Published June 19th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
In 1921, Tulsa, Oklahoma, witnessed one of the worst instances of racial violence in American history. A mob of white residents attacked the thriving Greenwood neighborhood known as “Black Wall Street,” killing and injuring as many as 1,000 Black residents.
Amid the chaos, one woman and her 18-month-old son managed to board a train and flee the violence.
Their destination? Kansas City.
Almost 100 years later, Harold Joseph Singer, better known as Hal “Cornbread” Singer, is the last survivor of the massacre.
Singer’s mother worked for a wealthy white family in Tulsa. When the violence broke out, the family got her and young Hal out of the city. Soon after, they returned to Tulsa, where Singer grew up and found a passion for music.
Music eventually carried Singer back to Kansas City in the heyday of the big band era, when the sound of jazz filled the air of the historic 18th and Vine neighborhood. Singer was a talented saxophonist and quickly made a name for himself, playing in the Duke Ellington Orchestra at just 29 years old.
Singer’s hit song “Cornbread” was #1 on the R&B charts for four weeks in 1948, competing with household names such as Pee Wee Crayton and Wynonie Harris. For decades he traveled the world playing music in packed theaters, including Carnegie Hall and the Apollo Theater.
After an extensive stage career collecting numerous accolades, Singer settled into a quiet life in Paris with his wife Arlette. In an article from the Tulsa World, Arlette stated that it is now very difficult for her husband to speak. Flatland was unable to reach her for this story.
While Singer may have been too young to remember the Tulsa Race Massacre firsthand, he is a living reminder of our close proximity to historical events that continue to shape us today.
Catherine Hoffman reports for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report For America.