May 31, 1921 – Beginning of the Tulsa, Oklahoma Race Riots

The Tulsa race riots took place on May 31 and June 1, 1921; it is considered one of the worst incidents of racial violence in U.S. history. The attack, during which a mob of whites attacked black residences and businesses, destroyed more than 35 blocks of what was at the time the wealthiest black community in the U.S.

Greenwood was called the “Negro Wall Street of America” and had dozens of restaurants, stores, several libraries, a hospital, a separate school system, a luxury hotel, two Black-owned newspapers, two movie theaters, and a Black surgeon known as “the most able Black surgeon in the nation.” (Dr.Jackson was one of those killed in the violence.). The area was marked by success and prosperity. There were even six privately owned airplanes.

Whites were resentful – just looking for an excuse to light the match.

The riot began over a Memorial Day weekend after 19-year-old Dick Rowland, a black shoeshiner, was arrested for the alleged assault of Sarah Page, the 17-year-old white elevator operator of the nearby Drexel Building.

The facts were in dispute, and as the Smithsonian reports in its history of the ensuing massacre, “even white police detectives thought the accusation dubious.” But in the post-World War I environment in the U.S., racial tensions were high, with returning Black soldiers somehow thinking they might receive greater respect after having fought and shed blood for their country. Whites thought otherwise.

After Rowland was taken into custody, rumors raced through the black community that he was at risk of being lynched. A group of armed African-American men rushed to the police station where the young suspect was held, to prevent a lynching, as a white crowd had gathered.

According to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI):

Reports show that local authorities provided firearms and ammunition to the white rioters, who began to shoot at the men protecting Mr. Rowland, forcing them to retreat to Greenwood, a black neighborhood anchored by a thriving black business district. The white mob, including city-appointed deputies, followed and terrorized Greenwood, shooting indiscriminately at any black person they saw and burning homes and buildings. Numerous survivors reported that planes from a nearby airfield dropped firebombs on Greenwood. The Oklahoma National Guard was dispatched the next day to suppress the riots, but they treated the attack as a ‘Negro uprising’ and arrested hundreds of black survivors. No members of the white mob, local government, or national guard were prosecuted or punished.”

When the National Guard arrived the day after the looting, killing, and burning, all that was left to do was put out fires and move thousands of Black residents into camps outside of Tulsa.

More than 800 people were admitted to hospitals and more than 6,000 black residents [of course] were arrested and detained, many for several days. They were released only upon being vouched for by a white employer or other white citizen. Nine thousand African Americans were left homeless and lived in tents well into the winter of 1921. The Oklahoma Bureau of Vital Statistics officially recorded 36 black Tulsans dead, but the American Red Cross declined to provide an estimate. Property damage amounted to more than $1.5 million in real estate and $750,000 in personal property ($31 million in 2018).

Via Zinn Education Project

In 2015, a manuscript was discovered containing an eyewitness account of the riots by an Oklahoma lawyer Buck Colbert Franklin [father of famed African-American historian John Hope Franklin (1915-2009)]. He wrote:

I could see planes circling in mid-air. They grew in number and hummed, darted and dipped low. I could hear something like hail falling upon the top of my office building. Down East Archer, I saw the old Mid-Way hotel on fire, burning from its top, and then another and another and another building began to burn from their top. . . .”

He continued:

The side-walks were literally covered with burning turpentine balls. I knew all too well where they came from, and I knew all too well why every burning building first caught from the top.”

Buildings in the black neighborhood of Greenwood burned on June 1, 1921. An estimated 300 people were killed in the riot. Credit Tulsa Historical Society

Smithsonian writes that John Franklin said Tulsa was thereafter in denial over the cruelty of bombing the black community from the air, in private planes, or that blacks were machine-gunned in the streets. He argues that the real issue was economics:

. . . Native Americans and African-Americans became wealthy thanks to the discovery of oil in the early 1900s on what had previously been seen as worthless land. ‘That’s what leads to Greenwood being called the Black Wall Street. It had restaurants and furriers and jewelry stores and hotels,’ John W. Franklin explains, ‘and the white mobs looted the homes and businesses before they set fire to the community. For years black women would see white women walking down the street in their jewelry and snatch it off.’”

Practicing law in a Red Cross tent are B.C. Franklin (right) and his partner I.H. Spears with their secretary Effie Thompson on June 6, 1921, five days after the massacre. (NMAAHC, Gift from Tulsa Friends and John W. and Karen R. Franklin)

Furthermore, the Smithsonian quotes curator Paul Gardullo of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, who spent five years along with Franklin collecting artifacts from the riot and the aftermath, as saying:

It was the frustration of poor whites not knowing what to do with a successful black community, and in coalition with the city government were given permission to do what they did.”

As The New York Times observed:

The Tulsa race riot of 1921 was rarely mentioned in history books, classrooms or even in private. Blacks and whites alike [in Tulsa, as well as elsewhere] grew into middle age unaware of what had taken place.”

In 2011, for the 90th anniversary of the event, Tulsa officially recognized the history of what happened, and planned to teach students about the riot for the first time in the following year. Nevertheless, outside of Tulsa the event remains largely unrecorded.

Per The New York Times:

All that remains of that black community of 90 years ago, Greenwood, is a block of red-brick storefronts in a neighborhood transformed by a new minor league ball field, a university campus and an elevated highway. Metal plaques set in the sidewalk describe the hundreds of businesses that were there when the area was a bustling enclave in a statutorily segregated oil town. Within the black community, it was known as the Negro Wall Street.”

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