Jolly Monday will be along later today, but for this morning I have something of importance to talk about.
Today and tomorrow mark the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, one of the darkest two-day periods in the history of the United States.
In 1921, there was a 35 square block district of Tulsa, Oklahoma, often referred to as Black Wall Street, known as one of the most prosperous Black communities in the nation. Greenwood boasted restaurants, grocery stores, churches, a hospital, a savings and loan, a post office, three hotels, jewelry and clothing stores, two movie theaters, a library, pool halls, a bus and cab service, a highly regarded school system, six private airplanes and two Black newspapers.
But there was resentment among the white people in Tulsa and in the words of one scholar, Tulsa was a tinderbox just waiting for the spark. That spark came in the form of a young man named Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old Black shoe shiner. On May 30, 1921, Rowland took a break from his shoe stand inside a pool hall and walked to the Drexel Building to use the only public restroom for Black people in segregated Tulsa.
Rowland passed Renberg’s, a department store that occupied the first two floors of the Drexel Building, and stepped into an open wire-caged elevator operated by a 17-year-old white girl named Sarah Page. What happened next remains murky, according to historians. Rowland may have accidentally stepped on Page’s foot, prompting her to shriek. Or tripped and bumped into her. Either way, when the elevator doors reopened, Dick Rowland ran, and a clerk in Renberg’s called police. Rowland was arrested and accused of assaulting a white girl. Eventually the charges would be dropped after Sarah Page wrote a letter exonerating Rowland, but not in time to stop what would happen next.
Three hours after the Tulsa Tribune hit the street with the headline “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator,” hundreds of white men gathered at the Tulsa courthouse, where Rowland was being held. Black World War I veterans who wanted to protect Rowland from being lynched rushed to the courthouse to defend him. A shot was fired and “all hell broke loose,” a massacre survivor recalled later.
The whites descended on Greenwood with a vengeance, destroying everything and everyone in their path. The death toll is uncertain, for bodies were thrown into the Arkansas River and tossed into mass graves, but it is estimated that as many as 300 people were killed. 10,000 people were left homeless as nearly every single building in the 35 square block community was destroyed. Airplanes dropped kerosene bombs from the sky onto rooftops. In a matter of hours, Greenwood went from a thriving Black community to ashes.
According to Greenwood lawyer B.C. Franklin, the father of famed Black historian John Hope Franklin …
“For fully forty-eight hours, the fires raged and burned everything in its path and it left nothing but ashes and burned safes and trunks and the like that were stored in beautiful houses and businesses.”
There are so many tragic stories from those two days, so much history that I cannot begin to do it justice in a single post. However, both the New York Times and The Washington Post have done amazing interactives that tell the story with both words and pictures, and I hope you will take a few minutes to check them out (links below).
On June 8th of that year, a grand jury was convened to investigate the events of those two days. State Attorney General S.P. Freeling initiated the investigation, and witnesses were heard over 12 days. In the end, the all-white jury attributed the riot to the Black mobs, while noting that law enforcement officials had failed in preventing the riot. A total of 27 cases were brought before the court, and the jury indicted more than 85 individuals. In the end, no one was convicted of charges for the deaths, injuries or property damage.
Fast forward to today, the centennial of the horrific massacre. A “Remember and Rise” concert organized by the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission was abruptly canceled over the issue of reparations. Oklahoma’s governor was ousted from the commission after signing legislation banning the teaching of the history of racism in Oklahoma schools. And some residents are planning to boycott the opening of Greenwood Rising, a new museum that construction workers are racing to finish in the heart of Black Wall Street.
As Tulsa commemorates the 100th anniversary of the brutal 1921 race massacre, political tensions and racial divisions have erupted in a city still grappling with how to heal a century later. It gives context to that old saying that ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same.’
As evidenced by recent events in this country — unarmed Black people being murdered by white police officers with little or no repercussions, the rise of white supremacist groups, the resistance to the teaching of America’s racist past in our schools, and the blatant disenfranchisement of Blacks and other minorities — we have not moved forward very much in the past 100 years. Could we see a repeat of what happened in Greenwood somewhere in this country soon? I think the answer to that question is ‘yes’. I hope I’m wrong.
Below are a few resources for those who may wish to know more about the Tulsa Race Massacre and its aftermath:
- New York Times interactive
- Washington Post interactive
- Telling the Story of the Tulsa Massacre — An array of TV documentaries mark the centennial of one of America’s deadliest outbreaks of racist violence.
- John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation: Accounts told through the eyes of survivors
- The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 — Emory University scholar Carol Anderson (note that she claims Sarah Page claimed Dick Rowland had raped her, which is in contrast with every other account I’ve read, but otherwise her assessment is well worth seeing)