Tulsa Race Massacre: What Happened, Why, And The Aftermath
Some acts and misdeeds are so horrendous that they're hidden from history until they're nearly forgotten. The Tulsa Race Massacre is one of those moments in time that's been shoved under the carpet with the hope that no one would discover the kinds of atrocities that man can commit. From May 31 to June 1, 1921, the white residents of Tulsa, Oklahoma attacked the black residents of the Greenwood District of the city and burned their homes and businesses to the ground. Not only is this one of the worst incidents of racial violence in American history, but its cover-up is also a deplorable and tragic act of racial expunging of the 20th century.
Black Wall Street
Before the events of the massacre can be broken down, it's important to first understand where the massacre took place. The Greenwood District housed the 10,000 black residents of Tulsa, which was an extremely segregated town in 1921. This neighborhood became the home of a thriving business district that was eventually known as "Black Wall Street." It existed as a kind of parallel to white Tulsa: There were movie theaters, grocers, clubs, and even two newspapers based in the area. People who lived in Greenwood even had their own elected officials, making the district its own town within a town.
A false claim sparked the massacre
There are no clear details about what exactly happened on May 31, 1921, to serve as a catalyst for the massacre, but what is known for certain is it had something to do with the alleged assault of a 17-year-old white girl named Sarah Page by 19-year-old Dick Rowland. Even though Page declined to press charges and the incident appeared to be a misunderstanding, Rowland was arrested on May 30, and an inflammatory article in the Tulsa Tribune sent the white people of Tulsa into a rage. Rowland was moved to a secure location at the top of the courthouse as Tulsa's white residents, including members of the Ku Klux Klan, squared off with the African-American residents of the Greenwood District on the street below. The situation grew heated, and shots were fired in a standoff that ended with 12 people dead. This was only the beginning of the trouble.
Greenwood was looted and burned by white rioters
Following the shooting outside of the courthouse, black Tulsans made their way back to the Greenwood District with the city's white citizens close on their heels. Misinformation spread throughout the city, with claims that Rowland had been lynched echoing in the streets. Mob violence broke out as thousands of whites tore through the black neighborhoods, killing men, women, and children as they set fire to buildings and destroyed everything in their way. The real estate destroyed by the white mob was worth $32 million in today's money, leaving close to 10,000 black citizens of Tulsa homeless.
Greenwood was destroyed from the air
It’s hard to fathom the large-scale destruction that occurred in an American city the way it occurred in Tulsa from May 31 to June 1, but it's as if the white people of Oklahoma were just waiting for a reason to snuff out the prosperity of the Greenwood District. Eyewitnesses gave accounts of firebombs dropped on homes and businesses, burning the enclave from the top down, and airplanes piloted by white assailants carrying people with guns. It's believed that members of the Tulsa police were aboard some of the planes. Oklahoma lawyer and Tulsa Race Massacre survivor Buck Colbert Franklin wrote that he watched at least a dozen planes fly over a neighborhood in the early hours of June 1, dropping burning balls of turpentine.
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.
Black people were placed in detention centers
As the white mob carved through Greenwood, they captured terrified residents while shooting indiscriminately into the fray, wounding and killing people who were just trying to escape the chaos. White attackers broke into homes and businesses, looting their contents and ordering residents into the street, where they were forced into detention centers. The violence soon spilled out from Greenwood to the rest of Tulsa, where white families who employed black workers were assaulted and ordered to turn over their employees.
At least 6,000 residents of Greenwood were detained in the town's Convention Hall or the fairgrounds. Olivia J. Hooker, one of the last living survivors, said that it took years to stop having nightmares about the event:
I used to scream at night. It took me years to get over the shock of seeing people be so horrible to people who had done them no wrong.
The National Guard declared martial law
When the National Guard arrived on May 31, they were helpless to curb the rampant violence. The 109 troops dispatched from Oklahoma City were powerless to act until the governor contacted the local authorities, who may have been taking part in the massacre. All the soldiers could do was eat breakfast and wait for orders while Greenwood burned.
Eventually, martial law was declared. After it ended on June 4, 1921, no one who took part in the massacre was prosecuted for their crimes. In fact, no one suffered any official punishment at all. Meanwhile, every resident who had been crammed into detention centers was refused release until a white person signed for them and accepted responsibility for their behavior.
The massacre was erased from history
In the aftermath of the massacre, the white people of Tulsa were silent about the death and destruction they left in their wake, and news of the massacre was essentially suppressed and ripped from history. It's even been reframed as a "riot," which not only mischaracterized the events but helped insurance companies justify declining benefits to the people of Greenwood whose homes and businesses were destroyed. Many survivors left town, either because they were suddenly without a home and job or they simply couldn't bear to stay. Nearly 80 years later, a bipartisan commission studied the massacre and recommended paying reparations, but you'll have to excuse the survivors if they're not exactly counting on it.
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