On May 31 and June 1, 1921, one of the worst instances of racial violence in American history erupted in Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Greenwood district. Better known as “Black Wall Street,” a white mob of domestic terrorists — similar to those who attempted to ransack the Capital this past January — inflicted two days of terror upon upwardly mobile Black Americans who had created independent lives for themselves.
Low-flying planes, machine guns, and the massive property destruction and hundreds of lives lost were among the ways the white establishment tried to implement its homegrown and unlawful display of racist vitriol towards Black people. For most Black Americans, the story became one of many that followed similar tales such as the 1923 Rosewood massacre, the 1906 Atlanta massacre, and the Colfax, Louisiana massacre that took place in 1873.
For decades throughout this 100-year-old sin and a shame, white America did all it could to erase the story from school lesson plans, including those in Oklahoma proper, and from history itself. It wasn’t until a few years ago in 2019 when the Emmy-winning HBO series Watchmen reignited interest in the little-known tragedy. Directed by Nicole Kassell, the inaugural episode called “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice,” it shot like war footage from Time, with lynch mobs looting Black businesses and shooting Black people right in the street.
While Watchmen served as the first major dramatization of an event that largely went ignored by American history and historians for nearly a century, there is much more to the story of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre and more truths continuing to be uncovered. Viola Fletcher, the 107-year-old survivor who recently testified before members of a House Judiciary subcommittee, was only 7 when she witnessed angry white mobs leaving her thriving neighborhood in ashes. “I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street,” Fletcher shared. “I still smell smoke and see fire,” Fletcher testified. “I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams. I have lived through the massacre every day.”
Of course, there is much more to the events of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. Timed to the centennial commemorations, here are five facts that you should know so you can share and inform others.
1. The financial toll of the massacre amounts to $27 million in today’s dollars
The Greenwood neighborhood in Tulsa was home to the majority of the city’s 10,000 Black residents, making it the second-largest Black American community in Oklahoma. It was also one of America’s wealthiest Black neighborhoods at the time. A library branch, two newspapers, four hotels, several barbershops, nine restaurants, and half a dozen professional offices of real estate agents, dentists and lawyers made up just a fraction of what became “Black Wall Street”.
The financial toll of the massacre is evident in the $1.8 million in property loss claims — $27 million in today’s dollars — and countless inheritances for Black families who would have no record or access to the wealth their ancestors created.
2. Dick Rowland did not cause the 1921—racism did
By now, the story has been cemented into the ethos: a young Black teenager named Dick Rowland entered an elevator at the Drexel Building, an office located on South Main Street. Accused of assaulting a white woman in an elevator, rumors escalated the confrontation into a courthouse debacle over his fate. A front-page story in the Tulsa Tribune falsely claimed that Rowland was arrested by police for sexually assaulting the white woman.
Similar to events in Rosewood and with Emmett Till, an angry white mob wanted to institute their own brand of justice. A group of Black World War I veterans offered to help guard and protect Rowland, but was turned away. This allowed some of the white mob to try (unsuccessfully) to break into the National Guard armory nearby. With rumors growing into a fervor — and a possible lynching — those same Black men would return to the courthouse, only to be met by some 1,500 white men with weapons, who were more incensed about the wealth and prosperity Black Americans had than the perceived “crime” against white fragility.
3. Tulsa was the first American city to be bombed by domestic terrorists
Time has made it hard to determine if the use of airplanes to bomb Black Americans and their businesses during the Tulsa massacre was the first such incident, but there is also no evidence to the contrary, particularly since flying at that time was in its infancy. Buck Colbert Franklin, a prominent Black lawyer and father to venerable civil rights advocate John Hope Franklin, defended survivors of the Tulsa race massacre and described the attacks by air in a 10-page, typewritten first-person account.
Discovered in 2015 and donated to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, Franklin’s assessment marks a direct moment when the state/local government turned a blind eye to such wartime methods being used on its own American citizens.
4. There was a concentrated effort to erase the Tulsa Race Massacre from history
Many Americans were alerted through pop culture and HBO’s Watchmen to the events of the Tulsa Race Massacre. This is simply because through the machinations of the American education and justice system, the Tulsa Race Massacre was simply intended to be not included in many school curriculums and history books that have been used over the last century. The Tulsa Tribune article — with the headline “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator” — accused Dick Rowland of assault, but ultimately Sarah Page, his accuser, did not wish to prosecute the case and Rowland was evidently dismissed.
No one would have ever learned about this since that Tulsa Tribune article was removed from bound volumes of the paper, and accounts of the incident were wiped from police and state militia archives. In the decades after the massacre, only Black Oklahomans were decrying the antagonistic and violent behavior, while Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the U.S. Federal Government all ignored the incident and never dedicated any public memorials or other events (until most recently) commemorating it.
In 1997, a full 76 years after the event, the government formed an official Race Riot Commission to investigate the details of the Tulsa Race Massacre. jJust last year, in 2020, an extensive curriculum on the massacre was finally provided to Oklahoma school districts.
5. Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street” is being revitalized and reactivated
With the 100th anniversary being commemorated, the city is finally reckoning with its history of racial violence. The 1921 Commission, which is led by Senator Kevin Matthews and local entrepreneur Phil Armstrong, has built a history center that cements the legacy of the community that once existed while placing a spotlight on the massacre that destroyed it.
In addition to that, the 1921 Commission also financially supported Black artists and entrepreneurs to revitalize “Black Wall Street,” and ensure the next generation knows and can grow from Tulsa’s blighted past. Companies such as Silhouette Sneakers & Art and the Greenwood Leadership Academy are examples of places that make it important for the past and the present to give way to a brighter Black future.