Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress
By Brad Bennett
Southern Poverty Law Center
O.W. Gurley, a wealthy Black entrepreneur from Arkansas, moved to racially segregated Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1906 and bought 40 acres of land. On it, he built three, two-story buildings and five homes for Black people who were not allowed to live on the white side of town.
Soon, word spread across the country about opportunities for Black people in the segregated section of Tulsa, which Gurley named “Greenwood” after a town in Mississippi.
Other prominent Black businesspeople followed suit.
J.B. Stradford, who was born into slavery in Kentucky but later became a lawyer and activist, built a 55-room luxury hotel in Greenwood – the largest Black-owned property of its kind in the country at the time.
A.J. Smitherman founded the Black-owned Tulsa Star, informing Black people about their legal rights, along with news about court rulings and legislation that could help or harm them.
Eventually, Greenwood Avenue was lined with luxury shops, restaurants, grocery stores, hotels, jewelry and clothing stores, movie theaters, barbershops and salons. The district, which ultimately came to be known as the “Black Wall Street,” also had a library, pool halls and nightclubs as well as offices for doctors, lawyers and dentists.
Black Wall Street was lined with luxury shops, restaurants, grocery stores, hotels, jewelry and clothing stores, movie theaters, barbershops and salons. Working-class Black people were not excluded. Janitors, dishwashers, porters and domestic workers spent the money they made in other parts of Tulsa in the neighborhood. Photo courtesy Greenwood Cultural Center
Working-class Black people were not excluded. Janitors, dishwashers, porters and domestic workers spent the money they made in other parts of town in Greenwood.
“It is said within Greenwood every dollar would change hands 19 times before it left the community,” Michelle Place, executive director of the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum, told History.com.
But 99 years ago, in one of the worst massacres in American history, all of Greenwood came crumbling down. From May 31 to June 1, 1921, a white mob killed hundreds of Black people, burned down what was then the most affluent Black community in America and left thousands of people homeless.
The news that a Trump political rally had been scheduled in Tulsa on June 19, Juneteenth, was a grim reminder of the Tulsa massacre. After widespread outrage, the rally was rescheduled for the next day.
The Tulsa massacre was sparked by the false accusation that a Black man had sexually assaulted a white woman.
Such allegations are a recurring theme in the mass lynchings of Black people throughout American history, including the Emanuel Nine massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, where five years ago a white supremacist, acting on false information that Black men were raping white women in large numbers, killed nine Black people in a Bible study.
‘Speak out against injustice’
“From Emmett Till’s lynching to the Rosewood massacre to the slaughter of innocent Black people in Tulsa and countless other examples, white supremacists have long used the false accusations of white women against Black men as an excuse to destroy Black lives and bulldoze pillars of Black success,” said Tafeni English, director of the Civil Rights Memorial Center, in Montgomery, Alabama, which honors martyrs of the civil rights movement.
“As the country now focuses its attention on the bloodshed in Tulsa nearly 100 years ago, it is in the midst of a new reckoning on racial injustice with the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Sean Reed, Yassin Mohamed, Ahmaud Arbery and Rayshard Brooks,” English said. “Americans must decide once and for all that Black lives truly do matter. We must take direct action to ensure that Black lives are protected. We must all educate ourselves and others about the historic and current oppression against Black Americans in this country, and we must use our collective voices to speak out against injustice whenever and wherever we see it.”
According to news reports and historical accounts, this is how the Tulsa massacre unfolded:
The success of Black Wall Street created jealousy and anger among some white people in the city, explained Mechelle Brown, director of programs at the Greenwood Cultural Center.
Some white people in Tulsa may have said to themselves, “’How dare these negroes have a grand piano in their house, and I don’t have a piano in my house,’” Brown told CNN.
The racial tension boiled over following an incident between a white teenager and a Black man.
Sarah Page, 17, worked as an elevator operator and Dick Rowland, 19, who reportedly shined shoes in the building, frequently used that elevator.
On the morning of May 30, 1921, the elevator doors closed. Inside, Page and Rowland were alone for a short time before there was a scream.
When the doors opened, Rowland ran. Later, he was arrested. At first, Page said she was assaulted.
But some historic accounts say Rowland tripped on his way out of the elevator, and that he grabbed Page’s arm in the process. She screamed, and someone else in the building contacted the authorities.
Black Wall Street set aflame
Page never pressed charges, but authorities did. By day’s end, rumors that Page had been raped were quickly spreading across the city.
An inflammatory report in the May 31 edition of the white-owned Tulsa Tribune ignited a confrontation between Black and white armed mobs gathered around the courthouse. The group of armed Black people believed Rowland would be lynched without their protection.
“A simple accident between a Black shoeshine worker and a white female elevator operator was intentionally misconstrued in a local paper as assault,” writer Caleb Gayle recently wrote for Slate. “White Tulsans took this as just cause to set Black Wall Street aflame.”
Rowland’s charges, highly suspect from the beginning, were later dismissed. Nevertheless, the group of armed Black people believed at the time that his safety, their own safety and the safety of their community was in their hands.
As the two opposing racially divided groups gathered at the courthouse and the clash worsened, the authorities did not calm or contain the situation.
But the sheriff and his men had barricaded the top floor of the courthouse to protect Rowland. Shots were fired. The armed white group greatly outnumbered the armed Black group, which retreated to Greenwood.
But early on the morning of June 1, 1921, white rioters entered Greenwood, looting and burning buildings.
Early on the morning of June 1, 1921, white rioters entered the affluent Greenwood district – also known as the Black Wall Street – in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where they began looting, burning buildings and even bombing the community from private planes. After 24 hours, the violence ended, leaving 35 city blocks in charred ruins. Photo courtesy Greenwood Cultural Center
The white mob stole, damaged or destroyed personal property that Black people – fleeing for their lives – had left behind in their homes and businesses.
White people even bombed the community from private planes, and shot Black people down in the streets with machine guns.
After the violence began, government officials deputized several white men as agents, and gave them guns and ammunition. These men did not stem the violence, and in many cases, added to it.
The rioters deliberately burned or otherwise destroyed over 1,200 homes in Greenwood, as well as virtually every other structure – churches, schools, businesses, a hospital and library included.
Although they were greatly outnumbered, Black people fought bravely to protect their homes and businesses, but to no avail.
The governor declared martial law and National Guard troops were sent to Tulsa. Guardsmen helped firefighters douse the flames, but also arrested nearly all of Greenwood’s surviving Black residents, taking them to other parts of the city where they were confined in holding centers.
After 24 hours, the violence ended, leaving 35 city blocks in charred ruins. More than 800 people were treated for injuries.
The death toll initially came in at 36. However, historians believe an estimated 300 people may have died.
Greenwood was completely destroyed. Photos of the massacre show lifeless Black bodies lying in the streets, a scene that was recreated in the first episode of HBO’s “Watchmen” series.
In the wake of the destruction, white Tulsa officials rejected some outside assistance, but there were also white residents who offered aid to the city’s newly homeless Black population.
To provide ongoing support, the American Red Cross remained in Tulsa for months following the massacre.
Dick Rowland survived and at some point left town. Little is known about his life after that.
Not in the history books
The 1921 massacre went largely unacknowledged for decades.
“Oklahoma schools did not talk about it. In fact, newspapers didn’t even print any information about the Tulsa Race Riot,” U.S. Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma told CNN affiliate KFOR. “It was completely ignored. It was one of those horrible events that everyone wanted to sweep under the rug and ignore.”
But not everyone wanted to ignore it. Some have sought to preserve that awful history.
Paul Gardullo, curator of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, spent several years collecting artifacts from the riot and its aftermath.
“It was the frustration of poor whites not knowing what to do with a successful Black community, and in coalition with the city government were given permission to do what they did,” Gardullo told the Smithsonian Magazine.
Before suffering ruin, Greenwood – or Black Wall Street – was the most affluent Black neighborhood in America. “It is said within Greenwood every dollar would change hands 19 times before it left the community,” Michelle Place, executive director of the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum, told History.com. Photo courtesy Greenwood Cultural Center
Buck Colbert Franklin, a Greenwood lawyer and father of the famed Black historian John Hope Franklin, wrote a 10-page manuscript describing his eyewitness account of what happened on May 31, 1921. The manuscript is now part of the museum’s collection in Washington, D.C.
Franklin wrote that he left his law office, locked the door, and descended to the foot of the steps after realizing that white people were bombing Greenwood from private planes, according to the magazine.
“The side-walks were literally covered with burning turpentine balls,” he wrote. “I knew all too well where they came from, and I knew all too well why every burning building first caught from the top.
“I paused and waited for an opportune time to escape,” he wrote. “‘Where oh where is our splendid fire department with its half dozen stations?’ I asked myself. ‘Is the city in conspiracy with the mob?’”
‘A country that never wanted us’
Franklin’s sentiments are echoed today in the cries of Black activists, who seek an end to the police brutality that they say is supported by cities, states and the federal government.
The fact that the Tulsa anniversary nearly coincides with Juneteenth is also painfully relevant to many Black people in America.
“Juneteenth has always been a difficult celebration for Black people on two dimensions,” Gayle wrote in his Slate article. “We celebrate that we are no longer enslaved in this country, while realizing that this country has been morally bankrupt for devaluing and enslaving us in the first place.
“But in Tulsa on May 31 and June 1, on the way to celebrating freedom on June 19,” he wrote, “we also mourn every year a massacre that decimated lives and also decimated an important expression of living abundantly in a country that never wanted us.”
Copyright 2020 Southern Poverty Law Center