Monday marks the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, in which during an 18-hour period from May 31 to June 1 a mob of white citizens attacked black residents, and destroyed homes and businesses in the predominantly African American neighborhood of Greenwood. For decades, the oft-forgotten event was known as the Tulsa Race Riot.
“[F]or a number of observers through the years, the term ‘riot’ itself seems somehow inadequate to describe the violence and conflagration that took place,” say historians John Hope Franklin and Scott Ellsworth. “For some, what occurred in Tulsa on May 31 and June 1, 1921, was a massacre, a pogrom, or, to use a more modern term, an ethnic cleansing.”
Here is what you should know about one of the worst incidents of racial violence in U.S. history.
1. Newspapers inflamed a racially charged incident into an attempted lynching.
On May 30, a black teenager named Dick Rowland entered an elevator operated by a young white woman named Sarah Page. What happened in the elevator remains unclear, but Page screamed, and Rowland fled the scene. No record exists of what Page told the police, but Rowland was arrested the next morning. Newspaper reporting of the incident claimed that Rowland sexually assaulted Pate. The reporting inflamed white residents of Tulsa, and a crowd gathered in front of the Tulsa County Courthouse where Rowland was being held. The crowd demanded he be turned over, but the mob was rebuffed by the sheriff. By 9:30 p.m. the mob had grown to nearly 2,000 people. An estimated 5,000 to 10,000 white citizens would eventually participate in the riot.
2. The riot began with an attack on a black World War I veteran.
At 10 p.m. a group of several dozen armed African American men went to the courthouse. They offered to help the authorities protect Rowland but were refused. As they were leaving, a white man approached a black World War I veteran who was carrying an army-issue revolver. “N—,” the white man said, “What are you doing with that pistol?” “I’m going to use it if I need to,” the black veteran replied. The white man tried to take the gun away from the veteran, and a shot rang out. A firefight broke out and within minutes an unknown number of black and white Tulsans lay wounded or dead.
3. Black citizens were rounded up in internment centers—and were killed for resisting.
After the initial round of shooting, the black men retreated to the African American district, where they were pursued by white men. As many as 500 white men and boys were sworn in by police officers as “special deputies.” One police officer told the newly deputized, “Get a gun and get a n—.” Whites began gunning down African Americans who were found in the downtown area. By 1 p.m. they were setting fires to homes and businesses in the black community. These attacks and looting continued in the early morning and throughout the day. As historian Scott Ellsworth says, “armed whites broke into the black homes and businesses, forcing the occupants out into the street, where they were led away at gunpoint to one of a growing number of internment centers. Anyone who resisted was shot.”
4. Black citizens made a valiant attempt to protect themselves.
Black Tulsans made a valiant, though ultimately futile, effort to protect their homes and community. As one report notes, a group of black riflemen positioned themselves in the belfry of the newly built Mount Zion Baptist Church and were temporarily able to repel the white invaders. They had to fall back, though, after a barrage from a machine gun blasted the church (the church was set on fire soon after). These acts of self-defense were undercut by the Tulsa Police and the local National Guard unit, who focused on imprisoning African Americans rather than the white rioters. The Tulsa Fire Department was also stopped from putting out the fire by armed whites. The only black church that was not set on fire, the First Baptist Church, was spared from arson only because it was in a white neighborhood.
5. Nearly 9,000 black residents became homeless, and thousands had to spend the winter in tents.
Following the declaration of martial law for Tulsa County at 11:29 a.m. on June 1, Oklahoma state troops disarmed the remaining white people and turned them away from Greenwood. But by then the damage had been done. Approximately 40 square blocks of the African American community were destroyed (no fire damage was found in white areas). The offices of two newspapers and more than a dozen doctors, dentists, lawyers, real-estate agents, and other professionals were destroyed, along with dozens of family businesses, a YMCA, and a skating rink. The fires started in the riots also destroyed a post office, an elementary school, and nearly a half-dozen churches. According to a later Red Cross estimate, 1,256 houses were burned, and 215 others were looted but not torched. Altogether, the cost of the property damage was estimated as more than $48 million in 2021 dollars.
6. Between 39 and 300 people died in the massacre, and the white community blamed African Americans.
A minimum of 39 people died in the massacre. Credible evidence suggests that at least 75 to 100 people, both black and white, were killed. The man who directed the relief operations of the American Red Cross in Tulsa said in an official report that fatalities may have been as high as 300. As historian Scott Ellsworth notes, “Despite overwhelming evidence, no whites were ever sent to prison for the murders and arson that occurred.” Even after exonerating Rowland, an all-white grand jury blamed black Tulsans for the lawlessness.
7. The massacre all but ended lynching in Oklahoma.
Lynching is defined as a form of violence in which a mob, under the pretext of administering justice without trial, executes a presumed offender, often after inflicting torture and corporal mutilation. Statistics of reported lynchings in the U.S. indicate that, between 1882 and 1951, 4,730 persons were lynched, of whom 1,293 were white (27 percent) and 3,437 were black (73 percent). From the time Oklahoma became a state till the time of the riots, 32 people had been lynched, including 26 African Americans. But during the 20 years following the riot, the number of lynchings statewide fell to two. “Although they paid a terrible price for their efforts,” says Franklin and Ellsworth, “there is little doubt . . . black Tulsans helped to bring the barbaric practice of lynching in Oklahoma to an end.”
8. The massacre was mostly forgotten for half a century.
For almost 50 years after the massacre, there was a concerted effort to downplay or forget the atrocity. The newspaper that helped spark the riot, the Tulsa Tribune, removed the front-page story of May 31 from its bound volumes. State police and militia archives about the massacre also went missing. Oklahoma history textbooks published during the 1920s and 1930s did not mention the event at all. In 1941, the riot was finally mentioned in an Oklahoma history text but only in one brief paragraph. The massacre didn’t even receive much notice from scholars until the 1970s. And it wasn’t until 1997 that the Oklahoma legislature established the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Commission (in 2018 the panel was officially renamed the 1921 Race Massacre Commission).
9. A 107-year-old survivor of the massacre recently testified before Congress.
Earlier this month, on May 19, Viola Fletcher testified before Congress about the massacre.
“I am a survivor of the Tulsa race massacre,” Fletcher said. “Two weeks ago, I celebrated my 107th birthday. Today, I’m visiting Washington, D.C., for the first time in my life. I’m here seeking justice, and I’m asking my country to acknowledge what happened in Tulsa in 1921.”