Photo by courtesy of Southern Methodist University 

In 1921, the Greenwood district neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was the site of one of the most devastating massacres in the entire history of United States race relations. It was a massacre so ghastly, many chose to forget it and it was hidden from textbooks and even oral histories for decades. As we struggle today to understand contemporary violence against African Americans, it’s especially important to know this history and to try to understand what happened.

Known as “Black Wall Street” to those in the community, Greenwood in the early part of the 20th century was a thriving business district featuring African-American owned businesses, a strong black middle and upper class, schools, hospitals, and theaters. It was a bustling commercial and social “island” on the Northeast side of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

In just two days in the Spring of 1921, however, it was all destroyed. Put in today’s terms, there was $30 million in damage, from fifty-five to 400 killed, 800 injured; family fortunes had evaporated overnight. Many accounts of the demise of Black Wall Street refer to it as a “race riot,” but nothing could be further from the truth. It is better described as a terrorist attack on an affluent black neighborhood. The armed black men involved were defending their homes, their businesses, and their lives.

Why Tulsa?

Oklahoma, rich in oil deposits, became a state in 1907. It offered a promise of a better life for many formerly enslaved African Americans looking for a chance to start over and get away from the still-repressive Southern states.

In Tulsa, the Frisco railroad tracks divided the “white” part of town from the Greenwood District, called “Little Africa.” Laws prevented both whites and blacks from living in neighborhoods that were 75 percent the other race, so segregation “naturally” fell into place.

Red brick buildings sprang up along Greenwood Avenue, occupied by businesses owned by a thriving black middle class that only grew during an oil boom in the 1910s. Theaters, night clubs, churches, grocery stores thrived in the Greenwood District. The schools were superior to those of the white areas, and many of the houses had indoor plumbing before those in the white areas did.  

Because African Americans couldn’t shop in areas that were predominately white, a lot of money spent in Greenwood went right back into the community. By the time of the attacks on the citizens of Black Wall Street, there were more than 10,000 African Americans living in the area. The community supported two of its own newspapers, the Tulsa Star and the Oklahoma Sun—the second covering state and national news and politics as well.

But as the community flourished, disgruntlement and hatred did as well. The country was still reeling from the failed Reconstruction and furiously enacting Jim Crow laws. A number of African American men in other parts of the United States had been accused of sexual attacks on white women, and were subsequently put to death—usually at the hands of a lynch mob. The Ku Klux Klan had approximately 2,000 members in the Tulsa area by the end of 1921. With veterans returning from World War I and jobs becoming more scarce, envy and racial tension grew among some white citizens of Tulsa.

This all came to a terrifying head on May 31 and June 1, 1921.   

Over the course of sixteen hours, almost every business—each hotel, both hospitals, libraries, the newspapers, and doctor’s offices— were burned to the ground. Police detained and arrested 6,000 of the 10,000 African Americans who lived in the Greenwood District. 9,000 of them were left homeless.  Thirty-five city blocks comprised of 1,256 residences were razed. In today’s terms, it was the equivalent of $30 million in damage.

Estimates of the dead vary, from fifty-five to 300, but several prominent black businessmen and doctors—including A.C. Jackson, recognized as one of the best surgeons of his time by the Mayo brothers—were killed. Jackson was shot after he surrendered to some of the mob to protect his family and was being taken to the jail. Nobody was ever found guilty of his murder.

The Spark

It’s never been fully settled exactly what happened between a black man named Dick Rowland, a shoe shine, and Sarah Page, an elevator operator at the Drexel Building in downtown Tulsa, but some of the few people working on May 30, 1921—Memorial Day–heard a scream and then saw Rowland rushing away from the building. There is speculation that the two were lovers, something that would have gotten both into serious trouble, but nothing was ever confirmed. What is clear is that her scream was interpreted as a sign that Rowland “assaulted” her. It was a claim which she denied to the police upon being questioned.  

What did happen was that the afternoon paper, the Tulsa Tribune, ran the headline, “Nab Negro For Attacking Girl In An Elevator.” The local police, aware that such an allegation could mean Rowland would fall victim to a lynch mob, took Rowland into protective custody at the top floor of the Tulsa County Courthouse.

NabNegro_Tulsa-paper.jpg

Word spread and soon hundreds of whites gathered outside of the courthouse with guns and torches. Bews of a potential lynching hit the Greenwood District, and several of the black veterans of World War I who had weapons at home went and gathered them. Thirty African American men headed toward the jail, weapons in hand, intending to prevent Rowland’s demise. They offered to help the sheriff defend Rowland from the mob; but he declined—probably aware that the entire scene was about to explode.

And it did.

The white mob outside the jail swelled to 2,000, many of them bringing arms from their houses. More black men arrived later that evening in automobiles, weapons at the ready. At 10 p.m., in an apparent scuffle between a sheriff’s deputy and one of the armed black men, shots rang out and then, as many eyewitnesses stated, “All hell broke loose.” Soon ten white men and two black were lying dead in the street.

The armed black men backed up to defend Greenwood but being vastly outnumbered they took to the heights of nearby buildings and residences and began shooting from above. The mob then began to set fire to the buildings and houses in the Greenwood district, and refused to allow firefighters to extinguish the blazes—at gunpoint. Skirmishes, drive-by shootings, and outright murders occurred throughout the night, as more buildings caught fire. Some of Greenwood’s African American citizens fled on foot for fear of their lives.

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Aftermath

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By mid-day on June 1, all that was left were ashes, bodies, and still-burning neighborhoods. National Guard troops arrived, and with the declaration of martial law, the chaos came to a halt.

6,000 African American men were rounded up by troops and released only after being vouched for—by a white person, or employer. The rest were jailed.

No white Tulsan was ever arrested or tried. The blame for the destruction was put squarely onto the residents of Greenwood. Much like in Ferguson, MIssouri almost 100 years later, the Tulsa police department took no responsibility. That said, a few members of the department had put themselves at great risk by keeping Rowland from being lynched.

Even after the embers cooled and the dead were buried the racial violence continued. Tulsa’s white leaders worked to keep Greenwood from being rebuilt. Ordinances were passed to prevent homes from being rebuilt in the district. There was talk of rebuilding the district as an industrial center, and relocating blacks to an area much further from downtown.

African American lawyers won an injunction to stop that from happening, and many residents did rebuild, although most of them without any insurance money, since insurance companies could refuse to pay damages from riots. Greenwood’s rebuilt district actually flourished, until, in the 1950s two major interstate highways and “urban renewal” efforts pushed almost all of the black residents out of the district and further north.

To this day, even including the 1985 MOVE bombing in Philadelphia, this remains the single largest massacre of African American citizens in the history of the United States. Black Wall Street stands as just one example, if a dramatic one, of the kinds of events that stain our history and have perpetuated racial inequity in the United States.

Brandon Weber has written for Upworthy, Liberals Unite, and Good.Is magazine, mostly on economics, labor union history, and working people. He is working on two books, one on forgotten labor history and one on the fatally flawed foster and adoption system, and some ways to fix it. 

To watch:  https://tulsasurvivors.wordpress.com/dvd/

 

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Comments

"Many accounts of the demise of Black Wall Street refer to it as a “race riot,” but nothing could be further from the truth..." This is such an important note. The state of Oklahoma still describes this as a "race riot," which is misleading and not in line with the current usage of the term "riot," which implies unfocused rage and community self destruction. What happened in Tulsa was a massacre.
I'm not surprised at all, and I'm white btw. For any that take the time to research history instead of eating the spoon fed version of what is offered up, you will see a trend that has existed for centuries. Not only here in the US (we are all Europeans don't forget) but worldwide. If you take the time to track history you will see that we all (white) pretty much began at the same point and expanded like a cancer over time. Africa, Hawaii, Panama, now the ME and only other country that was not controlled by whites. I used to live in total denial until I started to research the truth behind 911. It's amazing what you see and learn once you begin to look. It's more interesting when all the hundreds of thousand of events begin to create an overall picture that point back in the same direction. This story once again is only a grain of sand behind the truth of the world. Don't believe me? Just start to look, at least while you still can. And don't mistake me, we are ALL (with the exception of a small select group) victims.
this part of your history was not known by me
Whatever you have done in the dark will be heard in the light, ... “For everything that you will say in darkness shall be heard in the light ... Luke 12:3 Bible God never sleep soon he will clean the Earth and make way for his rulership with people who do his well Mixing Religion And Politics Matthew 22:21 ESV / 7 helpful votes They said, “Caesar's.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.” Romans 13:1-7 ESV / 5 helpful votes Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. ... John 6:15 ESV / 4 helpful votes Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself. John 3:16-17 ESV / 4 helpful votes “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 1 Timothy 2:1-4 ESV / 3 helpful votes First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
Is this where the Nazi's got the idea of Kristallnacht? Sounds eerily the same. Of course we learned all about that because it was done in another country, by another group of people........not in wonderful "America"! When will they ever learn?
Back in the days, every time black folks try to do something tangible or meaningful, the racism that is America have intervene to stop them! Now, the knock on black folks is that they won't get of their butt and do stuff! Who's fault is that?
We as black did it once we can do it again.put all that hate each other and put in one we can do it people.why spend billions each year with people that do not like us and hate us because the color of our skin

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).


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