The Tulsa Massacre

In the years after World War I, Tulsa was recognized across the United States for its prosperous African American community known as the Greenwood District. This thriving business district and surrounding residential area was referred to as “Black Wall Street.” However, in June 1921, a violent episode nearly destroyed the entire Greenwood area and left hundreds dead.

The Greenwood district was organized in 1906 following Booker T. Washington’s 1905 tour of the area. It was a namesake of the Greenwood District that Washington had established in Tuskegee, Alabama, five years earlier. By 1921, the neighborhood included several Black-owned grocers, two newspapers, two movie theaters, nightclubs, and numerous churches.

The massacre took place on May 31 and June 1, 1921 after 19-year-old Dick Rowland, a Black shoeshiner, was accused of assaulting Sarah Page, a 17-year-old White elevator operator. He was taken into custody and a mob of angry local Whites gathered outside the courthouse where he was being held.

At the time, lynchings were common in Oklahoma as white supremacists sought to assert and maintain their power. Rumors spread among the local Black population that Rowland was about to be lynched and some arrived at the courthouse armed. Shots were fired and 12 people were killed (10 White and 2 Black).

As news of these deaths spread throughout the city, mob violence exploded. White rioters rampaged through the Black neighborhood that night and into the morning killing men and burning and looting stores and homes.

Numerous eyewitnesses described airplanes carrying white assailants, who fired rifles and dropped firebombs on buildings, homes, and fleeing families. The privately-owned aircraft were dispatched from the nearby Curtiss-Southwest Field outside Tulsa. Law enforcement officials said that the planes were to provide reconnaissance and protect against a “Negro uprising.” Eyewitness accounts and testimony from survivors said that on the morning of June 1, at least “a dozen or more” planes circled the neighborhood and dropped “burning turpentine balls” on an office building, a hotel, a filling station and multiple other buildings. Men also fired rifles at young and old Black residents, gunning them down in the street.

It was not until noon the next day that Oklahoma National Guard troops managed to get control of the situation by declaring martial law. About 10,000 Black people were left homeless, and property damage amounted to more than $2 million (equivalent to over $32 million in 2019).

Many survivors left Tulsa, while Black residents who stayed in the city were silent for decades about the terror, violence, and losses of this event. The massacre has been described as “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history.” The attack, carried out on the ground and from planes flying through the sky above the city, destroyed more than 35 square blocks of the district—at that time the wealthiest Black community in America.

In 1996, 75 years after the massacre, the Oklahoma legislature authorized formation of a commission to study it. Members were appointed to investigate events, interview survivors, hear testimony from the public, and prepare a report. The Commission’s final report, published in 2001, said that the city had conspired with the mob of White citizens against Black citizens. It recommended a program of reparations to survivors and their descendants. The state passed legislation to establish some scholarships for descendants of survivors, encourage economic development of Greenwood, and develop a memorial park in Tulsa to the massacre victims. The park was dedicated in 2010.