There are always overlooked stories in history. These are almost always the stories of the minority and the marginalized. Oklahoma is no different.
In recent years, there has been a focus on uncovering and discussing the horrific tragedy of Greenwood in 1921. It is important to know about the destruction of the incredibly affluent and successful “Black Wall Street” that occurred. It is a horrific tragedy that was unfortunately not rare for the time.
Throughout African American communities across the country, Tulsa was known as a place of economic opportunity throughout the first decades of the 20th century. There were Black owned hotels, stores, and various businesses. The success of this community was often held up as a standard to other communities.
The events of May 31, 1921 are often referred to as the “Tulsa Race Riot” by journalists and historians. I prefer to refer to it as the Greenwood Massacre. In less than 24 hours, hundreds were killed, businesses and homes burned to the ground, and countless citizens of Greenwood were injured.
It all began with an incident at the Drexel Hotel. A young African American employee stumbled leaving an elevator and was charged with rape for having fallen into another employee, Sarah Page. The press at the time portrayed Sarah as an “innocent orphan” that was “scratched and attacked” by a vicious Dick Rowland. The characterization of both was loaded and mostly inaccurate.
There was mob crying for the lynching of Rowland. At a time when an average of two African Americans were lynched daily in this country, this was not an empty threat. A group of men from Greenwood went to the jail to protect Rowland from the mob. It was then that all hell broke loose.
The mob attacked the men as they walked down the street toward the jail. They quickly deputized multiple white men and were given the authority of the government to attack. Most of the mob was originally organized by the Ku Klux Klan.
They then marched on Greenwood. There are reports of military equipment being used in the attack as well. The district was attacked at the sound of a whistle while the people of Greenwood were sleeping. As people attempted to flee, the mob shot indiscriminately at those running. The emptying houses and businesses were looted by the mob of anything of value. There were women seen walking with the mob carrying shopping bags to carry away looted belongings.
It was a night of terror and thievery. The homes and businesses were set afire after they were looted. The telegraph and phone lines were cut in order to make it impossible for any news of the attack to spread. The fire department stood by in order to protect the property of white citizens that was near the district as it burned but provided no assistance to the people of Greenwood.
This was no unorganized gang of criminals. The truth is that the mayor, the police department, and the Ku Klux Klan had orchestrated an attack of near-military precision. It was initiated block by block and systematically. Military planes dropped bombs on the district, including a 42 day old church. Hospitals with patients inside were burned down. Women carrying infants were shot and killed while running for safety.
It did not end until National Guard troops arrived on June 1st from Oklahoma City. They worked for hours to put down the unrest. They did however pause to eat breakfast before declaring martial law a few hours later.
Black people were rounded up into detention centers. They were only allowed to leave if vouched for by a white person. Those who were able to leave Tulsa often did not ever return. Those who remained fought to rebuild a community literally out of the ashes. This was further hindered by the Tulsa Real Estate Exchange and City Commission with changes in building codes that rezoned the district for commercial and industrial construction only and that increased requirements for construction to make it economically prohibitive to rebuild.
Generations later, there is a thriving movement to rebuild and preserve the heritage of the Greenwood District. It was not until 1996 that the incident was investigated fully and the truth told.
For further reading:
James S. Hirsch, Riot and Remembrance: The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2002
The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 a thorough and well written examination of the events available online
“Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 archive”, University of Tulsa McFarlin Library, Special Collections, links to inventory, related materials, and photographs
Tulsa Race Riot – A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, Tulsa Reparations Coalition Website
“Tulsa Race Riot”, Oklahoma Historical Society
Linda Christensen. “Why Teaching the Tulsa Race Riot is More Than Just Teaching History”, 28 May 2013, GOOD Magazine.
Linda Christensen. “Burned Out of Homes and History: Unearthing the Silent Voices of the Tulsa Race Riot”, 8-page lesson plan for high school Students, 2013, Zinn Education Project/Rethinking Schools.
Tulsa race riot Collection of 11 real photographic postcards of the race riot that took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma on May 31 and June 1, 1921. Pictures illustrate the devastation to the Greenwood District’s African American community, including whole blocks burned to the ground, bodies of victims and the convention hall where Greenwood citizens were detained.
“Black Wall Street, Little Africa, Tulsa, Oklahoma” full version of documentary streaming at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X4IvFXPGYNA