Hidden Histories: What you never learned about the Tulsa Race Massacre

It is vital that we remember the United States's worst moments as much as its best. That includes the government-condoned destruction of Black Wall Street in the Tulsa Race Massacre.
Tulsa Race survivors gather on Juneteenth in Washington D.C.
Tulsa Race survivors gather on Juneteenth in Washington D.C. / Anadolu/GettyImages

Unless you're a history buff focused on exploring African American history, there's a good chance that you have never heard of Black Wall Street or the Tulsa Race Massacre. But that's hard to accept, given how significant it was not just to the Black community, but to the United States as a whole.

While shows like The Jeffersons have been celebrated for depicting thriving Black businesses, the historical record hasn't been as kind. Many students of history don't learn much of anything of consequence regarding the treatment of Black Americans between the end of the Civil War and the start of the Civil Rights Movement. However, the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma provides a powerful example of Black excellence—and the lengths people would go in order to destroy it.

The Tulsa Race Massacre has been called the worst case of racial violence in American history, yet it is still largely unknown. It is imperative that it be remembered, both to celebrate the strength of the Greenwood community and to hold the United States accountable for the actions it took in destroying a shining beacon of Black success.

Monument Marks Tulsa Race Riot Of 1921
Monument Marks Tulsa Race Riot Of 1921 / Win McNamee/GettyImages

What was "Black Wall Street"?

Black Wall Street was the name given by Booker T. Washington to the Greenwood neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Those living there had created a thriving community despite the impacts of segregation making it difficult for Black citizens to participate in the US economy at large. In the 1920s, it was seen as the preeminent example of Black excellence in the United States, which made it the target of white resentment.

The residents had a long history of abuse and displacement, which gave them more than enough inspiration to fight for the chance to thrive in the United States. Many Black men and women were forced to move to Oklahoma along with the Creek Nation during the Trail of Tears, playing pivotal roles in founding Tulsa.

After the Civil War, many Black families moved from the South to Oklahoma, hoping to build a state where they could truly be equal. Some people even called the area "Little Africa." For many, it was a place where they could finally enjoy the rights and privileges that had always been denied them in the rest of the United States.

Black residents and businesses began buying the land that would become Greenwood in 1905, which quickly began to thrive. When several landowners found oil on their properties, people began to flood into Oklahoma, hoping to find riches themselves. Ottawa W. Gurley, an entrepreneur from Huntsville, Alabama, founded the Greenwood District just after moving to Tulsa in 1906.

This was all part of a larger trend known as the "Golden Age of Black Business." From around 1900 to 1930, Black communities decided to stop trying to fit into white cities that were literally built to exclude them. Instead, they focused on building up their own businesses to provide a better life without white interference.

The Greenwood District had everything a growing city needed. Alongside necessary businesses, there was a theatre, two newspapers, and a well-funded school system. The people didn't have to worry about fitting into the white areas of Oklahoma, because Greenwood offered them everything they could need. In fact, money could stay in the community for up to 19 months before ever leaving the area.

However, this level of success produced a lot of jealousy in less prosperous white communities. This was fueled by the racial divide, as many whites felt they had the inherent right to be better off than Black Americans. The KKK rose up in Tulsa, with over 3,000 active members in 1921.

Burning Buildings During Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921
Burning Buildings During Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 / Historical/GettyImages

What happened during the Tulsa Race Massacre?

The story that started the Tulsa Race Massacre is unfortunately quite common in US History. A Black man was accused of sexually assaulting a white girl, so a mob formed to lynch him. According to the Equal Justice Initiative's Lynching in America report, assusations of sexual assault were responsible for around a quarter of all lynchings.

The event theoretically took place on May 30, 1921, although the man in question (Dick Rowland) was later exonerated. According to The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, it's likely that Rowland simply stepped on the foot of the teenage girl. Other sources claim he might have tripped and instinctively grabbed her arm.

The lynching mob gathered at the Tulsa courthouse the next day, launching a reign of terror that, though it only lasted from May 31 into June 1, had repercussions that can be felt to this day.

Unlike many lynchings, this mob met resistance by a group of Black men who refused to let them kill Rowland. W. E. B. DuBois had recently visited Tulsa after another lynching, arguing that it was the duty of Black veterans to defend themselves and their people from assault at home. This led many Black residents to arrive at the courthouse, armed, to offer their help in protecting Rowland.

The lynching mob grew, surpassing 1,000 members. One member attempted to forcibly disarm one of Rowland's defenders, and a shot was fired. That was all that was needed for chaos to begin. Soon enough, the violence went far beyond the courthouse.

The mob made their way to the Greenwood neighborhood, where they terrorized the citizens and destroyed as much property as they could. There were multiple celebrated murders in the early hours, as the mob looked for a way to vent their anger at not being able to get to Rowland.

In addition to eye witness accounts of planes dropping bombs onto significant buildings in the communitiy, machine guns were deployed to hurt as many people as possible. A quote from The Tulsa Tribune, the very newspaper that had sensationalized the case against Dick Rowland, described the chaos:

"The machine guns were set up and for 20 minutes poured a stream of lead on the n*****s who sought refuge behind buildings, telephone poles, and in ditches."

According to an eye witness, the police deputized members of the lynching mob and told them to "get a gun and get a n****r." The Tulsa police were identified among the mob, helping to set fire to Black businesses. In the end, 35 city blocks were wiped out.

While Rowland survived the assault, at least 300 people did not. Thousands went missing, never to be seen again. The survivors were held captive, and their community was completely destroyed. An estimated 6,000 Black citizens were interned at the Convention Hall and the Tulsa Fairgrounds for up to a week after the event.

Sources differ on how the National Guard responded to the riot, but it's clear that they had no desire to stop the destruction. Some sources claim the National Guard stood guard over white neighborhoods in case of retaliation. Others say they actively participated in the massacre.

The law at the time stated that a Black person could not be released from custody unless a white person advocated for them, often having to claim responsibility for their future actions. In a situation that was fueled by violent white supremacists, it was just another cruelty to force the captured men and women to beg for white assistance.

No government agencies made any efforts to prevent the massacre or punish those responsible. They also didn't offer any aid to the community in rebuilding, because the official narrative was that the incident had been caused by the Black community. The Red Cross and a few sympathetic white people were the only outsiders to offer support to the broken community.

Ruins Of The Tulsa Race Riot 6-1-21,
Ruins Of The Tulsa Race Riot 6-1-21, / Heritage Images/GettyImages

How significant were the losses to the Greenwood community?

The common accounting of deaths during the Tulsa Race Massacre is around 300, but the figure may be much higher. In 2021, historians began searching for mass graves that could tell how many people died. While some bodies have been found, the true death toll is still unknown.

The 1921 Tulsa Identification Project is seeking DNA information from those who have family connections to the Tulsa Race Massacre, in the hopes of identifying the bodies of those who died in 1921.

In addition to the loss of life, the Tulsa Race Massacre destroyed opportunities for Black residents to establish generational, inherited wealth. At least 1,256 homes were destroyed, with an estimated $1.8 million in property damage. However, modern measurements have suggested that, if a similar event happened today, it would more likely cause around $200 million in damage.

The direct losses caused by the massacre were staggering, but there were also spiritual losses. A sense of hope and pride had been tarnished by the attack, and local white supremacists took advantage of that by spreading postcards of the damages, even including pictures of the dead.

The perpetrators wanted to destroy everything that Greenwood stood for. They killed those who dared to find success, eliminated the homes and businesses that could have contributed to generational wealth, and generally sought to terrorize the Black community 'back into their place.'

Tulsa Commemorates 100th Anniversary Of Tulsa Race Massacre
Tulsa Commemorates 100th Anniversary Of Tulsa Race Massacre / Brandon Bell/GettyImages

Has Greenwood been able to recover, over 100 years later?

The Greenwood community began rebuilding within the first year after the Tulsa Race Massacre, but it was more difficult because there was little external support. Thanks to being labeled a "race riot," insurance companies largely refused to compensate residents for their lost homes and businesses.

Even so, at least 80 businesses had opened or reopened by 1922. In fact, Booker T. Washington held the annual National Negro Business League meeting in the District just a few years later. The Black community, both in and out of Oklahoma, was determined to rebuild what had been one of their proudest accomplishments.

However, desegregation ended up being the downfall of this community, because it allowed white businesses to move into the area and cut off Black income streams. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, "By 1961, 90 percent of African American income in Tulsa was spent outside the Greenwood District."

This destruction only continued as Tulsa implemented "urban renewal" initiatives that actively eliminated opportunities for Black business owners. In a 2021 study by Brookings, they found that despite Black people encompassing 10% of the Tulsa population, Black businesses only made up 1.25% of the business sector.

Tulsa Commemorates 100th Anniversary Of Tulsa Race Massacre
Tulsa Commemorates 100th Anniversary Of Tulsa Race Massacre / Brandon Bell/GettyImages

How is the Greenwood Neighborhood remembered?

For decades, Oklahoma and the United States as a whole made concerted efforts to forget what had happened to Greenwood. When it was mentioned, it was called the "Tulsa Race Riots," a phrase that had been crafted to insinuate that the Black community had rioted themselves, causing all of the devastation.

The Tulsa City Commission announced,"Let the blame for this n***o uprising lie right where it belongs—on those armed n****s and their followers who started this trouble and who instigated it and any persons who seek to put half the blame on the white people are wrong." The court system agreed, before swiftly attempting to sweep the event under the rug.

Within Tulsa itself, however, there were concerted efforts to remember both the success of the Greenwood Neighborhood and the atrocities that were done to it. The Greenwood Cultural Center opened in the 1970s to commemorate the area, and the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park opened in 2010.

In 1997, the state performed an investigation into the incident. The resulting report suggested that the survivors who still lived should be paid reparations. This never happened, though the Human Rights Watch continues to advocate for reparations. It seems likely, however, that the government is simply waiting for the survivors to die off.

On the 100-year anniversary of the massacre, many politicians made acknowledgments of the event, including President Joe Biden. March 31st was officially named "a Day of Remembrance: 100 Years After The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre." However, these commemorations rarely served to help the Black community of Tulsa or promote learning about the incident in history classes.

One major group seeking to keep the memory of Greenwood alive is the non-profit Greenwood Rising, which shares the story of the Tulsa Race Massacre and encourages the spirit of the neighborhood to thrive in the present. Exhibits focus not just on the destruction, but also on how the community rebuilt itself and how other areas of the country have fought for Black progress.

Recent popular culture like Watchmen and Lovecraft Country has attempted to bring more awareness to this horrific piece of American History, but the context can trick audiences into thinking that the whole tragedy was fictional. It needs more awareness in history classrooms and from popular history sources.

Survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre spoke to Congress on the 100th anniversary, explaining how brutal the invasion had been and how much the government itself contributed to the destruction of Greenwood.

The words of Viola Fletcher are particularly powerful:

"I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams. I have lived through the massacre every day.

Our country may forget this history, but I cannot. I will not, and other survivors do not, and our descendants do not."

Further Reading

Tulsa Race Riot: A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921

Tulsa Historical Society and Museum: 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre

Beyond Tulsa: The Historic Legacies and Overlooked Stories of America’s ‘Black Wall Streets’

The 1921 Tulsa Massacre: What Happened to Black Wall Street by Kweku Larry Crowe and Thabiti Lewis

Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District by Hannibal Johnson

Events of the Tulsa Disaster by Mary E. Jones Parrish

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