Fire in Beulah

On the evening of May 31, 1921, in Tulsa, Okla., a mob of whites congregated in front of the city jail, where an African-American man was being held for assaulting a white woman. Although the "assault" had consisted of the man's accidentally stepping on the woman's foot, it was a severe enough violation for him to be arrested and more than enough for rumors to spread throughout the city and beyond about a nigger's having raped a white woman.

Two lynchings had recently taken place in Oklahoma -- of a white man in Tulsa and an African-American man in Oklahoma City -- so there was bloodlust in the night air, on both sides of the tracks that divided Tulsa's blacks and whites. A group of African-American men began to congregate on the north side of the city, known as Greenwood, an urban enclave W.E.B. Du Bois had called "the finest example of Negro self-sufficiency in the United States." These men formed their own haphazard militia, gathered up the guns they had and headed toward the jail in white Tulsa.

These were the events that touched off the most violent race riot in American history. By the end of the next evening, June 1, Greenwood had been burned to the ground. Hundreds of "deputized" white Tulsans led an assault across the railroad tracks, murdering African-Americans indiscriminately. Those fortunate enough to survive the "ethnic cleansing" were either corralled in makeshift concentration camps or escaped by fleeing farther north of town.

In the aftermath of what novelist Rilla Askew refers to as a "pogrom" was silence -- a silence that lasted until the late 1980s, when stories of the Tulsa race riot began to emerge. Askew's novel FIRE IN BEULAH appeared in 2001, the same year the Tulsa Race Riot Commission issued their report, signaling a willingness to reexamine the silenced history.

FIRE IN BEULAH centers on the complex relationship between Althea Whiteside, an oil wildcatter's high-strung wife, and her enigmatic maid, Graceful. Their juxtaposing stories-and those of others close to them-unfold against a volatile backdrop of oil-boom opulence, fear, hatred, and lynchings that climax in the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, when whites burned the city's prosperous black community known as Greenwood. The novel was selected by readers to be the Oklahoma Centennial selection for Oklahoma Reads Oklahoma. From May 2007 through May 2008, Askew traveled around Oklahoma visiting with readers, discussing the novel and the painful history that informs it.

From Black Issues Book Review:

Askew has crafted a gripping drama, infusing this novel with the rich details of human dilemmas--greed, power, secrecy, sibling rivalry. Althea Dedmeyer has escaped a difficult childhood and marries an oil wildcatter. Their pursuit of wealth and the ends towards which it drives them, are situated within the difficult relationship between Althea and Graceful Whiteside, a daughter of the successful, all-black town of Greenwood, who must eke out an existence of life as a domestic in a white world.

FIRE IN BEULAH also addresses the "problem" of race in the 1920s, and the changing notions of blackness and whiteness. Set in Oklahoma, during the "black gold rush," Askew tells the story of two women's lives and how they are intertwined with the events leading up to the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.
Askew adeptly shows the hardships and heroicism of her characters lives. There are no pat machinations here, and Fire in Beulah is unflinchingly brutal--the author notes, "... the incidents of racial violence are real; they took place almost exactly as described." Askew's characters are complex, fraught with those concerns, tendencies and motivations that make us the best and worst of who we are. Ultimately, as the story whirls towards its maddening, surreal climax, FIRE IN BEULAH touches on the substance of morality and the composition of the human spirit, underscoring the fact that our lives transcend perceived boundaries.
--Doug Jones