In the 1910s, Tulsa Oklahoma enjoyed an economic boom thanks to the discovery of oil. Many local African-Americans prospered. Most black citizens of racially segregated Tulsa lived in the Greenwood neighborhood which had its own stores, shops, hotels, banks, newspapers, schools, theaters, and restaurants. Greenwood had several very wealthy black entrepreneurs and was sometimes referred to as the “Black Wall Street”.
In 1921, membership in the KKK was rapidly spreading throughout the USA and Tulsa had an especially active chapter.
A riot was triggered over Memorial Day weekend by a report in the two white newspapers that a black youth had tried to rape, or at least assault, a young white female elevator operator. One of the newspapers editorialized that the young man should be hanged. Rumors raced through the black community that a lynch mob was planning to hang the kid.
As the news spread throughout the city, thousands of white people rampaged through the Greenwood, killing men, women and children, burning and looting stores and homes. Tulsa police joined the mob; a machine gun was used to kill blacks and an airplane dropped dynamite on the Greenwood community. Black people were dragged through the streets, many were lynched. When the National Guard finally arrived, they arrested the blacks instead of white rioters. 5,000+ black citizens were held in jail for weeks before being released. Zero white people were arrested.
35 square blocks of Greenwood were burned to the ground, wiping out businesses and homes. 300 black people and 20 whites were killed.
Despite promises of help, Tulsa did nothing to support those who lost their homes and jobs. Most support came from other black communities and a few sympathetic white people.
Today, a freeway cuts right through the middle of Greenwood. The city’s sidewalks are lined with hundreds of plaques that each lists the name of a business that was destroyed in the riot and if it was rebuilt. Most were not. It is home to a new baseball stadium, and several new luxury condominium buildings.
In 2001, Oklahoma, the state, not the landmark Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, passed legislation to establish some scholarships for descendants of survivors of the riots, plus funds to encourage economic development of Greenwood, along with a memorial park to the victims which was dedicated in 2010.
A taboo subject in Tulsa for decades, THE TULSA RACE RIOTS OF 1921 was not taught in Oklahoma Public School State History curriculum until 2016.
A century later, the city of Tulsa plans to dig for suspected mass graves that may have been used to dispose of African-American bodies from the riots.
The Mass Graves Investigation Public Oversight Committee, overseeing the search, have agreed that Tulsa will conduct “limited excavations” to determine whether ground-penetrating radar shows that it contains human remains in a newly discovered pit in the city limits. The work started in June 2020.
The are the three known survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre: Hughes Van Ellis, 100; Lessie Benningfield Randle, 106, known in the Tulsa Black community as “Mother Randle”; and Viola Fletcher, who at 107, is the oldest living survivor. The survivors and their descendants are part of a lawsuit against the city of Tulsa seeking reparations for the destruction of the city’s once thriving Black district.
Reparations for Black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved and for other racial discrimination has been debated in the USA since slavery ended in 1865. Now they are being discussed by colleges and universities with ties to slavery and by local governments looking to make payments to Black residents amid the ongoing national reckoning over the murder of George Floyd a year ago.
Oklahoma’s Republican Governor, Kevin Stitt, recently signed a bill that prohibits the teaching of certain race concepts in public schools.