The Tulsa Race Massacre – 18 Hours of Living Hell on Earth

In Investigating the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, it’s a little hard to know where to begin. One could start with the great migration of blacks during World War I or an oil boom in Oklahoma in the 1910s. One could even start by looking at the difference of opinion between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois for how African-Americans could gain equality and freedoms in the early 1900s. But no matter where you start, you’re going to end up at the same place with a subject that not many people know about – the largest single event of racial violence in American history.

In the past couple of years, the massacre has come to light outside of Oklahoma in part to an episode in the HBO Series, “The Watchmen.”

Even in that three minute clip, I don’t think you could really capture the horror of what went on that night and morning.

For most blacks in the city of Tulsa, getting to the former Indian Territory known as Oklahoma was a recent trend. Historian Scott Ellsworth writes:

However, most of Tulsa’s African American residents had come to Oklahoma, like their white neighbors, in the great boom years just before and after statehood. Some had come from Mississippi, some from Missouri, and others had journeyed all the way from Georgia. For many, Oklahoma represented not only a chance to escape the harsher racial realities of life in the former states of the Old South, but was literally a land of hope, a place worth sacrificing for, a place to start anew. And come they did, in wagons and on horseback, by train and on foot. While some of the new settlers came directly to Tulsa, many others had first lived in smaller com mu ni ties — many of which were all-black, or nearly so — scattered throughout the state.

And build a home in the Greenwood neighborhood they did. There were stores, homes, businesses, a museum, a hospital, schools; everything a growing early 20th century civilization needed.

From all accounts, the massacre happened over an 18 hour period beginning on May 31 and continuing through June 1, 1921. A mob of white citizens of Tulsa tore through the Greenwood neighborhood which contained mostly black homes and businesses, often called the Black Wall Street. It’s estimated that up to 10,000 Black people lived in that area.

The number of dead is officially listed at 36, including 10 white people. However most people estimated the toll to be at a minimum 9-10 times that at the minimum.

There was some information in newspapers the day after the event and then there was no more. It was as if it had never happened. In the 1930s, many black residents sued for reparations and they all lost their court cases.

The massacre began in response to the arrest of a young man named Dick Rowland who was charged with sexual assault of a white woman, Sarah Page, who never did press charges. That first night, a mob tried to lynch Rowland but were stopped by Sheriff Willard McCullough. McCullough and his men actually barricaded Rowland on the top floor for protection.

Some black veterans from World War I came by to help guard Rowland but the Sheriff turned them away. The white mob even tried to break into a nearby armory to get weapons but that failed. By around 10 PM, an estimated 1500 whites would show up near the courthouse with several carrying weapons

Outnumbered and outgunned a group of now about 75 armed black men retreated back to the Greenwood neighborhood. They didn’t go alone.

Throughout the night, white mobs burned homes, did drive-by shootings of black residences, including shooting unarmed citizens and stringing up some with ropes..

When the sun came up on June 1, thousands of white citizens were destroying the Greenwood neighborhood of 10,000. In addition to attacking black citizens, there was looting, burning homes, and destroying businesses. First responders that came did not get very far as they were met by white people with guns who redirected them back to their stations.

It’s estimated that there were over 1200 homes burned along with many other buildings including the aforementioned schools, library, hospital, several churches, and stores. 35 blocks were obliterated by fire.

The governor declared a state of emergency which finally brought an end to the disaster. With nowhere to go, over 6000 people were at the local fairgrounds under armed guard.

Shortly after the riot ended, Dick Rowland had charges dropped against him. The Sheriff reported that Rowland actually stumbled into a girl in the elevator and did not attack her.

Ellsworth, along with John Hope Franklin, would later write:
“Walter White, one of the nation’s foremost experts on racial violence, who visited Tulsa during the week after the riot, was shocked by what had taken place. ‘I am able to state that the Tulsa riot, in sheer brutality and willful destruction of life and property, stands without parallel in America.’”

The Greenwood neighborhood never recovered from the riots. But memories and photographs survived. In fact, postcards were made by the white people of the so-called riot as if the pictures were trophies of the devastation they caused.

So why is this all coming to light now? This is not something that you would find in a history textbook, at any level, up until the last 20 years.

In 1997, the state of Oklahoma created a commission made up of scientists and historians that began to investigate the riot. In addition to oral histories, they found physical evidence, photographs, and interviewed some survivors. In 2001, The condition published there report which consists of 201 pages of information and documents,

Their findings section about the riots was a bit illuminating, but not surprising. Here are a few key moments from that section.
– As hostile groups gathered and their confrontation worsened, municipal and county authorities failed to take actions to calm or contain the situation.
– At the eruption of violence, civil officials selected many men, all of them white and some of them participants in that violence, and made those men their agents as deputies.
– In that capacity, deputies did not stem the violence but added to it, often through overt acts 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 Green wood’s residents, removed them to other parts of the city, and detained them in holding centers
– Not one of these criminal acts was then or ever has been prosecuted or punished by government at any level, municipal, county, state, or federal

In a letter to the Governor, the commission issued these recommendations
1) Direct payment of reparations to survivors of the Tulsa Race Riot.
2) Direct payment of reparations to descendants of the Learning about this issue, I kept thinkingsurvivors of the Tulsa Race Riot.
3) A scholarship fund available to students affected by the Tulsa Race Riot.
4) Establishment of an economic development enterprise zone in the historic area of the Greenwood District.
5) A memorial for the reburial of any human remains found in the search for unmarked graves of riot victims.

The Governor did set up 300 scholarships for descendants of Greenwood along with a memorial and economic development, but no reparations or restitution has taken place.

The story of the Tulsa Race Riot now seeing the light of day on a national level is enlightening in terms of race relations in this country. In reading about the riots, I could not help but think I was re-reading certain events in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. It seemed to be surreal until I saw the pictures. While words do tell the horror that was wrought in those 18 hours, the devastation is hard to picture until the photographs show the aftermath.


In learning about this event, I kept thinking the whole time how am I going to teach this event? Would I have them try to piece together what happen through these photographs? One thing I think I might do is to just give students some pictures and have them initially try to place them in order. Then I would give them some text that summarizes the events and then they could actually place the pictures in order and write summaries from a certain perspective.

There are more possibilities that could include art and writing, but I’ve got at least a good two months before I decide where I need to place this event. I am leaning towards placing it in my 1920s and 1930s unit rather than waiting until the Civil Rights Movement unit much later in the year. Either way, I think the kids are going be very interested in the content.