Tulsa Race Massacre

This was not in the history books.  I wasn’t aware of this until I was out of college!  Some of you NEVER heard about this occurrence.   I  refer to it sometimes when I hear some white people discussing the violence going on now and seem to believe only blacks have the audacity to riot and loot and set other people’s property on fire.  Following are two excerpts educating you on the Tulsa Race Riots/Massacre.

 

The following is taken from the Tulsa (Oklahoma) Historical Society and Museum webpage:

 

The Attack on Greenwood

 

The 1921 Attack on Greenwood was one of the most significant events in Tulsa’s history. Following World War I, Tulsa was recognized nationally for its affluent African American community known as the Greenwood District. This thriving business district and surrounding residential area was referred to as “Black Wall Street.” In June 1921, a series of events nearly destroyed the entire Greenwood area.

 

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, over 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.

 

In 2001, an official Race Riot Commission was organized to review the details of the event. No one will ever know the absolute truth of what happened during the hours of the Race Riot.  However, by examining historical resources, members of the Race Riot Commission determined a number of details to be undeniable. “These are not myths, not rumors, not speculations, not questioned. They are the historical record.”

 

The following information comes from the 2001 Race Riot Commission Report:

 

Black Tulsans had every reason to believe that Dick Rowland would be lynched after his arrest. His charges were later dismissed and highly suspect from the start. They had cause to believe that his personal safety, like the defense of themselves and their community, depended on them alone. As hostile groups gathered and their confrontation worsened, municipal and county authorities failed to take actions to calm or contain the situation.  At the eruption of violence, civil officials selected many men, all of them white and some of them participants in that violence, and made those men their agents as deputies. In that capacity, deputies did not stem the violence but added to it, often through overt acts that were themselves illegal. Public officials provided fire arms and ammunition to individuals, again all of them white. Units of the Oklahoma National Guard participated in the mass arrests of all or nearly all of Greenwood’s residents.

They removed them to other parts of the city, and detained them in holding centers. Entering the Greenwood district, people stole, damaged, or destroyed personal property left behind in homes and businesses. People, some of them agents of government, also deliberately burned or otherwise destroyed homes credibly estimated to have numbered 1,256, along with virtually every other structure — including churches, schools, businesses, even a hospital and library — in the Greenwood district. Despite duties to preserve order and to protect property, no government at any level offered adequate resistance, if any at all, to what amounted to the destruction of the Greenwood neighborhood. Although the exact total can never be determined, credible evidence makes it probable that many people, likely numbering between 100-300, were killed during the massacre.

 

Not one of these criminal acts was then or ever has been prosecuted or punished by government at any level: municipal, county, state, or federal. Even after the restoration of order it was official policy to release a black detainee only upon the application of a white person, and then only if that white person agreed to accept responsibility for that detainee’s subsequent behavior. As private citizens, many whites in Tulsa and neighboring communities did extend invaluable assistance to the massacre’s victims, and the relief efforts of the American Red Cross in particular provided a model of human behavior at its best. Although city and county government bore much of the cost for Red Cross relief, neither contributed substantially to Greenwood’s rebuilding, in fact, municipal authorities acted initially to impede rebuilding.

 

Despite being numerically at a disadvantage, black Tulsans fought valiantly to protect their homes, their businesses, and their community. But in the end, the city’s African-American population was simply outnumbered by the white invaders. In the end, the restoration of Greenwood after its systematic destruction was left to the victims of that destruction. While Tulsa officials turned away some offers of outside aid, a number of individual white Tulsans provided assistance to the city’s now virtually homeless black population. But it was the American Red Cross, which remained in Tulsa for months following the massacre, that provided the most sustained relief effort. Maurice Willows, the compassionate director of the Red Cross relief, kept a history of the event (available in full under the “Documents” section of this online exhibit).

 

In recent years there has been ongoing discussion about what to call the event that happened in 1921. Historically, it has been called the Tulsa Race Riot. Some say it was given that name at the time for insurance purposes. Designating it a riot prevented insurance companies from having to pay benefits to the people of Greenwood whose homes and businesses were destroyed. It also was common at the time for any large-scale clash between different racial or ethnic groups to be categorized a race riot.

 

What do YOU think?

Definition of RIOT: a tumultuous disturbance of the public peace by three or more persons assembled together and acting with common intent. 

Definition of MASSACRE: the act or an instance of killing a number of usually helpless or unresisting human beings under circumstances of atrocity or cruelty.

 

“Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum launched an investigation into longstanding oral history accounts of mass graves at various sites in Tulsa, alleged burial sites for scores of mostly-black victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Mayor Bynum continues to emphasize that this process, which may be long and tedious, is an investigation.  There is no certainty that one or more mass graves will be located. The investigation is geared toward answering, as best we can, the lingering historical question, originating through oral histories, about the existence of one or more mass graves linked to the massacre.  By this undertaking, we honor our oral history and its tellers. This history, separate and apart from its truth, has value.  Who told what to whom? Why? Was it accurate? These are all questions worth exploring. The current Mass Graves Investigation seeks to address those questions and more. It deserves the support of the entire community.

 

– Hannibal B. Johnson, www.hannibalbjohnson.com

 

 

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The following excerpt is from the history.com website:

 

 Tulsa Race Massacre

 

During the Tulsa Race Massacre (also known as the Tulsa Race Riot), which occurred over 18 hours on May 31-June 1, 1921, a white mob attacked residents, homes and businesses in the predominantly Black Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The event remains one of the worst incidents of racial violence in U.S. history, and one of the least-known: News reports were largely squelched, despite the fact that hundreds of people were killed and thousands left homeless.

 

Black Wall Street

In much of the country, the years following World War I saw a spike in racial tensions, including  the resurgence of the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan, numerous lynchings and other acts of racially motivated violence, as well as efforts by African Americans to prevent such attacks on their communities.  By 1921, fueled by oil money, Tulsa was a growing, prosperous city with a population of more than 100,000 people. But crime rates were high, and vigilante justice of all kinds wasn’t uncommon.  Tulsa was also a highly segregated city: Most of the city’s 10,000 Black residents lived in a neighborhood called Greenwood, which included a thriving business district sometimes referred to as the Black Wall Street.

 

 

What Caused the Tulsa Race Massacre?

On May 30, 1921, a young Black teenager named Dick Rowland entered an elevator at the Drexel Building, an office building on South Main Street. At some point after that, the young white elevator operator, Sarah Page, screamed; Rowland fled the scene.  The police were called, and the next morning they arrested Rowland.  By that time, rumors of what supposedly happened on that elevator had circulated through the city’s white community. A front-page story in the Tulsa Tribune that afternoon reported that police had arrested Rowland for sexually assaulting Page.  [ According to conflicting reports, the arrest was prompted after Rowland tripped in an elevator on his way to a segregated bathroom, and a white store clerk reported the incident as an “assault” or a rape.]

 

As evening fell, an angry white mob was gathering outside the courthouse, demanding the sheriff hand over Rowland. Sheriff Willard McCullough refused, and his men barricaded the top floor to protect the Black teenager.  Around 9 p.m., a group of about 25 armed Black men—including many World War I veterans—went to the courthouse to offer help guarding Rowland.   After the sheriff turned them away, some of the white mob tried unsuccessfully to break into the National Guard armory nearby.   With rumors still flying of a possible lynching, a group of around 75 armed Black men returned to the courthouse shortly after 10 pm, where they were met by some 1,500 white men, some of whom also carried weapons.

 

Greenwood Burns

After shots were fired and chaos broke out, the outnumbered group of Black men retreated to Greenwood.  Over the next several hours, groups of white Tulsans—some of whom were deputized and given weapons by city officials—committed numerous acts of violence against Black people, including shooting an unarmed man in a movie theater.  The false belief that a large-scale insurrection among Black Tulsans was underway, including reinforcements from nearby towns and cities with large African American populations, fueled the growing hysteria.  As dawn broke on June 1, thousands of white citizens poured into the Greenwood District, looting and burning homes and businesses over an area of 35 city blocks.  Firefighters who arrived to help put out fires later testified that rioters had threatened them with guns and forced them to leave.

 

According to a later Red Cross estimate, some 1,256 houses were burned; 215 others were looted but not torched.  Two newspapers, a school, a library, a hospital, churches, hotels, stores and many other Black-owned businesses were among the buildings destroyed or damaged by fire.  By the time the National Guard arrived and Governor J. B. A. Robertson had declared martial law shortly before noon, the riot had effectively ended.  Though guardsmen helped put out fires, they also imprisoned many Black Tulsans, and by June 2 some 6,000 people were under armed guard at the local fairgrounds.

 

Aftermath of the Tulsa Race Massacre

In the hours after the Tulsa Race Massacre, all charges against Dick Rowland were dropped.  The police concluded that Rowland had most likely stumbled into Page, or stepped on her foot.  Kept safely under guard in the jail during the riot, he left Tulsa the next morning and reportedly never returned.  The Oklahoma Bureau of Vital Statistics officially recorded 36 dead.   A 2001 state commission examination of events was able to confirm 36 dead, 26 Black and 10 white.  However, historians estimate the death toll may have been as high as 300.

Even by low estimates, the Tulsa Race Massacre stood as one of the deadliest riots in U.S. history, behind only the New York Draft Riots of 1863, which killed at least 119 people.  In the years to come, as Black Tulsans worked to rebuild their ruined homes and businesses, segregation in the city only increased, and Oklahoma’s newly established branch of the KKK grew in strength.

 

News Blackout

For decades, there were no public ceremonies, memorials for the dead or any efforts to commemorate the events of May 31-June 1, 1921.  Instead, there was a deliberate effort to cover them up.  The Tulsa Tribune removed the front-page story of May 31 that sparked the chaos from its bound volumes, and scholars later discovered that police and state militia archives about the riot were missing as well.  As a result, until recently the Tulsa Race Massacre was rarely mentioned in history books, taught in schools or even talked about.  Scholars began to delve deeper into the story of the riot in the 1970s, after its 50th anniversary had passed.  In 1996, on the riot’s 75th anniversary, a service was held at the Mount Zion Baptist Church, which rioters had burned to the ground, and a memorial was placed in front of Greenwood Cultural Center.

 

Tulsa Race Riot Commission Established, Renamed

The following year, after an official state government commission was created to investigate the Tulsa Race Riot, scientists and historians began looking into long-ago stories, including numerous victims buried in unmarked graves.  In 2001, the report of the Race Riot Commission concluded that between 100 and 300 people were killed and more than 8,000 people made homeless over those 18 hours in 1921.  A bill in the Oklahoma State Senate requiring that all Oklahoma high schools teach the Tulsa Race Riot failed to pass in 2012, with its opponents claiming schools were already teaching their students about the riot.

 

According to the State Department of Education, it has required the topic in Oklahoma history classes since 2000 and U.S. history classes since 2004, and the incident has been included in Oklahoma history books since 2009.  In November 2018, the 1921 Race Riot Commission was officially renamed the 1921 Race Massacre Commission :

 

Although the dialogue about the reasons and effects of the terms riot vs. massacre are very important and encouraged,” said Oklahoma State Senator Kevin Matthews, “the feelings and interpretation of those who experienced this devastation as well as current area residents and historical scholars have led us to more appropriately change the name to the 1921 Race Massacre Commission.

 

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