Sometimes the act of forgetting is accomplished through the simple passage of time. Sometimes you have to help it along with a pair of scissors. In the archives of the Tulsa Tribune, a now defunct Oklahoma newspaper, two pages from May 31, 1921, have been clipped away. Researchers believe they contained an inflammatory news story and an editorial--"To Lynch a Negro Tonight"--that egged on the men who set off that year's Tulsa riot, one of the worst episodes of racial violence in American history. When students of the event went looking for those pages, what they found was a blank space.
In the history of race relations in America, there are quite a few blank spaces. Here are two books determined to fill them in. Riot and Remembrance: The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy, by James S. Hirsch (Houghton Mifflin; 358 pages; $25), is a quietly devastating account of Tulsa's two-day convulsion of blood and of the struggle years later to return the riot to living memory through a commission of inquiry. Philip Dray's At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America (Random House; 528 pages; $35) is a powerful history of a practice so common by the turn of the 20th century that "spectacle lynchings" were announced in advance in Southern newspapers. You don't really know what lynching was until you read Dray's ghastly accounts of public butchery and official complicity. Before they died, often by being burned alive, victims were routinely castrated. Fingers and ears were regularly hacked off as souvenirs.
Dray, who has taught at the New School in New York City, provides what is essentially a history of racism in the 100 years after the Civil War, when blacks were set free into a society that instantly contrived new ways to confine, exploit and humiliate them. Lynching became the semiofficial machinery by which the racial caste system was held in place. "We will not endure it forever," W.E.B. DuBois, co-founder of the N.A.A.C.P., warned after one grotesque burning. "If we are to die, in God's name let us perish like men and not like bales of hay."
It was a potential lynching that led to the Tulsa upheaval, in which Greenwood, the city's black neighborhood, was burned to the ground by whites. As author Hirsch points out, that murderous episode was not so much a riot as a racial pogrom--"the liquidation of virtually an entire black community and the institutions that held it together." It started with a white woman charging assault against a shoeshine man who had been alone with her in a department-store elevator. She later withdrew the charge, but not before a mob of whites had gathered outside the jailhouse where the man was being held. To their astonishment, an armed black crowd had also gone there to prevent him from being lynched.