Black Wall Street
Powered by oil, Tulsa had become a flourishing city of over 100,000 by 1921, but it was also a highly segregated city. Most of Tulsa’s Black residents, numbering some 10,000, lived in the Greenwood District. This district, like the rest of the city, prospered from the oil boom and contained a number of black-owned businesses, two newspapers, a library branch, and several churches. This district became known as Black Wall Street after Booker T. Washington dubbed Greenwood “Negro Wall Street.” However, in only 18 hours, this prosperous community was destroyed. Up to 300 people were killed, 1,400 houses and businesses burned, and almost 10,000 people left homeless after the Tulsa Massacre of May 31-June 1, 1921.
Tension in Tulsa
The success of Black people in Tulsa felt like a threat to poor whites in the community. The success of black people was a threat to white power in the city. Smithsonian museum curator Paul Gardullo, who spent five years collecting artifacts from the aftermath of the massacre said, “It was the frustration of poor whites not knowing what to do with a successful black community” that facilitated the tragedy.
Furthermore, Tulsa had a high crime rate in 1921, and vigilantism was extremely common. (For instance, in August 1920, a white teenager accused of murder was lynched by a white mob after being taken from his cell at the county courthouse.) The pattern of vigilante justice in Tulsa would set the stage for one of the greatest racial tragedies in American history.
Stoking the Flames
On May 31, the Tulsa Tribune released an article title “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator.” That morning, Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old shoe shiner had been arrested on suspicion of sexually assaulting 17-year-old Sarah Page, a white elevator operator. The newspaper wrote that Page had accused Rowland of attacking her and tearing her clothes. Other accounts are that he stepped on her foot, grabbed her arm, or tripped and used her arm to steady himself.
Regardless of the truth, an angry white mob had formed outside of the courthouse that evening demanding that Rowland be handed over to them. Black residents, aware of the city’s history of vigilantism, feared that Rowland would be lynched, so a group of about 25 armed Black men — including a number of World War I veterans — headed to the courthouse to offer help guarding him but were turned away. Following this, the white mob attempted (and failed) to break into a nearby National Guard armory. Around 10 p.m. that night, with fears and rumors of a possible lynching afoot, 75 Black men returned to the courthouse where they were met by a mob of 1,500. In the ensuing chaos, the outnumbered Black men returned to Greenwood. (History.com)
Black Wall Street Burns
That night and into the morning of June 1, thousands of white Tulsans, some deputized by city officials, attacked hundreds of Black Tulsans in the streets and looted and then burned their homes, businesses, and churches. Firefighters who attempted to put out fires were threatened and forced to leave. Some accounts describe the use of private planes to drop firebombs on Greenwood. Buck Colbert Franklin (1879-1960), who detailed the events of May 31 and June 1 in his manuscript, wrote:
“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.”
Just before noon on June 1, the National Guard arrived and the governor of Oklahoma declared martial law, but by then the conflict had largely died out. The National Guard then disarmed the white mob and detained nearly 6,000 people, many of whom were Black survivors.
Over the course of the riots Dick Rowland had remained safe in jail. The charges against him were dropped and he left Tulsa the next morning.
Survivors were eventually able to rebuild Greenwood, but thousands spent the winter of 1921-22 living in tents.
The events of May 31 and June 1 were subsequently buried: the Tulsa Tribune removed the article that caused the riots from its bound volumes, and police and state militia archives regarding the massacre went missing. As a result, there has been nearly no mention of the Tulsa Race Massacre in textbooks, schools, or conversation. Scholars did not investigate this history until the ‘70s and the first memorial was not created until 1996.
In 1997, the Tulsa Race Massacre Commission (first names the Tulsa Race Riot Commission) was formed to investigate and formally document what happened. The commission gathered eyewitness accounts from survivors and documents from witnesses who had since passed as well as other historical evidence to piece together the story. Scholars were able to combine the data gathered by the commission and radar technology to potential mass burial that has revealed that initial estimates of deaths (around 30) were grossly underestimated.
The Tulsa Race Massacre shines a light on an important aspect of American history and shows that as a country we are able and willing to ignore the dark parts of our past in order to present a picture-perfect image. The danger in this is that a problem cannot be solved unless we first acknowledge its existence. As a society, we are responsible for recognizing and fixing the issues that face our communities.
A Long-Lost Manuscript Contains a Searing Eyewitness Account of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 (Smithsonian)
What happened 99 years ago in the Tulsa Race Massacre (PBS)
Tulsa Race Massacre (History.com)
Tulsa Race Massacre (Oklahoma Historical Society)
Tulsa race massacre of 1921 (Britannica)