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Tulsa Race Massacre begins

Tulsa Race Massacre begins


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Beginning on the night of May 31, 1921, thousands of white citizens in Tulsa, Oklahoma descended on the city’s predominantly Black Greenwood District, burning homes and businesses to the ground and killing hundreds of people. Long mischaracterized as a race riot, rather than mass murder, the Tulsa Race Massacre stands as one of the worst incidents of racial violence in the nation’s history.

In the years following World War I, segregation was the law of the land, and the Ku Klux Klan was gaining ground—not only in the Jim Crow South, but across the United States. Amid that charged environment, Tulsa’s African American community was nationally recognized for its affluence. The Greenwood District, known as “Black Wall Street,” boasted more than 300 Black-owned businesses, including two movie theaters, doctors’ offices and pharmacies.

LISTEN: Blindspot: Tulsa Burning from The HISTORY® Channel and WNYC Studios









READ MORE: Tulsa's 'Black Wall Street' Flourished as a Self-Contained Hub in Early 1900s

On May 30, 1921, a young Black man named Dick Rowland entered an elevator in an office building in downtown Tulsa. At some point, Rowland was alone in the elevator with its white operator, Sarah Page. It’s unclear what happened next (one common version is that Rowland stepped on Page’s foot) but Page screamed, and Rowland fled the scene. The next day, the police arrested him.

Rumors about the incident spread quickly through Tulsa’s white community, some members of which undoubtedly resented the prosperity of the Greenwood District. After a story published in the Tulsa Tribune on the afternoon of May 31 claimed that Rowland had attempted to rape Page, an angry white mob gathered in front of the courthouse, demanding that Rowland be handed over.

Seeking to prevent a lynching, a group of some 75 Black men arrived on the scene that night, some of them World War I veterans who were carrying weapons. After a white man tried to disarm a Black veteran and the gun went off, chaos broke out.

READ MORE: What Role Did Airplanes Play in the Tulsa Race Massacre?

Over the next 24 hours, thousands of white rioters poured into the Greenwood District, shooting unarmed Black citizens in the streets and burning an area of some 35 city blocks, including more than 1,200 Black-owned houses, numerous businesses, a school, a hospital and a dozen churches. Historians believe as many as 300 people were killed in the rampage, though official counts at the time were much lower.

By the time Governor James Robertson declared martial law, and National Guard troops arrived in Tulsa by noon on June 1, the Greenwood District lay in ruins. Survivors of the massacre worked to rebuild the neighborhood, but segregation remained in force in Tulsa (and the nation) and racial tensions only grew, even as the massacre and its lingering scars were left largely unacknowledged by the white community for decades to come.

In 1997, the Oklahoma state legislature created the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (later renamed the Tulsa Race Massacre Commission), which studied the massacre and recommended that reparations be paid to the remaining Black survivors. City officials continue to investigate the events of May 31-June 1, 1921, and to search for unmarked graves used to bury the massacre’s many victims.

READ MORE: 'Black Wall Street' Before, During and After the Tulsa Race Massacre: PHOTOS


Lesson Overview

One hundred years ago, a white mob in Tulsa, Okla., attacked and destroyed Greenwood, a neighborhood that had been one of the most prosperous Black communities in the country. The mob’s anger was in part a reaction to Black Tulsans who had come downtown to prevent a lynching, but more broadly it was inspired by a sense of rage at the success of the Greenwood neighborhood.

The New York Times pieced together archival maps and photographs to construct a 3-D model of Greenwood — home of “Black Wall Street” — as it was before the violence and destruction in May 1921. In this lesson, students will explore the neighborhood and learn about the devastating race riot. In the Going Further section, we provide three teaching ideas that invite students to explore the New York Times archive from 1921, consider what justice should look like now and discuss the importance of history and memory.


EVENTS COMING SOON

Several documentary filmmakers — some backed by NBA superstars — are shedding light on the historically ignored Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, one of the most horrific tragedies in American history.

LeBron James and Russell Westbrook are among those releasing documentaries based on the racially motivated massacre. The projects come during the 100th anniversary of the massacre in Greenwood, a Black-owned business district and residential neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Each documentary uniquely takes a deep dive into how the thriving Greenwood community — dubbed Black Wall Street because of the number of Black-owned businesses — was decimated in a two-day attack by a white mob. In the aftermath, at least 300 Black people were killed. More than a thousand homes were burned and others looted, leaving roughly 10,000 residents displaced and homeless and the Black business district destroyed.

"This has to do with African Americans systematically being run off their land with assets and property being destroyed," said Stanley Nelson, who co-directed "Tulsa Burning: 1921 Race Massacre" with Marco Williams. Westbrook — who formerly played with the Oklahoma City Thunder — is an executive producer of the documentary airing Sunday on the History channel.

National Geographic, CNN and PBS will also debut documentaries. Another documentary, "Black Wall Street" is being distributed by Cineflix Productions, but no network has yet picked it up.

Nelson said all of the projects are much needed and important, especially with the commemoration of the massacre coming near the one-year anniversary of last year's racial reckoning sparked by the death of George Floyd. (A former Minneapolis police officer has since been convicted of murdering Floyd.)

"I think the more the (Greenwood) story can be brought to light, the better," said Nelson, an Emmy winner. "I'm sure that every film will be totally different. I think there's a special timing here."

Director Salima Koroma said the story should be told more than once. She pitched her Tulsa massacre documentary to some networks nearly five years ago, but drew no interest because she believes the "gatekeepers" weren't ready to welcome the story.

Eventually, Koroma's project found a home with James and Maverick Carter's The SpringHill Company. She believes the Los Angeles Lakers superstar and Carter's association played a major role in pushing the project forward.

"I just had to get it to the right gatekeepers," said Koroma, director of "Dreamland: The Burning of Black Wall Street'' which airs Monday on CNN and later streams on HBO Max.

"They see we have to tell Black stories," she said. "Now everybody's scrambling to tell it. Finally, tell these stories. I think that's what's happening."

Some filmmakers said the story was a tough one to tell because much of the content doesn't exist anymore.

"So how can you tell a feature documentary? . Now people are putting in the resources to do more than just the photos,'' Koroma said. "You can do animation or graphics. It's a tough one to tell. But with all our powers combined, we can tell this story."

The Tulsa massacre story had been largely forgotten or unknown to some until HBO series "Watchmen" and "Lovecraft Country" shed light on the dark tragedy within the last two years. Courtney B. Vance and Angela Bassett's production company recently signed a deal with MTV Entertainment Studios to produce a limited scripted series about the massacre.

Reporter DeNeen L. Brown, who appears in two documentaries, said all the projects chronicling the massacre are needed for educational purposes, since she says most of it was left out of textbooks, newspapers and periodicals from the library. The Oklahoma native said even her father — who is a pastor in Tulsa — never heard of the massacre until the late 1990s, when the Tulsa Race Riot Commission was formed.

"White survivors of the massacre stopped talking about it," she said. "Black survivors only whispered about it, because there was a real fear among Black people that it could happen again, and it did in other places."

As a curious child, Brown said she first learned about the massacre after reading about the history of enslaved Black people at school. She said the projects chronicling the massacre can be educational as well.

"It will become something that people and school children will learn about," said Brown, a Washington Post reporter who has written more than 20 articles on the massacre. She interviewed the descendants of Greenwood residents and business owners in the PBS documentary "Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten," which airs May 31.

Brown will be reporting on the search for mass graves in National Geographic's "Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer," which premieres June 18. She said documentaries like hers need to be told just as much as the ones about the American Revolution, Civil War and World War I and II.

"(The Tulsa massacre) is not known to the larger community, certainly not known by white America," said Jonathan Silvers, who worked with Brown as the director on the PBS documentary. "I think the Black American experience has been overshadowed. We white Americans have no idea. That historic violence does cast a very long shadow."


EVENTS COMING SOON

Several documentary filmmakers — some backed by NBA superstars — are shedding light on the historically ignored Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, one of the most horrific tragedies in American history.

LeBron James and Russell Westbrook are among those releasing documentaries based on the racially motivated massacre. The projects come during the 100th anniversary of the massacre in Greenwood, a Black-owned business district and residential neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Each documentary uniquely takes a deep dive into how the thriving Greenwood community — dubbed Black Wall Street because of the number of Black-owned businesses — was decimated in a two-day attack by a white mob. In the aftermath, at least 300 Black people were killed. More than a thousand homes were burned and others looted, leaving roughly 10,000 residents displaced and homeless and the Black business district destroyed.

"This has to do with African Americans systematically being run off their land with assets and property being destroyed," said Stanley Nelson, who co-directed "Tulsa Burning: 1921 Race Massacre" with Marco Williams. Westbrook — who formerly played with the Oklahoma City Thunder — is an executive producer of the documentary airing Sunday on the History channel.

National Geographic, CNN and PBS will also debut documentaries. Another documentary, "Black Wall Street" is being distributed by Cineflix Productions, but no network has yet picked it up.

Nelson said all of the projects are much needed and important, especially with the commemoration of the massacre coming near the one-year anniversary of last year's racial reckoning sparked by the death of George Floyd. (A former Minneapolis police officer has since been convicted of murdering Floyd.)

"I think the more the (Greenwood) story can be brought to light, the better," said Nelson, an Emmy winner. "I'm sure that every film will be totally different. I think there's a special timing here."

Director Salima Koroma said the story should be told more than once. She pitched her Tulsa massacre documentary to some networks nearly five years ago, but drew no interest because she believes the "gatekeepers" weren't ready to welcome the story.

Eventually, Koroma's project found a home with James and Maverick Carter's The SpringHill Company. She believes the Los Angeles Lakers superstar and Carter's association played a major role in pushing the project forward.

"I just had to get it to the right gatekeepers," said Koroma, director of "Dreamland: The Burning of Black Wall Street'' which airs Monday on CNN and later streams on HBO Max.

"They see we have to tell Black stories," she said. "Now everybody's scrambling to tell it. Finally, tell these stories. I think that's what's happening."

Some filmmakers said the story was a tough one to tell because much of the content doesn't exist anymore.

"So how can you tell a feature documentary? . Now people are putting in the resources to do more than just the photos,'' Koroma said. "You can do animation or graphics. It's a tough one to tell. But with all our powers combined, we can tell this story."

The Tulsa massacre story had been largely forgotten or unknown to some until HBO series "Watchmen" and "Lovecraft Country" shed light on the dark tragedy within the last two years. Courtney B. Vance and Angela Bassett's production company recently signed a deal with MTV Entertainment Studios to produce a limited scripted series about the massacre.

Reporter DeNeen L. Brown, who appears in two documentaries, said all the projects chronicling the massacre are needed for educational purposes, since she says most of it was left out of textbooks, newspapers and periodicals from the library. The Oklahoma native said even her father — who is a pastor in Tulsa — never heard of the massacre until the late 1990s, when the Tulsa Race Riot Commission was formed.

"White survivors of the massacre stopped talking about it," she said. "Black survivors only whispered about it, because there was a real fear among Black people that it could happen again, and it did in other places."

As a curious child, Brown said she first learned about the massacre after reading about the history of enslaved Black people at school. She said the projects chronicling the massacre can be educational as well.

"It will become something that people and school children will learn about," said Brown, a Washington Post reporter who has written more than 20 articles on the massacre. She interviewed the descendants of Greenwood residents and business owners in the PBS documentary "Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten," which airs May 31.

Brown will be reporting on the search for mass graves in National Geographic's "Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer," which premieres June 18. She said documentaries like hers need to be told just as much as the ones about the American Revolution, Civil War and World War I and II.

"(The Tulsa massacre) is not known to the larger community, certainly not known by white America," said Jonathan Silvers, who worked with Brown as the director on the PBS documentary. "I think the Black American experience has been overshadowed. We white Americans have no idea. That historic violence does cast a very long shadow."


The Tulsa Race Massacre

The Internment
By the end of the day, the internment camps held 6,000 African American residents. The next day, authorities moved them to the fairgrounds. The National Guard forced these prisoners, both men and women, to labor. The mayor threatened to arrest anyone refusing work for vagrancy. Authorities required them to clean up the destruction caused by the white rioters. The length of stay varied for most of those imprisoned. Release depended on white employers vouching for their African American workers. After that the city issued passes, called green cards, for them to carry to show their employment. By the middle of June, no one remained in these camps.

Internment at Convention Hall (image courtesy of OSU Digital Collections).

Entrance to refugee camp on the fair grounds, after the Tulsa Race Massacre June 1, 1921 (image courtesy of the Library of Congress).

The Red Cross
After the violence subsided, a Red Cross official from St. Louis named Maurice Willows arrived to assess whether the city required the Red Cross&rsquos assistance. The Red Cross had never conducted relief efforts following a man-made disaster except for war. He quickly determined the victims might not have any other assistance if the Red Cross did not intervene. Willows convinced the leadership of the Red Cross to declare Tulsa a natural disaster area. The mayor announced the Red Cross was to be entirely responsible for the relief effort. The Red Cross stayed for months, assisting African American residents with food, shelter, and medical needs, both those immediately connected to the violence and those that developed under such challenging long-term conditions. As the majority of the displaced lived in tents for a year or more, the Red Cross&rsquos efforts limited suffering and death arising from the aftermath of the massacre. Willows, a strong advocate for the victims, also did what he could to preserve the historical record of these events.

Staff of the American Red Cross disaster relief headquarters, Tulsa, 1921 (image courtesy of the Library of Congress).

The Uprising Narrative
Within a week the leaders of the major institutions in Tulsa began promoting a narrative that blamed the residents of Greenwood themselves for the violence. The Tulsa Tribune, the state&rsquos attorney general, many ministers, and the mayor advanced this argument. The attorney general, in a speech in Tulsa on June 17, said:

The cause of this riot was not Tulsa. It might have happened anywhere for the Negro is not the same man he was thirty years ago when he was content to plod along his own road accepting the white man as his benefactor. But the years have passed and the Negro has been educated and the race papers have spread the thought of race equality.

The grand jury convened to investigate, followed the attorney general&rsquos lead and concluded in its report:

The crowd assembled about the courthouse being purely spectators and curiosity seekers&hellipThere was no mob spirit among the whites, no talk of lynching and no arms. The assembly was quiet until the arrival of armed negroes, which precipitated and was the direct cause of the riot.

The lead attorney for the state used her power to give immunity to any whites who looted homes or murdered African Americans. This remained the dominant narrative until attention to the massacre began to fade outside the African American community in Oklahoma.

Tulsa World, June 26, 1921, p. 1.

Land Issues
In early June, some city officials promised to rebuild and began setting up structures to assist the residents of Greenwood. The city directed donations from across the country to the relief efforts of the Red Cross. They actively refused support for reconstruction from other cities, announcing that restoring the city was strictly a &ldquoTulsa affair,&rdquo and the residents of Tulsa would take care of it. By June 3, a trade organization called the Real Estate Exchange floated the idea of not rebuilding, but instead rezoning the neighborhood for industrial purposes. Realtors attempted to get African American landowners to sell but wanted the land at discounted rates. Maurice Willows used his influence to convince African American property owners to keep their land. The city responded by applying a fire code to the area that would make rebuilding too expensive for most individual property owners. Well known attorney and activist, B. C. Franklin, along with I. H. Spears and T. O. Chapelle, encouraged residents to start the rebuilding process even though they faced arrest by doing so. Their lawyers vowed to secure the release of anyone arrested for rebuilding. They filed a suit against the city for taking property without due process. They won the lawsuit, providing the neighborhood a chance to survive.

Another challenge facing residents in their attempt to rebuild lay in the insurance companies&rsquo refusal to pay on claim for damages related to the massacre. Insurance policies contained exemptions from paying for damages related to riots.

The residents of Greenwood rebuilt the neighborhood with very little outside investment or support.

After the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, attorney B. C. Franklin (right) set up his law office in a tent. On the left is I. H. Spears, Franklin's law partner. These men worked to prevent dispossession of Greenwood residents (image courtesy of the Tulsa Historical Society).

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Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921

What happened: A confrontation between Black and white people broke out in 1921 in Tulsa, Oklahoma which led to the Tulsa Massacre. The Black neighborhood called Greenwood, or “Black Wall Street,” was burnt to the ground. 1,400 Black homes and businesses were destroyed. Millions of dollars were lost and 10,000 Black people were left homeless.

Why it is important to know about: The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 was one of the worst attacks against a Black community in the history of the United States. Up to 300 people were murdered. Black people were living peacefully among themselves. They did not start or cause the Massacre.

Details of the event: Black Wall Street was one of the wealthiest Black communities in the United States. The community had its own doctors, lawyers, teachers, dentists, and entertainers. There were over two hundred Black-owned small businesses. But some white people in Tulsa were not happy. They did not like that Black people were so successful. There was a lot of anger and jealousy. A newspaper article in the Tulsa Tribune printed a story about a nineteen-year-old Black boy named Dick Rowland. Sarah Page was a seventeen-year-old white girl. Dick Rowland was accused of possibly harming her in an elevator. The story turned out to be false. Dick Rowland was held at the courthouse. A large crowd of armed white men came to the courthouse. A smaller crowd of armed Black men came to protect Dick Rowland. Angry words between a white man and a Black man turned ugly. A shot from a gun was fired. It quickly got out of control. A mob of White men went to Black Wall Street. They attacked and murdered innocent people. They burned down homes and businesses. The Massacre lasted for two days. The police rounded up Black men who were jailed although they had not done anything wrong. Most of the white men were only disarmed and told to go home.

The lasting impact: The public did not want to hear about an angry white mob. White men had killed, burned, and destroyed Black people’s lives and property. There was an investigation to see if a crime was committed. It was decided that the Blacks caused the riot. No white man was ever charged with murder, stealing, or damaging property. Justice was never served. People have not talked about this for nearly one hundred years. The 2020 movie, “Black Wall Street Burning,” is making people aware of Tulsa’s dark past. Tulsa is finally learning about its history.

What we learned from this event: When people are ashamed of their actions, they refuse to talk about it. People need to take responsibility for their wrongdoing. Healing can happen when the truth comes out.


How the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 Was (and Might Be) Forgotten

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism Without Racists, a central text in the academic field of Critical Race Theory, asks how racial inequality persists in a country where most white people disavow racism. Bonilla-Silva’s answer is that this inequality is the product of a dominant ideology that sees racialized differences as the product of non-racial dynamics. According to Bonilla-Silva, understanding how racism persists requires looking at the systems that encode this “color-blind” ideology, rather than looking at the specific attitudes of white people.

One of the structural factors that critical race theorists like Bonilla-Silva identify that maintain this “color-blind” ideology is the intentional forgetting of racial violence and injustice. This framework helps explain the process by which the events that are now called the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 faded from popular consciousness. Today, these events are acknowledged as perhaps “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history,” one that “tore apart a city and scarred a state.” But for many decades, the history of the Massacre was obscured.

Forgetting History

In the immediate aftermath, the Tulsa Race Massacre was widely reported in news outlets across the United States and the world. Yet in the following decades, the Massacre was omitted from history textbooks, newspaper retrospectives, and public history events. One essay on the historiography of the Massacre suggests that the events were seen by Tulsa’s white business and political leaders as “something best to be forgotten” and that specific efforts to chronicle the events met with active resistance by some white Tulsans and indifference by Tulsa’s news organizations. For example, on the 50th anniversary of the Massacre, Tulsa journalist Ed Wheeler wrote an article, “Profile of a Race Riot,” that included interviews with survivors and eyewitnesses to the Massacre as well as many previously unpublished photographs of the events of 1921. Both of Tulsa’s daily newspapers refused to publish this piece. While accounts of the Massacre were passed down among survivors and their communities and through informal instruction at Tulsa’s segregated high schools, for much of the 20th century white Tulsans forgot the Massacre in plain sight.

The forgetting of the Massacre required a concerted effort. This effort exemplifies what the philosopher Charles Mills calls “white ignorance,” in which the ideology of white supremacy infects what counts as knowledge, and testimony about white atrocities is passed down only through “segregated information channels.” Two events from the immediate aftermath of the Massacre not only illustrate how white forgetting happens, but also show just how much effort is required to pull it off.

On June 7, 1921, less than a week after the events of the Massacre, a Tulsa judge empaneled a grand jury to investigate the causes of the Massacre and to issue a report. Working with alacrity, the grand jury concluded their investigation on June 25. The contents of the report were summarized by a local newspaper as “Grand Jury Blames Negroes For Inciting Race Rioting Whites Clearly Exonerated.” The grand jury’s report identified the direct cause of the Massacre as “a certain group of colored men who appeared at the courthouse…for the purpose of protecting…Dick Rowland.” The grand jury found that two more remote causes of the events were the “agitation among the negroes of [sic] social equality” and law enforcement failures to enforce vice laws in Greenwood. The grand jury recommended “more strenuous law enforcement” in Tulsa’s predominantly Black communities. The grand jury also issued several dozen indictments, mostly for Black Tulsans, including J.B. Stratford (a prominent real estate developer and owner of the Stratford Hotel, which was destroyed in the Massacre) and A.J. Smitherman (the editor and publisher of the Tulsa Star, the leading newspaper serving Greenwood), both of whom had emigrated from Tulsa in the days after the Massacre.

This effort exemplifies what the philosopher Charles Mills calls “white ignorance,” in which the ideology of white supremacy infects what counts as knowledge, and testimony about white atrocities is passed down only through “segregated information channels.”

While the grand jury was conducting its investigation, Tulsa newspapers carried several entreaties to white Tulsans to return weapons that they had borrowed from local hardware stores and the police station for use in the Massacre. Consider the following passage from the June 19, 1921 edition of the Tulsa World:

“Not all persons who borrowed guns from the police station the Tuesday night of the negro uprising have returned them to the station. Chief of Police John A. Gustafson Saturday asked that there be no more delay in returning those firearms….‘These guns were only loaned,’ the chief explained, ‘and were loaned with the understanding that they would be returned as soon as the situated had improved to a point sufficient to justify their return.’”

The grand jury was enacting white ignorance about the Massacre at the same time that the police were attempting to unwind the complicity of white Tulsans in the events of the Massacre. Forgetting an event like the Massacre was an accomplishment, rather than a condition.

Remembering and Forgetting the Massacre

It is tempting to see the forgetting of the Tulsa Race Massacre as an artifact from a more benighted age. (The prescription of more rigorous policing as a solution to racialized violence seems less remote.) Developments such as the creation in 1997 of the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, the inclusion of curricula about the Massacre in Oklahoma history textbooks, and the establishment of official commissions to commemorate the centennial of the Massacre will ensure that the events of 1921 do not fade from our collective memories in the future the way that they did in the past.

Yet the underlying factors that generated white ignorance about the Massacre are still with us.

Recently, Oklahoma (along with a number of other states) enacted legislation that precludes the teaching of Critical Race Theory in its schools. Oklahoma’s version of this law directly prohibits schools from introducing concepts of white supremacy or race-based redress in their courses. Indirectly, this law is likely to discourage any discussion of the structural drivers of racial inequalities. To the extent that these forbidden concepts explain the events of the Massacre and its forgetting, the law could also preclude teaching this history as well. The work of Bonilla-Silva on how colorblindness entrenches racialized inequality and of Mills on white ignorance are almost certainly prohibited by this new law. So could significant parts of the official report by the Tulsa Race Riot Commission that address the structural factors that explain the Massacre. For that matter, so could this essay.

What is happening in Oklahoma is a microcosm of a broader trend of Republican state legislatures utilizing the rhetoric of color blindness and antidiscrimination to preclude discussion of, let alone redress for, white supremacy. These efforts to obscure racialized injustice serve to entrench white ignorance.

Future generations will hopefully remember the Tulsa Race Massacre. Will they also remember the forgetting, or merely relive it?


How Tulsa massacre spent most of last century unremembered

When the smoke cleared in June 1921, the toll from the massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was catastrophic — scores of lives lost, homes and businesses burned to the ground, a thriving Black community gutted by a white mob.

The nightmare cried out for attention, as something to be investigated and memorialized, with speeches and statues and anniversary commemorations.

But the horror and violence visited upon Tulsa’s Black community didn't become part of the American story. Instead, it was pushed down, unremembered and untaught until efforts decades later started bringing it into the light. And even this year, with the 100th anniversary of the massacre being recognized, it’s still an unfamiliar history to many — something historians say has broader repercussions.

“The consequences of that is a sort of a lie that we tell ourselves collectively about who we are as a society, who we have been historically, that’s set some of these things up as aberrations, as exceptions of what we understand society to be rather than endemic or intrinsic parts of American history,” said Joshua Guild, an associate professor of history and African American studies at Princeton University.

Indeed, U.S. history is filled with dark events — often involving racism and racial violence — that haven’t been made part of the national fabric. Many involved Black Americans, of which the Tulsa Race Massacre is considered among the most egregious in its absolute destruction, but other racial and ethnic communities have been impacted as well.

Americans not knowing about these events or not recognizing the full scope of the country's conflict-ridden history has impacts that continue to reverberate, Guild said.

“If we don’t understand the nature of the harm . we can’t really have a full reckoning with the possibility of any kind of redress," he said.

Manisha Sinha, a professor of American history at the University of Connecticut, agreed.

“It’s really important for Americans to learn from the past, because you really cannot even understand some of our current-day political divisions and ideas unless you realize that this conversation over both the nature and the parameters of American democracy is an ongoing and a really long one," she said.

Terrible events that many Americans don't know about include long-ago history, such as the Snake River attack in Oregon in 1887, where as many as 34 Chinese gold miners were killed, and the 1864 Sand Creek massacre of around 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho people by U.S. soldiers in Colorado. Others are within the lifetimes of many Americans living today, like the 1985 bombing by Philadelphia police of the house that headquartered the Black organization MOVE, killing 11 people.

As odd as it may sound, the mere fact that something happened isn't enough for it to be remembered, said Robin Wagner-Pacifici, a professor teaching sociology at the New School for Social Research, who has written about the MOVE bombing.

“You can never assume, no matter how huge an event may be in terms of its literal impact on numbers of people, that it’s going to be framed and recognized and move forward in time, in memory, by future publics or state apparatuses or political forces," she said.

In Oklahoma, the massacre largely wasn’t discussed until a commission was formed in 1997 to investigate the violence. For decades, the state’s public schools called it the Tulsa race riot, when it was discussed at all. Students now are urged to consider the differences between calling it a “massacre” or a “riot.”

How an event is presented can make a difference, Wagner-Pacifici said. That could include whether it’s connected to other historical moments and what parts are emphasized or downplayed.

“All sorts of political forces and actors will kind of move in, to try to name it and claim it, in order either to tamp it down in its impact or to elaborate it in its impact,” she said.

She pointed to a current example: the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection by a predominantly white mob at the U.S. Capitol. Some Republicans have attempted to minimize or even deny the violence, and on Friday GOP senators blocked the creation of a bipartisan panel to investigate the attack.

In Tulsa, word of unrest that started on May 31, 1921, and ran through the night and the next day made it to news outlets. Front-page stories and accounts from The Associated Press spoke of a “race clash” and “armed conflict.” But the aftermath — of a community shattered —- was relegated to inside pages at best before being swept under the rug.

In one example, a story weeks later well inside the pages of The New York Times reported in passing that a grand jury in Oklahoma had determined the catastrophe was due to the actions of armed Black people and the white people who got involved were not at fault.

It just shows that remembering is never just actually about remembering, Wagner-Pacifici said.

“It's always motivated," she said. “Who remembers what about the past, who allows a past to be remembered, to be brought back to life and and in what ways . it’s absolutely fundamental to who you decide you want to be in the present."


The 1921 Tulsa race massacre: the worst single incident of racial violence in US history

A century ago, America’s simmering racial tensions boiled over on the streets of one Oklahoma city, leaving dozens dead and hundreds more injured. Scott Ellsworth explores the 1921 Tulsa race massacre

This competition is now closed

Published: May 31, 2021 at 8:58 am

Mary Parrish hurried home, anxious to finish a novel that she had begun the day before. During an era in which African-American women were routinely forced to the lowest levels of US society, Parrish stood out as a talented writer and successful entrepreneur: she ran her own secretarial school, where she taught typewriting, business correspondence and clerical skills to young black women hoping to find work as office clerks.

Parrish was also a single mother, and she and her seven-year-old daughter, Florence, lived on Greenwood Avenue, in the heart of the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Within walking distance from their home, there were two theatres, dozens of restaurants, a public library, grocery stores and dress shops, doctors’ offices and billiard parlours.

“On Greenwood one could find a variety of business places which would be a credit to any section of the town,” Parrish wrote. Tuesday 31 May 1921 was a warm spring evening, and there was plenty to do and see.

Only Parrish wasn’t interested. Fetching her daughter from a neighbour, the two climbed the stairs to their second-storey apartment. Little Florence took her place on the sofa along the windows, where she could watch the automobile and pedestrian traffic along Greenwood Avenue, while her mother sunk into her favourite chair, looking forward to a quiet evening of reading.

That wasn’t going to happen, though. Within a couple of hours, Florence would watch an unfolding drama outside, as African-American men and women, some with guns, gathered on the street below. And before the clock on the mantel struck midnight, Mary Parrish and her daughter would find themselves at ground zero in the worst single incident of racial violence in American history.

Tulsa, the ‘Magic City’

Less than 40 years old, Tulsa was then known as the “Magic City”. Set along the banks of the Arkansas river in north-eastern Oklahoma, it had been a sleepy Creek Indian and cowboy town until 1905, when the discovery of the then richest small oil field on Earth transformed Tulsa into the oil capital of the world. By 1921, the city boasted skyscrapers, banks and movie theatres, churches with soaring steeples and more than 100,000 residents. In the wealthiest neighbourhoods, newly minted oil barons built massive Italianate and Tudor mansions and stocked them with antique furniture, crystal chandeliers and Renaissance art. Money had literally flowed out of the ground.

And some of it had made its way to the city’s African-American population. While black people were barred from employment in the oil fields, there was plenty of work for African-American men and women as maids, domestic workers and chauffeurs in the homes of rich white people, or as cooks, dishwashers, ditch-diggers and common labourers downtown.

Black Tulsans, including a large number of women, worked in white neighbourhoods during the week, where they drew good pay cheques, but they spent their money in the African-American community of Greenwood.

As a result, the Greenwood commercial district – later renamed Black Wall Street – flourished. A handful of black merchants, such as John and Loula Williams (who owned the Dreamland Theater, the East End Garage, a confectionery and an office building), became genuinely wealthy. But scores of other African-American entrepreneurs, who owned much more modest businesses, were also successful. More importantly, they helped each other. “It was said that a dollar bill changed hands more than a dozen times before it ever left Greenwood,” newspaper editor Jim Goodwin once told me. As a result, the community was an especially vibrant district, whose residents were able to carve out lives of dignity and, despite segregation, a degree of independence. As John Williams would tell his young son: “I came out to the promised land.”

But Greenwood’s rise had also coincided with a treacherous decline in American race relations, one marked by a new and aggressively militant form of white racism. The Ku Klux Klan, the homegrown, whites-only terrorist organisation, had been revived in 1915. It was no longer limited to states in the South, but soon controlled state governments in New Jersey, Indiana and Oregon. Ivy League universities routinely taught forms of scientific racism, while motion pictures such as DW Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation depicted African-American men as greedy savages who perpetually lusted after white women.

Cities in the north started to segregate restaurants and theatres, while the president, Woodrow Wilson, began to bar black people from jobs in the federal government. Lynchings were far from uncommon, with some African-American victims getting burned at the stake by white mobs. And in the years surrounding the First World War, race riots broke out across the country, as white mobs attacked African-Americans on the streets, and invaded black communities, destroying homes and property.

How were African-Americans to respond to such violence? Many, especially black veterans who had fought in France during the First World War, believed that armed self-defence was the only answer. As one African-American veteran said near the time of the 1919 Chicago race riot: “I ain’t looking for trouble, but if it comes my way I ain’t dodging.” These issues would loom large in Tulsa two years later.

The elevator

Nineteen-year-old Dick Rowland had dropped out of Booker T Washington High School to take a job shining shoes downtown. There were no toilet facilities in the shine parlour where Rowland and the other African-American bootblacks worked, however, so the owner arranged for his employees to use a “colored” restroom in the Drexel Building, a block away on Main Street. To access the facilities, the shoe shiners would have to ride the elevator, operated by a 17-year-old white girl named Sarah Page, up to the top floor. On Monday 30 May 1921, that’s exactly what Rowland set out to do, as he had dozens of times before.

Only something was different this time. As Rowland entered the lift, Page screamed. No one knows for certain what happened. But the likeliest explanation was that Rowland tripped as he stepped onto the elevator (it’s been reported that the elevator often failed to line up with the various floors of the building) – and as he did so, instinctively threw out his hands to try to break the fall, catching the young elevator operator by the shoulder. Page cried out and Rowland, now terrified, ran from the building.

Tulsa police picked up Rowland at his mother’s home in Greenwood the next day, 31 May, and placed him in a jail cell in the courthouse, while he was being arraigned. Sarah Page, meanwhile, refused to press charges. The incident, it seemed, was about to be forgotten.

But the Tulsa Tribune, the city’s white afternoon newspaper, had other ideas. “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in an Elevator” ran a front-page story of its 31 May edition, in which the newspaper claimed that Rowland had been seen stalking Page, and had “attacked her, scratching her hands and face, and tearing her clothes”. The editors at the Tribune also proposed what should happen next, in a now lost editorial entitled “To Lynch Negro Tonight”.

That was all it took. The first edition of the newspaper hit the streets shortly after 3.30pm. Within half an hour, there was lynch talk on the streets of Tulsa. By nine o’clock that night, a mob of more than 1,000 white people, many of them armed, had gathered outside the courthouse, demanding that the authorities hand over Dick Rowland.

The unrest unfolds

In Greenwood, meanwhile, news of what was happening downtown had spread like wildfire. An African-American war veteran jumped up on stage at the Dreamland Theater and shouted: “We’re not going to let this happen here! We’re going to go downtown and stop this lynching. Close this place down.”

Mary Parrish watched the drama unfold from her apartment. “I ran to the window and looked out,” she remembered. “I saw many people gathered in little squads talking excitedly.” A group of black veterans went home to put on their old army uniforms and gather their guns.

At about 10 o’clock, after hearing a rumour that the white lynch mob was storming the jail, 75 African-American veterans climbed into a caravan of automobiles and drove downtown. Presenting themselves at the courthouse, they offered their services to the sheriff to help defend the imprisoned Dick Rowland, but were turned away. As they were leaving, an elderly white man tried to take the gun from one of the black veterans. A shot went off, followed by another, and another. And with the gunplay, the white mob forgot about Rowland, and instead turned its wrath on anyone who was black.

Innocent African-Americans, likely workers finishing a late shift, were murdered downtown, while gangs of white people jumped into cars and did drive-by shootings along residential blocks in Greenwood, firing into homes on both sides of the street. Before midnight, the first fires had been set along the edges of the black district. Rather than stopping and disarming the white rioters, members of the Tulsa police instead deputised them and gave them guns. Greenwood’s residents fought back, firing from behind windowsills and along the darkened streets. But shortly before dawn on 1 June, they faced an enemy far greater than ever before.

Just before sunrise, thousands of white people had gathered along the edges of the African-American district. Armed with rifles, pistols and shotguns, and far outnumbering Greenwood’s defenders, they soon moved en masse into the black neighbourhoods. “I took my little girl by the hand and fled out the west door on Greenwood,” Mary Parrish later wrote, as bullets flew past them. “We expected to be shot down at any moment.” Parrish and her daughter Florence made it out just in time, eventually finding safety out in the countryside.

Others were not so lucky. Black people who fought back were shot by the white mob, while those who came out with their hands up were led away, at gunpoint, to hastily organised internment centres. Once an African-American home or business had been emptied of its occupants, the white rioters then looted them before setting them on fire. All that morning, block by block, the mob of white people moved methodically across the black district, shooting, looting and burning.

The aftermath

By the time a contingent of state troops arrived later that morning from the state capital in Oklahoma City and martial law was declared, it was too late. Greenwood was gone. More than 1,000 African-American homes and businesses had been put to the torch an elementary school, a hospital, a public library and more than a dozen churches had all been destroyed. More than 35 square blocks were a wasteland of ashes, charred foundations and blackened, leafless trees.

Dick Rowland was exonerated and set free, while an all-white grand jury blamed African-Americans for the violence. No white person was ever tried and convicted for the burning, looting, and killing that took place in Tulsa in the spring of 1921.

Incredibly, Greenwood rose again. Despite an attempt by white government officials to move the district further north, African-Americans stayed put. Living, at first, in tents provided by the American Red Cross, black men and women went back to their jobs in the white community, while African-American merchants started up their businesses again, first on the bare ground, then in wooden shanties. Some of the wealthiest black business people had kept their money in white banks downtown, and using that capital, started constructing replacement buildings for those burned in the fires of 1 June. By the 1930s and 1940s, it was felt that Greenwood was, in fact, even bigger than before. There was even a black-owned bus line.

Despite the rebuilding, the economic loss suffered by Tulsa’s African-American community was immense. For many families, their savings were wiped out along with their homes and businesses – and with them, generational wealth that could have been used for college tuition, retirement income and down payments on first homes and new business ventures. By some recent estimates, if measured by the wealth that would have remained in Greenwood had the community not been burned to the ground during the massacre, African-American losses in Tulsa would top £440m in today’s currency.

Of course, there were other losses as well, including PTSD suffered by black survivors for decades. As late as the 1970s, one survivor even kept a loaded rifle by the front door to his home in Greenwood, “in case it should happen again”. Others forged ahead, creating new lives for themselves and their families, literally on the ashes of their pre-massacre lives. But the old Greenwood was not entirely forgotten, in part thanks to Mary Parrish. Less than two years after the massacre, she published Events of the Tulsa Disaster, the first book on the tragedy. This was an exceedingly rare volume (it was said that fewer than 50 were ever printed), with an original copy selling at auction last year for more than £1,800. Later this spring, Trinity University Press in San Antonio, Texas will publish a new edition of Parrish’s small but vital account of the attack.

To this day, no one knows how many people died in the Tulsa race massacre. In 2000, as part of a state commission investigating the tragedy, renowned forensic anthropologist Dr Clyde Snow used funeral home records, death certificates, and other historical sources to confirm at least 39 casualties – 13 white people and 26 African-Americans. But many believe that the actual death count is much higher. Maurice Willows, who directed the relief efforts of the American Red Cross in Greenwood after the catastrophe, hinted that the death count might be as high as 300. And while the events that took place in Tulsa in 1921 are now referred to as a race massacre, the ratio of black to white deaths is likewise still unknown. WD Williams, whose family owned the Dreamland Theater, told me in the 1970s that “we got as many of them as they got of us”.

Some answers, however, may be on the way. I have been helping to lead a team of historians, archaeologists and forensic scientists who are attempting to identify long-rumoured unmarked graves around Tulsa. Last October, we discovered one such site in a cemetery. This June, we plan on exhuming the human remains there, which will then be studied for age, sex, ethnicity, cause of death and, possibly, using DNA analysis, actual identification. The victims will then be reburied and – a century on from this horrific episode in Tulsa’s history – properly memorialised.

Scott Ellsworth is the author of The Ground Breaking: The Tulsa Race Massacre and an American City’s Search for Justice (Icon Books, 2021)


Katrina Eaton could hear the emotion in her 12-year-old son Isaac's voice when he came home and talked about what he had learned in school.

His teachers at Carver Middle School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, had taught that day about a race massacre in the city a century ago, when a white mob descended on Tulsa's Black Greenwood neighborhood, killing hundreds of people, destroying many successful businesses and leaving thousands homeless.

The instruction was a lesson for Eaton, too.

"I mean, I've learned more because of what his school has taught him," said Eaton, who is white. "We all have to be talking about the facts and what happened in the past."



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