May 31, 2021, marks the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, an event that only recently has come to the wider attention of the American public. Although it was one of the worst race massacres in American history, it took 76 years for it to be investigated by the Oklahoma Legislature. Even many residents of Tulsa and descendants of survivors weren’t aware of it until relatively recently.
From May 31 to June 1 in 1921, the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Okla., called “Black Wall Street,” was torched. White citizens, deputized by city officials, attacked Black people and Black-owned businesses in Greenwood, murdering unarmed men as well as armed men trying to ward off looters. Amid the fighting, many Black residents were killed; their families lost all their possessions. By the end, the once-successful area was reduced to ashes and the city was under martial law.
- The Tulsa Race Massacre occurred when a White mob invaded and burned down Greenwood, a prosperous Black district of Tulsa, Okla.
- It started when the mob attempted to lynch Dick Rowland, a Black teenager who was accused of trying to rape a White elevator operator. Rowland was later acquitted.
- In the smoldering aftermath, thousands of people were left homeless and as many as 300 were dead. There may have been mass graves used to quickly bury the bodies.
The incident is also historically referred to by other names, such as the “Tulsa Race Riot.” That particular name has been criticized for suggesting the violence was equivalent on both sides.
“‘Race riot’ it has been called, yet whites were killed and wounded by whites in protection of white property against the violence of a white mob,” a contemporary report from the American Red Cross—which was called in to help with disaster relief in the aftermath of the massacre—stated.
‘Black Wall Street’
Before it was destroyed, the Greenwood District was renowned across the United States as a place of Black success, rare for that time period of Jim Crow provisions and segregation, when the “second” Ku Klux Klan was active. The Tulsa race massacre occurred only six years after D.W. Griffith’s film “The Birth of a Nation,” which had propagandized for the Klan’s domestic terrorism against Blacks, was released.
The town of Tulsa had grown from a creek settlement, called “Tulsey Town,” in the later part of the 19th century. Toward the turn of the century, it saw swift growth driven by oil, especially the 1901 Southwest oil boom. According to Scott Ellsworth’s history, Death in a Promised Land—one of the first scholarly treatments of the event, on which many of the details in this piece rely—Oklahoma was one of the fastest-growing states in the country, with a large immigrant population. Tulsa’s growth was even more pronounced: In 1900, Tulsa had a population of 1,390; in 1910, it was 18,182; in 1920, it was 72,075, which made it the 97th biggest city in the U.S., alongside cities like New York and Philadelphia.
The Black presence in the area went back far into the 19th century. Before the riots, the first couple of blocks along Greenwood Avenue, in the northeast of the city, were called “Deep Greenwood” and “Negro’s Wall Street,” a place renowned across the country for its prosperous Black businesses. “Black Wall Street,” as we call it today, achieved remarkable success, owing mostly to the segregated nature of the city and the oil boom.
Tulsa contained two growing areas and has been described as “not one city, but two.” In 1921, the Black population was around 11,000. Residents of “Black Tulsa” had 13 churches, three fraternal lodges, two schools, two newspapers, two theaters, one hospital, and a public library.
“On leaving the Frisco station, going north to Archer Street one could see nothing but Negro business places,” recalled eyewitness Mary E. Jones Parrish, a Black teacher and journalist staying in Tulsa with her brother, in Events of the Tulsa Disaster, her first-person account of the Tulsa massacre, written years later.
“Going east on Archer Street for two or more blocks there you would behold Greenwood Avenue, the Negro’s Wall Street, and an eyesore to some evil minded real estate men who saw the advantage of making this street into a commercial district,” Parrish wrote.
The Tulsa massacre, which has become one of the most infamous race massacres in U.S. history, started over concerns about a possible lynching after a Black teenager was accused of assaulting a White elevator operator.
On May 30, 1921, a 19-year-old shoeshiner named Dick Rowland went into an elevator in the Drexel Building, which “bootblacks” would ride to go to the restroom when they were working. The operator, a 17-year-old White woman named Sarah Page, fled the elevator screaming. Rowland also fled.
The details of the Rowland-Page encounter remain somewhat murky. White newspapers accused Rowland of assaulting Page, often emphasizing his Blackness in a racist way. Many people apparently believed that Rowland had attacked, scratched, and ripped the elevator operator’s clothes. Parrish’s book reports that Rowland had accidentally stepped on Page’s foot—the most common description of the event today. The report from the American Red Cross also stated that “the local and immediate cause of the trouble began” when Rowland stepped on her foot.
The next day, Rowland was arrested and moved to the courthouse, but word had spread that White residents were planning to lynch Rowland. The front page of the Tulsa Tribune, a White newspaper, the next day reportedly carried the headline “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator,” over a story reporting that Rowland had scratched and attacked Page. Others allege that the newspaper that day carried an editorial, which has been destroyed and lost in the years since, called “To Lynch Negro Tonight.”
Black residents decided to intervene to prevent the lynching, inspired in part by the loss of faith that law enforcement would or could protect a prisoner from “mob justice.” The 1920 lynching of a White 18-year-old, who was accused of murdering a driver, had shaken that trust, especially after the police chief, sheriff, and several local newspapers expressed some support for the lynching.
A History of Lynchings
“At one time,” recounted Parrish in her book, “lynching was considered a Southern pastime.”
The largest number of lynchings occurred from 1889 to 1918. The vast majority of those lynched, about 78% in total, were Black. In that time, an estimated 3,224 people were brutally lynched, in events that often included mutilations and large crowds, and which were often reported in gruesome detail (and even defended as a necessary, if regrettable, part of American life) in the mainstream press. From 1889 to 1968, about 4,742 people were lynched. Historians estimate that 73% of them were Black.
As many as 59 Black men were lynched in Southern and border states in the year of the Tulsa massacre, reports Ellsworth’s history. Despite the decrease in the number of lynchings in the period leading up to the massacre, he notes, the barbarity of these lynchings had increased.
By 7:30 p.m. on May 31, 1921, a White mob had formed in front of the courthouse. (Most historical accounts describe hundreds of angry White citizens, motivated by “lynch talk.”) They wanted Rowland, but the sheriff refused to give him over.
A group of about 25 Black men, mostly veterans of World War I, arrived armed at the courthouse around 9 p.m. and offered assistance to the sheriff, but he declined it and they left. The mob attempted, but failed, to break into the National Guard armory. Then, around 10 p.m., a rumor circulated that the mob was rushing the building. A second group of armed Black men, this time estimated to be about 75 in number, returned to offer the sheriff help again. He refused them, but as they were leaving, a member of the mob tried to take a gun from one of the Black men, and a shot rang out.
The mob boiled over, looking to punish Black residents of the town in place of the lynching.
A marauding mob fought with Blacks, murdered an unarmed man, and planned to storm the Greenwood District. City police deputized and armed former members of the mob. There may have been private airplanes used in the attack. Many atrocities were committed, including the murder of unarmed people. The National Guard, which had been mobilized, stood guard over White neighborhoods to ward off a Black counterattack that never happened.
Black residents tried to fend off the invasion but were overwhelmed by sheer numbers, and many fled. “Black Wall Street” was burned (it was eventually rebuilt by the survivors at their own expense, though the incident left a pall on the area, and survivors wouldn’t speak of the violence for many years afterward).
The National Guard declared martial law and detained thousands of people in detention camps.
Rowland was later acquitted. However, no Whites were ever prosecuted for the murders or the destruction that decimated the Greenwood District.
“After spending years of struggling and sacrifice, the people had begun to look upon Tulsa as the Negro Metropolis of the Southwest,” Parrish’s account relayed. “Then the devastating Tulsa Disaster burst upon us, blowing to atoms ideas and ideals no less than mere material evidence of our civilization.”
American Red Cross estimates reported that the massacre left somewhere between 55 and 300 dead, with the bodies “hurriedly rushed to burial.” An estimate that weighed the available evidence in 2000 found that there were likely around 300 dead and implied that there were as many as three mass graves.
In the three days after the event, hundreds of wounded people received aid or were hospitalized. Thirty-five blocks were “looted systematically, then burned to a cinder.”
Thirty-five city blocks and some 1,400 homes had burned. The damage was estimated at $1 million, which would be $20 million today. The city’s Black population found themselves homeless.
It took 76 years before a commission was created by the Oklahoma Legislature, in 1997, to investigate the massacre. The Oklahoma Commission published its report in 2001. In the aftermath of the massacre, the city had, an epilogue to the report said, conspired to “further dehumanize the suffering population than to demonstrate a justice towards its fellow citizens.” City officials attempted to opportunistically take advantage of the massacre and to force Blacks off the land after the slayings and burnings so that they could develop an industrialized area, which the report insists is “a matter of record.”
Among other things, it reported that it was official policy after the incident to release Black detainees only if a White person vouched for their future behavior. The city did not help to rebuild the Greenwood District. The report also found support for the claim that bodies had been buried in mass graves, and the report recommended that reparations be paid to the descendants of the massacre as a matter of “good public policy.”
The report listed several forms of “direct payments” to riot survivors and their descendants, including a scholarship fund, the creation of an “economic development enterprise zone” in the historic Greenwood District, and a memorial for the victims.
Several lawsuits have attempted to secure reparations for the survivors of the massacre and their relatives. For example, a lawsuit from 2020 sought damages for the massacre and claimed that the event was an “ongoing nuisance,” as city officials have enriched “themselves by promoting the site of the Massacre as a tourist attraction.” The lawsuit cited vastly higher unemployment rates for Blacks in Tulsa, who also have drastically less median household income.
The last three survivors of the slaughter—ages 107, 106 and 100—testified before the U.S. House Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties in 2021.
The Tulsa Race Massacre devastated the once-thriving Greenwood District. “In terms of density of destruction and ratio of casualties to population, it has probably not been equaled by any riot in the United States in this century,” recounted Ellsworth.
Nevertheless, Ellsworth continued, it was not a singular event. Similar atrocities are part of the histories of many American cities, including Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Duluth, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, Omaha, Providence, Philadelphia, and Washington, as well as many others.