What role did the City of Tulsa play in the 1921 Race Massacre?

In the early 1900s, Tulsa sprung up as an oil town. As Tulsa grew, so did a black neighborhood in Tulsa called Greenwood. Ten thousand black Tulsans thrived in Greenwood with churches, banks, groceries, and hotels, such that Booker T. Washington referred to the area as “Black Wall Street.” Whites became jealous of black success. White and black men and women returned from service in World War I. Armed black men were no longer taking lynchings of their sons and daughters without face to face confrontation.

On May 31, when a black man named Dick Rowland was accused of assaulting a white woman named Sarah Page, armed black men came to defend Rowland from lynching by a white mob. In front of the jail where Rowland was being held, white and black men gathered. They clashed after a white man tried to disarm a black man. Shots were fired and a gun battle broke out on the streets of Tulsa, killing black and white men. The next day, June 1, 1921, white mobs killed an estimated three hundred black persons, according a 1921 Red Cross report.[1] White mobs burned more than one hundred businesses, six churches, and 1,256 homes of black residents of Tulsa, leaving ten thousand black persons homeless.[2]

On May 31 and June 1, 1921, thousands of White Tulsans oppressed thousands of Black Tulsans. In an expulsive, terrorist act of mass murder and arson, White Tulsans left hundreds of Black Tulsans dead and ten thousand homeless. No reparations have ever been paid by White Tulsans for this sinful, evil act of racial terror. White people have also learned to stack injustice on injustice. Not only were reparations never paid, but White Tulsans in the city administration made rebuilding in the city limits exceedingly difficult for Black Tulsans. The city then built railroad and commerical ventures on the “burn area.” Today, after that same commercial area came to ruin, buildings are being leveled and new developments constructed.

In the past twenty years, people like John Hope Frankin and many other black city leaders have been excavating a important narrative that has been buried. Literally right now an archeaological search is under way for mass graves from the massacre. John Hope Franklin said the massacre not only took lives and property but also “robbed the city of its honesty” and “sentenced it to 75 years of denial.”[3]

The challenge of seeing suffering and white responses to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre also entails vigilance in calling out racist demonizing tropes. White people killed, looted, then burned homes with murderous jealousy and rage. In the years that followed, insurance claims were denied, the “riot” was blamed on the black community itself, and no reparations were ever paid for the four million dollars (billions in today’s dollars) in damages. The history was then buried, with mention only of black riots and nothing about the guilt of white mobs, police and sheriffs who provided white men with guns, and firemen who watched Greenwood burn.

Insurance claims were never paid.

Reparations were never paid to black Tulsans.


[1] Maurice Willows, American Red Cross on the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, Director (Tulsa, OK: Red Cross, December 31, 1921).

[2] Some of the many resources on the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre include, Maurice Willows, American Red Cross on the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, Director (Tulsa, OK: Red Cross, December 31, 1921); Hannibal B. Johnson, Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District (Austin, Tex.: Eakin Press, 1998); John Hope Franklin et al., Tulsa Race Riot: A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, Commission (Tulsa, OK, February 28, 2001).

[3] John Hope Franklin, “Tulsa Still Hasn’t Faced the Truth About the Race Riot of 1921,” History News Network at GW (n.d.), http://hnn.us/articles/38175.html.

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