Tulsa Massacre of 1921: The Race Riot That Devastated America’s “Black Wall Street”.

Tulsa Massacre

Tulsa Massacre of 1921: The Racial Tension That Devastated America’s “Black Wall Street”.

The days between May 30 – June 1, 1921 were tumultuous days for the African-American residents living in the prosperous Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Following years of racial tension and divide, it only took a seemingly innocent incident between two black and white teenagers for chaos to ensue. The Tulsa Massacre of 1921 holds the unenviable record of being one of the United States’ bloodiest and deadliest racial conflicts, and for many years, the truth about what occurred in this southern city was shrouded in secrecy.
What really caused the Tulsa Massacre in 1921? And what was the actual death toll from the race riot?

In the article below World History Edu provides all the important facts about the history of the Tulsa Massacre, including the root causes and aftermath of the deadly race riot.

Pre-Massacre: Life in Tulsa, Oklahoma

The first group of African Americans arrived in Oklahoma in the 1830s; some were free while the others were still enslaved. After the Emancipation Proclamation was passed in 1863, many of them settled in towns and cities throughout Oklahoma.

By the early 20th century, Tulsa had become one of the most thriving cities in Oklahoma. But behind its prosperity laid so much deep-rooted racial tension that was further compounded by the strict racial segregation within the city.

Much of the tension in Tulsa appeared to reach a boiling point following the end of World War I, as well as the activities of the white supremacist group, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). There were also reported incidents of racially-motivated attacks, including lynching, against African Americans by white people to assert their dominance. The African-American communities refused backing down and stepped up their fight for their civil rights.

Read More: Jim Crow Laws – Origin Story, List and Aftermath

Tulsa – “The Black Wall Street”

Nonetheless, in 1921, the year of the massacre, Tulsa was a growing city with a population that exceeded 100,000. Many of the black people in the city lived in its Greenwood District, which was one of the most vibrant and prosperous in the city. The district could boast of many schools, offices, and churches, and many of the black people were small business owners.

Tulsa’s Greenwood District was so successful that it was named “The Black Wall Street”, a reference to the Financial District of Lower Manhattan in New York City. In short, life in Greenwood was relatively peaceful.

What Started the Tulsa Massacre?

Unfortunately, all that progress in Tulsa went up in flames in the summer of 1921. It all began on May 30, 1921 when a young African-American teenage boy and shoe shiner named Dick Rowland had an encounter with a white teenage girl, Sarah Page. Rowland had been on his way to use the elevator in the Drexel Building, which Page operated, to access the colored restrooms.

Not much is known about Rowland’s prior relationship with Page, but it’s likely that they were at least familiar with each other. Whatever the case was, it was supposed to be a usual and uneventful encounter. However, according to eyewitnesses, particularly an account from a white clerk in a nearby office, Page screamed and Rowland was seen escaping from the building.

The clerk stated that he found a shaken up Page and suspected that Rowland had attempted to sexually assault her. Another plausible explanation was that the young boy tripped while entering the elevator and tried holding on to Page for balance, who then screamed. Others also believe the two were once lovers and had been embroiled in a lovers’ quarrel.

Media coverage of the alleged sexual assault of the white woman was completely bias

During police investigations, Page decided against pressing any charges. Still, the police decided to conduct investigations. Fearing that he was in danger and would be lynched, Rowland decided to lay low at his mother’s house in the Greenwood District.

The following morning, Rowland was arrested and detained at jail in Tulsa. Meanwhile, news of what had transpired between the young black man and Page was beginning to spread around the neighboring communities. The Tulsa Tribune reported the incident as a sexual assault, as well as Rowland’s arrest. When the white communities heard the news, they were infuriated.

After spending a few hours in jail, Rowland was then transferred to the top floor of the city’s courthouse out of fear that his life was in danger. But when his location was made known, a couple of white people stormed the courthouse demanding that he be released so they could lynch him. The police responded by bolstering the security around the young man.

Around 9pm, a group of 25 African-American men (including some World War I veterans) arrived at the courthouse. They were there to protect Rowland at all cost. The African-Americans demanded that they be allowed to assist the police in keeping Rowland safe. Initially, they were turned away and they left the scene.

When rumors of a possible lynching resurfaced, the group of African-Americans returned to the courthouse; this time numbering up to 75. But they were heavily outnumbered by the white people whose numbers had risen to about 1,500. Several of the white people were also heavily armed; and those who weren’t armed attempted to raid the National Guard armory for weapons. The tension at the courthouse had reached its brim, and all it needed was a little push to spill over.

There are various accounts on what happened next to spark the massacre. One report says that a white man had attempted to disarm one of the veterans, which set off a gun. Once the gunshot was heard, a gunfight ensued well into the morning of June 1, and there were 12 casualties: two blacks and 10 whites.

In another account that was first told by a survivor, Eloise Taylor Butler, the situation escalated after six white men attempted to lynch a black man. A fierce fight then ensued as some black business owners in nearby stores rushed to defend the victim.

Tulsa Massacre (1921): Origin Story, Causes and Effects. Image: Thousands of homes and businesses belonging to African Americans were set ablaze during the Tulsa Massacre

The Tulsa Massacre

As the chaos at the courthouse ensued, the outnumbered African Americans decided to retreat to Greenwood, but the white Tulsa residents followed them, setting many Black homes and businesses on fire. Making matters worse was the fact that many of those white men had been deputized, meaning that they had their own weapons. The few that didn’t have weapons of their own allegedly received weapons from some city’s officials. Many hate crimes were committed against African Americans in the hours that followed.

Even white families that had live-in black helpers were not spared. They were asked to send their workers to detention centers. Those who refused were either attacked or had their homes ransacked.

By daybreak, Greenwood District had been engulfed by never-before-seen violence, with many of its buildings, including historic churches, schools, hospitals, and offices, either completely destroyed or severely damaged.

Some eyewitnesses claimed to have seen airplanes flying over Greenwood and attacking residents who were attempting to leave. Some say that the planes “dropped turpentine bombs” on most of the buildings in the district.

By noontime, the riot had petered out; however, the devastation that had taken place was palpable. The National Guard was even called in to put out the fires. But while they did that, they also arrested and detained many people, especially black residents.

How the Tulsa Massacre had a long-lasting effect on America’s “Black Wall Street”

The Tulsa Massacre had a long-lasting effect on many prosperous African American neighborhoods in Tulsa, especially the Greenwood District, a place that had become so prosperous it earned the nickname “The Black Wall Street”. With more than 1300 buildings, including residential and business structures, destroyed, it would take more than a decade for those African American communities to recover.

More than 9,000 people lost their homes as a result of the Tulsa Massacre. Many of the victims were had no option than to live in makeshift tents.

Tulsa race riot of 1921

Tulsa was the second-largest African American community in the state of Oklahoma. And the Greenwood District was seen as the most affluent African American community in the state. The district was even nicknamed the “Black Wall Street”. Image: Heavy plumes of smoke rising from the Greenwood District, the most affluent African American community in the state of Oklahoma

The Aftermath of the Tulsa Massacre

The following are events that occurred after the Tulsa Massacre:

The Fate of Dick Rowland

Shortly after the massacre had ended, Rowland was let go and all the charges against him were dropped. The police concluded that he’d either bumped into Page or stepped on her foot. He left Tulsa never to return again.

Inconsistent Reports of Casualties

Tulsa race riot of 1921

Newspapers reported different figures for the death toll from the massacre

The Tulsa Massacre was one of the deadliest and bloodiest racially-motivated conflicts in the history of the United States. Yet, there were several inconsistencies in media reports of the casualties.

The Tulsa Tribune initially reported 77 casualties (9 whites and 68 blacks), but it later changed its numbers to 176. The following day, the paper reported the death toll to be 30 (9 whites and 21 blacks). The New York Times also reported that 77 had died, only for it to later retract that figure and report the figure as 33. Back in Virginia, The Richmond Times Dispatch first reported 85 deaths and later reported that the police had recorded 175 casualties.

Earlier records, according to the Oklahoma Bureau of Vital Statistics, reported 36 casualties. However, that death toll was heavily contested by several historians who believed that it could have been as high as 300 deaths.

Racial Issues in Oklahoma

The Tulsa Massacre was a glaring exposure of racial issues in America, but the aftermath of the event did little to end racism. While the people of Greenwood were left to rebuild, segregation was even more enforced, and the KKK even expanded and opened a chapter in Oklahoma.

Alleged Cover-Up

Many news outlets failed to give the massacre further coverage decades after it had happened. The Tulsa Tribune had allegedly taken out its May 31st cover story on Rowland and the rape attempt accusations. The state and government archives were also devoid of certain crucial factors pertaining to the massacre. The event was barely taught in schools or published in textbooks.

It wasn’t until the massacre’s 50th anniversary in 1971 that more research was conducted into the event. Twenty-five years later, on its 75th anniversary, a commemorative ceremony was held at the Mount Zion Baptist Church, which was one of the buildings that had been destroyed and rebuilt.

In the months that followed after the massacre, an inquiry was launched. However, those investigations all fizzled out after sometime, and the horrific event that occurred in Tulsa was swept under the carpet, so to speak. Image: Survivors of the massacre in makeshift tents

Establishment of the Tulsa Race Riot Commission

In 1997, the Tulsa Race Riot Commission was established to inquire into the massacre. Investigations of the commission revealed that between 100-300 people were killed, supporting the earlier claims of some historians. The commission also found that the events of the massacre had left some 8,000 residents displaced and homeless.

The commission also called for the search of mass graves. In 2001, the remaining survivors at that time were awarded medals of honor. The then-Governor of Oklahoma, Frank Keating, also passed the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Reconciliation Act, which provided 300 scholarships for Greenwood students, established a memorial park in honor of the victims, and supported the economic development of the district.

One of the recommendations in the commission’s final report, which was released in 2001, was for the state of Oklahoma to set aside $33 million to compensate the victims and their surviving relatives.

In 2012, the Oklahoma State Senate attempted to pass a bill requiring schools to teach about the massacre. But the bill failed to pass on the grounds that it was already being taught.

In 2018, the commission was renamed the 1921 Race Massacre Commission.

Greenwood District Today

It took about 10 years for residents to rebuild Greenwood District. In 2021, US President Joe Biden visited Tulsa on the event’s 100th anniversary and met with few of the survivors’ relatives and other community leaders. Today, the “Black Wall Street” serves as the site for many African-American events, as well as a memorial ground for the Tulsa massacre.

The John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park

Tulsa Massacre of 1921: The Racial Tension That Devastated America’s “Black Wall Street”.

Image: The 25-foot-tall Tower of Reconciliation at the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park

The John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park was built in 2010 to heal the wounds that had been caused by the massacre. Located in the Greenwood District, the park was named after John Hope Franklin, an African American civil rights activist and educator, who was the son of one of the survivors of the massacre.

Did you know…?

Tulsa race riot of 1921

The Tulsa race massacre took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma on May 31, 1921. Lasting for about two days, the riot resulted in the deaths of at least 100 people, many of them African Americans.

  • The 1921 Tulsa Massacre has appeared in several 20th and 21st century pop culture phenomena such as literature, film, and music.
  • Books like “Magic City”, “Tulsa Burning”, “Dreamland Burning”, and “Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre” were all inspired by the events of the massacre.
  • It has also served as the main or backdrop for film and TV, including “Going Back to T-Town”, “Hate Crimes in the Heartland”, “Lovecraft Country”, and “The Watchmen.”
  • In music and art, songs like “Dirty Little Secret” by Graham Nash and Bob Dylan’s “Murder Most Foul” were inspired by the events of the massacre.

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