Tulsa Race Massacre, May 31-June 1, 1921

Citation metadata

Date: 2020
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Event overview
Length: 1,240 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1120L

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 

Key Figures

B(uck) C(olbert) Franklin, author of personal account of the strife The Tulsa Race Riot and Three of Its Victims.

Dick Rowland, African American teenager arrested in Tulsa in 1921.

Sarah Page, alleged victim of assault by Dick Rowland.

G. T. Bynum (1977– ), mayor of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Summary of Event

The business district and residential area of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, also referred to as "Black Wall Street," was a successful African American neighborhood. The thriving Black community had clothing and jewelry stores, restaurants, and hotels. During two days of strife, May 31 and June 1, 1921, Greenwood was destroyed in what has been called one of the worst incidents of racial violence in American history.

The event began on May 30, 1921, after a Black man, 19-year-old Dick Rowland, entered the elevator of the Drexel Building. The elevator operator was Sarah Page, a young white girl. People heard a scream coming from the elevator and saw Rowland running out. Accounts of the incident vary, and there is no conclusive evidence of what happened. Apparently, Rowland tripped over the girl and startled her. However, rumors started to circulate among the white community. The rumors became more exaggerated as they spread until the white citizens of Tulsa believed that Rowland had tried to sexually assault Page. Rowland was arrested the next day, and the police started an investigation. Charges against Rowland were later dismissed, but that day, the allegations inflamed the white population of the city.

A front-page article in the Tulsa Tribune on May 31 about the alleged attempt of rape ignited a confrontation between the Black and white populations of Tulsa. That night, a mob of white men gathered in front of the courthouse where Rowland was being held and demanded that the police hand him over. Word spread that there was talk of a lynching and a group of armed Black men, many of them World War I veterans, came to meet the mob, concerned for Rowland's safety. The sheriff and his men barricaded the building to protect Rowland. Shots were fired during a struggle when a white man tried to disarm a Black man, and a violent conflict erupted. The outnumbered Black men, pursued by the white mob, ran back toward the Greenwood business district. The whites started a rampage in the district, looting and destroying personal property and burning down the neighborhood. They set fire to a hospital, libraries, schools, churches, movie theaters, and homes, leveling more than 35 blocks. Thousands of people were left homeless, and hundreds were injured. The police did not make substantial efforts to subdue the violence and even deputized some of the whites who participated in the destruction, providing them with firearms and access to machinery that contributed to the loss of property and life. The governor of Oklahoma, James B. A. Robertson, declared martial law on June 1, and the National Guard was called out. Thousands of the city's Black population were imprisoned, with some held in jail for as long as eight days. None of the whites were prosecuted.

In an article that ran in the New York Times on June 3, 1921, Adjutant General Charles J. Barrett said, "In all of my experience I have never witnessed such scenes as prevailed in this city when I arrived at the height of the rioting. Twenty-five thousand whites, armed to the teeth, were ranging the city in utter and ruthless defiance of every concept of law and righteousness. Motor cars, bristling with guns swept through your city, their occupants firing at will."

The exact number of people killed during the massacre was never determined; only 37 deaths were confirmed but estimates put the true number of fatalities closer to 300. Among those killed was prominent surgeon A. C. Jackson, who was shot after peaceably agreeing to vacate his home when a mob of white men came down his street. There were reports of many uncounted deaths and hidden mass burials. While local officials at the time reported that planes were ordered to fly above the city to surveille, many contend that those aircraft were employed to contribute to the destruction by dropping incendiary devices on the neighborhood.

The Tulsa Race Riots Commission, formed in 1997, published a report on what was known about the attacks and detailed the damages in 2001. Attempts to get reparations for the survivors failed.

In 2016, a long-lost manuscript called The Tulsa Race Riot and Three of Its Victims was discovered, which contained an eyewitness account of the massacre. Oklahoma lawyer Buck Colbert (B. C.) Franklin described the attack by the white mobs in ten typewritten pages: "I could see planes circling in mid-air. They grew in number and hummed, darted and dipped low. I could hear something like hail falling upon the top of my office building. Down East Archer, I saw the old Mid-Way hotel on fire, burning from its top, and then another and another and another building began to burn from their top. Lurid flames roared and belched and licked their forked tongues into the air. Smoke ascended the sky in thick, black volumes and amid it all, the planes—now a dozen or more in number—still hummed and darted here and there with the agility of natural birds of the air." Franklin's manuscript was donated to the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Impact of Event

Specific details regarding the Tulsa race massacre were covered up for decades, giving no closure for victims and their families. Questions about the bodies of victims remained unanswered.

In October of 2018, mayor of Tulsa, G. T. Bynum, renewed efforts to find possible mass grave sites where people were buried. "It's one of the defining events for our city. We as a city continue to grapple with not just the event itself, but also racial reconciliation in the aftermath of it. We can't hope to reconcile as a city if we're not committed to doing everything we need to do to fully understand what happened in 1921," he said.

Meanwhile, the Greenwood Cultural Center is dedicated to providing history on the massacre and how it impacted the city. Mechelle Brown, a program coordinator at the center, said the mob killings left a scar; she welcomed the call to investigate, "This is not just Tulsa's history. This is not just Oklahoma history. This is not just African-American history. This is a part of our nation's history."

Olivia Hooker was six years old at the time of the massacre. In May of 2018, as the last remaining survivor and witness, she gave an interview at the age of 103. She described the night of the massacre, at home with her parents, when a group of white men with torches entered their backyard. Her mother hid Olivia and her siblings and told them to remain silent. "It was a horrifying thing for a little girl who's only six years old trying to remember to keep quiet, so they wouldn't know we were there," she said. The men destroyed her home and went on to others in the community. Olivia went on to become the first African American woman to join the U.S. Coast Guard. She also helped to form the Tulsa Race Riot Commission in 1997 to investigate the massacre. "Our parents tried to tell us, don't spend your time agonizing over the past. They encouraged us to look forward and think how we could make things better," she added.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|IVRZUC505729972