Before the Tulsa Race Massacre where the city’s Black district of Greenwood was attacked by a white mob, resulting in two days of bloodshed and destruction, the area had been considered one of the most affluent African American communities in the United States for the early part of the 20th century.
The massacre, which began on May 31, 1921 and left hundreds of Black residents dead and 1,000 houses destroyed, often overshadows the history of the venerable Black enclave itself. Greenwood District, with a population of 10,000 at the time, had thrived as the epicenter of African American business and culture, particularly on bustling Greenwood Avenue, commonly known as Black Wall Street.
Developed on Indian Territory
Founded in 1906, Greenwood was developed on Indian Territory, the vast area where Native American tribes had been forced to relocate, which encompasses much of modern-day Eastern Oklahoma. Some African Americans who had been former slaves of the tribes, and subsequently integrated into tribal communities, acquired allotted land in Greenwood through the Dawes Act, a U.S. law that gave land to individual Native Americans. And many Black sharecroppers fleeing racial oppression relocated to the region as well, in search of a better life post-Civil War.
“Oklahoma begins to be promoted as a safe haven for African Americans who start to come particularly post emancipation to Indian Territory,” says Michelle Place, executive director of the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum.
The largest number of Black townships after the Civil War were located in Oklahoma. Between 1865 and 1920, African Americans founded dozens of Black townships and settlements in the region.
O.W. Gurley, a wealthy Black landowner, purchased 40 acres of land in Tulsa, naming it Greenwood after the town in Mississippi.
Built ‘For Black People, by Black People’
“Gurley is credited with having the first Black business in Greenwood in 1906,” says Hannibal Johnson, author of Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District. “He had a vision to create something for Black people by Black people.”
Gurley started with a boarding house for African Americans. Then word began to spread about opportunities for Black people in Greenwood and they flocked to the district.
“O.W. Gurley would actually loan money to people who wanted to start a business,” says Kristi Williams, vice chair of the African American Affairs Commission in Tulsa. “They actually had a system where someone who wanted to own a business could get help in doing that.”
Other prominent Black entrepreneurs followed suit. J.B. Stradford, born into slavery in Kentucky, later becoming a lawyer and activist, moved to Greenwood in 1898. He built a 55-room luxury hotel bearing his name, the largest Black-owned hotel in the country. An outspoken businessman, Stradford believed that black people had a better chance of economic progress if they pooled their resources.
Greenwood Became Self-Contained and Reliant
A.J. Smitherman, a publisher whose family moved to Indian Territory in the 1890s, founded the Tulsa Star, a Black newspaper headquartered in Greenwood that became instrumental in establishing the district’s socially-conscious mindset. The newspaper regularly informed African Americans about their legal rights and any court rulings or legislation that were beneficial or harmful to their community.
Demands for equal rights were an ongoing mission for Black Americans in Tulsa despite Jim Crow oppression. Greenwood itself had a railway track running through it that separated the Black and white populations. Consequently, Gurley and Stradford’s vision of having a self-contained and self-reliant Black economy came to be not only by desire but by logistics.
“As a practical matter they had no choice as to where to locate their businesses,” said Johnson. “Tulsa was rigidly segregated, and Oklahoma became increasingly racist after statehood.”
On Greenwood Avenue, there were luxury shops, restaurants, grocery stores, hotels, jewelry and clothing stories, movie theaters, barbershops and salons, a library, pool halls, nightclubs and offices for doctors, lawyers and dentists. Greenwood also had its own school system, post office, a savings and loan bank, hospital, and bus and taxi service.
Greenwood was home to far less affluent African Americans as well. A significant number still worked in menial jobs, such as janitors, dishwashers, porters, and domestics. The money they earned outside of Greenwood was spent within the district.
“It is said within Greenwood every dollar would change hands 19 times before it left the community,” said Place.
A Time of Racial Violence
It wasn’t long before the affluent African Americans attracted the attention of local white residents, who resented the upscale lifestyle of people they deemed to be an inferior race.
“I think the word jealousy is certainly appropriate during this time,” says Place. “If you have particularly poor whites who are looking at this prosperous community who have large homes, fine furniture, crystals, china, linens, etc., the reaction is ‘they don't deserve that.’”
With the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, Black residents in Greenwood feared racial violence and the removal of their voting rights. The Oklahoma Supreme Court for years routinely upheld the state’s restrictions on voting access for African Americans, subjecting them to the poll tax and literacy tests. And lynchings proliferated across the country, particularly during the Red Summer of 1919, where anti-Black riots erupted in major cities across the United States, including Tulsa.
In response, The Tulsa Star encouraged Black residents to take up arms and to show up at courthouses and jails to make sure Black people who were on trial were not taken and killed by white lynch mobs.
Accusation of Sexual Assault Ignites Riots
But the heightened racial animosity in Tulsa erupted in 1921 when 19-year-old Dick Rowland, a Black shoe shiner was accused of attempted sexual assault of a 17-year-old white elevator operator named Sarah Page. When an angry white mob went to the courthouse to demand that the sheriff hand over Rowland, the sheriff refused. A group of about 25 armed Black men—including many World War I veterans‐then went to the courthouse to offer help guarding Rowland.
As word of a possible lynching spread, a group of around 75 armed Black men returned to the courthouse, where they were met by some 1,500 whites. After clashes between the groups, the Black men retreated to Greenwood.
Mobs of armed, white men then descended on Greenwood, looting homes, burning down businesses and shooting Black residents dead on the spot.
With millions in property damage and no help from the city, the rebuilding of Greenwood began almost immediately, thanks to the assistance of the NAACP, other Black townships in Oklahoma, donations from Black churches and a resilient Greenwood community. However, some businesses like the Tulsa Star newspaper were permanently shuttered in the wake of the violence.
The Greenwood District still exists today but after decades of urban renewal and integration the area’s demographics and businesses resemble little of its storied past.
Tulsa Race Massacre
During the Tulsa Race Massacre, which occurred over 18 hours from May 31 to 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, for a period, remained 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.
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.
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.”
May 31, 1921
June 1, 1921
- 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 J. B. A. 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, more than 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 order to understand the Tulsa Race Massacre it is important to understand the complexities of the times. Dick Rowland, Sarah Page and an unknown gunman were the sparks that ignited a long smoldering fire. Jim Crow, jealousy, white supremacy, and land lust, all played roles in leading up to the destruction and loss of life on May 31 and June 1, 1921.