Colin Brewster is a PhD Student at the University of Leeds, under the supervision of Prof. Rachel Muers and Dr. Alistair Mcfadyen. Colin’s research interests are in Seventh-day Adventist studies, theological ethics, and racism in church and society. Colin Brewster is a member of the Leeds Centre for Religion and Public Life.
Earlier this year I watched a documentary called ‘Black Wall Street’, about racism in America. It was shown on ‘It is Written TV’, which is produced by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. This week I decided to revisit the programme again for Black History Month, and while doing so, I saw that it had won a number of TV awards in several categories; one was a gold award for its writing.
As I re-watched the programme, I was drawn to make connections between Black History Month, ‘Black Wall Street’ and my own PhD research on the Seventh-day Adventist church. Eventually, this process of making connections led me to the question: how does remembering black history shape us religiously and ethically towards wholeness and antiracism? By wholeness, I mean the biblical equivalence of shalom or peace-making, and by antiracism I mean the positive action of resisting racism in all of its forms.
Based on these definitions, I want to propose that black history shapes us religiously and ethically towards wholeness and antiracism in three ways: firstly, black history reminds us to look at our humanity in the mirror of time, and what was unknown, untold and unseen becomes known, audible and visible to us. Secondly, when looking in the mirror of time, black history reminds us that we have to think about our identity, and our actions as we encounter the other in the world. Thirdly, by looking at ourselves in the mirror of time, black history reminds us that we belong to the human family, so we all need to be involved in antiracism if we are all going to get along, and achieve a fuller realisation of a vision of wholeness for our world.
So, remembering black history makes what was unknown, untold and unseen visible. I believe that whenever we as human beings deny ourselves from the possibility of looking into the mirror of time, who we are and who we are becoming, will remain hidden from us. By watching the documentary Black Wall Street, its content reveals humanity’s destructive racial past, and we are warned by the content of the programme not to make the same racially divisive mistakes other generations have made.
The documentary begins with the presenter John Bradshaw inviting his TV audience to consider a specific period of black history that he argues is likely to be unknown to many; in other words for the many, it has remained forgotten history, untold and unseen, but now made audible and visible. The situation he is referring to is the brutal, racially charged massacre that took place in 1921, in the district of Greenwood, which is located in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the United States. Greenwood was an African American district known as ‘Black Wall Street’, aptly named this because of the prosperity and economic wealth that existed in that community. However, we are informed by history that the circumstances in Greenwood took a disastrous turn for the worse.
So, I posit that remembering black history, especially in the case of ‘Black Wall Street’, warns us of the trauma, alienation and violence that racial division causes. As we gaze into the mirror of time, we must decide what type of people we want to be, and how we ought to act in the world when encountering the other. For example, anyone who watches John Bradshaw’s report will be informed about Dick Rowland a young African American who entered an elevator to go up to the bathroom for black’s only, located on the top floor of the Drexel building. In the documentary, Bradshaw informs us that the elevator jolted and some type of physical contact occurred between the black man and the white woman, the young male was falsely accused of wrongdoing, he was arrested and promptly taken to the Tulsa courthouse. The situation quickly escalated, and a group of armed African Americans left Greenwood, went down to the courthouse to protect the accused, but they found they were outnumbered by a mob of white working class people who saw the situation as an opportunity to quell any form of an uprising, and put the so-called inferior race back in their place. In this particular manifestation of white supremacy, the mob in concert with the local media, the police, the KKK and other significant figures in the white community, continued to vilify the inhabitants of Greenwood as criminals, potential targets for arrest and lynching, and eventually the white mob decided to go to Greenwood and riot, and in a mayhem of terrorism, they burned the entirety of Black Wall Street to the ground. Bradshaw adds that 300 people were killed, hundreds injured and 10,000 people left homeless. Also, at the time of this tragic loss in the African American community, a journalist for the Tulsa Tribune reported that survivors returned to Greenwood with their hands in the air, with a hat in one hand, in order to show their submission to the ‘white man’s authority’. The reporter continued, ‘they will not return to the homes they had on Tuesday afternoon, but to heaps of ashes, the angry white man’s reprisal for the wrong inflicted on them by the inferior race’ (Bradshaw 2019).
Lastly, I would argue that black history reminds us that when we look at ourselves in the mirror of time, it is possible for us to be shaped religiously and ethically by a vision of wholeness that reminds us that God made us to be brothers and sisters, fully human, none inferior or superior to the other, of one blood, all interconnected in a mutual web of reality. Therefore, I find it encouraging that in the tragedy of the Black Wall Street massacre, there were people from the black and white community that stood for peacemaking and antiracist solidarity, one with another as brothers and sisters, each of them belonging to the world house, and the same human family.
Therefore, after watching ‘Black Wall Street, I have come to the conclusion that one of the functions of black history is to remind us that we ought to reject the divisiveness of racism in all of its complexity, so that we may be able to coexist in our interconnected mutual web of reality, living in the Spirit of brother/sisterhood as we seek to achieve a fuller realisation of a vision of wholeness and antiracism; in our present and in our future.
Written By: Colin Brewster
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
References and Further Reading
John Bradshaw, Black Wall Street (It is Written) SDA online video recording, YouTube, 17 February 2019, < https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=V9FDA wldmEM> [accessed 6 October 2019].
James Lartey and Sam Morris, ‘How White Americans used Lynching to Terrorize and Control Black People’, The Guardian, 26 April 2018, pp. 4-8 < https://www. theguardian.com/us-news/2018/apr/26/lynchings-memorial-us-south-montgomery-alabama> [accessed 14 October 2019].
Kimberly Fain, ‘The Devastation of Black Wall Street’, JSTOR Daily (2017) <https://daily.jstor.org/the-devastation-of-black-wall-street/> [accessed 14 October 2019].
Matchim Hernandez, ‘It is Written Wins 18 Telly Awards: The Adventist Ministry Receives Its First-ever Gold Telly for “Black Wall Street”, Seventh-day Adventist Church News Articles, (2019) <https://www.nadadventist.org/news/it-written-wins-18-telly-awards> [accessed 14 October 2019].
Christ M. Messer, ‘The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921: Toward an Integrative Theory of Collective Violence’, Journal of Social History, 44/4 (2011) 1217-32 <https:// http://www.jstor.org/stable/41305432?mag=the-devastation-of-black-wall-street&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents> [accessed 14 October 2019].