As Black veterans returned to the U.S. after World War I in the late 1910s, many anticipated new respect from white Americans after serving nobly overseas. By 1919, some 500,000 Black people had migrated from the South to the Northeast and Midwest, lured by abundant manufacturing jobs and what they thought was a brighter future. Instead, many were met with a familiar violent racial backlash, leading to events like the Elaine Massacre in Arkansas and Red Summer Race Riots of 1919 that occurred in dozens of cities across the U.S.(5)
This, coupled with the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1910s, meant that by 1921, racial tensions were high in Tulsa, Oklahoma. One innocent incident sparked that hatred, and led to one of the worst single-day incidents of racial violence in American history--The Tulsa Race Massacre.
Background on the "Black Wall Street”
In 1921, the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was known as “Black Wall Street.” Home to roughly 10,000 people comprising Black families, workers, and business owners, Greenwood had become Oklahoma’s second-largest community of African Americans by the beginning of the 1920s.(2) It was borne of tracts of land purchased by African American entrepreneurs J. B. Stradford and O. W. Gurley in the early 20th century across the railroad tracks from Tulsa’s white neighborhoods. Many Black Tulsans subsequently relocated to the newly-developed land because it provided new economic opportunities and a chance to build a prosperous space away from oppressive racism.(4)
Over time, Greenwood became a self-sustaining, vibrant community and center of commerce. Residents often remarked that they never needed to go anywhere else because the district had it all. It was home to the Booker T. Washington School, the Mount Zion Baptist Church, and other schools, churches, hospitals, theatres, restaurants, libraries, barber shops, newspaper companies, real estate agencies, and much more.(6) Greenwood stood as a living example of Black prosperity in the face of centuries of racial subjugation and terrorism against generations of African Americans.
White Tulsans had become increasingly uncomfortable with the ways people were able to live their lives in Greenwood. A recent rise in vigilantism in the city meant that more people were realizing this discomfort in acts of violence across Tulsa, further heightening tensions until widespread mob violence in Tulsa was ready to be unleashed with the right catalyst. A seemingly innocuous moment in an elevator provided this spark, leading to “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history,” now known as the Tulsa Race Massacre.(2)
1921 Tulsa Race Massacre
On May 30, 1921, two teenagers rode in a Tulsa elevator in the Drexel Building on Main Street. Sarah Page, a white elevator operator, and Dick Rowland, an African American shoe shiner, did not know it at the time, but the fervor sparked by this elevator trip would lead a white mob to descend upon Tulsa’s Greenwood District to murder between 75 to 300 Black civilians and lay waste to 35 city blocks.(6) In 24 hours, members of this mob would pillage their way through a vivacious community of largely Black-owned businesses, institutions, and homes without consequence. Instead of receiving justice, Greenwood survivors would subsequently be deemed responsible for the attack, while the Tulsa Tribune would cover up the story in the following days and remove material from their archives to obscure that the massacre ever even happened at all.(3) How could something as small as a short ride in an elevator lead to so much tragedy?
The accounts of what occurred in the elevator that Monday between Page, 17, and Rowland, 19, differ.(4) Historians are generally in consensus that Rowland most likely tripped or bumped against Page, or accidentally stepped on her foot while entering the elevator. Regardless, Page screamed, and Rowland ran quickly from the elevator, causing a nearby store clerk to call Tulsa police who located and arrested him later that day. Despite uncertainty over Rowland’s guilt (and a letter Page later wrote exonerating him), local media spared no time in labelling Rowland as a violent perpetrator who must be severely punished.(2) The next morning, on May 31, Tulsans awoke to read a front-page article in the Tulsa Tribune titled “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator,” and an editorial under the heading “To Lynch Negro Tonight.”(5)
Outrage was swift, and many quickly answered the call for violence. By 7:30 p.m. on May 31, angry white Tulsans numbering in the hundreds surrounded the Tulsa County Courthouse where police held Dick Rowland, pleading unsuccessfully for the sheriff to hand Rowland over to them.(2) Hearing about the mob, some 25 Greenwood residents, some of whom were recent World War I veterans, arrived at the courthouse at around 9 p.m. to offer armed protection for Rowland, fearing he could be lynched.(3) Courthouse officials turned down their offer, so the group returned to Greenwood.
Unfortunately, this was not the last time these groups would meet at the courthouse. Within an hour of returning to Greenwood, residents began to hear a false rumor that the white mob had overrun the building to get to Rowland.(2) In response, a group of around 75 armed Greenwood residents returned by 10 p.m. to again offer extra protection for Rowland, but they were turned away once more.(3)) By this time, the white mob had expanded to an estimated 1,500 strong, consisting mostly of white men, many of whom were armed with guns and ammunition, some of which was provided directly by government officials.(6) As the armed group from the Greenwood District attempted to leave the gathering for a second time, a white member of the mob attempted to disarm one of them.(2) The first shot was fired, and a riot began.
That night, shooting broke out along the railroad tracks that separated Greenwood from neighboring white areas as armed white Tulsans neared Greenwood. Deputies on the scene failed to deescalate the intensifying mob, instead contributing directly to the mob violence in many cases.(6) Early in the violence, a white deputy murdered an unarmed Black man in a movie theatre downtown.(4) Armed whites also began conducting drive-by shootings of Black people across Tulsa.(2) Some white Tulsans began to believe a false rumor circulating that armed Greenwood residents were preparing to take over the city, when in reality, rampant anti-Black violence had already begun, and many were fighting to defend their community from white invaders.(3) Meanwhile, members of the white mob, armed deputies included, freely gathered in nearby all-night cafes to plan a nighttime raid on Black Wall Street.(4)
The ensuing violence was horrific. In the early morning hours of June 1, 1921, as Dick Rowland remained in his cell, armed white terrorists descended upon the thriving community of Greenwood. Spreading flames and gunfire throughout the district before dawn, the white mob proceeded to kill innocent Black civilians and burn 35 city blocks, destroying 1,256 buildings and homes while looting hundreds of others.(3) The perpetrators of the massacre targeted churches, local businesses, schools, libraries, hospitals, and other essential community institutions. They murdered an estimated 100-300 Black Americans, injured another 800, and left a total of 8,000 homeless.(6)
Witnesses confirmed that some attackers even used small planes to drop dynamite from above in their destruction of Greenwood.(2) Firefighters attempting to save homes and businesses were turned away at gunpoint as the district burned and police officers, often contributing directly to anti-Black violence, moved to instead protect white neighborhoods from rumors of a Black insurrection.(3) This left the defense of Greenwood to its residents who were quickly overwhelmed by the calculated advance of a white mob fueled by support from law enforcement.(4)
Around noon, Governor James B. A. Robertson finally called in the Oklahoma National Guard and declared martial law.(2) By midday on June 1, the violence had largely stopped, so calling in the National Guard did too little too late.(3) While some troops put out remaining fires, many sought instead to detain 6,000 Black residents across Greenwood and remove them to holding centers elsewhere in Tulsa, further opening up their community to white terrorists. After the massacre, these innocent Black civilians could only be released by way of a white person “accept[ing] responsibility for… [their] subsequent behavior.”(6) While the Oklahoma National Guard added incarceration to the trauma of the massacre, Dick Rowland was soon discharged by police on June 1, having all charges dropped, and it is said that he left early the next day and never returned to Tulsa.(3)
In a span of 24 hours, Greenwood, a proud community of Black entrepreneurs and working-class citizens and families, had been decimated and looted to near rubble. Shells of former buildings remained and many were now unrecognizable. Property loss claims amounted to $1.8 million, around $27 million today in 2022. To add to the injustice, local authorities subsequently blocked Greenwood rebuilding projects and blamed Greenwood residents for the massacre.(4) In addition, the Tulsa Tribune moved quickly to cover up the incident and their inflammatory articles about Rowland, and life in Tulsa continued as “no government at any level” ever punished anyone involved in the massacre. (6)
Meanwhile, victims’ bodies numbering in the hundreds were gathered and buried in various mass grave sites that, until recently, were unknown to historians. (1) Despite all of this, survivors began the grueling process of putting the pieces of “Black Wall Street” back together with help from the American Red Cross.(6)
Outcome and a Grim Reminder
Greenwood, once a vibrant microcosm of public and unapologetic Black wealth, was leveled in a day over two teenagers in an elevator. But the root of the violence was much more entrenched and insidious: Jim Crow, jealousy, white supremacy, and land lust all played a part leading up to the massacre and destruction of Greenwood.(6)
While the people of Greenwood salvaged what they could, the Tulsa Race Massacre robbed many Black citizens of the economic and communal prosperity they had worked for in a country that often went to great lengths to prevent their success. While more Americans are learning about the injustice of the massacre today, the incident was largely obscured in historical records and school textbooks until the 1970s.(2) It was only in 2001 that the Race Riot Commission (later renamed Race Massacre Commission) was formed to reinvestigate the event, leading to many new revelations about the full extent of violence that day in 1921. With the preservation of this history comes the reality that the Tulsa Race Massacre did not happen very long ago, and it serves as a gruesome reminder of the potential for racial horror in the United States.
Naming Controversy: From “Riot” to “Massacre”
Tulsahistory.org provides the definitions for “riot” and “massacre” above. Which is more appropriate for what happened in Greenwood that day in 1921?
A tumultuous disturbance of the public peace by three or more persons assembled together and acting with common intent.
The act or an instance of killing a number of usually helpless or unresisting human beings under circumstances of atrocity or cruelty.
Nevertheless, the words we use are important, especially when we consider the implications of downplaying the violence as a “riot” as white society in Tulsa villainized survivors and buried knowledge of the incident. In 2018, the official Race Riot Commission decided the word “massacre” more fully encapsulated the horrors of the attack on Greenwood, so they changed their name and officially recognized the event as the Tulsa Race Massacre.
Virtual Tour of Greenwood
For a digital experience through the district of Greenwood and its citizens and entrepreneurs, visit: www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/05/24/us/tulsa-race-massacre.html.
Sources & Further Reading
(1)City of Tulsa. “1921 Graves Investigation.” 2018. www.cityoftulsa.org/1921graves
(2)Ellsworth, Scott. Oklahoma Historical Society. “Tulsa Race Massacre.” www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=TU013
(3)HISTORY. “Tulsa Race Massacre.” Mar. 8, 2018. www.history.com/topics/roaring-twenties/tulsa-race-massacre
(4)New York Times. “What the Tulsa Race Massacre Destroyed.” May 24, 2021. www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/05/24/us/tulsa-race-massacre.html
(5)Tucker, Neely. Library of Congress Blog. “How to Research the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.” May 26, 2021. blogs.loc.gov/loc/2021/05/how-to-research-the-1921-tulsa-race-massacre
(6)Tulsa Historical Society and Museum. “1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.” 2022. www.tulsahistory.org/exhibit/1921-tulsa-race-massacre
Written and researched by Jack Gassen. Posted March 2022.