Friday, June 11, 2021

Remembering the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre


Remembering the Tulsa Race Massacre

By Tom Warner

Aftermath of the Tulsa Race Massacre

May 31, 2021 marks the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, when an angry white mob looted and burned down the thriving African-American Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, killing as many as 300 residents. It has been called “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history,” injuring over 800 people and leaving 10,000 residents homeless. At the time, the 35-square-block Greenwood District was known as “Black Wall Street,” a vibrant community that had prospered throughout the early 20th century despite rampant discrimination in a highly segregated and hostile environment (the Ku Klux Klan headquarters was located just four blocks away) where Black prosperity made it a threat to white supremacy. Greenwood’s Black entrepreneurs had built and supported two movie theaters, two newspapers, two public schools, 15 grocery and drug stores, 13 churches, a library and several restaurants, funeral parlors, clubs and hotels.

But all of it disappeared after the events of May 31, 1921, when Black teenager Dick Rowland stumbled getting on an elevator at the Drexel Building and grabbed onto the young white elevator operator to steady himself. When operator Sarah Page screamed in response, Rowlands fled. Rumors of what happened on the elevator soon circulated throughout the city’s white community and that afternoon the Tulsa Tribune reported that police had arrested Rowland for sexually assaulting Page. As evening fell on May 31, an angry white mob gathered outside the courthouse to demand that Sheriff Willard McCullough hand over Rowland. He refused and his men barricaded the station to protect the teenager. With rumors of a possible lynching spreading, a group of around 75 armed Black men arrived at the courthouse, where then encountered over 1,500 white men, some of whom also carried weapons. Though the Black Tulsans fought hard to protect their homes and businesses, they were outgunned and outnumbered. By the time National Guard troops arrived in Tulsa on the morning of June 1, most of Greenwood had already been burned down.

Dick Rowland was ultimately exonerated, but an all-white grand jury blamed the Black community for the lawlessness and, despite overwhelming evidence, no whites were ever sent to prison for the murders and arson that transpired. Initially called the “Tulsa Race Riot,” historical hindsight has correctly relabeled the outbreak a “massacre.”
In a testament to the spirit of the community, the neighborhood rose from the ashes and by 1936 boasted the largest concentration of Black-owned businesses in the U.S. 

In commemoration of the centennial anniversary of this dark chapter in American history, PBS is rebroadcasting “Goin’ Back To T-Town,” a 1993 episode of its American Experience series about the Tulsa Race Massacre that mixes archival footage with commentary from survivors and historians. If you are unable to tune in or stream this documentary when it airs, you can use your library card to check out Goin’ Back To T-Town from Pratt Library's Best & Next Department’s video collection.

Another documentary available from Pratt Library, director Rachel Lyon’s award-winning Hate Crimes in the Heartland, focuses on two hate crimes set in Tulsa almost 90 years apart - the 1921 Greenwood massacre and the 2012 Good Friday murders - as it examines the racial animosity and inequality that still defines much of modern American society - as the Ferguson, Charleston, Trayvon Martin and George Floyd cases attest. By exploring these events set in a city forever divided, it reveals the dangerous connection between the media, race and social justice.

Hate Crimes in the Heartland (2016)

Want to learn more about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre?
Pratt Library has over 20 print books and eBooks on the subject, including a number hand-picked by Pratt’s African-American Department:

If you have a chance, stop by the Af-Am Dept. to check out their Tulsa massacre display; these titles are also available from Pratt's Social Science & History Dept.