U.S. city to be bombed from the air, when police dropped dynamite from private planes to break it up. Whites took possession of most of the land, and the site has become part of Oklahoma State University’s Tulsa campus.
The reporting of the Virginia Tech massacre reveals that an ignorance of American history is not only a problem affecting American students but extends to our most influential newsrooms, even those with archives extending back to the 1800s. A member of the New York Times’ editorial staff is Brent Staples, a black writer who is an expert on the Tulsa massacre. There is no excuse for such historical amnesia on the part of those who have taken upon themselves the serious task of informing the public.
CARLA BLANK is the author of “Rediscovering America” (Three Rivers Press,
This essay originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.