A Century Later: The Tulsa Race Massacre

(Last Updated On: May 26, 2021)
Part of Greenwood District burned in Race Riots, Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA, National American Red Cross Photograph Collection, June 1921

If you’ve gone through just the American public education system, the Tulsa Race Massacre might be something that you “have not heard of.” Which is kind of a running theme, ignoring, sentimentalizing, or misteaching American atrocities is a well-documented problem. Which brings us to the Tulsa Race Massacre–an event that you probably weren’t taught about through secondary school, and one you might not have even heard of until long after. 

America’s Black Wall Street

Oklahoma’s Greenwood district was founded when America was going full force on Native American removal and displacement. When Native American tribes were forced to Oklahoma as part of their displacement, they were forced to bring with them enslaved African Americans. Continually being displaced into Oklahoma territory through the 1890s and early 1900s, Oklahoma would attract many African Americans hoping to flee the oppressive Jim Crow laws (IE segregation). 

Given time, Greenwood would become a flourishing haven of black-owned businesses–so prosperous that it would become known as America’s Black Wall Street. 

But on May 31st, 1921 what black Americans built by their bootstraps was destroyed overnight in what has been recorded as one of the worst racial terror attacks in America’s recorded history. The 1920s political landscape in Oklahoma was high-tension, to say the least. The Civil War’s conclusion in 1865 was still a sore wound, WWI had just concluded, and black Americans were faced with very few civil rights and liberties. The Klu Klux Klan was resurging thanks to the super-racist and popular 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. With all of this in mind, it doesn’t take a lot of critical thinking to figure out white Americans, emboldened by the KKK, were not pleased with a very affluent black neighborhood. 

Headlines and Lynch Mobs

On May 31st, 1921 Dick Rowland was arrested. The day before, he was accused of assaulting a white elevator operator (Sarah Page). Accepted contemporary accounts hold that Rowland tripped and reflexively grabbed Page’s arm. She was startled and a different clerk in the same building reported the events as an assault. Page declined to prosecute Rowland and the case dismissed, which should tell you what you need to know about the event.

That didn’t stop the Tulsa news cycle from turning this into a rather salacious headline, accusing Rowland of a most heinous assault. Nice to know embellishing headlines hasn’t changed 100 years later.

Following these headlines and Rowland’s arrest, a local white mob would appear outside the courthouse in which Rowland was held. This led to rumors that he had been lynched–leading to counter-protests by local black Americans. 

According to a 2001 commission report by Oklahoma on the Tulsa Race Massacre, a gun was discharged after a white man tried to grab a black man’s gun. Prompted by a gunshot, white Americans marched through downtown Tulsa, shooting black Americans on sight.

On the morning of June 1st, that same mob marched their way into Greenwood with machine guns. They pushed black Americans from their homes, held businesses at gunpoint, looted buildings and set them on fire. Firefighters were prevented from putting out fires by the mob, both the local police and National Guard were deployed–arresting black Americans exclusively. Some members of the Guard are reported to have worked with the mob–black Americans attempting to defend themselves were overwhelmed  almost immediately by rioters. Low-flying planes rained bullets and turpentine on buildings.

According to the same report commissioned by Oklahoma, black Americans were charged for “riot-related offenses” while, no white Americans were charged for murder or looting. 

The Aftermath

Once the dust settled, $1.8 million in property was claimed to have been lost ($27 million now). More important than property, though, were the lives destroyed and families brought to ruin. Reported deaths vary widely–and counts are still being updated as recently as 2021. Unmarked, mass graves are being uncovered even now, with reported victim counts numbering to the tune of 300. Up to 8,000 left homeless or otherwise displaced, and over 1,000 homes razed to the ground.

In the aftermath of the Tulsa Race Massacre, much of its documentation was scrubbed. Again, you know this to be true if you’ve ever met someone who didn’t learn about Tulsa in school. That’s why we’re still discovering mass graves 100 years later. That’s why survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre were still testifying in 2020. It stings even more, then, that where many black-owned businesses once stood in Greenwood in 1921–now stand white-owned ones 100 years later. 

Even 100 years later, this history is actively being suppressed. Oklahoma Governor Kevin Sitt signed a bill into law attempting to limit the teaching of race and American history as recently as May 7th, 2021. His grounds, that teaching racial history causes “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or psychological distress” on students–the obvious irony that black students still have to live this anguish every single day. This also comes despite Oklahoma State’s Department of Education not having received any complaints about teaching critical race theory. 

Revisionist history in relation to the Tulsa Race Massacre (and race in general) is not isolated to Oklahoma. As recently as 2016 school textbooks in Connecticut referred to enslaved African Americans as “family” to their white owners. Atlanta schools used enslaved persons as a framework for teaching elementary school math. American high school seniors nationwide fail to answer even basic questions about slavery’s history. The fight against racism ends not only at the education system; we see it every day from criminal justice to policing to job opportunities and even the provision of clean water. It is fought on all fronts and must be fought tirelessly. But it is not a fight that can truly begin if we choose not to learn its history and of its very existence. 

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.