This week at In The Past Lane, the American History podcast, we take a look at one of the most deadly incidents of anti-black violence in US history: The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. White mobs rampaged through Tulsa, Oklahoma’s African American neighborhood and burned it to the ground, killing between 100 and 300 black residents in the process. The incident was quickly covered up and driven from public memory. But in the 1990s activists and scholars began to unearth the shocking truth.
Feature Story: The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921
On May 31, 1921 – 99 years ago this week – mobs of heavily armed white residents of Tulsa, Oklahoma rampaged through the city’s African-American district named Greenwood. They stole property, set fire to buildings, and indiscriminately killed black men, women, and children. When it was over, this pogram known as the Tulsa Race Massacre left between 100 and 300 people dead and 35 blocks in smoldering ruins. It was one of the single most deadly incidents of racist violence in American history. And yet, it was quickly driven from public memory.
The years between the end of World War I in 1918 and the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921 were marked by many incidents of extreme anti-black violence. This surge in violence was due to many factors. The end of World War I brought a massive strike wave as millions of workers walked off the job. Fear of socialism, communism, and anarchism surged as the nation plunged into one of its periodic Red Scares. Also contributing to the social tension was the fact that millions of African-Americans had in the previous decade moved to northern cities, part of what historians referred to as the Great Migration. Chicago’s black population, for example, jumped from 44,000 in 1910 to 110,000 in 1920. And on top of this, the Ku Klux Klan had re-emerged in 1915 as a vibrant national organization that by the mid-1920s would have 5 million members. Each of these trends contributed to surging anti-black racism that led to many incidents of violence against African-American individuals and neighborhoods.
In 1919 alone, there were 25 major anti-black riots in the US. One of the worst took place in Chicago in July 1919 that left 38 dead. There were also 76 African Americans lynched in the South in 1919, including ten black soldiers who had returned from active duty in World War I.
Up until May of 1921 Tulsa, Oklahoma had been relatively peaceful. But it was an oil-rich city of 72,000 that was strictly segregated. In fact, when Oklahoma was admitted to the union in 1907, the very first laws passed by the state legislature imposed segregation and disenfranchisement upon its black population. Despite these laws and a climate of racial hostility, Tulsa’s African-American population was one of the most prosperous In the United States. In fact, the Greenwood section of Tulsa where most African-Americans lived, was nicknamed the Negro Wall Street. It was filled with thriving black-owned businesses ranging from barbershops and retails stores to law firms and doctor’s offices. Many white citizens of Tulsa resented this black economic success.
And it was this resentment that escalated the situation on May 31, 1921. Like so many incidents of anti-black racial violence in US history, this one began with an incident involving a black male and a white female. On May 30, a 17-year-old girl named Sarah Page, who operated an elevator in downtown Tulsa, accused 19-year-old Dick Rowland of assaulting her. Rowland was taken into custody and brought to the local courthouse. The next day, partly inspired by an inflammatory article about the incident in the local newspaper, a large crowd of angry white men gathered outside the courthouse. It was a scene that was a typical prelude to a lynching. Not surprisingly, rumors that Rowland was about to be lynched raced through the black community, prompting a large group of armed black men to arrive at the courthouse. A standoff ensued, and then shots rang out. Which side fired first remains an unanswered question. Both sides exchanged gunfire before dispersing. The clash left 12 killed, 10 white and two black.
Immediately word of the incident spread throughout the city. Within an hour, large crowds of heavily armed white men gathered. It was clear what they were planning to do. And yet, the city’s police force did nothing to stop them. In fact, research would later show that police officials handed out weapons to members of the mob and that many also joined in as it descended upon the black community in Greenwood.
As the attack began, many African-Americans managed to flee the district. But many were trapped and murdered by the mob. Some were shot and others stabbed, and still others were consumed by the flames set by arsonists. Members of the mob also looted homes and businesses before setting them on fire. The violence lasted all night and into the morning hours of June 1. It ended only when a large contingent of the Oklahoma National Guard arrived to impose martial law. Some 35 blocks of Greenwood were completely destroyed. Damages were estimated at $2.25 million, the equivalent of $32 million in 2020.
Adding insult to injury, local officials and national guardsmen rounded up nearly every African American in the city and placed them in hastily constructed detention camps. All were treated as perpetrators, rather than innocent victims. Some were held for weeks before being released.
And then there was the death toll. The official death toll was 36 African Americans killed. But African-American leaders at the time claimed the number was significantly higher, well over 100 and perhaps as high as 300. They also claimed that white officials, in an effort to cover up the enormity of the massacre, had hastily buried hundreds of black victims in a mass grave.
And the cover up worked. The staggering death toll, along with the city’s complicity in allowing the massacre to take place, were soon purged from public memory. At least white public memory. African-Americans certainly didn’t forget the trauma and loss, but in this era of Jim Crow, they were powerless, unable to obtain any justice or public recognition of the incident.
And it stayed that way for 75 years. The city of Tulsa never put up a historic plaque or memorial. Its school children never learned about the incident in their history classes. And the nation remained ignorant of this monstrous event.
But the silence about the Tulsa Race Massacre began to break in the 1990s as African-Americans gained more political power and begin to push for a full inquiry into the incident. In 1996, The 75th anniversary of the massacre, the state legislature created the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.
Note the title of the commission: it referred to the incident as the Tulsa Race Riot. This misnaming was significant and intentional. Nearly every massacre of African-Americans by white mobs in American history has been labeled a “race riot,” a name that suggests an equal culpability between violent whites and violent blacks attacking each other. But in every case, these so-called race riots Involved black communities being attacked by white mobs. Not surprisingly, as a more accurate and complete picture emerged of what occurred in Tulsa and other sites of anti-black violence, these incidents have been renamed to reflect what they really were: massacres.
The commission worked for five years, taking testimony and funding research into the massacre. In 2001, it released its official report. Among its many findings, the commission declared that Tulsa’s political leaders had conspired with the leaders of the mob to allow the massacre to unfold without any resistance by law enforcement. It also recommended that reparations be paid to any survivors and their descendants. City and state officials balked at the call for reparations, but the state did establish scholarships for descendants of victims and survivors of the massacre. It also provided funding for historical markers and a memorial park that was completed in 2010. More recently, just a few months ago, the story of the Tulsa Race Massacre was made on official part of the state of Oklahoma’s public school curriculum.
And the search for the truth about what actually happened and how many people were murdered that day continues. Just a few months ago, researchers announced that they had found several sites in Tulsa that appear to contain mass graves. Plans are in the works to excavate the sites to determine if they contain victims of the 1921 massacre. If they do, it will likely clarify the true death toll.
Finally, the Tulsa Race Massacre drew renewed interest this year when it was featured as the starting point for HBO’s hit TV series, “Watchmen.”
So what else of note happened this week in US history?
May 25, 1787 – The Constitutional Convention officially opened in Philadelphia with 55 delegates in attendance, including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and James Madison. Over the next four months, they drafted a new Constitution for the United States to replace the initial Articles of Confederation which had been deemed weak and ineffective.
May 25, 1977 – the blockbuster film “Star Wars” opened in theaters.
May 26, 1924 – President Calvin Coolidge signed the National Origins Act that sharply restricted immigration for the next 40 years. It not only shrank the volume of immigration from as many as 1 million immigrants per year to about 200,000, the law also intentionally discriminated against undesirable immigrant groups like Jews and Italians. It was replaced by a more equitable immigration law in 1965.
May 30, 1922 – The Lincoln Memorial was dedicated in Washington DC.
And what notable people were born this week in American history?
May 26, 1895 – photographer Dorothea Lange. Her most famous photograph is Migrant Mother, which captured the desperate face of a struggling mother and her children during the Great Depression.
May 26, 1926 – jazz trumpeter Miles Davis
May 27, 1794 – railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt.
May 27, 1819 – poet and author Julia Ward Howe who is best known for writing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” during the Civil War.
May 27, 1907 – writer and marine biologist Rachel Carson who helped launch the modern environmental movement with her book, Silent Spring.
May 29, 1917 – 35th POTUS John F. Kennedy
May 31, 1819 – poet Walt Whitman
The Last Word
Let’s give it to Walt Whitman, who was born 201 years ago this week.
In his preface to his masterful collection of poems, Leaves of Grass, Whitman urged his readers to free themselves of ideas, conventions, and traditions that suppressed their true selves.
“re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”
For more information about the In The Past Lane podcast, head to our website, www.InThePastLane.com
Music for This Episode
Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (JayGMusic.com)
The Joy Drops, “Track 23,” Not Drunk (Free Music Archive)
Sergey Cheremisinov, “Gray Drops” (Free Music Archive)
Pictures of the Flow, “Horses” (Free Music Archive)
Ondrosik, “Tribute to Louis Braille” (Free Music Archive)
Alex Mason, “Cast Away” (Free Music Archive)
Squire Tuck, “Nuthin’ Without You” (Free Music Archive)
Ketsa, “Multiverse” (Free Music Archive)
Ketsa, “Memories Renewed” (Free Music Archive)
Dana Boule, “Collective Calm” (Free Music Archive)
Borrtex, “Motion” (Free Music Archive)
Ondrosik, “Breakthrough” (Free Music Archive)
Cuicuitte, “sultan cintr” (Free Music Archive)
Blue Dot Sessions, “Pat Dog” (Free Music Archive)
Jon Luc Hefferman, “Winter Trek” (Free Music Archive)
The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)
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