Biographical / Historical
In 1921, one of the most devastating race massacres in American history occurred in Tulsa, Oklahoma. From May 31 to June 1, mobs of white Tulsa residents ransacked, pillaged, bombed, and burned over 1,000 homes, businesses, and churches and murdered scores of African Americans in the Tulsa's Black community of Greenwood. The history of this event was hidden in plain sight for many generations, invariably vanished from or never placed in the history books across the country. Generations of Tulsa's universal community began to learn of this tragic event over the course of the last few decades through the efforts of the survivors and their supporters. The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Oral History Collection alongside the great work of The Tulsa Project, Inc. sheds light on a community of resilience grappling with complex questions of history and memory, justice and law, reparation and reconciliation.
In the decades that followed, just a partial list of cities exhibits the expansive and dizzying geographic and temporal scope of organized white violence that continued with little recourse or reproach well into twentieth century. Such cities include: Colfax, Louisiana (1873); Clinton, Mississippi (1875); Hamburg, South Carolina (1876); Thibodaux, Louisiana (1887); Omaha, Nebraska (1891); Wilmington, NC (1898); Atlanta, Georgia (1906); and East St. Louis, Missouri (1917). In the summer of 1919, the U.S. was rocked by the white supremacist violence and attacks against over thirty Black communities across the country. This period of overwhelming racial violence was dubbed, "Red Summer" and affected major Black communities in Washington, DC; Chicago, Illinois, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Baltimore, Maryland; Clarksdale, Mississippi; and Omaha, Nebraska as well as many others. In these cities like Tulsa, mob violence devastated Black communities through the destruction of property and livelihoods.
The Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma is rooted in the history of westward expansion of the United States in early 19th century. Beginning in 1830s, the first African Americans came to the Oklahoma Territory with Native Americans along the Trail of Tears, the U. S government sanctioned removal of American Indians from their native territory across the country. Some of the African American travelers were enslaved while free Blacks traveled through treacherous conditions alongside white travelers. Dubbed the "Oil Capital of the World" and "Magic City," Tulsa experienced booming economic growth and prosperity during the early 1900s. During the era of post-Emancipation until the onset of the 20th century, African Americans were a part of a newer wave of migration that came to Tulsa from all over the country, including other parts of the Oklahoma Territory.
More than 50 all-Black settlements were established in Oklahoma territory during this era, including Tatums, Langston, Rentiesville, Boley, as well as Black communities of larger cities such as Muskogee, Okmulgee, and Tulsa. By 1900, African Americans composed seven percent of the combined Oklahoma and Indian Territories and five percent of Tulsa's population. In 1905, the Tulsa's Greenwood community was sold to African American settlers. Many of Greenwood's founding families were of mixed-race heritage as result of multiracial migration patterns and organic cultural adaptation to Oklahoma's natural resources and environment. The Perrymans, one of Tulsa's founding families, included Muskogee (Creek), African American, and white members.
In 1907, Oklahoma was admitted into the United States, and the legislature immediately began implementing restrictive race laws. Many mixed-race families lived in the Oklahoma Territory in the late 1800s. But dividing lines between the races were drawn more sharply after Oklahoma became a state. Oklahoma had one of the strictest sets of Jim Crow laws that divided the country, especially in Tulsa. Black Tulsans formed their community along Greenwood and Archer streets and quickly began to thrive as homes, churches and businesses were built and further developed. The community took shape with the construction and proliferation of African American owned cafes, grocery stores, beauty parlors, movie theaters, and dentist, lawyers, and doctor offices. By close of World War I, 10,000 individuals lived in Tulsa's Greenwood District, considered to be one of the most prosperous African American communities in America at the time. Educator, activist, and statesman Booker T. Washington dubbed the district, "Negro Wall Street." Later coined as "Black Wall Street" in the 1950s as scholarship began developing around the massacre.
After World War I, Black veterans returned to seek a "double victory" by securing freedom and equality at home, striking fear among white supremacists. This fear left white Tulsans blaming the prosperity of "Black Wall Street" for the lack to employment opportunities and other misfortunes among the white community. Tulsa city founder and prominent businessman, W. Tate Brady, despite his support of African American financial independence, was a member of white supremacy terrorist group, the Klu Klux Klan (KKK) as well as an active member in the Sons of the Confederate Veterans. A resolute white supremacist, Brady's mansion's design was inspired by the Virginia home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. He welcomed KKK founder, Nathan Bedford Forrest to that same home in 1915. It was Brady's active membership in the Sons of Confederate Veterans that brought the organization's 28th annual convention to the city in 1918. The latter circumstances along with the ongoing racial tensions set the stage for 1921 massacre.
On May 30, 1921, Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old African American shoe shiner was accused of assaulting a 17-year-old white woman, Sarah Page. Rowland went inside the Drexel Building to use the restroom, the only bathroom allowed to African Americans in downtown Tulsa. Page was an elevator operator in the building. It is unclear if Rowland tripped or the elevator stopped suddenly, but he had physical contact with Page. Page screamed assault and a scared Rowland immediately fled. The next morning on May 31, Rowland was arrested and jailed in the city's courthouse. Later that afternoon, the city's most popular newspaper, Tulsa Tribune printed the story, "Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator" that claimed Rowland raped Page. Also printed was an editorial with the title, "To Lynch Negro Tonight," which no doubt influenced the rumors of a possible lynching of Rowland as the evening approached.
A large mob of thousands continued to grow over the course of the night outside the courthouse. African American WWI veterans and other members of the Greenwood community began to set up defenses outside the courthouse in order to protect Rowland. Tensions rose and soon an individual fight broke out and a gun was fired. The now weaponized white mob began to move about Greenwood armed with torches, guns, and other weaponry. Some survivors recall aerial bombs released overhead from small planes. The terror was directed at every visible African American in the vicinity, many fled for their lives while their homes and livelihoods were demolished. Historical research has not rendered an accurate number of lives lost in the massacre; it is believed that over 300 African Americans were murdered. Over 35 blocks of homes and businesses were destroyed with damages estimated to be over 1.5 million dollars.
On June 1st, the Oklahoma National Guard arrived, and martial law was declared. They arrested over 6,000 African Americans including children and illegally held them in detention centers throughout Tulsa. They were only released if a white person named them as an employee. Martial law ended on June 3rd, but African Americans were required to carry "green cards" once released from the detention centers as a mechanism to the police the Black population. The next week, Oklahoma governor James B.A. Robertson ordered an inquiry into the massacre. Only 85 people were indicted, mostly African Americans citizens. Rowland was released from jail and not charged for any crimes. Page recanted her claim as well.
Residents of Greenwood filed over 1400 lawsuits for damaged property. Insurance companies denied all claims based on a "riot clause." 1,000 Black Tulsans were forced to live in tents provided by the Red Cross from 1921-1922 because their homes were demolished. Historians estimate that over 700 families left Tulsa and never returned. However, many stayed and worked to rebuild the Greenwood community but experienced great difficulty as the city government actively tried to prevent African Americans from returning to their homes. Zoning regulations were put into effect that would make Greenwood only a commercial area, making it virtually impossible to live there. B.C. Franklin, businessman and father of historian John Hope Franklin, led the charge and filed a suit against the City of Tulsa before the Oklahoma Supreme Court and won, allowing Greenwood to rebuild.
Dozens of Black-owned businesses were rebuilt in Greenwood within a year of the riot, and hundreds more followed over the next three decades. The Oklahoma Eagle newspaper founded in 1922, replacing the community's former Black newspaper, The Tulsa Star that was destroyed by the riot. The Oklahoma Eagle, founded directly after the massacre, reported on African American community, as well as all facets of the massacre, since white newspapers refused to acknowledge the incident. In 1925, in a display of courage, the National Negro Business League held its 26th annual convention in Greenwood. By the 1950s, Greenwood was a thriving Black community despite racial segregation and inequality. Greenwood's mid-century renaissance was a rare occurrence as employment opportunities and fair treatment outside of the Greenwood remained limited. The Tulsa NAACP chapter, along with other activist groups, was formed to fight inequality and racism in wider Tulsa. Despite advances of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, redlining and urban renewal projects dwindled the former Greenwood improvements leaving the area and its residents impoverished and highly segregated.
After suffering decades of aftereffects from the massacre, Tulsa's African American community demanded justice and reparations from the state of Oklahoma and the U.S. government. In 1997, African American state lawmakers, Representative Don Ross and Senator Maxine Horner, co-sponsored an Oklahoma House Bill to create the Tulsa Race Riot Commission. The Commission was tasked with finding survivors and recording their testimony, gaining accurate accounts of property losses and values, and then make recommendations for reparations. In addition, they worked with forensic anthropologists and archeologists tasked with locating mass graves of massacre victims. In 2001, the committee concluded that each survivor should receive $200,000 and up to $100,000 in property claims. Unfortunately, these recommendations were not passed leaving survivors and descendants with little prospects for restitution.
In 2003, over 200 Tulsa massacre survivors filed a suit against the state of Oklahoma in the case, Alexander, et al., v. Oklahoma, et al. Survivors and their descendants served as plaintiffs and recounted their experiences during and after the massacre. The legal team was led by esteemed lawyer and educator Charles Ogletree and celebrity lawyer Johnnie Cochran. The suit demanded restitution for the damages and injuries done by the state of Oklahoma and the city of Tulsa. The main argument declared violations of the 14th Amendment of the U. S. Constitution including "deprivation of life and liberty [and property] and the privileges and immunities of United States citizenship". In addition, plaintiffs wanted to establish a scholarship fund to ensure future generations learn the history of the massacre for years to come. The judge ruled against the survivors, claiming that the statute of limitations had passed. In 2005, the lawyers tried yet again for justice by bringing the case to the U. S. Supreme Court, but the court declined to hear the appeal. A few survivors were given the opportunity to speak at a briefing in front of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and other leaders on Capitol Hill, the same year with no action taken.
Over the years, Tulsa cultural institutions and organizations were developed to preserve the legacy of the African American community in Greenwood, Tulsa and the state of Oklahoma. The Greenwood Cultural Center and Mabel B. Little House have showcased the heritage of the community since the 1990s. In 2008, lawyer and filmmaker, Reginald Turner founded The Tulsa Project, Inc., a non-profit group committed to raising funds and awareness on behalf of massacre survivors and their descendants. The same year, Turner filmed interviews of massacre survivors that were later compiled in a documentary entitled, "Before They Die!" The interviews took place from 2004 to 2007 and featured survivors' efforts for justice, government hearings, and legal proceedings as well as Tulsa Commission meetings. The film's sales go towards compensating survivors and serve as an educational tool exhibited in schools, churches, and civic organizations around the country. In 2010, the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park opened in Greenwood to help memorialize the massacre survivors and educate the community. In 2018, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum called for the opening another investigation into the location of mass graves. In 2019, the Tulsa Race Massacre was added to the Oklahoma Education department curriculum and taught in classrooms.
As the massacre approaches its 100th anniversary in 2021, there are continuing advances for greater education about the massacre and the restitution of justice for the victims, survivors, and descendants of the one of the darkest times in American history.
African Americans composed seven percent of Oklahoma territory and five percent of the Tulsa population.
The Greenwood area in Tulsa was sold to African American Settlers.
Oklahoma was made a state.
World War I veterans returned home seeking freedom and equality. In 1918, Tulsa hosted the 28th Annual Sons of the Confederacy Convention.
"Red Summer," Over 30 race riots occurred over the course of 10 months in states across America.
The wealth and prosperity of the Greenwood community, nicknamed "Black Wall Street," led to it to becoming one of the most financially prosperous African American communities in America.
1921: Tulsa Race Riot also known Tulsa Race Massacre takes place from May 30th to June 1st, in the Greenwood community of Tulsa.
May 30: Dick Rowland, an African American shoe shiner is accused of assaulting Sarah Page, a white elevator operator.
May 31: Rowland was arrested and brought to the courthouse jail.
Afternoon: The Tulsa Tribune printed a story, "Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator" that Rowland raped Page and printed the editorial, "To Lynch Negro Tonight."
4:00 pm: Talk and rumors of lynching Rowland had spread. Police and Fire commissions J.M. Adkison phoned to warn Sheriff Willard McCullough of a possible incident.
7:30: A large white mob, numbering in the hundreds, gathered at the courthouse demanding Rowland be released to them.
9:30 pm: The mob had grown to two thousand. Members of the Greenwood community, many World War I veterans, set up defenses at the courthouse in order to protect Rowland from any impending violence from the mob.
10:00 pm: A fight broke out and a gun was fired. The mob began attacking and shooting all African Americans.
12:00-1:30 am: Gunfire occurred between the white and African American commercial businesses across Fisco yards.
1:00-4:00 am: Over 35 blocks were destroyed, including 1200 homes, and an estimated 300 African Americans were murdered. However, the exact number is unknown.
9:00 am: The Oklahoma National Guard arrived.
11:30 am: Government declared martial law, by this point most of the fighting had already stopped. The final altercation occurred at Noon when the mob fired on African Americans near the Santa Fe railroad tracks. The National guard gathered and arrested nearly all the Greenwood residents, over 6000, detaining them in the Convention Center, sports arenas, and fairgrounds.
6:00 pm: All businesses were ordered to close, and a curfew was put into effect beginning at 7:00.
June 3: Martial law ended. African Americans were required to carry "green cards" to leave the detention centers until July.
June 8-20: Governor James B. A. Robertson ordered an inquiry of events by a Grand Jury examining the role of the police and sheriff departments. The all-white jury indicted over 85 people, the majority African American, for rioting and illegally carrying weapons. Five city police officers, including the Tulsa Chief of Police, John Gustafson, were also indicted and later fired.
June 8-July 30: 1400 lawsuits were filed by African Americans for damaged commercial and/or personal property. The insurance companies invoked a "riot clause" that dismissed almost all the claims. Rowland was released and was not charged for any crime.
Mary E. Jones Parrish was hired by the Inter-Racial Commission to write an account of the Race Riot. She was a teacher and journalist living with her daughter in Tulsa at the time of the massacre. Parrish interviewed survivors of the riot, collecting oral histories, photographs and a listing of property loses, publishing her findings in Events of the Tulsa Disaster. This was the first book published about the race riot. A large reconstruction effort began in Greenwood, and 80 businesses opened.
National Negro Business League holds national convention in Tulsa, celebrating the rebuilding of Greenwood.
Buck Colbert Franklin writes an unpublished memoir of the massacre entitled: The Tulsa Riot and Three of its Victims. It was later published by his son, John Hope Franklin and grandson, John W. Franklin in 1997.
The first general history of the riot was published by Loren L. Gill, from the University of Tulsa. Although conducting many oral histories and research, some of his conclusions were later found to be incorrect.
The Tulsa Race War of 1921 by Rudia M. Halliburton, Jr. was published. Halliburton was a professor at Northeastern State University and his work featured a collection of photographs, many from his students, of the riot.
The Tulsa Race Riot Commission is established to study the riot and recommended reparations for survivors and their descendants. The city didn't comply.
The Commission recommends archeological search for mass graves. This was approved in February 1999. A potential mass grave was found in Oaklawn Cemetery.
Court case, Alexander, et al., v. Oklahoma, et al, was filed by over 200 survivors of the massacre. The suit was denied because the statute of limitations had passed.
The survivors and lawyers attempted to repeal the decision in the Supreme Court, but the Court decided not to accept a case.
John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park opened in Greenwood to help memorialize and educate the community about the race massacre.