Trump’s Tulsa Travesty: the Missing Connection

Photograph Source: camaraderie – CC BY 2.0

Rarely do all the major injustices in this country converge at one single place on one single day. President Trump’s re-election rally in Tulsa on June 20 near the site of the 1921 Greenwood massacre that killed 300 black citizens was not only the height of insensitivity; it was, in my opinion, criminally negligent, held indoors at Tulsa’s BOK Center when coronavirus infections were on the rise and the president did not require masks or social distancing for his fans. He even admitted in his speech that he told “my people” to “slow down the testing please!” (His defenders excused it as a joke).

The rally was deliberately provocative, with the usual racist references to “bad hombres” and “kung flu,” quite likely thanks to Trump’s favorite right-wing speech writer and adviser, Stephen Miller, known for penning Trump’s scathing attacks against immigrants and Blacks. Miller is a devotee of Richard Spencer, a notorious white supremacist and supporter of the Ku Klux Klan; it was Spencer who would go on to organize the Charlotte, North Carolina 2017 rally that pitted anti-racism protesters against Neo-Nazis and prompted Trump to declare there were “good people” on both sides.

But there’s more to this Tulsa story, and it has everything to do with the industry that put Oklahoma on the geopolitical map and spurred the growth of the country’s extreme right wing: oil.

The Missing Link

More than 50 refineries once operated in the Cushing area about 50 miles west of Tulsa. Photo: Oklahoma Historical Society.

Judging by the media coverage, you would never know that Tulsa was considered the “oil capital of the world” at the time of the Greenwood massacre, or that the Ku Klux Klan, founded after the Civil War to intimidate and terrorize southern Blacks, was reinvigorated in Tulsa — if not before, then immediately after the 1921 massacres. According to a University of Oklahoma professor who spoke to me in confidence, oil and right wing politics have long been deeply entwined in Oklahoma. But this entanglement rarely comes up in news broadcasts.

As I explain In The Crash of Flight 3804, the mainstream media routinely omits the influence of oil on US foreign policy, and the same is true for the industry’s influence on domestic politics, especially in Oklahoma.

To redress this oversight, I will provide some of the missing links so you can put Trump’s rally in its appropriate historical context. As I have done before, I will “peel away the onion” to get at some core facts.

Why did the Greenwood Massacre Happen?

To answer that question, it’s useful to go back into Oklahoma’s pre-1921 history to look for evidence of racial intolerance. What emerges is a tragic story of western expansion by white settlers accompanied by the dislocation and murder of both Blacks and indigenous peoples. Only recently has there been a national reckoning of the atrocities that befell them, brought on by the spate of horrific police killings of Blacks that inspired outrage and re-energized the Black Lives Matter movement and indigenous rights movement.

As for the horrors visited on Oklahoma’s Indians, David Grann, author of the 2017 bestseller Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI , has brought us a stunning exposé of how the richest people per capita in the world (The Osage, of Osage County in northern Oklahoma, which neighbors Tulsa County) were systematically killed off, again, beginning in 1921 by Whites envious of their oil royalties. Notes Grann’s publisher, the book “is a searing indictment of callousness and prejudice toward American Indians that allowed the murderers to operate with impunity for so long.”

Here, then, is a very brief synopsis of Indian/Black history in Oklahoma.

Oklahoma became the final destination for thousands of American Indians uprooted from their ancestral homelands in south eastern US and forcibly relocated along the trail of tears to what was then known as “Indian Territory” — land set aside in central North America for them by the federal government during the early 19th century. Borders were established for Indian reservations by the Indian Appropriations Act of 1851; the reservations were eventually concentrated into the territory that became Oklahoma. Oklahoma’s very name is derived from the Choctaw Indians’ language, Okla humma, which means “red people.”

Significantly, the name came up when Choctaw chief Allen Wright was negotiating with the federal government in 1866 over the use of Indian territory; it was his hope that Oklahoma would be an all-Indian state, albeit controlled by the United States Superintendent of Indian Affairs. The westward migration of white settlers into Indian territory would shatter any dreams of an all Indian state. So too would the discovery of oil, as pools of the black gold were found seeping out of the lands of Indian territory, soon creating new wealth and a string of prosperous towns fed by the new oil industry. By 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt declared Oklahoma the 46th state at the very time Tulsa became known as the “oil capital of the world.”

Tulsa’s Black Wall Street

Among those who prospered during Oklahoma’s early oil years were former black slaves who arrived mostly from Kansas and settled into the Greenwood section of Tulsa.

Blacks who served as servants and cooks to the town’s white nouveau riche poured their savings into the all-black Greenwood neighborhood, turning it into the wealthiest black community in the United States, earning it the nickname of Black Wall Street. Whites, alarmed by Greenwood’s growing wealth, passed a law in 1910 that segregated the black community from the rest of Tulsa. The move backfired. According to Greenwood chronicler Meagan Day, “In isolation, Greenwood only thrived more. Its main strip boasted attorneys’ offices, auto shops, cafes, a movie theater, funeral homes, pool halls, beauty salons, grocery stores, furriers and confectioneries.”

White resentment festered and finally exploded into rage on May 31, 1921 after rumors spread of an [unproven] sexual assault of a white female teenager by a young black man named Dick Rowland in an elevator. (He would later be exonerated) White mobs attacked Greenwood’s black bystanders and stores indiscriminately; while black residents fought back, they were no match for the better-armed Whites. As Greenwood burned, the Tulsa police called in the National Guard, while police planes surveilled the massacre from above.

After two days of burning and looting, the death toll was put at 100 black residents, with some 1,250 properties burned and 35 city blocks destroyed.

Whites preferred to call those two days “race riots” while Blacks insisted they were massacres. In 1997, after scholars began to look into the incidents, the state set up a Race Riot Commission. In 2001, it concluded that between 100 and 300 people were killed at Greenwood and more than 8,000 people made homeless. It was not until November, 2018 that it changed its name to the Race Massacre Commission.

Enter the Ku Klux Klan

No sooner had black residents begun to rebuild Greenwood after the massacre than the Ku Klux Klan established themselves in Tulsa. According to the Black Wall Street Times, “One week after the destruction of Greenwood the infamous Klansman Tate Brady joined the Tulsa Real Estate Exchange Commission “to assess the property damage caused by the event. The actual goal of the Exchange was to move Blacks farther north and east to make room for new rail lines north of downtown. Immediately, the Exchange began to make rules and regulations that made it extremely difficult for the citizens of Greenwood to rebuild their community.”

Noted Oklahoma’s state historical society, “By September 1921 the Oklahoma City Klan claimed twenty-five hundred members. The Tulsa Klan grew in a similar fashion, numbering two thousand Kluxers soon after the 1921 [massacre] event.”

The Osage: “Red Millionaires” turned murder victims

According to author David Grann, the Osage were “the last tribe in Indian territory to be allotted land,” their having convinced the government to provide up to 657 acres to individual members of the tribe. Part of the 1905 agreement also provided that “the oil, gas, coal or other minerals covered by the lands…are hereby reserved to the Osage tribe.” Thus began a boon to members of the tribe, who leased part of their lands to increasing numbers of white prospectors; within 15 years, however, their prosperity turned into a nightmare. On May 24, 1921 (eerily, one week before the Greenwood massacre), one of the wealthiest members of the tribe, Mollie Burkhard, began to fear that something had happened to her sister, Annie. A few days later, an oil worker found Annie’s body, shot in the head, execution-style. As Grann relays in his book, “one by one, the Osage began to be killed off.” Mollie’s family was a primary target. “Her relatives were shot and poisoned. And it was just the beginning, as more and more members of the tribe began to die under suspicious circumstances.”

As with the Greenwood massacres, white resentment over the Osage’s oil wealth found a convenient vent: murder. Only in their case, the murders took place over a space of a few years, and were often inspired by the desire to take over the Osages’ oil-rich lands.

Writes Tulsa resident Rebecca Nagle in her chronicling of more of this ugly history for the Atlantic, “What is rarely told is how that frenzy of white wealth came after extreme theft and violence against black people, Native people, and those who experienced the compound racism of being both.”

Why did Trump Choose Tulsa for his rally?

The fact that Trump originally chose to have the rally the day before, on Juneteenth, a widely-observed holiday honoring the end of slavery, had many people scratching their heads in disbelief. Was the president being stupid or evil? New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg noted that some of Trump’s closest advisors –including “white nationalist” Stephen Miller,” were sophisticated enough to know what message Trump wanted to send, noting “There’s simply no reason to believe that Trump is going to Tulsa to try to ease intercommunal hostility, rather than exacerbate it.”

Trump had already made it clear where his sympathies lay following weeks of nationwide protests over the brutal police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on March 25th. He and Attorney General William Barr sided with the police, proclaiming the need for law and order, and blaming acts of violence on “Antifa mobs ” (for which there is no evidence) rather than empathizing with American Blacks that they had had enough of police brutality.

Trump’s White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, made a lame attempt at calling Juneteeth a “meaningful day” to the president, saying he “wants to share some of the progress that’s been made as we look forward and more that needs to be done.” When his campaign staff realized that holding the rally on Juneteenth was potentially too inflammatory., they moved the rally to the following day, but they kept the location the same: at Tulsa’s BOK Center.

It was hardly a conciliatory event, bearing out Goldberg’s conclusion even before the rally took place on June 20th, that what Trump really wanted to do was emphasize divisions in the country. “ Trump isn’t torn,” she wrote. “ He wants to tear up the country.”

Trump’s former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci opined that, “Trump’s decision to hold a rally in Tulsa, the location of the single worst incident of racial violence in American history, on Juneteenth… is abhorrent and a wink at his racist supporters. He doesn’t even need votes in Oklahoma.”

A wink — or an embrace of his racist supporters? Trump knew that Oklahoma was a “deep red” state, and judging from his estimates of crowd size, he anticipated a large turnout– something he desperately needed due to poll reports of his sagging popularity. No matter that many of his supporters were likely to contract the Covid-19 virus due to dense indoor packing. What he needed was the image of screaming, adoring fans even if he didn’t need their votes. But I suggest another reason for holding the rally in Tulsa: He likely wanted to connect with the oil men who bankrolled his 2016 campaign. He certainly made direct appeals to their surrogates in Congress, Republican Sens. Jim Inhoe and James Langford, to ensure their support during his 2020 campaign and, to satisfy his base, to get them to introduce legislation against flag-burning, He wanted to make it a criminal offense, despite previous Supreme Court rulings.

As I pointed out in a previous blog, Oklahoma is home to one of Donald Trump’s major backers and advisors, Harold Hamm, founder of the oil company Continental Resources and the self-proclaimed “leader in America’s energy renaissance.”

Oklahoma as of 2019 was the fourth-largest oil producer in the US and boasted the fourth-largest gross withdrawal of natural gas. I say “was,” because the precipitous drop in oil prices during the 2020 pandemic has hit both industries hard. On March 9th, Hamm told Trump that his company lost most of its market value, some $2 billion worth. I speculated then whether some of the Trump Administration’s $2.2 trillion relief package to small businesses went to oil companies instead, which was later borne out. It came as no surprise recently when Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin announced he was refusing to release information on who received taxpayer-backed bailouts.

This deep dig into the significance of Trump’s Rally would not be complete without examining the site of the rally.

The Symbolism of the BOK Center

Besides its ample girth (it can seat over 19,000 people), the center –along with the neighboring BOK tower — are monuments to oil wealth. It was built in 2005 with public and private funds as a multi-purpose arena; more significantly, its naming rights were purchased by the Bank of Oklahoma for $ 11 million.

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BOK Center.

BOK stands for Bank of Oklahoma, whose origins go back to 1910 when four oil investors bought out the failed Farmers National Bank and renamed it the Exchange National Bank of Tulsa. One of the four investors was the infamous Harry F. Sinclair, founder of Sinclair Oil, who would be implicated in the Teapot Dome Scandal in 1922.( Ironically, that scandal, involving bribery and the sale of public oil lands to a private company, is considered the greatest US scandal before Watergate. It has bearing on Trump’s tax returns because of a reform law passed in 1924 which provided the chairs of the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance Committees with the ability to demand tax returns from the IRS.)

When the Great Depression of 1933 hit Oklahoma, several Tulsa oilmen, including Harry Sinclair, invested $6.5 million of their own money to keep the bank afloat. According to BOK Financial’s history, their investment allowed the bank “to become a major player in the early 1930s oil boom.” Reorganized as the National Bank of Tulsa (NBT), it was widely regarded as the “pinnacle of Tulsa success” as it got involved in international business while maintaining “a board of rich and powerful men.”

In 1975, NBT changed its name to Bank of Oklahoma (BOK) and moved its headquarters to the BOK tower. A 52- floor skyscraper, it was the brain-child of oil scion John Williams, CEO of Williams Companies, who envisioned a replica of New York’s World Trade Center. He tapped the same architect of the WTC, but settled on a model half the WTC’s size. Perhaps he just couldn’t quite match the wealth of Nelson and David Rockefeller, heirs to the Standard Oil fortune and creators and financiers of the twin towers(nicknamed by savvy New Yorkers “Nelson” and “David”)

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Bok Tower.

Trump haters may find some sweet justice in the fact that his rally tuned out to be a fiasco due to unexpectedly low attendance, explained in part by the pre-rally revelation that some of Trump’s staff members tested positive for covid-19. But there is a deeper symbolism afoot: that Trump, who deeply resented his exclusion from the Eastern Establishment elite as a new wealth upstart, just couldn’t measure up with his rally site. The BOK center and BOK tower, Impressive as they were in size and dimensions, were no match for the Rockefellers’ twin towers, or the giant One World Trade Center that replaced them, still the tallest building in the US.

Charlotte Dennett is an investigative journalist. Her most recent book, now out in paperback, is Follow the Pipelines: Uncovering the Mystery of a Lost Spy and the Deadly Politics of the Great Game for Oil.