Power of Place

Coins as Metaphor

"Riot penny" charred during the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Scott Ellsworth

Coins as Metaphor

George Monroe was almost five years old on May 31, 1921, when his world was set on fire. The Monroe family lived on East Easton Street near Mount Zion Church in Greenwood, Oklahoma, the thriving African American neighborhood of segregated Tulsa. Osborne Monroe, George’s father, owned a roller-skating rink amidst an array of grocery stores, theaters, hotels, garages, service stations, funeral parlors, as well as churches, schools, hospitals and homes—all owned and operated by Tulsa’s Black citizens.

“We looked out of the front door and saw four white men with torches coming straight to our house,” Monroe would later recall. “My mother told my two sisters, brother and me to get under the bed. These guys came into the house and set the curtains on fire. As they were leaving, one stepped on my hand and I hollered. My sister, Lottie, put her hand over my mouth. Thank God she did. When we went outside, there were a lot of bullets flying, commotion and a lot of fires.”

 

For young George Monroe, searching for coins left behind by the looters became a survival and coping strategy in the weeks following the massacre. 

NMAAHC, gift of Scott Ellsworth

From May 31 through June 1, white mobs murdered scores of African Americans and ransacked, razed and burned Greenwood’s homes, businesses and churches. The Monroes’ home and business were both destroyed.

Monroe recounted his story in 1999, eight decades after the community of Greenwood suffered the deadliest racial massacre in U.S. history. “I remember that as if it was yesterday.”

Greenwood was one of dozens of acts of mass racial violence that convulsed across the U.S. with increasing alacrity and systematic routineness that began during the period of Reconstruction.

“I remember that as if it was yesterday,” George Monroe said. Gathering charred coins would help Monroe to bear witness.

NMAAHC, gift of photographer Don Thompson, © Don Thompson

A partial list conjures the expansive and dizzying geography of this array of organized white violence that continued well into the third decade of the 20th century: Memphis, Tennessee (1866), Colfax, Louisiana (1873); Clinton, Mississippi (1875); Hamburg, South Carolina (1876); Thibodaux, Louisiana (1887); Omaha, Nebraska (1891); Wilmington, North Carolina (1898); Atlanta (1906); St. Louis (1917); Washington, D.C.; Chicago; Elaine, Arkansas (all part of Red Summer, 1919); Rosewood, Florida (1923); Little Rock, Arkansas (1927).

All took place against a backdrop of systemic racial segregation, individual acts of terror, and extralegal lynching—bolstered by law—across the national landscape. Oklahoma alone suffered 99 lynchings between 1889 and 1921.

In the aftermath of the Tulsa’s 1921 massacre, when nearly all of Greenwood was burned, Black Tulsans, with assistance from a network of African American churches and eventually the National Red Cross, who were coming to the aid of the victims, began to piece together what had been shattered or stolen. Witnesses to the massacre described white mobs looting black homes and churches. The American Red Cross reported that out of 1,471 houses in Greenwood, 1,256 were burned and the rest looted. But Black Tulsans were not simply passive victims. Survivors testify time and time again that many residents of Greenwood took up arms to defend their homes and families.

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Young George Monroe, like many children amidst the devastation, tried to find solace and make sense of this new world. He was one of hundreds of Greenwood’s children who were forced with their families to face the devastation born from racial violence.

For Monroe, searching for coins left behind by the looters became a survival and coping strategy in the weeks after the massacre. The coins were there in the first place largely because, despite Greenwood’s strong business and social community, a bank had never been established in the Black neighborhood of North Tulsa. To protect their hard-earned wealth in a sharply segregated world, many families kept their money at home, sometimes hidden in a piece of furniture, other times buried in the yard.

Monroe combed the ground around his neighborhood, sometimes bending low to collect charred pennies, nickels and dimes. Copper pennies, with a melting point of approximately 1,900 degrees Fahrenheit, did not disintegrate in the fires. Gathering these tangible relics—hard, resistant, able to withstand the most searing heat, would help Monroe bear witness. Monroe fashioned a roll of dimes that had been fused in the heat of the fires into a homemade necklace and he would wear it in remembrance.

The coins would become a metaphor for the resilience found within himself and in his community. George Monroe held on to them for decades. Monroe would never forget but as the years wore on and the Tulsa massacre would largely be erased from the local, state and national collective memory.

In 1997, when the State of Oklahoma convened the Tulsa Race Riot Commission, following years of advocacy by organizers, historians, activists and community groups, Monroe shared some of his coins and gave his testimony of the events of 1921. (In years since, historians have come to describe these events more accurately as a race massacre, rather than a riot)

Five of his pennies are now held in NMAAHC’s collections. They came as a donation from historian Scott Ellsworth, who served as a member of the Riot Commission and who understood the power of the pennies as some of the most powerful and tangible symbols of the massacre, stating: “I know that my old friend, the late George Monroe, would have heartily approved.”

The pennies are on display as the centerpiece of the museum’s exhibition on the topic, which details the decades-long reverberations from that harrowing event and the resilience of the Black community across time in striving for reckoning, repair and justice.

They are also tangible reminders of the sacred trust between NMAAHC and the people whose histories are represented to the world. They carry new currency as Smithsonian treasures; artifacts that need to be measured by a new calculus of truth-telling and reckoning about our country’s shared history and our shared future.

Written by Paul Gardullo, originally published in Smithsonianmag.com - Artifacts from the Tulsa Race Massacre