I grew up white in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with a doctor father and a homemaker mother. As a child, I was mostly unaware of social justice issues and thought life in my town was pretty good. Known as the Oil Capital of the World in the 1940s, Tulsa had a booming economy, which drew my father to set up a medical practice there. At the fairgrounds, an enormous gold oilman, “the Golden Driller,” announced Tulsa’s dominance in the oil and gas industry.
The people I knew didn’t seem to think it was strange that my neighborhood, schools, and church were all white, so neither did I. I thought my neighborhood was diverse, because Dr. Lee, who was of Chinese descent, and his family lived on our block. Race and class sheltered me from the cruelest parts of living in the United States. Except for the assassination of President Kennedy, events that changed the country or the world mostly passed by without my noticing: Brown v. Board of Education, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the military build-up in Southeast Asia.
Growing up, I never heard anyone mention that Tulsa was home to the largest, deadliest race massacre in the history of the US. I never visited Northeast Tulsa where the vast majority of Black people lived and the site of the 1921 Greenwood Massacre. I was mostly oblivious to how race and class functioned in my hometown.
I didn’t visit Greenwood until 2009, when I was in Tulsa to see my mother. I had begun reading about the massacre and decided I should at least drive by the area where it took place. Making my way through downtown and over to Greenwood, the first thing I noticed was the federal highway cutting right through the neighborhood. Destroyed by the massacre in 1921, the area was rebuilt and destroyed again by urban renewal and a highway in the 1960s. Today, there is a small business district that survived the massacre, a nice new Greenwood Cultural Center, and a campus of Oklahoma State University, but little of the once-thriving neighborhood.
I continued to think seriously about race and decided to attend the opening weekend of the EJI (Equal Justice Initiative) lynching memorial and slavery museum in Mobile, Alabama in 2018. I walked through the open-air memorial reading the names of counties and victims engraved on six-foot-tall steel monoliths suspended from the ceiling. I tried to keep breathing. Each one of the 800 monoliths represents an instance of racial terror and a lynching. Wondering when justice would ever come for Black people in this country, I turned to leave, looked up, and noticed the monolith that said, “Tulsa County, Oklahoma.”
I stood in stunned silence, feeling puzzled. I knew about the 1921 massacre in Tulsa that left dozens dead and hundreds homeless, when a mob of white men clashed with Black men on the courthouse lawn and proceeded to destroy Greenwood, thirty-five blocks of a vibrant community with homes, businesses, theaters, restaurants, hotels, churches, and more.
The violence had been set off by an incident between a young Black man, Dick Rowland, and a white elevator operator. He probably bumped into her by accident, but he was charged with rape and arrested. Angry white men gathered on the courthouse lawn. Concerned that Rowland might be lynched, a crowd of Black men gathered also. Someone fired a shot and by the next day, 35 blocks of Greenwood had been looted and destroyed. Whole families fled for their lives and never came back. Others were rounded up by police and national guardsmen and detained. Some of the murdered were buried in unmarked graves. We still don’t know the death toll.
It was horrible, but I had not thought of it as a lynching. Calling the white looters and killers a lynch mob seemed peculiar, so I looked up the word “lynch.” There I discovered that lynch refers to a mob that kills someone, especially by hanging, for an alleged offense with or without a legal trial. The killing and massive destruction in Tulsa fit the definition, and fit into a history of white people attacking and destroying Black communities in this country. Greenwood had been so prosperous that it was called Black Wall Street (just like Durham, NC).
As I watched a violent mob attack the US Capitol on January 6 this year, it occurred to me that they looked like a lynch mob. Some carried Confederate flags, and some said they wanted to lynch Vice President Pence for not overturning the 2020 presidential election results. The mob killed one Capitol Police Officer, and others died from their injuries. We can only imagine what the mob might have done had they gotten their hands on senators, representatives, or the vice president.
The attack on the Capitol also reminded me of the white supremacist group that overthrew the democratically elected government of Wilmington, NC in 1898. A mob of white men, including future North Carolina governors, business leaders, and white newspaper owners, staged a coup and threw out a biracial city council that had been elected by a fusion coalition. After burning the Black newspaper building and running prominent Black people out of town at gunpoint, they installed a white city government more to their liking.
When Black communities did well or when Black and white people cooperated politically, whites sometimes responded with violence. Tulsa and Wilmington are only two of the many US cities in which a violent white mob attacked a Black community.
No one was ever punished for crimes committed in Tulsa or in Wilmington. No Black people were ever compensated for the loss of life, property, or future earnings. Tulsa even made it hard for Black people to rebuild. The white people tried to pass an ordinance saying buildings had to be rebuilt with brick, because wooden houses were dangerous. What was dangerous was white hatred of Black success and a legal system that tuned a blind eye to violence against Black people.
Postscript: To learn more about the Tulsa massacre please check out the following resources:
TULSA MASSACRE 1921 RESOURCES
Smithsonian Magazine, April 2021: “Remembering Tulsa“.
The New York Times, May 24, 2021: “What the Tulsa Race Massacre Destroyed,” includes an amazing mapping project of Greenwood.
The Atlantic, May 24, 2021: “How 24 Hours of Racist Violence Caused Decades of Harm.”
NPR, May 24, 2021: “A Century After the Race Massacre, Tulsa Confronts Its Bloody Past.”
*PBS documentary, Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten, will premiere on Monday, May 31, at 9:00 pm.
*An older PBS documentary can be viewed on the PBS website: The Tulsa Lynching of 1921: A Hidden Story (2000)
The History Channel, Tulsa Burning, will premiere on Sunday, May 30, 8:00 pm.
A few more films:
*Black Wall Street Burning
*Resurrecting Black Wall Street (2015)
Website with lots of info:
Tulsa Race Massacre via History.com
Sources from History.com:
*James S. Hirsch, Riot and Remembrance: The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002).
*Scott Ellsworth, “Tulsa Race Riot,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture.
*1921 Tulsa Race Riot, Tulsa Historical Society & Museum.
*Nour Habib, “Teachers talk about how black history is being taught in Oklahoma schools today,” Tulsa World (February 24, 2015).
*Sam Howe Verhovek, “75 Years Later, Tulsa Confronts Its Race Riot,” New York Times (May 31, 1996).
Books by Scott Ellsworth:
*Ellsworth, Scott. Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982).
*Ellsworth, Scott. The Ground Breaking: An American City and Its Search for Justice (May 2021)
More Books :
*Parrish, Mary E. Jones, The Nation Must Awake: My Witness to the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 [originally published as Events of the Tulsa Disaster] (San Antonio, Texas: Trinity University Press, 2021) Introduction by John Hope Franklin and Scott Ellsworth. Eyewitness statements compiled by Mary Parrish who survived the Tulsa race massacre of 1921.
*Evans, Angela, Community in Contrast and Through the Lens of Change (Tulsa People, June 2017).
*Franklin, Jimmie Lewis. Journey Toward Hope: A History of Blacks in Oklahoma (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982).
*Franklin, John Hope and Scott Ellsworth, eds. The Tulsa Race Riot: A Scientific, Historical and Legal Analysis (Oklahoma City: Tulsa Race Riot Commission, 2000)
*Gates, Eddie Faye, They Came Searching: How Blacks Sought the Promised Land in Tulsa (Eddie Faye Gates, 1997).
*Gates, Eddie Faye, Riot on Greenwood: The Total Destruction of Black Wall Street (Austin, TX: Eakin Press, 2003).
*Gerkin, Steve, “ Hidden History of Tulsa “ (The History Press, 2014 )
*Hower, Robert N. “Angels of Mercy”: The American Red Cross and the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot (Tulsa, OK: Homestead Press, 1993)
*Johnson, Hannibal B. “Apartheid in Indian Country?” Seeing Red over Disenfranchisement (Eakin Press, 2012) *Johnson, Hannibal B. “ From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District”, (Eakin Press, 1999)
*Johnson, Hannibal B. “ Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District “ ( Images of America ) , 2014
*”Tulsa Race Riot: A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.” Oklahoma Commission to the Study of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, February 28, 2001
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF OKLAHOMA HISTORY AND CULTURE:
*Ellsworth, Scott. “Tulsa Race Riot“
*O’Dell, Larry. “All-Black Towns,” “Ku Klux Klan,” “Senate Bill One“
*Reese, Linda. “Freedmen“
*Smallwood, James M. “Segregation“