The Tulsa Race Massacre (“Black Wall Street”)

In the 1920’s, segregation was a stark fact of life in the African American community. In spite of segregation African Americans established within their own community businesses and financial institutions. These entities enabled African Americans to participate in the larger economy while attempting to maneuver the suppressive character of segregation. This type of economic independence and progress in the African American community was often perceived by the white community as a threat. One of the most notorious episodes in American history where the threat escalated into acts of violence was the Tulsa, Oklahoma Massacre.   

History books report that the largest act of domestic terrorism in the United States was the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 which took 168 lives. However, the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 resulted in the death of over 200 people and over 10,000 left homeless by the destruction of 35 city blocks in a 48-hour period.  In the earliest days of the 20th Century, following the discovery of oil in Oklahoma, the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa flourished. It was home to several prominent black businesses, shops, and professional services. It eventually became known as “Black Wall Street.” Greenwood was considered the wealthiest African American neighborhood in the nation and a point of great pride for many, as it boasted a high school that taught chemistry and physics, a three-story hotel, and a silent movie theater with a live pianist.

The Tulsa Race Massacre began on Memorial Day weekend when a young black man (Dick Rowland) was falsely accused of assaulting a young white girl (Sarah Page) in an elevator. White mobs descended on the Greenwood district, shooting residents in their own front yards, dropping bombs from private aircraft overhead, looting stores, and burning the neighborhood to the ground. The Oklahoma National Guard was called up to end the massacre on June 1, 1921, although some guardsmen were accused of aiding the rioters. The charges against Dick Rowland were eventually dropped and Sarah Page recanted her assault claim. None of the rioters were ever held responsible for their actions. Residents of Greenwood began to rebuild, and the massacre seemed to disappear from the city’s and nation’s memory.

This year marks 100 years since that fateful event and, sad as it may be, it is also gratifying to see the stories of the Tulsa Race Riots being acknowledged. In August 2020, the last male survivor of the massacre, jazz saxophonist Hal Singer, passed away. Last summer, a team of archaeologists was granted permission to start digging to locate the reported mass grave sites. Also, in 2020, the massacre finally became part of the Oklahoma high school history curriculum.  

As we all attempt to learn from the past and avoid repeating its mistakes, we are thankful that this and many other similar stories are finally being told.

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These photographs depict before and after.