A century ago this week, white rioters burned the wealthiest Black community in America to the ground.
At the turn of the 20th century, the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma, became one of the first communities in the country thriving with Black entrepreneurial businesses. The prosperous town, founded by many descendants of slaves, earned a reputation as the Black Wall Street of America and became a harbor for African Americans in a highly segregated city under Jim Crow laws.
On May 31, 1921, a white mob turned Greenwood upside down in one of the worst racial massacres in U.S. history. In a matter of hours, 35 square blocks of the vibrant Black community were turned into smoldering ashes. Countless Black people were killed — estimates ranged from 55 to more than 300 — and 1,000 homes and businesses were looted and set on fire.
But for decades, the massacre received scant mentions in newspapers, textbooks and civil and governmental conversations. It wasn’t until 2000 that the slaughter was included in the Oklahoma public schools’ curriculum and it has only been in recent years that the event was chronicled in American history textbooks.
To ensure that the tragic event was not forgotten, the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Commission was formed in 1997 to conduct a thorough investigation resulting in the release of a report in 2001.
“The massacre was actively covered up in the white community in Tulsa for nearly a half-century,” said Scott Ellsworth, a professor of Afro-American and African studies at the University of Michigan and author of “The Ground Breaking” about the Tulsa massacre.
“When I started my research in the 1970s, I discovered that official National Guard reports and other documents were all missing,” Ellsworth said. “Tulsa’s two daily white newspapers went out of their way for decades not to mention the massacre. Researchers who would try to do work as late as the early 1970s had their lives and their careers threatened.”
In the week following the massacre, Tulsa’s chief of police ordered his officers to go to all the photography studios in Tulsa and confiscate all the pictures taken of the carnage, Ellsworth said.
These photos, which were later discovered and became the materials the Oklahoma Commission used to study the massacre, eventually landed in the lap of Michelle Place at Tulsa Historical Society & Museum in 2001.
The Tulsa museum was founded in the late 1990s but visitors couldn’t find a trace of the race massacre until 2012 when Place became executive director and resolved to tell the full story. A digital collection of the photographs was eventually made available for viewing online.
Not only did Tulsa city officials cover up the bloodbath but they also deliberately shifted the narrative of the massacre by calling it a “riot” and blaming the Black community for what went down says Alicia Odewale, an archaeologist at the University of Tulsa.
The massacre would not be discussed publicly in the African American community for a long time – mostly out of fear as they reasoned if it happened once, it could happen again. For those who survived, it became a traumatic event much like what occurred for Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans who often refrained from telling their children and grandchildren what they had encountered.
Ellsworth said he knows of descendants of massacre survivors who didn’t find out about it until they were in their 40s and 50s.
“The silence is layered just as the trauma is layered,” Odewale said. “The historical trauma is real and that trauma lingers especially because there’s no justice, no accountability and no reparation or monetary compensation.”
What triggered the massacre?
On May 31, 1921, Dick Rowland, a 19-year old Black shoeshine man, tripped and fell in an elevator and his hand accidentally caught the shoulder of Sarah Page, a white 17-year-old operator.
Page screamed and witnesses said they saw Rowland running away.
Police were summoned but Page refused to press charges. However, by that afternoon, there were already talks of lynching Rowland on the streets of white Tulsa. The tension then escalated after the white newspaper Tulsa Tribune ran a front-page story entitled “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl In Elevator,” which accused Rowland of stalking, assault and rape.
In the Tribune, there was also a now-lost editorial entitled “To Lynch Tonight,” Ellsworth says. But when the Works Progress Administration went to microfilm the old issues of the Tribune in the 1930s, the op-ed had been torn out of the newspaper, Ellsworth said.
Many believe the newspaper coverage undoubtedly played a part in sparking the massacre.
For Black Tulsans, the massacre resulted in a decline in homeownership, occupational status and educational attainment, based on a recent study through the 1940s led by Harvard University’s Alex Albright.
Today, only a handful of Black businesses exist on the single remaining block in the Greenwood district once hailed as Black Wall Street.
This month, three survivors of the 1921 massacre, ages 100, 106 and 107, appeared before a congressional committee and a Georgia congressman introduced a bill that would make it easier for them to seek reparations.
Meanwhile, historians and archaeologists continue to unearth what was lost for decades. In October, a mass grave in an Oklahoma cemetery was discovered that could be the remains of at least a dozen identified and unidentified African-American massacre victims.
“We are able to look for signs of survival and signs of lives. And really look for those remnants of built Greenwood and not just about how they died,” Odewale said. “Greenwood never left.”
Greenwood Community Remembers, 2021
A crowd of about 200 gathered between the highway and the historic Vernon AME Church on Monday, May 31, to commemorate the day a century ago that the church was nearly destroyed.
The Rev. Robert Turner, who serves as pastor of the church — one of the only structures to partly survive the race massacre in Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood in which a white mob killed hundreds of Black residents in 1921 — dedicated a prayer wall to the massacre’s victims.
“This is the largest crime scene in America that has never been investigated,” he said.
Turner’s address, alongside other religious leaders, was part of a series of ceremonies marking the centennial of the massacre in a community once known as Black Wall Street, which is getting new national attention.
Even though the anniversary is a somber one, many here said they are determined to celebrate the culture and community that Black Tulsans built — while using this moment to demand reparations for all that has been taken from them.
Mayor G.T. Bynum told NBC News it was important to him that the city engage in a fair process to determine the future of Greenwood, where much of the land is now owned by the city. The city has faced criticism for not prioritizing the massacre’s survivors and their descendants in the redevelopment of Greenwood.
“Whatever happens needs to be a community-driven effort,” Bynum said. “It’s incredibly important to us that whatever we end up seeing happen here, that the community has pride in it, just like the community had pride in Black Wall Street. MAY 31, 202105:12
Monday’s commemoration began with a solemn ceremony in which half a dozen large jars, each labeled “Unknown” to represent the victims of the massacre whose names were not recorded, were filled with soil by speakers and attendees.
Late Monday evening, a candlelight vigil occurred to begin 100 years from the moment a white mob pillaged the prosperous Black neighborhood, murdering hundreds of people and displacing thousands more. The violence stretched into the next day, culminating in the looting of Black homes, with armed white mobs rounding up survivors and placing them in an internment camp.
President Joe Biden visited Tuesday, the day that officially marks the centennial. While Biden’s visit was not expected to be public, he did tour the Greenwood Cultural Center across the street from Vernon AME Church.
On Monday, Biden signed a White House proclamation declaring a day of remembrance, which called upon Americans to remember those who were killed as well as those who survived, and to “commit together to eradicate systemic racism and help to rebuild communities and lives that have been destroyed by it.”
Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and musician John Legend had been scheduled to headline a “Remember and Rise” event Monday, but it was canceled because of a disagreement between the event’s organizers and representatives of massacre survivors and their descendants.
A state commission in 2001 found that the damages to Greenwood in 1921 would equal nearly $30 million. However, no reparations have been paid to survivors or their descendants, and no people or entities have been held criminally liable. That has left many here skeptical that anything will change in Tulsa, a city that remains largely segregated.