99th Anniversary of Tulsa massacre of hundreds of Black lives recalls thousands of Blacks lynched an

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