Tulsa Race Massacre
|The colorful pseudoscience|
Race & Racialism
|Hating thy neighbour|
|Divide and conquer|
“”I will never forget the violence of the hate mob when we left our home. I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fog. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams. I live through the massacre every day. Our country may forget this history, but I cannot.
|—Viola Ford Fletcher, massacre survivor, testimony to the US House of Representatives in 2021.|
“”I never read a page of any school history book about how, in 1921, a mob of white people burned down a place called Black Wall Street, killed as many as 300 of its Black citizens and displaced thousands of Black Americans who lived in Tulsa.... I find the omission tragic, an opportunity missed, a teachable moment squandered.
The Tulsa race massacre, also known as the Black Wall Street massacre, the Tulsa pogrom or the Tulsa race riot, was a 1921 mass lynching in Tulsa, Oklahoma in which white mobs attacked black residents of the city's segregated but wealthy Greenwood District. As many as 300 people were murdered, and the Greenwood District, which had become the wealthiest African American community in the country, was completely destroyed. Many thousands of black Americans were displaced due to the threat of violence and the destruction of their homes and community.
The massacre began with an all-too depressingly familiar cause in American racial history: a black man being accused of assaulting a white woman. Dick Rowland, the black man in question, had apparently tripped in an elevator and grabbed onto a white woman named Sarah Page to save himself from falling. White bystanders called the police and reported that Rowland had assaulted her, leading to his arrest and sparking angry rumors that a black man needed to be lynched for daring to touch a white woman.
As a white lynch mob assembled outside the jail where Rowland was being held, black Greenwood residents, including many World War I veterans, grabbed their own weapons and mobilized to protect Rowland and themselves. The white mob interpreted this as a "Negro uprising", and tensions escalated into a shootout. In the aftermath, the Oklahoma National Guard arrived, deputizing many of the angry white citizens, and moving with them throughout Greenwood to drag black people out of their homes and place them in internment areas. The empowered white mob, unopposed by the National Guard, then used the opportunity to destroy Greenwood completely by setting fires, murdering its residents, looting businesses, and even dropping bombs from civilian aircraft.
None of the massacre's victims were ever compensated, and none of the white perpetrators were ever prosecuted. In the immediate aftermath, white authorities in Oklahoma perfunctorily blamed the black Greenwood residents and found that the city's white residents held no responsibility. Whether out of shame or fear, the massacre was suppressed and left almost completely unremembered by the rest of the United States until 1997 when an Oklahoma state commission was assembled to investigate the massacre.
The Tulsa massacre officially became part of Oklahoma's school curriculum in 2020.
The racial powder keg
The US in the early 1900s was a volatile racial powder keg, probably experiencing the worst threat of domestic violence since the immediate aftermath of the American Civil War. With the increasingly heavy-handed enactment of Jim Crow laws in the South, combined with general poverty and an overbearing threat of violence for 'stepping out of line', black citizens of the South had by that point started flooding into the northern and Midwestern states in a process called the "Great Migration". White residents in these states promptly responded by showing themselves to be just as racist as the whites in the south, taking such actions as declaring whites-only communities, erecting Confederate statues even in strongly pro-Union areas, and launching a series of destructive race riots. The first huge one was in St. Louis, Missouri in 1917, a riot that began due to white industrial workers fearing that blacks were going to take their jobs, and which escalated to the point where 250 black people were murdered and 6,000 were left homeless. Shit.
Then things got even worse after World War I. The war caused an enormous increase in black migration out of the South due to all of the industrial jobs that the conflict created (gotta build the guns) which could be filled by black workers laboring for dirt cheap. Black men also served in the war on behalf of the United States, almost always with heroic honor and distinction. When the black veterans returned home, they hoped to be treated with the respect they deserved. Instead, this attitude infuriated most of the white American population, who demanded that black people across the nation meekly return to being oppressed. Black Americans understandably decided "fuck that."
The Red Summer
With African-Americans unwilling to return to the old status quo, white mobs across the country started mobilizing with the aim of putting the black community back down. These were white civilians, usually unaffiliated with the KKK or other terrorist groups, instead acting on their own initiative.
Racial violence started exploding across the country in 1919, leading to a period known as the "Red Summer." Race riots began in the spring but began to intensify in late July after rumors of a black man being arrested for rape in Washington DC led to the US national capital being overtaken by four days of murderous terror from white mobs, killing between 15 and 40 people. By far the biggest race riot blew up in Chicago, Illinois in early August after black teenagers were beaten with rocks and then drowned for the offense of getting too close to a whites-only beach. Explosive rioting across Chicago's South and West sides and into the downtown lasted days; official casualty counts listed 38 deaths. Despite the US capital city itself being besieged by race riots, the Woodrow Wilson administration took no action to stop the violence. (Read our article on Wilson if you're confused as to why).
Violence continued past summer. In September, the Omaha race riot broke out in Nebraska, resulting in the city's black quarter being burned down and black rape suspect Will Brown being hanged and then burned in public. This was despite Brown maintaining his innocence throughout the ordeal. Later that month, the bloodiest episode of the year took place in Elaine, Arkansas as a white mob murdered between 100 and 237 black sharecroppers who had organized for better labor conditions.
The point of all this being that the Tulsa massacre hardly came out of nowhere, instead it was one more incident in a nationwide pattern that went back years.
Black Wall Street, resilience in the face of Jim Crow
“”[T]he Negro in Oklahoma has shared in the sudden prosperity that has come to many of his white brothers, and there are some colored men there who are wealthy. This fact has caused a bitter resentment on the part of the lower order of whites, who feel that these colored men, members of an "inferior race," are exceedingly presumptuous in achieving greater economic prosperity than they who are members of a divinely ordered superior race.
|—Walter Francis White, African-American civil rights activist and leader of the NAACP, editorial in June 1921|
“”[Greenwood] was a robust community leading up to the massacre. It was an insular Black community that existed out of necessity and reflected what I call an economic detour. In other words, people couldn't engage with the mainstream economy. They were shunned and turned away. They created their own ancillary economy in a particular geographic space because of Jim Crow segregation. It was successful because even people who worked outside the community, brought their money back and spent it in the community. But then the community was obliterated, virtually wiped off the face of the map.
|—Hannibal B. Johnson, former Greenwood resident, interviewed by PBS|
Black Wall Street was a common name for the segregated black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was known nation-wide as being a rarity: a wealthy black community surviving in a country still deep in the Jim Crow era. Black people in the city were unusually wealthy due their ancestors having been freed from enslavement by Native American tribes who had allowed the former slaves to keep their land rather than forcing them into sharecropping arrangements and violently suppressing them. This happened because the post-Civil War US government had imposed stricter Reconstruction measures on the Southern-allied tribes than it had on the actual states of the Confederacy (go figure).
The financial stability of actually owning land allowed former slaves to start their own businesses, farms and ranches. They also benefited greatly from the Oklahoma oil boom, as the formerly crappy land that the tribes had been pushed onto turned out to have a shitload of black gold under it. In 1906, O.W. Gurley, a wealthy Black landowner, started giving land and loans to black entrepreneurs, beginning a wildly successful era of black prosperity.
Oil wealth allowed Greenwood to thrive, and Booker T. Washington became the first to call the district "Negro Wall Street." With Oklahoma having some of the strictest Jim Crow laws in the US, black residents of Greenwood built their own insular economy completely detached from the rest of the state, allowing the community's wealth to benefit the community. Before the massacre, Greenwood had 41 grocery stores, 30 restaurants, 11 boarding houses, 9 billiard parlors, 5 hotels, and many other businesses, including laundry services, movie theaters, and a dance club.
Dick Rowland was a 19 year-old shoeshiner who worked in a white-owned and white-patronized shine parlor on Main Street in downtown Tulsa. On May 30, 1921, Rowland tripped in an elevator on his way to work and grabbed hold of the 17 year-old white elevator operator, who was named Sarah Page. Page screamed in surprise, and white workers nearby naturally assumed the worst and called the cops to report that a black man had assaulted a white woman. As in other places during that time, the very rumor of a black man touching a white woman set off a chain of hysteria that would lead to tragedy.
Surprisingly, the police response was fairly restrained, with the responding officers quickly interviewing Page and determining that Rowland's only crime was being a klutz and that Page saw no need to press charges. At this point, all should have been well and good. All was not well and good.
“”[W]hen an afternoon paper came out with a colored and untrue account, so far as we had been able to ascertain of the entire affair, we concluded that it would be best for the safety of the negro to place him behind the bars of the county jail. The story incited such a racial spirit upon the part of the whites, and under the impression that there would be a lynching, the armed blacks invaded the business district. If the facts in the story as told the police had only been printed I do not think there would have been any riot whatsoever.
|—Chief of Detectives James Patton, interviewed by the Tulsa World in June, 1921.|
Meanwhile, the Tulsa Tribune picked up the story. The paper was owned by Richard Lloyd Jones, who was noted to give his paper an editorial slant favoring the Ku Klux Klan. The Tribune's story on the incident, titled "Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator", spun a completely fabricated tale claiming that Rowland had scratched Page's hands and torn at her clothes, implying that he had tried to rape her. The paper had also allegedly included an editorial that gave suspiciously detailed reporting on white plans to lynch Rowland, although that editorial is notably lost from the paper's archives.
Tulsa's white population lost their goddamn minds after the fake news hit piece spread. By 7:30 p.m. hundreds of whites had gathered outside the Tulsa County Courthouse to demand that authorities hand over Rowland for them to lynch. The sheriff refused, but news of the standoff outside the courthouse galvanized action in Greenwood. At about 9 p.m., about 25 armed African Americans, many of whom were veterans of World War I, showed up at the scene with the determined goal of protecting Rowland from an unjust murder. This had become a frequent response from black communities across the country, as black suspects were frequently lynched.
The sheriff sent the armed black group away, but their appearance had angered the white mob. Members of the mob tried to attack a National Guard armory in order to out-gun the black Greenwood community. As the night went on, the mob grew to about 2,000 people, and the black Greenwood residents returned with 75 armed people in order to protect Rowland from the increasingly unruly crowd.
At this point, the mob turned on the blacks, and an attempt to forcibly disarm a black war veteran resulted in a fight and then a shot being fired. After a shootout left several people dead, the black defenders retreated to the Greenwood district.
Infuriated by the presence of armed black Americans and frustrated by the failed lynching, the white mob turned their attentions towards the entire district of Greenwood. A rolling gunfight ensued as the mob pursued the blacks back into Greenwood, looting stores along the way and shooting at any black bystanders they could find. Carloads of armed whites began making "drive-by" shootings in black residential neighborhoods, and more members of the mob stormed a movie theater.
Authorities did fuck-all to stop the massacre as it was unfolding. Indeed, individual members of the police force deputized white members of the mob and instructed them to "get a gun and get a nigger." National Guard units that were mobilized at the outset of the massacre spent most of the night protecting white neighborhoods from a feared but nonexistent black retaliation.
Invasion and burning of Greenwood
“”I could see planes circling in mid-air. They grew in number and hummed, darted and dipped low. I could hear something like hail falling upon the top of my office building. Down East Archer, I saw the old Mid-Way hotel on fire, burning from its top, and then another and another and another building began to burn from their top.
|—Buck Colbert Franklin, a black lawyer in Greenwood, in a written eyewitness account uncovered by the Smithsonian.|
At around 1 a.m., the white rioters launched a full attack against the Greenwood district, using lighted oil rags to begin burning businesses across Black Wall Street. Crews from the Tulsa Fire Department arrived in Greenwood to begin putting out the flames, but they were turned away at gunpoint. Violence also spread to other parts of the city as the white rioters started searching for black citizens outside of Greenwood, even threatening white employers and families into turning over their black associates.
By daybreak, the white attackers had started using private aircraft launched from the Curtiss-Southwest airfield just outside the city. The airplanes, mostly small biplanes, were used to drop incendiary bombs on black homes and businesses. It was as if white US citizens were doing a Pearl Harbor on their own city.
White rioters also utilized at least one machine gun during the attack against Greenwood. The murderous mob also committed numerous atrocities against people who weren't fighting back, such as when they shot renowned black surgeon A. C. Jackson while he was trying to surrender to them. The mob fatally shot black people and looted their homes and businesses. The National Guard, local law enforcement, and deputized white citizens also stormed Greenwood in order to round up black people and place them in holding facilities for internment, ensuring that they could not interfere with the destruction of their community.
The violence finally ended in the late morning of June 1 after most of Greenwood had been burned to the ground.
“”You may have been taught that when something is stolen from you, you can go to the courts to be made whole. You can go to the courts to get justice. This wasn't the case for us. The courts in Oklahoma wouldn't hear us. The federal courts said we were too late. We were made to feel that our struggles were unworthy of justice. That we were less valued than whites, that we weren’t fully American. We were shown that in the United States, not all men were equal under law. We were shown that when Black voices called out for justice, no one cared.
|—Hughes Van Ellis, Tulsa race massacre survivor, written testimony to the US House of Representatives.|
About 5,500 Greenwood residents were held in a makeshift refugee camp, where those who couldn't get a white person to vouch for them remained for weeks. The district's entire population, some 10,000 people had been rendered homeless, and those who hadn't been forced into detention instead simply fled the city. The destruction and looting and displacement resulted in the Greenwood residents losing what would today be amounted as $610 million in accumulated wealth.
The black victims of the massacre and destruction of their community never received restitution. Instead of providing aid to those who lost everything, state and local authorities did everything they could to impede the reconstruction of Greenwood by using such methods as rejecting medical and construction assistance. Even insurance claims made by black business-owners went ungranted, with the only money being paid out to a white gun-store proprietor who had his property looted by white residents en route to terrorize the Greenwood community.
On June 4, the Tulsa Tribune published an editorial advocating against the reconstruction of Greenwood, denouncing it as "Niggertown" and claiming it was full of "booze, dope, bad niggers and guns."
A one-sided blame game
While Greenwood still smoldered, government authorities quickly set about trying to blame the violence on the black victims. After all, defending yourself was a privilege afforded only to whites. Mayor T. D. Evans explicitly rejected assigning even half of the responsibility for the massacre on the white citizens of the city, instead saying that all of the blame rested on the black people who had only wanted to prevented a lynching. Local media echoed this absurdly stupid interpretation of events, urging the city's white residents to continue banding together for defense against "non-working, worthless Negros." The (all-white) grand jury that was convened (and which issued its report on June 25, 1921), decided that "agitation among the Negroes for social equality" was the chief cause of the massacre, as if agitation for social equality were somehow a bad thing.
No white person ever saw a day in court over the massacre. Instead, many outspoken black residents of the city, most notably including black newspaperman Andrew J. Smitherman, were indicted for the crime of inciting the massacre, apparently in retaliation for denouncing the government's response. Although never convicted, those indictments remained on the books until freaking 2007.
“”Tulsa’s two daily white newspapers, they went out of their way for decades not to mention the massacre. Researchers who would try to do work on this as late as the early 1970s had their lives threatened and had their career threatened.
|—Scott Ellsworth, a professor of Afro American and African studies at the University of Michigan.|
In the decades after the Tulsa massacre, local newspapers deliberately attempted to cover-up the heinous crime they helped incite. The Tribune, which had so bloodthirstily falsified stories about Rowland and called for Greenwood to be left destroyed, didn't even mention the massacre again until 1971. The Tribune even went so far as to remove its records of the article calling for violence over the Rowland incident and the editorial that gleefully predicted a lynching; the former article was rediscovered in 1946 while the latter document remains missing to this day.
In the week following the massacre, Tulsa police confiscated as many photographs of the tragedy as they could find; National Guard reports and other documents also suspiciously went missing. Public acknowledgement of the massacre didn't come until 1971, and even then, the Chamber of Commerce writer who was asked to write about the event faced threats on the streets and vandalism directed at his car. The Tulsa Chamber of Commerce, despite having asked for the piece, refused to publish it, as did the city's two white newspapers.
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