On the night of May 31, 1921, the town of Tulsa, Oklahoma was the site of a gruesome and intense racial extermination. The target of this attack was Greenwood, an affluent black neighbourhood that was seen as the pinnacle of black society at the time. Throughout the next few days, the black community in Greenwood was rounded up and placed in cells. That is if they weren’t murdered first.
How did this attack happen? Why did it happen? To answer those questions, a bit of context is needed for the time period.
Racial tensions in the US in the 1920s were very high. Segregation was in full swing and helped see to it that black and white communities were kept separate. Laws commonly referred to as the Jim Crow laws had already affected much of the black community in the South, as well as the North.
These laws were a culmination of efforts to control the black population. Quite a lot of the time, these laws would not single out African Americans themselves, but they would instead adversely affect them in roundabout ways. For instance, voting laws in some southern states would require voters to prove their literacy. If they were unable to do so, they were not allowed to vote.
African Americans in the South came from difficult educational backgrounds due to their generation (and their parent’s generations) being slaves. Because of this, a large majority of the black population could not prove their literacy to the extent necessary and were unable to vote. There are countless other examples of these types of roundabout, discriminatory laws.
Another prime example that is pertinent to this story is a practice known as “redlining”. In essence, redlining was a way in which neighbourhoods were graded according to their “risk factor” in relation to granting mortgages. As it turned out, most of the high-risk areas ended up being black neighbourhoods. In general, this forced white and black neighbourhoods to separate. Which is what happened to Greenwood.
The Greenwood District of Tulsa was a northern part of the city that’s population was predominantly black. The white citizens of Tulsa even referred to Greenwood as “Little Africa”. The thing about Greenwood, however, is that it was a very proud neighbourhood. The community there was dedicated to each other, and dedicated to bettering the neighbourhood.
Some Greenwood citizens worked for white businesses in other areas of Tulsa, but they spent their money in Greenwood. This was mainly due to the fact that African Americans were barred from entering white businesses. Greenwood was home to nearly exclusively black-owned businesses. With its citizens putting money back into the neighbourhood, Greenwood started to grow in wealth.
At one point, on Greenwood’s main street, Greenwood Avenue, there were black-owned movie theatres, candy shops, pharmacies, doctor’s offices, grocery stores, and more. Soon, Greenwood Avenue grew to such a height that it was referred to as “Black Wall Street” and known as the most affluent black community in the entire US. But this obviously didn’t sit right with the other Tulsans.
Even with all of this wealth, Greenwood wasn’t protected from persecution. That couldn’t be more evident than one of the main people in this story, Dick Rowland. Rowland was a shoe-shiner in the white part of Tulsa. Throughout his workday, he would frequently enter the Drexel building to use their “coloured” toilets.
The operator of this elevator, Sarah Page, was a young white woman. Supposedly, the two had seen each other multiple times throughout the time Rowland worked as a shoe-shiner. However, in one instance, while he was either leaving or entering the elevator, Rowland supposedly tripped and fell into Page. She screamed, and then accused him of trying to assault or rape her.
Rowland ran from the elevator and made his way back to Greenwood. When he returned home, he told his mother what happened, and she was instantly terrified. Because at this time, the KKK was very active in America, and black men had been killed for much less than what Rowland had been accused of.
The following day, Rowland was arrested and taken to the Tulsa courthouse to await trial. The story was picked up by the local newspapers almost instantly, but one, in particular, caused the main issues we will discuss in a moment.
The Tulsa Tribune ran an article about the story on the front page the day after Rowland was arrested. It was titled “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator”. The edition was pulled the same day, but not before enough people had read it to cause a mob to head towards the courthouse.
Outside the courthouse, hundreds of whites began gathering demanding that the sheriff turns over Rowland to the mob. Luckily for Rowland, the current county sheriff, Sheriff McCullough, refused because it was his opinion that the matter should be settled in court, not with mob violence. I say it’s lucky for Rowland because the previous sheriff did let a mob take a prisoner to be lynched.
Back in Greenwood, the newspaper story had reached its citizens as well. The news of the growing mob at the courthouse led a few of the more combat-oriented Greenwood residents (mostly veterans) to travel to the courthouse to make sure nothing happened to Rowland. They arrived fully armed and confronted the mob. At this point, it was a few hundred whites in the mob, with only a handful of black Tulsans. However, the black group had more weapons than the mob, so the mob didn’t dare attack them.
The Greenwood group approached the courthouse and spoke with Sheriff McCullough who assured them that no harm would come to Rowland, and it was probably best if they left the area because of the possible danger. The men left and went back to Greenwood. The crowd also started to leave, however, they weren’t going home. They were going to collect their weapons.
They soon returned with shotguns, rifles, pistols, and other types of weaponry. The mob also grew in size, now garnering thousands of whites, all armed in some way. News of a larger mob reached Greenwood and the same group went back to the courthouse.
This time when they arrived they were met with a huge group that was fully armed. But they still stood their ground. They approached the courthouse again but again reassured that no harm would come to Rowland.
The group then decided it was best to return to Greenwood, but as they tried to leave one of the old white men approached one of the black men, O. B. Mann. Mann had been a veteran in WWI. The white man demanded that Mann hand over his gun, which Mann quickly denied. The white man then lunged for the gun, and a struggle ensued, resulting in the gun being discharged. Which then resulted in all Hell being broken loose.
Once the first shot was fired, albeit accidentally, an enormous battle began. All of the whites began to fire on any black Tulsan they saw. Anyone left on the white side of Tulsa was fair game for the mob. Of the blacks killed on the white side of Tulsa was a young, skinny man who goes unnamed in all sources. He was shot by a barrage of bullets but survived.
As he lay dying on the ground, a group of white men approached him and began hacking at him with pocket knives. Doctors and medics tried to intervene but were pushed away by the mob as they continued stabbing the man to death as he called out for his mother.
The black community was fighting back as well, with many white casualties resulting from the first shots being fired. Once all of the black citizens had made it back to Greenwood, the battle started to turn in their favour.
While the white citizens tried to advance on Greenwood, the black community was fighting them off amazingly well. Many of the Greenwood men were veterans of WWI and knew how to handle a weapon. However, the police in the city began deputising any white man that wanted to fight, and the National Guard arrived to assist in what was being called a “race riot”. Planes were brought in to attack the citizens of Greenwood, which succeeded in pushing them back enough for the whites to get into Greenwood.
Once in Greenwood, the white men broke into every home and business, and either escorted the people inside outside or they shot them. Once the people were outside, the building was gutted of all its valuables and burned to the ground. This was done to every home and business in Greenwood until nothing was left standing.
The Greenwood residents were then placed in cages, and even when they were released, over 8,000 of the citizens were homeless and forced to live in tents.
It was decided that the world did not need to know about the Tulsa Race Massacre. Instead, it was thought that it would be better to cover the entire thing up. Documents were destroyed, including the original Tulsa Tribune article, and bodies were buried in mass graves. Soon, it was almost like it had not happened whatsoever. And all citizens knew that it was not something you spoke about in public.
The citizens of Greenwood had been beaten, but they wouldn’t stay down. Within about 10 years, the black community in Greenwood rebuilt the neighbourhood. However, segregation began to end soon thereafter, which allowed the black community to spend its money in white-owned stores. So the wealth began to spread out into further communities. This, unfortunately, led to the closing of a large majority of the main black-owned businesses in the town.
Although the massacre remained secret for many years, it has begun to slowly come to the light of day. There were investigations into the massacre that identified three possible mass burial sites. One of which has been exhumed and has indeed shown to be a mass grave of victims from the massacre. To this day, there are still further efforts to rebuild the area of Tulsa to its former glory.
It’s very telling that a neighbourhood was created and thrived because of the laws put in place to make it fail. Greenwood succeeded because of segregation, as well as the investment that the black community put into it. But, even that was too much for racist minds. Some people would rather see all of Greenwood burnt to the ground than to see it prosper, and no one could disagree that is truly unfortunate.
"The Burning" by Tim Madigan
Buy in the US: https://amzn.to/3k4jnGX
Buy in the UK: https://amzn.to/3dwgCgo