The Tulsa Massacre: The single worst moment of racial violence in US history

The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre
Image: National Guard and wounded during 1921 Tulsa race riots | Wikimedia | Public Domain

31 May 1921 might not stick out in your mind as a date of historical importance, but that’s through no fault of your own. In the most horrific example of racial violence in the history of America, the Tulsa Race Massacre was so heavily covered up and willingly written out of history that even 100 years later there are still questions that remain unanswered.

So what sparked the massacre?

On Monday 30 May 1921, a black teenager got into the only lift in the Drexel Building to visit the restroom on the top floor. The 19-year-old shoeshine, Dick Rowland, entered the lift with the white attendant - 17-year-old Sarah Page. Witnesses heard what they believed to be a woman’s scream, and then saw Rowland exit the building with some haste. A witness saw Sarah in a state of distress and, assuming that she had been assaulted by Rowland, called the police. 

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To this day we have no information about what happened in that elevator, but ideas have ranged from Rowland tripping and grabbing Page’s arm or accidentally standing on her foot. So how did this brief encounter lead to a massacre?

Greenwood: The black Wall Street

Following WWI, racial tensions across the US were at a breaking point. Civil rights for the black community following the abolishment of slavery were still severely lacking, and the Jim Crow laws implemented when Oklahoma was accepted as a state in 1907 meant that the divide between black and white communities in Tulsa was visible. 

Greenwood was a community of around 10,000 black residents in Tulsa and was better known as Black Wall Street. The most affluent, educated, and economically stable black community in the country, Greenwood, was thriving.

Unfortunately, while the community bloomed, the surrounding districts in Tulsa - predominantly white communities - looked on Greenwood with resentment. Racism, bolstered by a resurgence of the KKK, meant that lynch mobs and racially motivated assaults were still an everyday reality for the residents of Greenwood. With decades of building tension, resentment, and fear; it was a fair assumption that when Rowland swiftly left the building that day - despite having done nothing wrong - he was in fear for his life. 

Arrest

Following the interaction with Page in the elevator, Rowland went directly to his mother’s home in Greenwood. Rumours of the incident in the Drexel Building that morning had already spread through the white community like wildfire and were growing even more exaggerated and outrageous with each retelling. The white residents of Tulsa had whipped themselves into a frenzy over an assault that never happened. So when Rowland was arrested the following morning and taken to the courthouse - the white community was already enraged. It wasn’t until a local white-owned newspaper ran the sensationalised story of a shady black character attempting to assault a vulnerable white elevator attendant that tensions boiled over.

The courthouse

By nightfall, an outraged white mob was forming outside the courthouse. Wanting to avoid a lynching, the newly elected sheriff Willard M. McCullough organised his deputies into a defensive position around Rowland to keep him safe. With armed deputies on the roof, the top floor of the building barricaded, and the elevator disabled, McCullough tried to talk the mob down. Not long after, three white men entered the courthouse demanding that Rowland be turned over to them. Despite being outnumbered, McCullough and his men refused to hand Rowland to the baying mob at the door.

Meanwhile, in Greenwood, a group of black residents had formed to calmly discuss what was unfolding around them. The group wanted to ensure that another innocent black man wasn’t lynched, but was undecided as to how to approach the volatile situation forming at the courthouse. 

While some of the older members of the Greenwood community were concerned about the retaliation of the white community should they get involved, McCullough had requested extra support to protect Rowland at the courthouse. Wanting to support the sheriff and protect a member of their community, a group of 50-60 black men armed with rifles and shotguns made their way to the courthouse.

Escalation

Having seen the armed group arriving from Greenwood, the white mob began to arm themselves. When a Greenwood resident refused to hand his pistol over to a white aggressor, a shot was fired. Whether a warning shot or a misfire, the response was a sudden firefight. Lasting a few short seconds, the outcome of the first exchange left 10 white men, and two black men injured and dying in the street. With the black residents retreating to Greenwood, a rolling gunfight ensued with the white mob ransacking and looting local businesses for ammunition and weapons along the way.

National Guard

Throughout the night and into the early hours of the morning groups of armed black and white residents battled. The white mob started attacking the residents of Greenwood - shooting randomly at homes and setting black-owned businesses on fire. As the Tulsa Fire Department arrived to battle the fires taking hold of the community they were turned away at gunpoint. By 4am over 20 Greenwood buildings had burned to the ground. 

As Greenwood residents scrambled to protect their homes, or flee for their lives, rumours of a train of further black antagonists providing backup to the ‘black invasion of Tulsa’ spread through the white mob. At daybreak, after hours of fighting, the white mob (spurred by the sound of a train whistle) launched a new wave of violence on the Greenwood community. As residents fled, the white rioters shot indiscriminately into the crowds. Overhead private aircraft were dropping burning balls of turpentine onto the streets and homes below, and indiscriminately shooting black residents in the street. Witnesses describe at least a dozen aircraft attacking Greenwood from above while on the streets below the white mob were looting homes and driving residents out onto the street. 

History books written after the fact lacked any reference to, or information about, that night

It wasn’t until midday of 1 June 1st that martial law was declared. Over 4,000 black residents had been rounded up for detention, and thousands more had fled the city in fear for their lives. With an estimated 300 dead, and over 800 seriously injured, the damage was clear to see. 35 blocks of Greenwood had been completely destroyed.

Cover up, mass graves, and re-writing history.

In the decades following there was a considerable effort made to hide the massacre from the public eye. The inciting publications released on 31 May were removed from the bound editions of the newspapers, and public, police, and national guard records of the night were later found to be missing or incomplete. 

No ceremonies were held for the missing and dead residents of Greenwood, and even the name used by authorities (Greenwood Race Riot) was termed so that the onus was on the Greenwood residents - ensuring that they wouldn’t receive the financial compensation and insurance owed to them following the destruction of homes and businesses. 

History books written after the fact lacked any reference to, or information about, that night - and the massacre wasn’t taught in history classes until the early 00s. It was only in 2001 - 75 years after the events - that the Tulsa Race Riot commission was formed to fully investigate what transpired from May 30th-June 1st. The commission concluded that between 100 and 300 people were killed, and over 8,000 made homeless over the course of those 18 hours. 

To this day the survivors of the massacre and their families are yet to see any financial reparations made for the losses sustained that night, and the search for the mass unmarked graves of those killed that night is ongoing. The Greenwood area has endured, rebuilt, and continues to advocate for the rights of their community. Through education, oral and written history, and the strength of the community, the events of May 31st 1921 should not be forgotten.

Written by:

Jo Rowan