A friend in St. Louis once told me that as a kid she thought “Pogrom” was a village in Eastern Europe because that was where her grandmother said she was from. In his 2018 book, Kishinev: The Tilt of History, historian Steven Zipperstein writes that before the Holocaust, the word “pogrom,” which Kishinev both epitomized and symbolized, “was believed to capture accurately centuries of Jewish vulnerability, the deep well of Jewish misery.”
The 1903 Kishinev pogrom, a three day binge of violence and terror during which 49 Jews were murdered, 600 women were raped, 700 houses destroyed, 600 businesses looted, and 2,000 families left homeless, drove hundreds of thousands of Jews to leave Eastern Europe. My grandmother, Yetta Schwartz, was among them. She was 16 when she left Romania in 1903. By 1911, when her fourth child, my father, was born, Yetta Schwartz was living in St. Louis, Missouri and married to the junk dealer Joe Kinberg. In the late 1930s, Yetta’s second born, Rose, married a non-Jewish African American man from Oklahoma and moved away from St. Louis and the family, settling in Vandalia, Michigan.
Rose was the aunt I never met. I looked for her for forty years. As an adult, I’ve wanted to ask her what she knew of her mother’s life in Romania, what she knew of her husband’s life in Oklahoma. But because she died in 1982 many years before I could locate her. Now I am writing a book about Aunt Rose and her husband, Zebedee Arnwine, learning about their lives before they met and their lives as an interracial couple living in southwest Michigan.
In May of 1921, 19-year-old Zebedee Arnwine was living in Muskogee, Oklahoma, working as a farmer with his father. Not an hour away, the Black community of Greenwood in Tulsa was attacked by a white mob, killing an unknown number of people. Estimates range from several dozen to several hundred, after nearly 100 years, new mass graves have been discovered. Several square blocks were burned to the ground and 10,000 people made homeless.
Greenwood had been a prosperous Black city within a city with its own thriving economy, professionals, shops and banks. One eyewitness account of the coordinated destruction of Greenwood was recorded by the lawyer Buck Colbert Franklin in his autobiography, edited by his son and grandson the historians John Hope and John Whittington Franklin. On the evening of May 31, 1921, Buck Franklin got wind of impending violence and because he knew so many of the city’s leaders, white and black, he thought he could do something to prevent it:
“I tried to reach [the sheriff’s office] but was unsuccessful, and I learned that the [phone] wires were cut. At daybreak [June 1, 1921] I went to my office still believing I could get to the sheriff’s office. But I saw I was too late. Hundreds of men with drawn guns were approaching from every direction … I stood at the steps to my office, and I was immediately arrested and taken to one of the many detention camps. Even then, airplanes were circling overhead, dropping explosives upon the buildings that had been looted, and big trucks were hauling all sorts of furniture and household goods away. In these camps I saw pregnant women, and one was so heavy that a doctor was called in to deliver her baby. Soon I was back upon the streets, but the building where I had my office was a smoldering ruin, and all my lawbooks and office fixtures had been consumed by flames. I went to where my rooming house had stood a few short hours before, but it was in ashes, with all my clothes and the money to be used in moving my family. As far as one could see, not a Negro dwelling-house or place of business stood.”
One purported trigger for the Kishinev pogrom was newspaper articles accusing Jews of killing a Christian child to make matzah from his blood, a familiar yet baseless anti-Jewish lie. Buck Franklin describes the trigger to the Tulsa massacre as an accusation against a teen-aged son of a well-known and respected Greenwood businessman. “The boy was on his job [as a shoeshiner and janitor] and, boarding a very crowded elevator, he accidentally stepped on the lady’s foot. She became angry and slapped him, and a fresh, cub newspaper reporter, without any experience and no doubt anxious for a byline, gave out an erroneous report that a Negro had assaulted a white girl.”
One hundred years ago, the massacre in Greenwood, the pogrom in Kishinev–the hatred and violence they embodied–were the vocabulary of life for Eastern European immigrants like my grandparents and African Americans like the Arnwines.
My daughters were 11 and 14 years old on February 26, 2012 when Trayvon Martin was murdered in Florida for walking through a neighborhood where a Black youth was considered a trespasser, even though his father lived there. A year and a half later, on July 13, 2013, George Zimmerman was acquitted for Trayvon’s murder.
Another year later, on August 9, 2014, my daughter came down the stairs to tell us that a young Black man in Ferguson Missouri, a suburb of my hometown of St Louis, had just been gunned down by a white police officer because he stole a pack of cigarillos. Later we would learn that Mike Brown’s bullet ridden body was left lying in the middle of the street for four hours. Four months later, a grand jury decided Darren Wilson was “reasonably” fearful and therefore could get a pass on the murder. No indictment.
My daughters’ emerging identities as young Black women, their self-love and their self-doubts, their righteous anger, their rising independence, their bold confrontations with risk, all of these, developed amid looping replays of white cops beating, strangling, and shooting black and brown bodies. They want me to understand their feelings of anger and vulnerability; they doubt I can because I am white. Yet, when there was a shooting in a synagogue in Poway, California, and when a rabbi’s house guests were attacked with a machete in Monsey New York, my daughters are the first to check in with me. Their ears are attuned to danger.
My family is black and Jewish. The murder of George Floyd revealed nothing new to us, the eruptions of mass violence, the government collusion, nothing new. Yet perhaps this time our collective memories will give us the insight, our collective insight will give us the strength, our collective strength the resilience to walk into a better future.
Clare Kinberg lives in Ypsilanti and is the publisher and editor of the Washtenaw Jewish News.