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Many Tulsa Massacres

How the myth of a liberal North erases a long history of white violence.

There is a toxic myth that encourages white people in the North to see themselves as free from racism and erases African Americans from the pre-Civil War North, where they are still being told that they don’t belong. What Langston experienced was not the massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921 or Rosewood, Florida, in 1923—this was Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1841, 20 years before the Civil War broke out. This was the third such racist attack against African Americans in Cincinnati in 12 years.

Cincinnati was not alone. Between 1829 and 1841 white northerners had been rising up against their most successful African American neighbors, burning and destroying churches, businesses, schools, orphanages, meetings halls, farms, and entire communities. These were highly organized actions instigated by some of the most wealthy and most educated white citizens in the North. As a white gentleman in the pretty rural village of Canterbury, Connecticut, wrote in 1833, “the colored people can never rise from their menial condition in our country; they ought not to be permitted to rise here.” He wrote this after white members of his community tried to burn down an elite private academy for African American girls, while the students slept inside.

One of the girls who survived that fire then made the long journey to Canaan, New Hampshire, where a few abolitionists were trying to establish an integrated school called the Noyes Academy. Canaan was a remote and lovely village but within months, white locals attacked that school. The white attackers brought in numerous teams of oxen attached to a chain they put around the school, and pulled it off its foundation, dragging it down the main street of Canaan.

In 1834 there were even more riots against African Americans, most notably in New Haven, Connecticut, Philadelphia, and New York City. The mayor of New York allowed the destruction of African American homes and businesses to continue for days before finally calling out the state militia. This violence was not against buildings alone, but was accompanied by atrocities against African Americans, including rape and castration.

African Americans in the North bravely continued to call for equality and the ending of slavery, while the highest officials in the land tried to encourage more massacres. As Lacy Ford revealed in his book Deliver Us from Evil, President Andrew Jackson’s secretary of state, John Forsyth, wrote a letter asking Vice President Martin Van Buren—born and raised a New Yorker—to organize “a little more mob discipline,” adding, “the sooner you set the imps to work the better.” The violence continued; historian Leonard Richards makes a conservative estimate of at least 46 “mobbings” in Northern cities between 1834 and 1837.