During the Tulsa Race Massacre, white mobs killed hundreds of Black residents and destroyed businesses in the city’s Greenwood district—a Black city within a city. The massacre began on May 31, 1921, and in less than 48 hours, the prosperous area, known as Black Wall Street, had been reduced to ashes. The actual death toll of the riot is uncertain, experts believe that between 100 to 300 bodies of Black victims were dumped in unmarked graves.
After 100 years, this horrifying event is finally getting significant national recognition.
Last week, the African Heritage Community at T. Rowe Price hosted a learning session for associates that featured Jeffery Robinson, Executive Director of The Who We Are Project as a guest speaker. I watched and listened as Robinson shared the historical context of race relations in the U.S. in the early 1900s, the impact of the Tulsa Massacre in 1921, and how restrictive government policies of 20th century have contributed to the racial wealth gap that exists today.
At the beginning of and throughout the presentation, Robinson warned us to take a deep breaths. It was an honest no-holds barred examination of an ugly, hateful period where racism fueled murder and arson on a massive scale.
While I’d heard of the massacre, going into the webinar I was incredibly ignorant of the carnage and the greater context surrounding it. After the 90-minute presentation, I felt as though I’d been hit hard in the gut multiple times.
I wanted to learn more.
A day later, I received a super-timely email from The Library of Congress (LOC) announcing that Wanda Whitney, Head of History & Genealogy, Researcher and Reference Services had written a blog post explaining how to use LOC’s resources to research the Tulsa Massacre. The post begins:
It was, then and now, among the bloodiest outbreaks of racist violence in U.S. history. The official tally of the dead has varied from 36 to nearly 300. White fatalities are documented at 13. Some 35 square blocks of Black-owned homes, businesses, and churches were torched; thousands of Black Tulsans were left homeless—and yet no local, state or federal agency ever pursued prosecutions. The event was so quickly dismissed by local officials that today, a century later, several local organizations are still investigating reports of mass graves.
The blog post, How to Research the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, serves up a treasure trove of LOC holdings. The public domain photos—mostly shot on glass plates—are outstanding.
Here are some additional resources that I’m using to help educate myself. I hope you’ll find them useful, too.
A co-production of The History Channel and WNYC Studios, in collaboration with KOSU, and Focus Black Oklahoma has produced a six-episode podcast, Blindspot: Tulsa Burning. Here’s the two-minute promo:
The Smithsonian Magazine published a powerful, scholarly, and highly insightful article about the massacre this past April: American Terror.
The Art Newspaper, one of my favorite publications and a daily read, posted an article today, May 28: Greenwood Massacre, America’s Single Worst Incident of Racial Violence. They note:
The three living survivors of the massacre—Viola Fletcher, Leslie Randle, and Hughes Van Ellis—testified at a civil rights congressional hearing in Washington, DC, last month, calling for restitution for survivors and descendants. Fletcher, who was six-years-old at the time of the riot, told the committee: “I will never forget the violence of the white mob when we left our home. I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street, and I still smell smoke and see fire.”
The Tulsa Historical Society and Museum created a website. Summarizing the event, they say:
On the morning of May 30, 1921, a young black man named Dick Rowland was riding in the elevator in the Drexel Building at Third and Main with a white woman named Sarah Page. The details of what followed vary from person to person. Accounts of an incident circulated among the city’s white community during the day and became more exaggerated with each telling.
Tulsa police arrested Rowland the following day and began an investigation. An inflammatory report in the May 31 edition of the Tulsa Tribune spurred a confrontation between black and white armed mobs around the courthouse where the sheriff and his men had barricaded the top floor to protect Rowland. Shots were fired and the outnumbered African Americans began retreating to the Greenwood District.
In the early morning hours of June 1, 1921, Greenwood was looted and burned by white rioters. Governor Robertson declared martial law, and National Guard troops arrived in Tulsa. Guardsmen assisted firemen in putting out fires, took African Americans out of the hands of vigilantes and imprisoned all black Tulsans not already interned. Over 6,000 people were held at the Convention Hall and the Fairgrounds, some for as long as eight days.
Twenty-four hours after the violence erupted, it ceased. In the wake of the violence, 35 city blocks lay in charred ruins, more than 800 people were treated for injuries and contemporary reports of deaths began at 36. Historians now believe as many as 300 people may have died.
From 60 Minutes, June 2020, Uncovering the Greenwood Massacre.
The Associated Press presents an outstanding resource, 100 Years After the Tulsa Race Massacre, the Damage Remains. It includes Ernestine Alpha Gibbs’ personal account of the massacre.
The New York Times has created an interactive walk-through of the Greenwood district showing the businesses that were lost in Tulsa 100 years ago.
“I will never forget the violence of the white mob when we left our home. I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams. I have lived through the massacre every day. Our country may forget this history, but I cannot,” said 107 year old Viola Fletcher—one of three surviving Tulsa massacre eyewitnesses—testifying before Congress on May 26, 2021.