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Our very own Tulsa race ‛massacre’

It would be remiss of me to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, known also as the bombing of “Black Wall Street”, and not mention those equivalent attitudes and actions happening in Bermuda.

Scenes from the Tulsa Race Massacre 100 years ago (Photograph courtesy of Getty Images)

No, there were no aircraft flying overhead bombing buildings below, or militia walking the streets shooting people, but the effectiveness of the campaigns launched on Bermuda soil against Black merchants was just as economically shifting and devastating to the commercial landscape for all of Bermuda as was Tulsa to America.

In America the exercise was swift and, once done, it was buried so effectively that it was not just erased from memory, but for many today it’s even hard to imagine that at one time there were 30 blocks of a very successful business district replete with doctors, lawyers, accountants and businesses — all run by Black people in the United States.

However, while that may be true of the US, it would not be as difficult for anyone my age to remember a time in Bermuda during segregation that there were two commercial players in the marketplace, both within the city and in our neighbourhoods. Hotels and tourism, restaurant and hospitality, movie halls, and theatres or bowling alleys, it didn’t matter what area we looked at — there was everywhere two players in the commercial environment. No, they were not equal, but it was our economic and social reality.

It would be dishonest to dismiss that reality of Bermuda and would be an indication of some form of societal neurosis not to examine what happened to bring about that significant economic change. Yes, there is the simple explanation of desegregation causing a run on Black business because White establishments were now open to the eager Black customers. However, the middle-class merchants of that day were also relatively strong and the competition issue could have been met with business upgrades and capital injections.

Here is where the subtle but deliberate hand of a credit squeeze wreaked havoc on that generation of businessmen, as one after the other faced foreclosures. The Department of Tourism did very little for the fledgeling Black tourist initiative that had begun and the issue of ostracism by labour was an additional factor but credit would have overcome even that. Notwithstanding all the unspecific or nebulous methods, in contrast to the bombing of the Southampton block plant in 1959, which displaced a major industry with black ownership, and was neither subtle nor credit-related.

As a continuation of this issue, what happened in Bermuda in the mid-1990s was like the final of a two-punch knockout, the equivalent of the overhead bombing that demolished Black Wall Street. Like the Tulsa race massacre, this Bermudian “massacre” of almost 100 Black businessmen was orchestrated and similarly buried, and now the population of today walks all over the proverbial burnt buildings and dead bodies, never knowing what happened, or indeed if anything had ever happened, believing instead that the nature of business just took its course.

The real fact remained that there was indeed the largest and longest fraud case, lasting all of nine weeks in the Supreme Court. Hundreds of persons were investigated as suspects in this case, but only four persons were charged, and none were convicted because the case resulted in a hung jury.

This particular case was prosecuted off the investigation evidence that was led by Scotland Yard, brought in to assist the local fraud squad to look at matters happening among and between all the financial institutions and their clients that appeared to resemble a co-ordinated network of fraudulent activities between institutions and a number of their clients.

Although the four persons indicted were all acquitted, what followed as an after shock was that at least 87 persons, all of whom Black and never prosecuted or indicted, had their properties and businesses foreclosed by the financial institutions. This seemed to be a matter where the institutions collectively said "Well, the courts could not get you but we have our own jurisprudence from which you will not escape". Said differently, “You escaped the justice system, but you won’t escape the Just Us system".

Given the overarching reach of the network of financial institutions and relationships with the legal firms, it fostered a pernicious environment that was unassailable, where once blacklisted, one was put in a proverbial pit from which there was little to no support to climb out.

The situation was so punitive, it destroyed individuals and businesses that were once like strong institutions. The effect on Bermuda was that suddenly there was a vacuum created by the absence of a multitude of Black entrepreneurs in the business arena, all happening in and around 1994 thereabouts and the landscape thereafter was forever altered. Perhaps the most noticeable area being in the construction industry, when it was subsequently hard to find a strong and established Black construction company after the event. Why? Because they literally disappeared; some even left the island to live in remote places on the planet.

After almost 30 years having passed, many of the actors who were responsible for orchestrating the Bermuda version of massacre are either dead or disabled through age and dementia, as are many of the victims. Some who have survived are now in or approaching their eighties, and left so traumatised, they fear to speak about those events as far down the road as now.

One, I recall, told me broad details of what happened to him — a contractor who had the mortgages called on his home and all his houses by all the banks and financial institutions, plus had his business overdraft facility terminated. But he asked me to swear I keep it confidential because of the way and by whom he was financially rescued. There are, however, actors that were on the stage at the time, who like myself have full cognisance but they were in the camps of the orchestrators, and then others as victims still suffering shock and fear of future reprisal if they stood up or revealed what they experienced.

I know one individual who played a role in the orchestration side, who can in fact talk about the environment of that time and what he did, but when asked to confirm it will suddenly claim his memory is not reliable, clearly showing selective memory syndrome. Then there are those also who know clearly what happened but will continue to veil any of their involvement either in defence of themselves, or the role they had to play for their institutions.

While this article was inspired in commemoration of the Tulsa Race Massacre, it is also to remind us that right here in Bermuda we have suffered the similar fate. There are those in the US who would heap scorn on reviving the memory and the acknowledgement of what happened to a once-thriving Black business community. Regrettably, there are those within our tiny little borders who would do similarly, perhaps for different reasons. I think the biggest reason is the issue, from a financial institutional perspective, that what they did and how was so sordid it would be an international embarrassment to disclose — and for any who dare reveal, they would fear the consequence of facing loss and recrimination.

There may never be full disclosure of the events of the mid-1990s and justice may be even more elusive. However, as long as my memory serves me, the story and events remain clear in my mind as a tragedy that was kept secret. The challenge for present and future generations is to establish at least the truth. This would be normally the job of the artist, the historian or the journalist. The subject of justice cannot be avoided when truth is established.

In the US, after 99 years they had a Commission of Inquiry, the idea of which had been rejected for many years but eventually went forward. The US commission on Tulsa recommended reparations for the victims of 1921. In Bermuda, we are no less deserving of an inquiry. Similarly, we have a commission appointed that “should” be able to investigate the Bermuda matter, but it dodges that role by claiming it is not within its remit.

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Published June 07, 2021 at 8:01 am (Updated June 06, 2021 at 12:02 pm)

Our very own Tulsa race ‛massacre’

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