Racial violence in Tulsa and Denver: Anti-Chinese riot in Denver marked, as mass grave is found in Tulsa

Colorado Sun, December 2020

A plaque memorializing the Hop Alley/Chinese Riot of 1880 at 20th and Blake streets in downtown Denver. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

A plaque near Denver’s historic Chinatown marks a race riot. Its critics see it as an opportunity.

An effort to replace the Lower Downtown marker has raised the possibility of reconciling a painful chapter in the city’s history — and reimagining a new Asian districtPUBLISHED ONDEC 24, 2020 4:30AM MSTCULTUREPRIMARY CATEGORY IN WHICH BLOG POST IS PUBLISHEDKevin Simpson@KevinJourno

The Colorado Sun — kevin@coloradosun.comSee more


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After a summer of contentious racial reckoning regarding historic monuments in Denver, one more public display — an easy-to-miss plaque on the wall of a building across from Coors Field in Lower Downtown — has raised objections for the manner in which it describes the city’s first race riot, an anti-Chinese rampage in 1880 by a white mob.

But those critics have turned the display, and fading recollection of a critical moment in the national dialogue on race, into the impetus for rekindling the memory of a once-prosperous Chinatown district. 

Though that 19th-century enclave virtually disappeared in a sudden spasm of violence, the Denver Asian American Pacific Islander Commission, one of nearly a dozen city panels that track ethnic issues, has launched an effort to re-envision those streets and alleyways. 

Conversation around recognizing the cultural contributions of Chinese Americans touches on murals and informational kiosks, historical markers, projection art and — in moments of grand optimism — a reborn Asian district. 


“It could draw upon satellite communities that currently exist,” muses William Wei, a history professor at the University of Colorado and a member of the commission. He sees Sakura Square, at the intersection of 19th and Lawrence streets, as a possible anchor. 

“It’s purely at the idea stage, and we want to do it correctly,” he adds. “We have to figure this out, how to create such a district, one that would involve a lot of discussion and collaboration and cooperation. It would certainly benefit existing commercial enterprises in the area. More people, more foot traffic, better for businesses all around.”

The wide-ranging plans, which include both short- and long-term goals, may be simply talk for the moment — but the talk is gaining traction among groups like the Downtown Denver Partnership and the LoDo District Inc., which recognize the moment as ripe for a recommitment to the city’s diversity and the often difficult history behind it.

The Downtown Denver Leadership Program, with sponsorship from Molson Coors, is still finalizing plans for a mural project in 2021. Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s office even issued a proclamation noting the 140th anniversary of the violence on Oct. 31, 1880.

William Wei, left, and Gil Asakawa hold up Mayor Michael Hancock’s proclamation that made note of the Anti-Chinese Race Riot of Oct. 31, 1880, and marked the 140th anniversary as “Denver’s Chinatown Commemoration Day.” (Ken Arellano, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“We recognized that a lot of these stories have not really been told or shared as much as they should have been over time,” said John Wetenkamp, director of operations forLoDo District Inc., which reviews plans of designers, builders and architects. “And we absolutely want to support both the AAPIC effort and larger movements to reclaim and reframe history.”

Britt Diehl, a spokeswoman for the Downtown Denver Partnership, notes that in October, the organization hosted a diversity and inclusion speakers panel that delved into the history of diverse neighborhoods downtown, and how to honor their cultures, that featured Gil Asakawa, a member of the AAPIC.

“There was an outpouring of positive feedback from the downtown business community,” Diehl says. “Folks want to make an impact to make sure we are honoring the cultures of those who were here before us.”

Asakawa filled them in on Chinatown. 

“I talked about the plaque,” he says, “and the 1880 race riot. That got the ball rolling.”

What the plaque gets wrong

The marker, one of several explaining the area’s history to walking tours, recalls the “Hop Alley/Chinese Riot of 1880” that shook the city’s so-called Chinatown district. After a pool-hall disagreement spilled into the streets, a white mob estimated at 3,000 people chanting among other slogans, “Stamp out the yellow plague,” eventually descended on the area, destroying property and handing out brutal beatings. One Chinese man, the plaque notes antiseptically, “lost his life.”

The plaque concludes that the “dark day” did not end Denver’s “struggles with the underlying issues of racial prejudice.”

An illustration depicting the 1880 Chinatown riot that virtually destroyed the middle-class Denver downtown district. (Provided by Library of Congress)

Wei, a former state historian, notes some of the problems with the plaque, starting with its title. “Hop Alley” was a derogatory term rooted in drug trade — and indeed, the area was blamed for vices from opium dens to gambling to brothels, which most certainly existed in the working class enclave but hardly were the sole province of the Chinese. 

And the “Chinese Riot” was more accurately an anti-Chinese riot, coming just days before the presidential election and signaling anti-immigration sentiment as a growing national concern. The 26 lines of text describing the violence mention the white saloon owner and single out three separate white individuals for heroic acts protecting the Chinese residents, including a barkeep, a gambler and a brothel madam, “whose girls armed themselves with champagne bottles and high heels to hold the mob at bay.”

Though it notes that none of the victims were ever reimbursed for the destruction of their businesses, the name of the lone fatality — Look Young — does not appear.

For Wei, who has written and often lectured on the riot, the omissions are disturbing, especially when the actions of the whites who rendered aid are highlighted.

“I’m all for good Samaritans intervening,” he says. “But when you read it, especially from a perspective of someone familiar with the Chinese American experience, it emphasizes the white saviors stepping in to save the hapless Chinese. I have no problems focusing on some of the characters on the margins of society. I’m one of the first to applaud what they did. When we talk about the American West, we talk of outlaws and people on the margins as heroes. But here it inadvertently deprives the Chinese of their own agency, and describes them as victims. 

“I think it’s a misplaced emphasis.”

Asakawa agrees that the title “Hop Alley/Chinese Riot” perpetuates a derogatory and misleading view of the Chinese community at the time. He, Wei and the rest of AAPIC started discussing the impropriety of both the title and the text on the plaque. 

“That to me is so indicative of the white-centered discussion that has become so important this year,” Asakawa says, “about white privilege and how history is written by people who have European American roots. 

“I think the plaque was put up there without malice, not meant to be racist,” he adds. “It’s just incorrect and in this day and age, in the post-Black Lives Matter environment, it just feels flawed. So we started talking about what we should do about this thing.”

Unexpected allies surface

That’s when the commission heard from Ben Niamthet and Adam Buehler, two Denver architects. They had recently immersed themselves in discussion about the Chinatown riot at work after Niamthet, a Thai immigrant, made a short presentation to his co-workers during a biweekly discussion of issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion.

“In the discussion that week, we learned about what the history was, how it was framed and remembered and how it wasn’t remembered,” Buehler says. “We took a closer look at the plaque across from Coors Field. It was obvious the plaque was written from a white-centered, white-savior lens.”

The Historic Chinatown committee on a walking tour of LoDo with Denver Asian American Pacific Islander Commissioner Joie Ha, left, architect Ben Niamthet, WewattaRow.com’s Dennis Martinez, and DAAPIC Commissioner Ken Arellano. (Gil Asakawa, Special to The Colorado Sun)

They, too, started talking about what it would take to make a new plaque or marker of some sort. After logging in to a Zoom meeting of the AAPIC, they connected with Wei and offered their services. They began imagining what Buehler calls “an architectural intervention to drive the more accurate reading of history.”

While the commission explored ideas to reimagine the history of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Denver, Niamthet and Buehler were uniquely positioned to translate those concepts to the drawing board. Though both architects were laid off from their firm because of the pandemic, they have continued to work on design possibilities for both short- and long-term projects.

“Eventually we all just kind of connected, met at the site of the current marker and had a discussion of what is and what could be,” Niamthet says. “That’s how things started.”

Their concepts were informed by a walking tour they took with Dennis Martinez, who has made a sideline for the last couple years of delving into the history of Denver’s Chinatown. He was studying to be paralegal when he was required to take a class in Colorado history. He already had an interest in Asian culture when he learned about the Chinatown riot.

This plan shows the short-range possibilities for new historical markers commemorating the 1880 riot in Chinatown and virtually destroyed the community and killed one of its residents, known as Look Young. (Provided by Ben Niamthet)

“The deeper I looked,” he says, “the more I went down the rabbit hole.”

Last year he started doing walking tours of the area that augment his web site dedicated to exploring the history of Chinatown, or what also was known as Wazee Row. His immersion in the backstory of the district makes him a strong ally of the AAPIC effort to make the public more aware of yet another chapter of Colorado history that has largely escaped public scrutiny.

“The populists were riled up. They were out for blood. This was more like a Chinese hunt.”

Dennis Martinez, Denver History Buff

The Chinatown riot, and particularly the divisive political rhetoric that fueled it, strike Martinez as the kind of history we try not to repeat, but often do. In 1880, much of the talk centered on immigrant Chinese stealing American jobs. The riot preceded the Chinese Exclusion Act, passed two years later, that became the first and only immigration measure to target a specific nationality.

“The populists were riled up,” Martinez says. “They were out for blood. This was more like a Chinese hunt. They were enraged. Not only is the riot important, but so was the whole situation in the U.S. — one political party casting another ethnicity as an all-out enemy. They called it ‘the Chinese question,’ and it was all over the place.”

Much of the rage focused on the many Chinese laundries in the district, including the Sing Lee laundry, where Look Young — also called Lu Yang or 陆扬 in his native language — happened to work. Martinez says that the mob centered its vitriol on him only because he wasn’t able to escape once the riot began.

Dennis Martinez of WewattaRow.com holds up the script of a 19th century stage comedy set in a Chinese laundry, which shows the stereotypes and racism against Chinese immigrants. (Gil Asakawa, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“He died from being beaten to death,” Martinez says. “A couple of accounts said he was strung up and hung for at least a few seconds. He didn’t stay up for any length of time, because two ladies with a doctor trying to help him shamed the ringleaders into not hanging him there.”

When he looks at the plaque at 20th and Blake streets, Martinez figures that the white-centered account simply made for an entertaining narrative — “and that’s highly inappropriate. That whole plaque is nasty, and should be taken down as soon as possible.” 

But the history, he adds, needs to be told and understood. At the time, Denver collectively swept the account under the rug, and the result has been that even in this year of national attention to racial matters, the Chinatown riot only recently came up because “nobody knows.”

“The town itself felt disgraced, felt nasty and dirty about what happened, and decided that to talk about the incident was in bad taste,” Martinez says. “Everybody stayed away from it. Because of all the covering up of that history, there’s still a lot to find and piece together. These people all had their stories, too.” 

Long and short of it

Though the concepts around re-envisioning the district remain in the very early stages of conversation, there has been no shortage of imagination and enthusiasm. 

Ideas include reworking the original plaque at 20th and Blake, and possibly replacing it with a different landmark such as a mural, which could be highly visible amid the extensive foot traffic to and from Colorado Rockies games. Markers at the spot on Wazee Street where the riot began and at a corner at 19th and Arapahoe streets, where Look Young was briefly hung from a lamppost, would also focus attention on specific events and locations.

That’s the short term.

Niamthet, who has been doing most of the design work, describes a couple of longer-term projects. He’d like to create a remembrance of the history of the original Chinatown in the alley that runs from 14th to 17th streets, between Wazee and Blake streets. He imagines a gateway followed by murals created by local Asian artists, possibly kiosks that could serve as mini, self-guided museums with interactive video screens that  would provide educational material about the local history of Chinese Americans and the larger history of Asian Americans — including the significant population of Japanese Americans. 

Denver Asian American Pacific Islander Commissioners and volunteers helping the Chinatown project listen to history buff Dennis Martinez explaining the thriving Chinatown that used to exist along the alleyways of LoDo. (Gil Asakawa, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Another of the longer-term ideas would have a rear-projection screen built atop the building at 1620 Wazee St., the flash point of the 1880 riot currently occupied by a restaurant, that could be an ongoing display of video and still images.

Buehler acknowledges that all of these ideas would depend on a level of cooperation from local businesses and city planners. 

“I feel like now, we’re in the mode of still connecting with different groups that will likely have a say in this, so we can have their insight and guidance,” he says. Already, the architects made a presentation to LoDo District Inc., since that group originally commissioned plaques to be placed around Lower Downtown. (Oddly, though, none of the groups seems to know the origin of the original.) 

It has been suggested that the original plaque could be donated to History Colorado, where it might be displayed in a manner similar to the controversial Union soldier statue that came down during the unrest that followed the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. That exhibit provides context to the original placement of the statue as well as the criticism that prompted protest.

MORE: History Colorado unveils the toppled Union soldier statue with an exhibit that seeks to tell its story. Its whole story.

Wei is thinking, even longer-term, about an entire Asian district.

“It would be a destination for tourists,” he says. “There could be other commercial establishments with an Asian theme, where they hold regular Asian celebrations like Lunar New Year. Ideally, also be a museum that focuses on the Asian American and Pacific Islander experience.”

Wei figures the project is feasible because, other than both U.S. coasts, there’s not that much in terms of commercial and cultural districts that focus on Asian Americans in between. 

“It seems like a natural, to create this community,” he says.

The model, Wei adds, would be Seattle’s Chinatown-International District.

“It may not happen in my lifetime,” he says. “But the idea is to get it out there, and hopefully, if not us, succeeding groups might carry the ball forward.”

WewattaRow.com’s Dennis Martinez holds up a map of Denver’s historic Chinatown district and a photo that shows the alleyway he’s describing to Denver Asian American Pacific Islander Commissioners during a walking tour. (Gil Asakawa, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Correction: This story originally said that the Chinatown area was called Wewatta Row. Actually, it was called Wazee Row, though both names correspond to streets in Denver’s Lower Downtown.


The Haunting of Tulsa, Okla.

A recently unearthed mass grave may soon provide answers about what happened to victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

Brent Staples

By Brent Staples

Mr. Staples is a member of the editorial board.

  • Dec. 26, 2020
  • 506
A section of a Tulsa, Okla., cemetery is roped off where a mass grave has been discovered.
A section of a Tulsa, Okla., cemetery is roped off where a mass grave has been discovered.Credit…Joseph Rushmore for The New York Times

The Tulsa, Okla., police department set the stage for mass murder in the spring of 1921 when it deputized members of a mob that invaded and destroyed the prosperous Black enclave of Greenwood. The armed marauders who swept into the community in the early hours of June 1 wreaked havoc in the spirit of a police directive that urged white Tulsans to “Get a gun, and get busy and try to get a nigger.”

They murdered at will while forcing Black families from their homes. They looted valuables that included jewelry, furs and fine furnishings. They used torches and oil-soaked rags to set fires that incinerated homes, churches, doctors’ offices, hotels and other businesses across an area of 35 square blocks.

The first day of June was less eventful on the other side of the tracks, in white Tulsa’s business district. In his 1968 memoir, “Oklahoma Boy,” Ross Warner recalls that his work took him to the First National Bank building, on the corner of Fourth Street and Main. “From time to time on June 1,” he writes, “we heard sirens and, on looking out of the window, saw trucks headed south on Main Street with Negro bodies in them. We saw at least 30 or 40 hauled away in this fashion.”

Credit…Joseph Rushmore for The New York Times

A few years after the appearance of “Oklahoma Boy,” the Tulsa County undersheriff, E.W. Maxey, told a local historian that as a teenager he, too, had been present on Main Street that day in 1921. He recalled seeing five or six trucks moving up the street carrying Black bodies “stacked up like cordwood.” He had no idea where the dead were taken but presumed they were being hauled “out somewhere” to be disposed of in ditches.

Two months ago, an archaeological team unearthed a mass grave in Tulsa that may answer questions that have troubled the city’s sleep for a century. The time-consuming forensic analysis required to definitively link the dead to the massacre could begin next year. Nevertheless, the team has a “high degree of confidence” that this previously unrecorded burial site is one of the locations that it had been searching for. The fact that burial workers installed stairs in the trench suggests that there were quite a few dead to move.

Kary Stackelbeck, the Oklahoma state archaeologist, estimates that the grave shaft could contain 30 coffins — and perhaps more if the coffins uncovered in this phase of the excavation are resting upon another row. Speaking during a presentation in November, Ms. Stackelbeck described the scene as “haunting,” adding that the stairs allowed her “to visualize people moving in and out of that space to put these coffins in place.”

The discovery of a mass grave, within the city-owned Oaklawn Cemetery, comes as Tulsa is bracing for an emotional centennial commemoration of the massacre. The city is also facing a lawsuit that seeks reparations.

The star plaintiff, 106-year-old Lessie Benningfield Randle, according to the lawsuit, asserts that she witnessed the conflagration and still experiences flashbacks of the “Black bodies that were stacked up on the street as her neighborhood was burning.”

The suit also features plaintiffs who are descended from well-known members of Tulsa’s early-20th-century Black elite. The real estate titan J.B. Stradford, who lost an empire that included the renowned Stradford Hotel, is represented by a great-granddaughter. The influential newspaper publisher A.J. Smitherman, who saw the press and offices of his paper, The Tulsa Star, destroyed, is represented by a grandson. The surgeon A.C. Jackson, who was murdered by marauders after surrendering with his hands raised, is represented by a nephew.

A mural at the site of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
A mural at the site of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.Credit…Joseph Rushmore for The New York Times

The federal courts dismissed a similar lawsuit in 2004, ruling that the survivors had waited too long to bring their case. This new suit, filed in September, is based on the premise that the plaintiffs continue to suffer harm. Even if this reparations attempt fails, it will serve as reminder that the victims of 1921 were denied justice by a court system that had been infiltrated by the Ku Klux Klan.

After the massacre, Tulsa buried the dead quickly — in a heat wave — to stave off disease. It then lost touch with the dead through a pervasive act of willful forgetting. The powers that be in the white city suppressed news of the event, first to protect Tulsa’s image as a safe place to do business and then to shield sons, brothers and uncles who had heeded the call to kill, loot and burn. Men who had marauded through the streets when they were in their 20s had all the more reason to marginalize the truth once they became gray-haired pillars of the Chamber of Commerce.

White Tulsans who wanted the story of the massacre to stay buried resorted to intimidation when necessary. A radio host who signed on to write a magazine story timed to the 50th anniversary of the disaster received harassing phone calls, both at home and at work, and was menaced by strangers. He woke up one morning to find the words “best look under your hood from now on” scrawled in soap across the windshield of his Ford sedan.

A view of downtown Tulsa from Oaklawn Cemetery, where the mass grave was unearthed.
A view of downtown Tulsa from Oaklawn Cemetery, where the mass grave was unearthed.Credit…Joseph Rushmore for The New York Times
Before the massacre, Greenwood Avenue was known as Black Wall Street.
Before the massacre, Greenwood Avenue was known as Black Wall Street.Credit…Joseph Rushmore for The New York Times

The process of willful forgetting worked differently on the African-American side of the tracks. In his forthcoming book, “The Ground Breaking: An American City and Its Search for Justice,” the historian Scott Ellsworth writes that some Black survivors suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and avoided discussing what had befallen them. He likens these people to Holocaust survivors who sometimes opted to withhold their experiences from the young.

Parents who raised families in the rebuilt Greenwood neighborhood sometimes refrained from speaking of the massacre for fear that talking about the horror might cause it to recur. On the 25th anniversary, The Oklahoma Eagle — the African-American community’s flagship newspaper — published a single cryptic sentence: “In 1921, racial bitterness, which had been brooding for several years, culminated in one of the most disastrous race riots in the nation’s history.” Not surprisingly, some African-Americans grew to adulthood knowing little or nothing about the terror that had been visited upon their grandparents.

The state opened a more expansive view of the past in 1997, when it created the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Soon afterward, newspaper articles requesting information on the massacre attracted responses that focused heavily on the missing dead. People spoke of bodies stacked on the streets, in the backs of trucks and on railway cars and laid to rest in far-flung pits, quarries and mines.

These grisly anecdotes showed that victims who had been shunted out of civic discourse had taken up residence in the public imagination. The stories also suggested that the physical remains of the dead had been dispersed across too vast an area to be searched by teams of archaeologists.

Victims of the massacre were honored at Oaklawn Cemetery.
Victims of the massacre were honored at Oaklawn Cemetery.Credit…Joseph Rushmore for The New York Times

The team that unearthed the mass grave in Oaklawn Cemetery was spared the task of having to disentangle truth from myth. The archaeologists benefited greatly from a study of funeral home records and other documents produced as part of the 2001 riot commission report by the forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow.

Dr. Snow, who died in 2014, was widely known for his work on the remains of the Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele as well as on victims of the serial killer John Wayne Gacy and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Pointing to Oaklawn Cemetery in the report, Dr. Snow advised those who would come after him to look for skeletal remains that showed exposure to fire. These remains, he said, might provide clues to the identities of others resting nearby.

The skeletons of Oaklawn could well tell a story that broadens what we know about the bloody episode that defines Tulsa’s history. Nevertheless, this dig will not resolve longstanding questions about how many died in 1921 and where they came to rest. Those mysteries will haunt Tulsa for a long time to come.RelatedMore on the mass grave in TulsaOpinion | Brent StaplesThe Burning of Black Wall Street, RevisitedJune 19, 2020Mass Grave Unearthed in Tulsa During Search for Massacre VictimsOct. 21, 2020

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Brent Staples joined the editorial board in 1990 after working as an editor of the Book Review and an assistant editor for metropolitan news. In 2019, Mr. Staples won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing, The New York Times’s first winner for editorial writing in 23 years. Mr. Staples holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Chicago. @BrentNYT