100 (101) Years Later — The Tulsa Race Massacre

I originally wrote this post a year ago to mark the 100th anniversary of one of the darkest days in this nation, and normally I would not redux it a year later.  But, these are not normal times and in light of some recent events, most notably the shooter who took ten lives in a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, a few weeks ago with the sole intent of “killing Black people”, I think maybe we need to see this again.  States are not only outlawing the teaching of actual Critical Race Theory, but they are also making it illegal for teachers to teach about the racist history of this country, about events such as the Tulsa Race Massacre.  WHY???  They say such things make their little white chillun’s feel bad.  Maybe it’s time somebody feels bad about such things, time somebody swears “NEVER AGAIN!” and takes steps to conquer the systemic and social racism in this country.  And so, I offer no apologies for this repeat on this, the 101st anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre.

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:

29 thoughts on “100 (101) Years Later — The Tulsa Race Massacre

  1. Hello Jill. As you mentioned in a reply comment the red state Republicans want to make it illegal for these events, these issues to be taught or mentioned in schools. Like others I never learned this in school. By making the teaching of abuse of black people illegal under the guise it makes the white kids (really the white parents) uncomfortable what is really being said is we want these events to be forgotten so that we are not held responsible. They want these events to be forgotten so that they can accuse black people of being failures for not having the advantages white people have, so they can blame black people for the way they are treated under the system the white people created and enforce. Also it is more of the same if no one knows about it then it is not real idea behind the banning of any mention of the LGBTQ+ in schools. There seems to be a real surge in open racism and bigotry. I am not sure if it is driven by fear of losing power by those traditionally in power such as white Christian people, or if there is some other motive behind the drive, but it is happening. Not just in the US where it is more open, but worldwide. People like Steve Bannon traveled the world funded by the Mercer family to set up racist fascist authoritarian movements and even started schools dedicated to that.

    Jill I would love to read a post by you on this subject. You have the ability to connect the dots I and others do not have. But something tells me it is important. We are seeing a world shift pushed hard by a few with the means to accomplish it. Are different groups banding together to push back against the advancements in social understandings / tolerance? Is it corporations trying to install governments to allow them to abuse workers or slash safety nets or regulations to increase profits? I admit I cannot figure out the web of parties in this drive to decrease freedom / democracy in the world, but I see the results. I think Brexit was one result. Anyway I would love your thoughts on this. Thanks. Hugs

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    • Y’know … when I hear that the teaching of such things as slavery, as Jim Crow, as our treatment of the Indigenous Peoples makes children ‘uncomfortable’ and thus we should not teach it, I want to scream! Life is uncomfortable, dammit! If we shelter children, raise them in ivory towers never letting them see reality, we are NOT doing our jobs as parents and educators to prepare them for life out here in the real world! The people most prepared to deal with real life, to find solutions for problems, are those who grew up attending the school of hard knocks as I did and I suspect you did, too. I had a great aunt who had been in a concentration camp in Poland, and she told me stories of life under the Nazis from the time I was about 4 years old. Nobody tried to hide it because it might make me feel bad! I had a Japanese friend whose grandparents and parents had been in the internment camps during WWII and her family told me all about their experiences when I was around 10 years old or so. And today, I have a healthy respect for ALL people, a desire to right the wrongs of the world before we repeat the same horrific mistakes our nation has made in the past.

      Awwww … thank you for that compliment, Scottie! But don’t sell yourself short, my friend, you have a way with words as well, especially once you’re riled! But yes, this is a project that I will willingly consider doing a post about, for it is one that is near to my heart, that makes me growl quite often. You already know my thoughts on religion — I think it is a large part of ALL the evil in the world … not just Christianity, but ALL religions. They are exclusionary, arrogant, and based on naught but tribalism. You know the song, “Imagine” by John Lennon? I’ve played it a few times 😉 He hits the nail on the head, I think … I’d like to live in the world he “imagines”. So, give me some time, but yes, I would like to tackle this topic! Hugs

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  2. Jill, this horrible story must be told and told again. I was unaware of this episode until first reported on its 100th anniversary. Similarly, I was unaware of a newspaper instigated coup of elected black City Council leaders in Wilmington, NC in the late 1890’s until about ten years ago. Fear is a motivator. The folks who did these awful things, just like those in the Jim Crow era, used fear to motivate and put down and kill African-Americans. Sadly, the disinformation which started before the Civil War was ramped up following it and even more so when the reconstruction period ended in 1873 to garner votes from the south. Keith

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    • Billie Holiday’s words must be sung, yet sometimes the crime is not hidden behind hooded masks. It is unabashedly right out in the open like in Tulsa and Wilmington. But, the sentiment is the same as in Holiday’s song.

      Southern trees bear a strange fruit
      Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
      Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
      Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees
      Pastoral scene of the gallant South
      The bulgin’ eyes and the twisted mouth
      Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
      Then the sudden smell of burnin’ flesh
      Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
      For the rain to gather
      For the wind to suck
      For the sun to rot
      For the tree to drop
      Here is a strange and bitter crop

      Liked by 1 person

      • The terrorists grow braver, it seems, and no longer hide behind masks. You’re right … her song speaks volumes, as music often does. Hmmmm … I might just play that one sometime soon.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I didn’t learn it in elementary or high school, but did learn about it in college … I can’t remember if it was taught, or just some of my own reading and research. But this should be taught in 6th grade or shortly thereafter, once kids have developed the ability to grasp world issues a bit. Instead … the nation is moving to make it illegal to teach this, or the Wilmington Massacre or the racial murders in Mississippi in the mid-20th century or so many other events. As I keep saying, if we fail to learn the lessons of history, we are doomed to repeat it. I thought twice about reduxing this post, but now I’m glad I did. We’ve come a long way, but we have an even longer way still to go, my friend.

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  3. And the Red States are doing everything they can to disenfrancjise Black voters. Tongue-in Cheek, but why don’t they just kill anyone who is White and Christian. You know that is what they really want to do. That they don’t is proof they know their beliefs are wrong!

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    • It has certainly been downplayed and ignored for nearly a century. It’s only in recent years that people are learning of atrocities like this, and now state governments are trying to cover it back up, to hide it from future generations. As the old saying goes, if we do not know our history, do not learn the lessons of history, we are destined to repeat it.

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