During the Tulsa Race Massacre on May 31 and June 1, 1921, a white mob attacked residents, homes, and businesses in the primarily Black Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, over the course of 18 hours. It is still regarded as one of the bloodiest acts of racial violence in American history since it resulted in hundreds of deaths and thousands of homeless people.For a while, it was also one of the least well-known.
The years after World War I saw a rise in race relations across much of the nation, which included numerous murders and other acts of racial violence, the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, and efforts by African Americans to stop such attacks on their communities.
Oil revenue helped Tulsa develop and prosper in 1921, when it had a population of more than 100,000. However, there were several instances of vigilantism and high crime rates.
Tulsa was also a very divided city; the majority of the 10,000 Black citizens there lived in the Greenwood neighborhood, which featured a bustling commercial area known as the Black Wall Street.
What Caused the Tulsa Race Massacre? A Complex Analysis
On May 30, 1921, Dick Rowland, a young Black teenager, stepped into an elevator at the Drexel Building, a business structure on South Main Street. After that, the young, white elevator driver, Sarah Page, began to scream, and Rowland ran away. The police were summoned, and the following morning Rowland was taken into custody.
By then, stories about what reportedly occurred in the elevator were circulating among the city’s white population. The Tulsa Tribune published a front-page article that afternoon announcing that Rowland had been detained by police for allegedly assaulting Page.
As dusk struck, an enraged white throng was forming in front of the courtroom and yelling at the sheriff to turn over Rowland. In order to protect the Black adolescent, Sheriff Willard McCullough refused, and his men barred the top level.
Around nine o’clock that evening, around 25 armed Black men, many of whom had served in World War I, went to the courthouse to offer their assistance in protecting Rowland. Some of the white mob attempted to break into the adjoining National Guard armory after the sheriff drove them away, but were unsuccessful.
Soon after 10 o’clock that evening, a group of around 75 armed Black men returned to the courtroom amid persistent rumors of a potential lynching. There, they were welcomed by about 1,500 armed white men.
The Night Tulsa Burned (HISTORY Vault)
One of the wealthiest all-Black neighborhoods in America by 1921 was found in Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood. However, white mobs set it on fire on June 1 in what became known as the Tulsa Race Massacre, burning houses and businesses and killing scores of people.
The outnumbered group of Black guys fled to Greenwood as gunfire and turmoil broke out.
The following few hours saw a series of violent acts against Black people carried out by groups of white Tulsans, some of whom had received weapons and deputies from the city. One such event involved the shooting of an unarmed man in a movie theater.
The mounting anxiety was fostered by the false notion that a widespread uprising among Black Tulsans was under way, with reinforcements from neighboring towns and cities with sizable African American populations.
On June 1, thousands of white people descended onto the Greenwood District as morning broke, plundering and setting a 35-block area on fire while doing so. After being called to assist with putting out flames, firefighters stated that they had been threatened by rioters.
Approximately 1,256 homes were burned, according to a subsequent Red Cross estimate; 215 others were plundered but not burned. Among the structures damaged or destroyed by fire were two newspapers, a school, a library, a hospital, churches, hotels, stores, and numerous other Black-owned businesses.
The violence was effectively over by the time the National Guard arrived and Governor J. B. A. Robertson proclaimed martial law just before noon. Although guardsmen assisted in fighting fires, they also imprisoned numerous Black Tulsans; by June 2, about 6,000 individuals were being held at the nearby fairgrounds under armed watch.
Aftermath of the Tulsa Race Massacre: A Legacy of Resilience
After the Tulsa Race Massacre, Dick Rowland’s charges were completely withdrawn. According to the authorities, Rowland most likely walked on Page’s foot or fell into her. He was jailed safely during the riot and fled Tulsa the following morning, reportedly never to return.
In Oklahoma, 36 people were formally counted deceased by the Bureau of Vital Statistics. 36 dead, 26 Black and 10 White, according to an investigation conducted in 2001 by a state commission. The death toll, according to historians, could have reached 300.
The Tulsa Race Massacre was one of the worst riots in American history, even by low estimates, second only to the 1863 New York Draft Riots, which claimed at least 119 lives.
Separation in the city only grew in the years that followed as Black Tulsans struggled to restore their destroyed homes and businesses, while Oklahoma’s newly created KKK branch gained power.
No news at all
For many years, there were no public memorials for the deceased, celebrations, or any attempts to honor the events of May 31–June 1, 1921. Instead, a concerted attempt was made to conceal them.
The Tulsa Tribune destroyed the front-page article from May 31 that caused the commotion in its bound volumes, and researchers later found that the riot’s police and state militia archives were also missing. Because of this, the Tulsa Race Massacre was rarely discussed, taught, or even referenced in history texts until recently.
After the riot’s 50th anniversary had passed, academics started to dive more into its history in the 1970s. A service was held on the riot’s 75th anniversary in 1996.