From May 31 to June 1, 1921, massive mobs of white rioters destroyed the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma. This instance of racial violence was covered up for decades by the Oklahoma government, which enacted martial law in the aftermath of the destruction. Blame was placed heavily on the Black Tulsans who had suffered during the incident, with no condolences and little help offered to those who lost family members or their homes and businesses. This article will shed light on the 102-year-old massacre, its causes, effects, and aftermath.
Before the Tulsa Race Massacre: Black Wall Street
After the Civil War, thousands of Black Americans established settlements in Oklahoma. Between 1865 and 1920, Oklahoma, which was largely still considered “Indian Territory,” had the largest number of Black townships in the United States. One such township was established by O.W. Gurley, a Black landowner, within the city of Tulsa. Gurley purchased the land, about 40 acres in size. As a part of the Dawes Act, African Americans who had assimilated into the Native American tribes in the area were allotted tracts of land.
Gurley’s vision was a town by Black people and for Black people. His business, a boarding house for African Americans, was the first established in Greenwood in 1906. He also began loaning money to Black Tulsans who wanted to start their own businesses. Gurley attracted other Black entrepreneurs, like J.B. Stratford, who established the largest Black-owned hotel in the United States. He also drew publisher A.J. Smitherman, who founded the Tulsa Star, a newspaper exclusively for Black Tulsans, which he used as a tool to keep Greenwood socially minded and forward-thinking. The Star often published useful information for Black Oklahomans about their legal rights and legislation that could benefit or harm them.
Greenwood had no choice but to be an insulated community, as it was literally on the “other side of the tracks” from the highly segregated downtown Tulsa. The community, however, was built for such insulation and flourished within its boundaries. Greenwood was an economically self-sufficient neighborhood and was self-governing as well. The town had its own school system, post office, bank, hospital, and transportation services. Greenwood Avenue, the main drag of the neighborhood, was jam-packed with stores, salons, nightclubs, and movie theaters.
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Self-sufficiency was easily established between residents who were poorer and more well-off business owners. Those who worked outside the community (usually in menial roles) spent their money within the community and kept Greenwood not only stable but prosperous. This lent the neighborhood its nickname of “Black Wall Street,” as it served as a model for economically independent Black communities throughout the country.
Causes of the Tulsa Race Massacre
The rest of Tulsa outside of Greenwood was not without its own wealth, which was in large part funded by the oil industry. However, the growing animosity of white Tulsans against the Greenwood community was reaching a boiling point by the 1920s, with a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and the Oklahoma state government constantly threatening Black rights.
Residents of Greenwood felt the pressure and feared violence fueled by Oklahoma’s adoption of Jim Crow and the rise of groups like the KKK. Despite Tulsa being a wealthy, cosmopolitan city, the crime rates were high, especially in instances of racial violence. This was not uncommon for the United States during the interwar period, as shown by the “Red Summer” of 1919, when anti-Black riots cropped up in major cities nationwide. The Tulsa Star, in an attempt to remedy the violence with counter-measures, encouraged Greenwood residents to appear armed at courthouses and jails throughout the city when Black people were being detained or facing trial.
On May 30, 1921, 19-year-old Dick Rowland, a Black teenager, entered an elevator inside the Drexel Building on Tulsa’s South Main Street. The only other occupant was the elevator operator, a young white woman named Sarah Page. Witnesses said that at some point, Page screamed, the elevator opened, and Rowland ran out of the building. The next morning, after several hours of rumors had already circulated the city, Rowland was apprehended and arrested by the Tulsa police.
Claims of sexual assault spread like wildfire throughout the city’s white community, which even prompted the Tulsa Tribune’s front page headline that Rowland was arrested for assaulting Page. The truth is, even today, unclear. The only two people who knew what had happened were Page and Rowland. Still, like a massive game of “telephone,” the rumors surrounding the incident incited several emotions in different parts of Tulsa.
By the end of the day on May 31, a white mob gathered around the courthouse, demanding that Rowland be released to them. After Sheriff Willard McCullough refused and barricaded the floor on which Rowland was being held, the crowd only grew more irate. The tension was further fueled by a group of 75 armed Black men who also gathered at the courthouse to help prevent a possible lynching. They were met by a group of nearly 1,500 white men, some of whom were armed. The incident had moved away from the arrest of Rowland, and by the time shots rang out outside the courthouse, the next 18 hours were set in stone, and Greenwood would never be the same.
What Happened During the Tulsa Race Massacre?
The group of Black men who had gathered at the courthouse was outnumbered, and after shots were fired and at least 12 men, Black and white, were dead, the group attempted to retreat to Greenwood. The groups of white vigilantes pursued, and firefights broke out throughout the city, focusing mainly on the Frisco Rail Yard, the dividing line between Tulsa’s Black and white communities. It was reported that passengers on an incoming train had to lie on the floor to avoid gunfire.
Some white mobs then began converging on Greenwood, burning, looting, and murdering at random. It was said that some white men had been deputized as auxiliaries to local law enforcement, being supplied with weapons and orders to quell the violence, which did not happen; instead, the opposite occurred. By four o’clock on the morning of June 1, over two dozen Black-owned businesses and homes had been looted and burned. The local National Guard, reportedly deployed to help Greenwood residents, treated Black Tulsans as the enemy.
The National Guard was supplied with arms by the Tulsa police, including a machine gun, which they took on “patrols” throughout the downtown area. Not only did the all-white members of the National Guard, American Legion, and police force protect the white mobs that ravaged the Greenwood district, they assisted them. It was increasingly clear that the authorities would allow violence and destruction against the Black community because they, too, saw Greenwood’s residents as antagonistic.
Rumors fueled the fight constantly. Panic caused by the idea that Black Tulsans were calling in “reinforcements” from outside the city only gave the white looters, arsonists, and murderers all the more reason to attack. The worst was yet to come.
At dawn on June 1, a larger cohesive group of white men poured over the Frisco line and began an organized assault on Greenwood. Black Tulsans had very few choices: they could attempt an escape, or they could hunker down and fight a losing battle. This became all the more apparent when, as described by Black Tulsan physician Dr. R.T. Bridgewater, when “A whistle blew…aeroplanes [sic] began to fly over us, in some instances very low to the ground. A cry was heard from the women saying ‘…they are shooting upon us.’”
These planes, manned by white mob members, angled around the neighborhood so their occupants could shoot out the windows and, in at least one case, drop explosives on a fleeing group of Black people. White mobs took a systematic approach to the residences in Greenwood: either killing or imprisoning the occupants, looting the home, and burning it. Firefights that mowed down Black Tulsans in the street were also ongoing and were not only perpetrated by random white men but by the authorities as well.
By the time martial law was declared at 11:29 a.m. on June 1 and State Troops from Oklahoma City had arrived, the carnage was nearly fizzling out. Most Black residents had either been killed, had escaped to the countryside, or were among some 6,000 people held against their will under armed guard at the local fairground. The incident lasted approximately 18 hours and wreaked havoc on the Greenwood district.
The Aftermath of the Tulsa Race Massacre
While Oklahoma’s official death toll was and is still only 36 people, modern historians estimate that 100-300 people were killed during the Tulsa Race Massacre. One thousand two hundred fifty-six businesses and homes were destroyed, along with virtually every single other building that stood in Greenwood. Black Tulsans, many of whom were World War I veterans, fought valiantly, though they were outnumbered, to save their homes and businesses. They could not have predicted, though, that local and state governments were enabling the violence, putting them at another distinct disadvantage.
No one was ever prosecuted or punished by the law at any governmental level for the destruction and murder that took place in Greenwood. The Black residents detained by the National Guard were initially also not allowed their freedom without the help of a white “sponsor.” This precluded the fact that, over the 18 hours between May 31 and June 1, over 8,000 people became homeless, so even if the state released them, they had nowhere to go.
It is worth noting that the local Red Cross proved invaluable in the aftermath of the massacre. They gathered reports of casualties and injuries, aided in relief efforts, and treated those affected. The Black community in Tulsa, despite the disadvantages imposed by almost every single facet of government, began to rebuild on their own. The Red Cross did not assist them in this endeavor and again relied on the savvy of Black entrepreneurs to get back on their feet. Even this, the independent rebuilding of the Black community, was also initially impeded by the Oklahoma government.
The media and the government refused to acknowledge the massacre. The Tulsa Tribune, the newspaper that sparked anger with its headline about Rowland’s arrest, removed the front page news from its archive. Police and state militia archives simply never mentioned anything relating to the events. The government and the media, until the 1990s, covered up the atrocity and acted like it never happened.
Greenwood & the Tulsa Race Massacre Today
In 1996, on the 75th anniversary of the massacre, the first memorial ceremony was held at Mount Zion Baptist Church, and a physical memorial was placed outside of the Greenwood Cultural Center. In 2001, Oklahoma established a commission to investigate the incident. In their final report, the commission recommended significant restitution to the Black residents of Tulsa, including direct reparations payments to survivors, descendants of survivors, and a memorial for the reburial of the victims of the massacre.
Though the official title given to the incident was the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, in November 2018, it was changed to the Tulsa Race Massacre. The word “massacre,” the commission decided, more accurately reflected the event and its toll on Greenwood. Today, the Tulsa Historical Society has a free virtual exhibit, open at all times during the day, that documents the atrocity and is aimed at educating the community.
Black Wall Street still stands, albeit with only one original building from before the massacre. The residents today keep the memory of the district alive through memorials and education, and the neighborhood is a haven for creatives and Black industry, as it once was, over 100 years on from its greatest tragedy.