The Tulsa Race Massacre: Facts About the Attacks and the Coverup

The Tulsa Race Massacre: Facts About the Attacks and the Coverup



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The Tulsa Race Massacre stands out as one of the worst acts of racial violence in American history—and, for decades, it remained one of the least known. Over the course of 18 hours, from May 31 to June 1, 1921, a white mob attacked residents, homes and businesses in the predominantly Black Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma. News reports were largely squelched for decades, despite the fact that hundreds of people were killed and thousands were left homeless.

Read an overview of the Tulsa Race Massacre here.

Watch the full episode of Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre online here.

Black Wall Street Had Flourished as a Self-Contained Hub

The violence in Tulsa in 1921 claimed more than lives, it also decimated 35 blocks of what had been a bustling, self-contained hub in the city's Greenwood District, commonly known as Black Wall Street.

African Americans had relocated to the region after the Civil War as Oklahoma became known as a safe haven for African Americans. Between 1865 and 1920, African Americans founded dozens of Black townships and settlements in the region. Soon the Greenwood neighborhood that was “built for Black people, by Black people” was thriving.

Learn more about Black Wall Street here.

The Black Entrepreneurs Who Developed Greenwood

African Americans in Tulsa pooled their resources and built wealth to foster successful businesses in the self-contained Greenwood neighborhood amid Jim Crow discrimination.

Among the early entrepreneurs was O.W. Gurley, who purchased 40 acres of land on the north side of Tulsa and opened a rooming house and provided loans to help other Black people start their own businesses. J.B. Stradford opened a luxury hotel that was considered the largest Black-owned hotel in the country, with 54 guest suites, a pool hall, saloon and dining room. Meanwhile, A.J. Smitherman founded the Tulsa Star newspaper, a Black newspaper based in Greenwood.

Read about these Greenwood entrepreneurs and others here.

Forces Behind Greenwood's Success—And Demise

The Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma was a thriving city within a city—a symbol of pride, success and wealth. The massacre beginning on May 31, 1921 was sparked after a 19-year-old Black man allegedly offended a 17-year-old white female elevator attendant and the story became drummed up in local newspaper reports. Track the forces hellbent on Greenwood's demise. And listen to descendants of those directly affected by the massacre reflect on how their lives and families were forever transformed.

Listen to ‘Blindspot: Tulsa Burning’ from The HISTORY® Channel and WNYC Studios here.

Before and After the Massacre

In May 2021, 107-year-old Viola Fletcher testified before Congress about the events of May 31, 1921: “I went to bed in my family’s home in Greenwood," she recounted. “The neighborhood I fell asleep in that night was rich, not just in terms of wealth, but in culture…and heritage. My family had a beautiful home. We had great neighbors. I had friends to play with. I felt safe. I had everything a child could need. I had a bright future.”

Then, she said, came the rampage, still vivid in her mind 100 years later: “I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams."

WATCH: The full episode of Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre online now.









See photos of Tulsa, before and after the 1921 attack here.

The Role of Airplanes in the Tulsa Race Massacre

When martial law was declared on June 1, 1921 to end the fighting, journalists, residents and others began gathering accounts of what exactly happened over those 18 hours in the Greenwood District. Historians are still assessing the viability of witness reports of low-flying airplanes, some raining bullets or incendiaries, that became an enduring theme in the reconstruction of the events.

Only about 15 planes were known to have been stored at local air fields in 1921, and it remains a mystery who owned the ones used in the Tulsa attack—and how exactly they were mobilized.

Read more about what is known about the use of airplanes in the Tulsa Race Massacre here.

The Cover Up

As devastating as the Tulsa Race Massacre was, subsequent generations of people, including those born and raised in Oklahoma, had never heard of the event until the 1990s. Several newspapers immediately covered the devastation, including the Tulsa World, the New York Times and The Times of London. But the massacre’s victims were hastily buried in unmarked graves and a culture of silence soon became the norm.

Following a series of events that drew reporters to Oklahoma, local legislators created a commission to investigate the massacre. Eventually the story broke in 1998 that there were potential mass graves in Greenwood.

See how the coverup of the Tulsa Race Massacre was finally revealed here.


The Role of Airplanes in the Tulsa Race Massacre

When martial law was declared on June 1, 1921 to end the fighting, journalists, residents and others began gathering accounts of what exactly happened over those 18 hours in the Greenwood District. Historians are still assessing the viability of witness reports of low-flying airplanes, some raining bullets or incendiaries, that became an enduring theme in the reconstruction of the events.

Only about 15 planes were known to have been stored at local air fields in 1921, and it remains a mystery who owned the ones used in the Tulsa attack—and how exactly they were mobilized.

Read more about what is known about the use of airplanes in the Tulsa Race Massacre here.


Mass Graves Investigation

“Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum launched an investigation into longstanding oral history accounts of mass graves at various sites in Tulsa, alleged burial sites for scores of mostly-black victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Mayor Bynum continues to emphasize that this process, which may be long and tedious, is an investigation.

There is no certainty that one or more mass graves will be located. The investigation is geared toward answering, as best we can, the lingering historical question, originating through oral histories, about the existence of one or more mass graves linked to the massacre.

By this undertaking, we honor our oral history and its tellers. This history, separate and apart from its truth, has value.

Who told what to whom? Why? Was it accurate? These are all questions worth exploring.

The current Mass Graves Investigation seeks to address those questions and more. It deserves the support of the entire community. ”

Learn more about the on-going investigation on the City of Tulsa website here: www.cityoftulsa.org/1921graves


Tulsa Race Massacre: Fact checking myths and misconceptions

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Growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, 67-year-old historian Scott Ellsworth remembers people treating the Tulsa Race Massacre like a shameful secret.

“I would occasionally overhear stories from adults — maybe neighbors or something — discussing the massacre,” explained Ellsworth, author of the recently released “The Ground Breaking,” which examines the massacre and its aftermath. “But then when you’d walk into the room, they’d change the subject or lower their voices.”

One hundred years ago on May 31, 1921, and into the next day, a white mob destroyed Tulsa’s burgeoning Greenwood District, known as the “Black Wall Street,” in what experts call the single-most horrific incident of racial terrorism since slavery — here’s why the Tulsa Race Massacre is still relevant today. And despite this devastation and loss, the story of Greenwood and the massacre is largely unknown among most Americans.

“The one thing that still happens is people say, ‘Why haven't I heard about this before?’” noted Ellsworth, whose 1982 book “Death in a Promised Land” is considered a groundbreaking work on the massacre. To answer that question, we asked Ellsworth and fellow historian Hannibal B. Johnson to lead us through some of the most common misconceptions about this pivotal moment in American history and what lessons we can carry forward today. Throughout, we’ve added noteworthy books for further reading on various topics, as well.

‘The Ground Breaking: The Tulsa Race Massacre and an American City's Search for Justice’ by Scott Ellsworth


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4 The Red Summer


Less an isolated incident and more a collection of similarly-themed violence, the Red Summer took place in 1919, as numerous African-Americans adjusted to civilian life after having returned home from WWI, alongside their fellow white veterans. Famed civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois said of the black veterans: &ldquowe are cowards and jackasses if now that the war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land.&rdquo

Faced with men who were no longer willing to live under Jim Crow laws, many whites began to assault random black men throughout the country, especially those who had fought in the war. Though much of the violence occurred in the North, as the Great Migration dramatically changed the demographics of a number of major cities, the largest instance of violence occurred in the small town of Elaine, Arkansas. For three days, unspeakable violence was meted out to black sharecroppers who were trying to improve their working conditions over 200 men, women and children were murdered because of it. [7]


Living survivors and descendants are keeping the story alive

The attack on Greenwood stemmed from an incident on May 31, 1921, after a 19-year-old Black shoeshiner was accused of attacking a white female elevator operator.

A white mob gathered outside of the courthouse where the teen was held, requesting that the sheriff hand him over. A group of armed Black men, including WWI veterans, showed up to protect the teen but were repeatedly turned away by the sheriff. Eventually, a clash broke out between the white mob and Black men.

"A shot goes off, and the massacre begins," Ellsworth said.

Prior to the massacre, Greenwood was "an incredibly vibrant and energetic place," Ellsworth said. The community spanned 35 blocks filled with a vast amount of storefronts and restaurants, a dozen of churches, two movie theaters, a public library, and an African American hospital. The neighborhood came alive on Thursdays and Saturdays, Ellsworth said.

But the country was coming off the heels of World War I as well as the Red Summer of 1919 when Black communities were terrorized by white supremacist mobs amid a Spanish flu pandemic. In the aftermath of the war, Black soldiers who returned home were lauded as heroes and seen as hope for progress in the fight for civil rights. But they were also perceived as a threat to white Americans.

The backlash resulted in race riots and lynchings across the US that preceded the Tulsa race massacre. They came amid a second rise of the Ku Klux Klan on a national level in Oklahoma in 1920.

Greenwood, the home of Black Wall Street, was "destroyed on the ground," Ellsworth said. "In the afternoon of June 1st, national guard troops from Oklahoma city, outside of Tulsa, arrive in town, and order is restored but Greenwood was gone."

No one was held responsible for the destruction.

In late May, the last living survivors of the massacre, Viola Fletcher, Hughes Van Ellis, and Lessie Benningfield Randle, all in their 100s, called for justice and reparation as they spoke before Congress.

"I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams," Viola Fletcher, 107, told lawmakers.

Fletcher is one of the few living survivors who are a part of a lawsuit for reparations that had been filed last year. The lawsuit calls for a remedy and compensation for "one of the worst acts of domestic terrorism in United States history since slavery." It was brought against seven different entities, including the city of Tulsa, its County Sheriff, and the Oklahoma Military Department.

"Every time I think about the men and women that we've worked with, and knowing that they died without justice, it just crushes me," Damario Solomon-Simmons, who represents the survivors, told the Associated Press.

"They all believed that once the conspiracy of silence was pierced, and the world found out about the destruction, the death, the looting, the raping, the maiming, and the wealth that was stolen … that they would get justice, that they would have gotten reparations," he added.


Tulsa Race Massacre: What You Didn’t Learn in History Class

Rarely mentioned in textbooks, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre was one of the most horrific incidents of racial violence in American history. 2021 marks 100 years since the once-prosperous Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma, known as “Black Wall Street,” was destroyed in a two-day explosion of violence by a mob of white residents. Hundreds of Black-owned businesses and homes were burned to the ground, killing an estimated 100-300 Black residents, and leaving an estimated 10,000 Black residents homeless.

Here are five facts about the Tulsa Race Massacre that you didn’t learn in history class.

Many Black Oklahomans arrived as slaves through the Trail of Tears.

Starting in 1830 after the passage of the Indian Removal Act, tens of thousands of Native Americans were violently forced to leave their homelands in the Southeastern United States to relocate out West. Commonly known as the Trail of Tears, the Five Civilized Tribes were not the only ones forced across the country. Black slaves were also kept by Native Americans and forced to relocate through the Trail of Tears before settling in Oklahoma.

On July 19, 1866, the Cherokee Nation signed a Reconstruction treaty with the United States that freed all slaves and granted them Cherokee citizenship. The treaty also set aside a large tract of land for them to settle, giving each Freedmen household 160 acres.

The land ownership granted by the 1866 treaty resulted in great economic success for former slaves and their descendants. Oklahoma quickly became the state with the most independently ran Black towns, with Black families traveling to Tulsa’s Greenwood district to spend their money and largely contribute to its financial boom.

The start of the Tulsa Race Massacre can be attributed to yellow journalism.

On May 31, 1921, 19-year-old Black shoe shiner Dick Rowland, an employee at a Greenwood Main Street shine parlor, entered an elevator operated by white 17-year-old Sarah Page in the nearby Drexel Building. A white clerk at a nearby clothing store heard what he thought was a scream and, thinking a young woman had been assaulted, contacted the authorities. The 2001 Oklahoma Commission Report notes that Rowland most likely tripped as he got onto the elevator, and as he tried to catch his fall, he grabbed onto Page’s arm who then screamed.

A brief investigation took place shortly after, and Page told police that Rowland had merely grabbed her arm and that she would not press charges. Later that afternoon, however, the white-owned newspaper Tulsa Tribune published a false account of the story with heavily sensationalized language. The article headlined “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl In an Elevator” stated that Rowland “attacked her, scratching her hands and face and tearing her clothes.” The next morning Rowland was taken into police custody.

Black men from the town quickly gathered at the Tulsa County Courthouse after Rowland’s arrest to protect him from being lynched. Multiple Black men were armed at the scene and violent confrontations with white men and white police officers quickly erupted. Chief of Detectives James Patton attributed the cause of the riots entirely to the newspaper’s account and stated , “If the facts in the story as told by the police had only been printed I do not think there would have been any riot whatsoever.”

White mob members were armed and deputized by police.

After the outbreak at the courthouse, Black men retreated and hundreds of white people pursued after them, marching through downtown and turning their violence to Greenwood and its residents throughout the night. White mob members began looting and setting fires to local businesses. Events only continued to worsen as carloads of armed whites began shootings in Black residential neighborhoods.

Police were unable or unwilling to stop the violence that quickly spread throughout Greenwood, as the police chief and other civil officials had sworn in over one hundred white men as special deputies. According to the Oklahoma Historical Society , some in the mob were instructed to “get a gun and get a n—–”. The 2001 Oklahoma Commission Report states, “Deputies did not stem the violence but added to it, often through overt acts that were themselves illegal. Public officials provided firearms and ammunition to individuals, again all of them white. Units of the Oklahoma National Guard participated in the mass arrests of all or nearly all of Greenwood’s residents.”

Black community members tried to escape or hide, while white assailants broke into occupied homes, ordering people into the streets and forcing them to detention centers. Attacks by air followed with numerous eyewitnesses detailing airplanes carrying white mob members dropping fire bombs made of turpentine balls on businesses, homes, and even fleeing families. The rampage lasted an estimated 16 hours. By the end of the next day, June 1, 1921, more than 35 square blocks of the once-prosperous Greenwood district had been destroyed.

No perpetrators were charged or tried, instead the Black community was blamed.

Greenwood was burned to the ground and thousands of Black citizens were left injured and homeless, yet the aftermath of the Tulsa Race Massacre was orchestrated to put the blame on the victimized community. In the Tulsa City Commission report issued two weeks after the massacre, Mayor T.D Evens unequivocally stated, “Let this blame for this Negro uprising go right where it belongs, on those armed negroes who started this trouble and who instigated it.”

Shortly after, Governor James B.A. Robertson, who had gone to Tulsa during the riot, requested that a Grand Jury investigate the events in the summer of 1921. The governor, however, appointed a jury of 12 white men, and the all-white jury indicted mostly Black men for the massacre, calling the event a “riot” and attributing it to Black mobs. No one was convicted for the deaths, injuries or property damage that took place.

The 2001 Oklahoma Commission Report states, “Tulsa failed to take action to protect against the riot…Some deputies, probably in conjunction with some uniformed police officers were responsible for some of the burning of Greenwood.” According to human rights investigator Eric Stover, by deputizing members of the white mob, the city and state took on a responsibility to stop the violence and carry out a thorough investigation but failed to do both.

Survivors and descendants of the Massacre are seeking reparations.

An archaeological survey team reported in December 2019 that a section of Tulsa’s Arkansas River might conceal the bodies of Black residents murdered in the Tulsa Race Massacre. Forensic scientists and archaeologists scanned the area with ground penetrating radar and found subterranean areas consistent with mass graves. Searches for other possible mass grave sites are ongoing as descendants of victims seek justice.

In early September 2020, survivors of the 1921 massacre and their descendants filed a new lawsuit in Oklahoma state court against the City of Tulsa and other defendants. This lawsuit seeks to remedy the ongoing nuisance caused by the 1921 massacre and to obtain benefits unjustly received by the Defendants. Attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons details: “We’re focused on making sure there’s not only just financial compensation and accountability, but we would like to see the first-ever criminal investigation into the crimes that were committed against Greenwood and who committed those crimes. We want to know the identities of those individuals who proudly stood in front of cameras, taking pictures with their guns, dead Black bodies behind them, taking pictures burning down homes, because they knew they had the blessing and the protection of the police, of the sheriff, of the National Guard.”

Earlier this month congressman Rep. Hank Johnson introduced the Tulsa-Greenwood Massacre Claims Accountability Act to provide survivors and descendants access to the courts to seek restitution. The only living survivors of the massacre— Viola Fletcher, 107, her brother, Hughes Van Ellis, 100, and Lessie Benningfield Randle, 106 — addressed lawmakers. “I am here asking my country to acknowledge what happened in Tulsa in 1921,” said Viola Fletcher.” I am here seeking justice.”