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The Tulsa race massacre

In 1921, Tulsa had the wealthiest Black neighbourhood in the country. Many called it the ‘Black Wall Street’. But all that was about to change.

Background

White residents had been disturbed by the growing Black wealth in Greenwood, an African American neighbourhood in the Oklahoma city, and sought to impose official segregation measures.

In 1914, the city passed a law that forbade anyone from living on a block where more than three-quarters of the preexisting residents were of another race. In isolation, Greenwood only thrived more. Its main strip boasted attorneys’ offices, auto shops, cafes, a movie theatre, funeral homes, pool halls, beauty salons, grocery stores, furriers and confectioneries.

One entrepreneur built an elegant 54-room hotel, likely the largest ever owned by a black person in pre-Civil Rights America. Crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling in the banquet hall. Its owner, J.B. Stradford, had been born into enslavement.

The spark

It’s not exactly clear what happened, but the best guess is that on Monday 30 May, Memorial Day, a Black teenager named Dick Rowland accidentally tripped against a lift operator, a white 17-year-old named Sarah Page, while heading to use a Blacks-only restroom on the fourth-floor of the city’s Drexel Building, causing her to scream.

A bystander who heard the scream called the police, and very quickly the story grew ever more inflammatory with each retelling.

Gunfight

Rowland was soon arrested and held at the county court house. To prevent what could be a possible lynching, a few Black World War I veterans from the Greenwood district (where much of the African American community was concentrated) armed themselves in front of the courthouse, which was surrounded by a crowd of whites.

A group of white men approached the Black veterans and one allegedly said: “N****r, what are you going to do with that pistol?”

“I’m going to use it if I need to,” the Black man is said to have replied.

A struggle ensued as the white men tried to disarm the man holding the gun. Whether deliberately or by accident, the gun went off. All hell broke loose, unleashing running gunfights all the way to Greenwood.

White rage

When the two groups got to Greenwood, the group of whites — which had grown in number – began firing indiscriminately. Black people were shot in the streets, and some were dragged behind cars with nooses tied around their necks. Their houses and businesses were looted and burned down. Greenwood residents fired back, and there were white casualties as well. However, the white mob was larger and better armed.

Aerial attack

Buildings were also set alight, many as a result of at least a dozen planes flying overhead dropping bottles of gasoline on the properties below.

“The Negro uprising”

Despite the bulk of the violence being committed by white mobs, the head of the Tulsa police declared it a “Negro uprising” as he formally requested support from the National Guard. The police stood by as Greenwood burnt.

National Guard and wounded during 1921 Tulsa race riots.

Mass arrests

Over 6,000 Black residents were detained by the National Guard, many of them for more than a week. Upon release, these residents were homeless.

Culpability

An official investigation was finally held in 2001 and it concluded:

“Tulsa [authorities] failed to take action to protect against the riot. More important, city officials deputized men right after the riot broke out. Some of those deputies — probably in conjunction with some uniformed police officers — were responsible for some of the burning of Greenwood.”

The report concluded that the City of Tulsa owed reparations to the survivors of the massacre and their descendants. Those reparations have yet to be paid.

An African-American man with a camera looking at the skeletons of iron beds which rise above the ashes of a burned-out block after the Tulsa Race Massacre, Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 1921. (Photo by Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty Images)

Aftermath

There is no accurate figure for the number of casualties, but it is believed to have been in the hundreds. Historian Tim Madigan has described the Tulsa riot as: “Tulsa the deadliest domestic American outbreak since the Civil War.”

Dr. Andrew Jackson, arguably the most skilled surgeon in the country, was killed on the night of 31 May 1921.

Newpaper clipping
Newspaper clipping from the Tulsa Tribune, 1 June 1921

Thirty-five blocks of Greenwood were razed that night. The Black Wall Street had been reduced to rubble. 1,256 homes and 191 businesses were destroyed, while 10,000 black people were left homeless.

In the equivalent of 2016 numbers, more than $30 million worth of property damage was sustained. Greenwood was uninhabitable.

To make matters worse, the Tulsa Real Estate Exchange attempted to make it prohibitively expensive to rebuild Greenwood. A founder of Tulsa named W. Tate Brady — also a Klansman — had taken control of the Exchange, and devised a plan to relocate Black residents even further away from the city centre.

Fightback

But residents refused to give in. Buck Colbert Franklin took the case to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which declared the city’s efforts to forestall redevelopment unconstitutional.

Tulsa’s Black population set about rebuilding, and it held on for a few more decades. But Greenwood was never the same. In the 1970s, much of it was levelled to make room for a highway.