Ruins of the Greenwood District after the massacre of African Americans in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in June 1921. American National Red Cross photo collection.
GHI | Universal Images Group | Getty Images
A century ago this week, the richest black community in America was burned down.
At the turn of the 20th century, the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma became one of the first communities in the country where black entrepreneurship was successful. The prosperous city, founded by many descendants of slaves, came to be known as Black Wall Street of America and, under the laws of Jim Crow, became a haven for African Americans in a severely separated city.
On May 31, 1921, a white mob turned Greenwood upside down in one of the worst racial massacres in US history. Within a few hours, 35 square blocks of the lively black community were turned into smoldering ashes. Countless blacks were killed – estimates ranged from 55 to more than 300 – and 1,000 homes and businesses were looted and set on fire.
A group of people viewing in the distance smoke that came from damaged property following the massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in June 1921.
Oklahoma Historical Society | Stock photos | Getty Images
For the longest time, however, the massacre received little mention in newspapers, textbooks, or civil and state talks. It was not until 2000 that the carnage entered the Oklahoma public school curriculum, and it has only been included in American history books in recent years. The 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Commission was established in 1997 to investigate and officially released a report in 2001.
“The massacre has been actively hushed up in the Tulsa white community for nearly half a century,” said Scott Ellsworth, professor of African-American and African studies at the University of Michigan and author of The Ground Breaking on the Tulsa massacre.
“When I began my research in the 1970s, I found that official National Guard reports and other documents were missing,” Ellsworth said. “Tulsa’s two white dailies have been trying for decades, not to mention the massacre. Researchers who would try to work on it in the early 1970s had threatened their lives and their careers.”
The body of an unidentified black victim of the Tulsa massacre lies in the street as a white man stands over him, Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 1, 1921.
Greenwood Cultural Center | Stock photos | Getty Images
In the week following the massacre, Tulsa’s police chief ordered his officers to go to any photo studio in Tulsa and confiscate any images captured of the slaughter, Ellsworth said.
Those photos, which were later discovered and became the materials used by the Oklahoma Commission to investigate the massacre, eventually ended up on Michelle Place’s lap at the Tulsa Historical Society & Museum in 2001.
“It took me about four days to get through the box because the photos were so horrible. I had never seen pictures like this before,” said Place. “I didn’t know anything about the riot before I came to work here. I’ve never heard of it. I’ve been at my desk since I’ve been here to keep an eye on them as I can.”
Patients recovering from injuries in the Tulsa massacre. American National Red Cross Photo Collection, November 1921.
Universal History Archive | Universal Images Group | Getty Images
The Tulsa Museum was established in the late 1990s, but visitors couldn’t find any trace of the racial massacre until Place became the general manager in 2012 and was determined to tell all of Tulsa’s stories. A digital collection of the photos was eventually made available for online viewing.
“There are still a significant number of people in our community who don’t want to watch it, who don’t want to talk about it,” said Place.
“The silence is layered”
According to Alicia Odewale, an archaeologist at the University of Tulsa, Tulsa city officials not only covered up the bloodbath, but also deliberately postponed the narrative of the massacre, labeling it a “riot” and blaming the black community for what it did went down.
For a long time, the massacre was not discussed publicly in the Afro-American community either. First out of fear – once it happens, it can happen again.
“You see the perpetrators walking freely on the streets,” said Odewale. “You are in Jim Crow South and there is racial horror all over the country at this time. You protect yourself for a reason.”
Furthermore, it became such a traumatic event for survivors, and much like Holocaust survivors and WWII veterans, many of them did not want to burden their children and grandchildren with these horrific memories.
Ellsworth said he knew descendants of massacre survivors who didn’t learn about it until their forties and fifties.
“The silence is layered just like the trauma is layered,” Odewale said. “The historical trauma is real and that trauma persists, especially because there is no justice, no accountability and no reparation or financial compensation.”
A truck carries African Americans during the Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA massacre in 1921.
Alvin C. Krupnick Co. | National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Records | Library of Congress | via Reuters
What started the massacre?
On May 31, 1921, Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old black shoeshine boy, tripped and fell into an elevator. His hand accidentally hit the shoulder of Sarah Page, a 17 year old white operator. Page yelled and Rowland ran away.
The police were called, but Page refused to bring charges. That afternoon, however, there was talk of lynching Rowland on the streets of white Tulsa. Tension then escalated after the white newspaper Tulsa Tribune published a cover story, “Nab Negro for Attacking a Girl in the Elevator,” alleging Rowland stalking, assault and rape.
In the Tribune, according to Ellsworth, there was also a now-lost editorial entitled “To Lynch Tonight”. By the time the Works Progress Administration microfilmed the old editions of the Tribune in the 1930s, the comment had already been torn from the newspaper, Ellsworth said.
Many believe that newspaper coverage undoubtedly helped start the massacre.
People stand outside the Black Wall Street T-shirt and souvenir store on North Greenwood Avenue in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma, United States on Thursday, June 18, 2020.
Christopher Creese | Bloomberg | Getty Images
For the Black Tulsans, the massacre led to a decline in home ownership, professional status and education levels, according to a recent study from the 1940s led by Alex Albright of Harvard University.
Today there are few black businesses left on the only remaining block in the Greenwood borough that was once known as Black Wall Street.
That month, three survivors of the 1921 massacre aged 100, 106, and 107 appeared before a congressional committee, and a Georgia congressman tabled a bill that would make it easier for them to seek redress.
Rev. Dr. Robert Turner of the historic Vernon Chapel AME Church holds his weekly reparations march ahead of the 100th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, United States, on May 26, 2021.
Polly Irungu | Reuters
In the meantime, historians and archaeologists kept rediscovering what had been lost for decades. In October, a mass grave was discovered in an Oklahoma cemetery that could be the remains of at least a dozen identified and unidentified victims of an African American massacre.
“We can look for signs of survival and for signs of life. And really look for the remains of the built Greenwood, not just how they died,” Odewale said. “Greenwood never left.”
– CNBC’s Yun Li is also co-author of Eunice Hunton Carter: A Lifelong Struggle for Social Justice.