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The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre: Causes of a Devastating Eruption of Racial Violence

In the span of just 24 hours between May 31 and June 1, 1921, the thriving African American neighborhood of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma was ruthlessly attacked and destroyed by a heavily armed mob of white residents. The horrific events that unfolded during the Tulsa Race Massacre left an estimated 300 people dead, 35 city blocks burned to the ground, and nearly 10,000 Black individuals homeless. Often cited as "the single worst incident of racial violence in American history," the massacre served as a shocking example of how deeply entrenched racism and a heavily segregated society ignited a powder keg that decimated an entire community in a matter of hours.

The Roots of Greenwood: African American Migration and Entrepreneurship

The story of Greenwood began in the early 1900s, when thousands of African Americans migrated to Oklahoma from other parts of the South, drawn by the promise of cheap land, plentiful jobs, and less overt racial oppression. Oklahoma represented a chance to start anew and to build communities on their own terms. O.W. Gurley, a wealthy Black landowner from Arkansas, purchased 40 acres of land in Tulsa with the vision of creating an all-Black district. He began by building a rooming house and subdividing plots to sell to fellow African Americans.

Gurley‘s vision took off. From 1906 to 1921, Greenwood blossomed into a vibrant and financially booming Black neighborhood. It boasted more than 200 businesses, including:

  • 30 grocery stores
  • Several luxury shops
  • 2 movie theaters
  • 6 private airplanes

The business district hummed with offices for doctors, lawyers, and other professionals. There was a library, hospital, schools, and even a bus system. Booker T. Washington, after visiting the area in 1905, coined it "the Negro Wall Street of America" due to the immense concentration of Black wealth and entrepreneurial spirit.

Armed men gathered during Tulsa race massacre

Armed rioters gathered on a street during the Tulsa race massacre (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

By 1921, an estimated 11,000 African Americans called Greenwood home. The average income and educational attainment of Greenwood residents exceeded the national average for Black families. The community took immense pride in what they had built. As Greenwood resident Mabel Little recalled in the 2001 state commission report: "In Greenwood we had everything. We had grocery stores, hotels, cafes, and movie theaters. We had everything we needed, and we didn‘t have to go downtown to the white folks."

Racial Hostility and Resentment Simmered Beneath the Surface

Despite the outward appearance of peaceful coexistence between Black and white Tulsans, racial animosity lurked not far beneath the surface. Oklahoma had entered the Union in 1907 as a Jim Crow state, with a host of segregationist policies already on the books. The resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan fueled racial violence across the country. Lynchings of African Americans by white mobs were shockingly common, with over 100 documented cases in Oklahoma alone between 1885 and 1930.

Many white Tulsans resented the economic success and independence enjoyed by the residents of Greenwood. While the oil boom brought prosperity to white neighborhoods, much of Tulsa remained strictly segregated, with most Black citizens confined to the Greenwood district and excluded from economic opportunities in white-dominated industries. The envy and racial hostility only intensified as Greenwood continued to thrive against the odds.

Marker commemorating Black Wall Street
*Historical marker on site of Black Wall Street in Greenwood (Source: Business Yab)*

The Tulsa Tribune, the city‘s most prominent white-owned newspaper, regularly published incendiary articles and cartoons designed to stoke racial fears and prejudice. The paper had a history of fanning the flames of racial resentment, such as warning of the "dangers" of Black men interacting with white women.

Various city officials also plotted ways to undermine Greenwood‘s prosperity, coveting the neighborhood‘s prime real estate for industrial projects and railroad expansion. In 1921, the city passed an ordinance prohibiting the re-building of destroyed structures except in accordance with new fire regulations – a transparent attempt to prevent Greenwood from recovering after the massacre.

A Fateful Elevator Encounter Ignites Mob Violence

The spark that ignited the massacre was an alleged incident in a downtown elevator on May 30, 1921. Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white elevator operator, accused Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old Black shoe shiner, of assaulting her. Accounts of what actually occurred in the elevator varied wildly, with some suggesting Rowland may have simply tripped and accidentally grabbed Page‘s arm while trying to catch his fall. Regardless of the facts, in an era when the mere accusation of sexual impropriety by a Black man against a white woman often resulted in brutality, the allegation was sufficient to incite racist mob violence.

Greenwood burns during Tulsa massacre

Fires consume Greenwood during the Tulsa Race Massacre (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Rowland was arrested and taken to the courthouse. On the morning of May 31, the Tulsa Tribune ran a front page story entitled "Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator," suggesting Rowland had attempted to rape Page. That afternoon, an inflammatory editorial with the title "To Lynch Negro Tonight" appeared in the paper, whipping the white community into a frenzy.

By nightfall, a mob of over 2,000 armed white men had gathered at the courthouse, demanding that the sheriff hand over Rowland to be lynched. Outraged Greenwood residents, many of them WWI veterans, rallied a group of approximately 60-80 armed Black men to go to the courthouse and offer to help guard Rowland.

After a heated verbal confrontation, a struggle broke out between a white man and a Black man over the latter‘s gun, which was fired. Chaos erupted. The white mob indiscriminately opened fire on the the vastly outnumbered group of Black men, who fought valiantly but were forced to retreat to Greenwood. Enraged white rioters gave chase, pursuing them into the neighborhood while looting homes, burning down businesses, and attacking any African American residents they encountered.

The violence raged through the night and into the morning, eventually growing into a full-blown massacre. The governor declared martial law and called in the National Guard to quell the fighting. But rather than focus on disarming the white mob, the guardsmen joined sheriff‘s deputies in systematically arresting and detaining nearly all of Greenwood‘s Black residents – more than 6,000 people. They were held under armed guard at the convention hall and fairgrounds.

Eyewitness accounts described seeing planes circling overhead, firing rifles and dropping burning turpentine balls on homes and businesses. Many who fled the carnage had their homes looted by the white rioters. By the time the massacre ended on June 1, almost the entire 35 block area of Greenwood had been burned to the ground.

Immediate Aftermath and Failed Attempts at Justice

The full extent of the human loss from the massacre is difficult to determine, as most official records were lost or intentionally destroyed. Estimates range from 30 to well over 300 deaths. The Red Cross reported that 1,256 houses were burned and another 215 looted, leaving 9,000 Greenwood residents homeless. The property damage was immense, with over $1.8 million in destruction claims (equivalent to over $25 million today).

Survivors in front of tent

Massacre survivors take refuge in front of a tent in Greenwood (Source: History.com)

Yet not a single insurance claim was paid out due to "riot exclusion" clauses. No government assistance was provided for rebuilding. Those who had lost everything were essentially left to fend for themselves. Immediately after the massacre, the Tulsa City Commission passed an ordinance that prevented the rebuilding of new homes in Greenwood unless they were up to fire code. The transparent goal was to price out Black property owners from restoring their neighborhood.

Despite the scale of the tragedy, a grand jury investigation mostly blamed Black Tulsans for the outbreak of violence. In its report, the jury stated: "There was no mob spirit among the whites, no talk of lynching and no arms. The assembly was quiet until the arrival of the armed Negros, which precipitated and was the direct cause of the entire affair." Ultimately, no white participant in the mob violence was ever sent to prison for actions during the massacre.

Attempts to secure justice in the courts for Greenwood residents went nowhere. Dozens of lawsuits seeking damages and restoration were filed in the years after the massacre. Not a single case was successful. The district court dismissed the claims, citing the state‘s racial segregation laws. The tragedy of the Tulsa Race Massacre quickly faded from the public consciousness, deliberately omitted from history books and conversations. It wasn‘t until the late 1990s that a state commission was finally formed to investigate the massacre and give voice to survivors‘ stories.

Struggle for Acknowledgment and Restitution Continues

The Tulsa Race Massacre and destruction of Black Wall Street inflicted deep economic and psychological scars on the African American community that linger to this day. Rebuilding efforts in Greenwood were hampered by segregationist zoning laws and lack of government assistance. While the neighborhood enjoyed a renaissance in the 1940s, with over 240 Black-owned businesses, it never fully recovered its former vibrancy. Urban renewal projects of the 1960s and 70s further eroded the district.

99th anniversary of Tulsa Race Massacre

Soil is collected during a ceremony commemorating the 99th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre (Source: Business Insider)

The economic impact of the massacre devastated the wealth and livelihoods of thousands of Black Tulsans, depriving future generations of inheritance and perpetuating a stark racial wealth gap. A 2018 study found that only 1% of Black households in Tulsa had an income above $100,000, compared to 16% of white households. The poverty rate for Black residents sat at 34%, more than twice the rate for white Tulsans.

In 2001, a government commission issued a report declaring that the city had conspired with the mob and recommended substantial restitution be paid. However, the government ignored those recommendations. Ongoing efforts to secure justice and reparations have been met with resistance.

In 2021, on the 100th anniversary of the massacre, the three known remaining survivors – Viola Fletcher, 107, her brother Hughes Van Ellis, 100, and Lessie Benningfield Randle, 106 – appeared before a House Judiciary subcommittee. They recounted the terror of those two days and argued for the need for reparative justice. Advocates have continued to call on Congress to deliver long overdue reparations to survivors and descendants.

The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre stands as a devastating reminder of the systemic racism, bigotry, and oppression embedded in American society – tragedies born of prejudice and fear that resulted in unspeakable cruelty and loss of life. Learning from this dark history requires honestly confronting the root causes and enduring legacies of racial injustice. The road to reconciliation and healing is long and painful, but the journey begins with telling the full truth of what transpired and taking concrete steps to address the generational damage inflicted on the African American community. Only then can the nation begin to reckon with its past and chart a path toward a more just and equitable future.