What Caused The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921? | History Hit

What Caused The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921?

Amy Irvine

01 Jun 2021
Ruins of Greenwood District after Race Riots, Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA - June 1921
Image Credit: American National Red Cross Photograph Collection / Glasshouse Images / Alamy Stock Photo

On 31 May 1921, the Greenwood area of Tulsa, Oklahoma saw one of the biggest race massacres in American history when a white mob destroyed the district.

By the morning of 1 June, the official death toll was recorded at 10 Whites and 26 African Americans, though many experts now believe an estimated 300 Black people had been killed within the district’s 35 square blocks. Around 1,200 homes, 60 businesses, many churches, a school, public library and hospital had been burnt to the ground, leaving the district devastated.

What had caused ‘the single worst incident of racial violence in American history’?

On May 31, 1921, Tulsa, Oklahoma, was torn apart by one of the worst instances of racialised violence in American history. In a period of great racial tension, the white population in Tulsa went on a rampage through the black neighbourhoods in the city killing innocent people, looting African American businesses and burning whole blocks to the ground. They had been stirred up by a fake news story that wrongly accused a local black man of assaulting a young white woman in a lift. This wave of violence left many homeless, more than a thousand people were injured and over three hundred people were killed. However, this event has been little known as it was covered up with attempts being made to expunge it from the historical record. Thankfully, those attempts failed, and knowledge of this horrific incident has been kept alive by the community, journalists and historians. One of those historians is Scott Elsworth who joins Dan in this episode to shed light on what happened in Tulsa on that terrible day and the ongoing work to deal with the painful legacy of these events.
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‘Black Wall Street’

African Americans had relocated to the region after the Civil War as Oklahoma became known as a safe haven. Between 1865-1920, African Americans founded more than 50 Black townships in the state – relocating to escape racial conflict they had experienced elsewhere.

In 1906, wealthy Black landowner O.W. Gurley bought 40 acres of land in Tulsa, naming the area Greenwood. As Gurley opened a boarding house, grocery stores and sold land to other Black people, they then secured their own houses and also opened businesses. (Other influential contributors to Greenwood included JB Stradford, who opened a luxury hotel – the largest Black-owned hotel in the country, and AJ Smitherman, who founded the Black newspaper the Tulsa Star).

Greenwood’s population stemmed largely from former Black slaves, and soon the population grew to 11,000. Greenwood became one of the most prosperous predominantly Black neighbourhoods in America, known affectionately as the city’s ‘Black Wall Street’. Here Black business leaders, homeowners, and civic leaders thrived.

Oklahoma became a state in 1907, yet America remained very segregated with Black people largely shut out from the white-led economy, including in downtown Tulsa. By spending money and re-circulating this within the community and confines of the Greenwood district, the Black people living there effectively created their own insular economy, causing the area to flourish. Even those who worked outside of Greenwood only spent their money in the area, reinvesting in the neighborhood.

Consequently, Greenwood increasingly functioned independently, having its own school system, hospital, public transport, post office, bank and library, as well as luxury shops, restaurants, grocery stores, doctors and all the usual businesses and amenities of a prosperous town.

Despite the racial terrorism of the time by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Supreme Court of Oklahoma upholding voting restrictions (including literacy tests and poll taxes for Black voters), Greenwood’s economy boomed. Meanwhile, downtown Tulsa had not had the same economic success.

Notions of White supremacy were challenged when the White people living there, some of whom weren’t doing well economically, saw the successful Black business community in the neighbouring district thriving – with homes, cars and the other benefits gained from economic success. This created jealousy and tension. By 1919, White civic leaders sought Greenwood’s land for a railroad depot, and some inhabitants wanted to bring the Black people down through violence.

What prompted the massacre?

On 31 May 1921, Dick Rowland, a 19 year old Black man, was arrested by Tulsa police officers for allegedly assaulting a 17 year old White girl, Sarah Page, an elevator operator of the nearby Drexel Building where Dick had gone to use the top-floor toilet. Despite there being little evidential proof of any assault (some claimed Dick must have tripped and thus grabbed Sarah’s arm), Tulsa newspapers were quick to publish inflammatory articles about him.

The Tulsa Tribune printed a story saying that Rowland had tried to rape Page, with an accompanying editorial stating that a lynching was planned for that night.

Newspaper clipping from 1 June 1921 edition of Tulsa Tribune.

Image Credit: Tulsa Tribune / Public Domain

When Greenwood residents learned of the impending lynch mob, a group of mostly Black men armed themselves and went to the courthouse to try and protect Rowland from a group of mostly White men who had congregated there. (This had become custom whenever Black people were on trial due to the threat of lynchings).

When told to leave by the sheriff who assured them he had the situation under control, the group complied. Meanwhile, the White mob grew in number (to around 2,000) yet weren’t dispersed.

Consequently, that night the armed Black men returned to protect Dick Rowland. When a White man tried to disarm a Black man, a fight broke out resulting in the death of the White man – incensing the mob, and prompting a firefight in which 10 White and 2 Black men were killed. News of these deaths spread throughout the city, triggering a mob rampage, with shooting and violence continuing througout the night.

Scene from the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921. An African American man lies dead after large parts of the city were destroyed by white rioters.

Many Black people were shot by the White mob, who also looted and burnt Black homes and businesses. Some witnesses even reported seeing low-flying airplanes raining bullets or incendiaries onto Greenwood.

By the next morning, Governor James Robertson dispatched the National Guard, declaring martial law. Consequently, along with local police and law enforcement, the National Guard canvassed Greenwood to disarm, arrest and move Black people to nearby internment camps. Within a week, at least 6,000 of the remaining residents were issued with ID tags and also detained in internment camps – some staying there for months, unable to leave without permission.

Black people being moved to Convention Hall during the Tulsa Race Massacre, 1921

Image Credit: DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University / Wikimedia/Flickr / Public Domain

The aftermath

The Tulsa City Commission issued a report 2 weeks after the massacre blaming the Greenwood residents for the violence, citing that it was the Black people who started the trouble by arriving at the court house with weapons.

A grand (all-White) jury was enlisted to prosecute the rioting, weapons, looting and arson charges, indicting around 85 (mostly Black) people, yet the indictments were largely dismissed or not pursued. However, the final grand jury report agreed with the Tulsa City Commission that Black people were the main culprits, stating:

“There was no mob spirit among the whites, no talk of lynching and no arms. The assembly was quiet until the arrival of the armed Negros, which precipitated and was the direct cause of the entire affair”.

The case against Dick Rowland was dismissed.

The involvement of local law enforcement in the massacre highlights the racial injustice – no one in the White mob was ever prosectured or punished for their role.

Burned and ruined buildings in the aftermath of the Tulsa Race Massacre, Greenwood District, 1921.

An estimated $1.4 million in damages were claimed after the massacre (equivalent to $25 million today), yet riot clauses meant no insurance claims or lawsuits resulted in payment to Black residents, who were left to rebuild on their own.

Greenwood today

Promises were made by local leaders about rebuilding the Greenwood community following the massacre, but they didn’t materialise, exacerbating mistrust in the community.

Greenwood and ‘Black Wall Street’ eventually enjoyed another heyday in the 1940s, but integration and urban renewal in the 1960s and the 1970s led to new declines.

Despite the Tulsa Race Massacre being one of the worst acts of racial violence in American history, for decades, it remained one of the least known due to deliberate attempts to suppress the story. It was barely mentioned in history books until the late 1990s, when a state commission was formed in 1997 to investigate and document the incident.

Tulsa remains largely segregated with racial and resulting economic disparities still an issue. Generated wealth was lost in the massacre and not restored, making it hard for people to accumulate and transfer wealth intergenerationally. Today in Tulsa, Black wealth is generally one-tenth of White wealth. North Tulsa (a predominantly Black area of the city) has 34% living in poverty, compared with 13% in the largely white South Tulsa.

Remembering Black Wall Street sign posted on building in Greenwood District, Tulsa USA, listing businesses through the years.

Image Credit: Susan Vineyard / Alamy Stock Photo

The fight for justice

The House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties held a hearing about the Tulsa-Greenwood Race Massacre on 19 May 2021 in which three remaining known survivors – 107-year-old Viola Fletcher, Lessie Benningfield Randle (aged 106) and Hughes Van Ellis (aged 100) – experts and advocates called on Congress to issue reparations to the living survivors and all descendants to rectify the lasting impact of the massacre. It remains to be seen whether this will come to fruition.

Amy Irvine