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Tulsa Race Massacre, 100 years later: Why it happened and why it's still relevant today

The city's "Black Wall Street" was among the most prosperous neighborhoods in America, and a Black utopia — and then it was burned to the ground.

Just decades after slavery in the United States left Black Americans in an economic and societal deficit, one bright spot stood out in Tulsa, Oklahoma — its Greenwood District, known as the “Black Wall Street,” where Black business leaders, homeowners, and civic leaders thrived.

But 100 years ago, on May 31, 1921, and into the next day, a white mob destroyed that district, in what experts call the single-most horrific incident of racial terrorism since slavery.

An estimated 300 people were killed within the district’s 35 square blocks, burning to the ground more than 1,200 homes, at least 60 businesses, dozens of churches, a school, a hospital and a public library, according to a report issued by Human Rights Watch.

Corner of Greenwood and Archer devastated in Tulsa, Okla., on June 1, 1921.Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa
The Williams Building, no.2 on Greenwood Ave., site of the Dreamland Theater, June 1, 1921, in Tulsa, Okla.Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa.

At least $1.4 million in damages were claimed after the massacre, or about $25 million in today’s dollars, after controlling for inflation and the current economy, but experts say it’s an underestimation.

Survivors never received government assistance or restitution for their losses. The House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties held a hearing on the issue May 19 in which three remaining known survivors, experts and advocates called on Congress to issue reparations to the living survivors and all descendants to rectify the lasting impact of the massacre.

“I had everything a child could need,” Viola Ford Fletcher, 107, told the committee. “The night of the massacre, I was awakened by my family. My parents and five siblings were there. I was told we had to leave and that was it. I will never forget the violence of the hate mob when we left our home. I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fog. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams. I live through the massacre every day. Our country may forget this history, but I cannot.”

How 'Black Wall Street' began

O.W. Gurley, a wealthy Black landowner, purchased 40 acres of land in Tulsa in 1906 and named the area Greenwood. Its population stemmed largely from formerly enslaved Black people and sharecroppers who relocated to the area fleeing the racial terror they experienced in other areas.

But Oklahoma, which became a state in 1907, was still staunchly segregated at the time. So as Gurley opened a boarding house, grocery stores and sold land to other Black people, they secured their own houses and opened businesses. The population grew to 11,000 and the area became an economic powerhouse affectionately called “Black Wall Street.”

Greenwood functioned independently, with its own school system, post office, bank, library, hospital and public transit. It also had luxury shops, restaurants, grocery stores, hotels, jewelry and clothing stores, movie theaters, barbershops and salons, pool halls, nightclubs and offices for doctors, lawyers and dentists.

North Greenwood Ave. in Tulsa, Okla., prior to the 1921 Tulsa massacre.Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Hannibal Johnson, author of “Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District,” said the area thrived as an ancillary economy that kept money within the community. Even those who worked outside of Greenwood only spent their money in the area, reinvesting in the neighborhood, he said.

“The district really took off as an economic and entrepreneurial kind of Mecca for Black folks because this was an era of segregation,” he said. “Black folks were shut out from the dominant white-led economy in what I call an economic detour. In other words, when they approached the gate of economic opportunity at the white dominated downtown Tulsa economy, they were turned away. So they created their own insular economy in the Greenwood district and blossomed because dollars were able to circulate and recirculate within the confines of the community because there really was not much of an option, given the segregation that existed here and elsewhere.”

This prosperity continued through the years even as racial terrorism around Tulsa grew, the Ku Klux Klan gained power, and Oklahoma’s Supreme Court regularly upheld voting restrictions such as poll taxes and literacy tests for Black voters. By 1919, white civic leaders sought Greenwood’s land for a railroad depot or other uses.

The Greenwood district in Tulsa, Okla., prior to the 1921 massacre.Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

“You have a really successful Black business community across the Frisco tracks, literally across the tracks from downtown Tulsa,” said Johnson, the education chair for the Centennial Commission. “You have white people, some of whom are not doing well economically, who can look across those tracks and see Black people living in homes, driving cars, furnishing their homes with pianos, women wearing furs, all the trappings of economic success. And so there's that dissonance between what these people think ought to be, based on white supremacy, and what actually is. And one of the ways to harmonize that dissonance is to bring the Black folks down a peg through violence.”

What ignited the massacre

Tulsa police officers arrested Dick Rowland, a Black 19-year-old, May 31, 1921 for allegedly assaulting a white girl, the report said, but there was little evidential proof. The Tulsa newspapers swiftly published incendiary articles about the allegation, prompting a group of mostly white men to descend on the courthouse to lynch Rowland.

African-American men being detained and led down a residential street on June 1, 1921 in Tulsa, Okla.Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa

When Greenwood residents learned of the impending lynch mob, a group of mostly Black men, which included World War I veterans, armed themselves and went to the courthouse to protect Rowland. This method became custom whenever Black people were on trial as they usually faced lynchings.

But the sheriff told the group to leave and they complied. The white mob grew to more than 2,000 and Tulsa police did not disperse the crowd. Later that night, the armed Black men returned to protect Rowland and a fight broke out when a white man tried to disarm a Black man, prompting shooting that lasted through the night, the report said.

In the early hours of June 1, 1921, then-Gov. James B. A. Robertson dispatched the National Guard and declared martial law. The National Guard, local law enforcement, and deputized white citizens canvassed Greenwood to disarm, arrest and move Black people to nearby internment camps, dragging some out of their homes. This upheaval resulted in the uncontested mob outnumbering the remaining Black people by 20 to 1, the report said. Old World War I airplanes dropped bombs on Greenwood, with the mob fatally shooting Black people and looting and burning their homes and businesses.

Detainees being marched through downtown Tulsa, Okla., on June 1, 1921, viewed from the roof of the Daniel Building.Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa

Dreisen Heath, a researcher at Human Rights Watch who authored the report, said law enforcement’s involvement in the massacre illustrates the demands of racial justice movements a century later.

“A number of the massacres that happen that are normally coined as a riot — Memphis, Chicago, those are all places where you also have documentation of police participation and being deputized,” she said.

No one in the white mob was prosecuted or otherwise punished for the massacre, the report said.

The massacre's aftermath

Within a week of the massacre, at least 6,000 of the remaining residents were detained in internment camps. They were issued identification tags and remained at the camps — some for months — and could not leave without their tags and permission from white supervisors, the report said. Black residents never received any financial assistance after the massacre to rebuild. Some filed insurance claims or lawsuits, but none resulted in payment due to riot clauses, the report said. They were left to rebuild on their own.

Crowds of people watching the fires on June 1, 1921 in Tulsa, Okla., looking from Cincinnati Ave. from 2nd St. to Detroit Ave.Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa

Fletcher's brother Hughes Van Ellis, 100, and a World War II veteran, said his childhood was hard as his family recovered from the massacre.

“We didn’t have much. What little we had would be stolen from us,” Ellis told the committee. “When something is stolen from you, you go to the courts to be made whole. This wasn’t the case for us. The courts in Oklahoma wouldn't hear us. The devil courts said we were too late. We were made to feel that our struggle was unworthy of justice and that we were less valued than whites, that we weren't fully American.”

Fletcher served white families for most of her life as a domestic worker. “I never made much money,” she said. “To this day, I can barely afford my everyday needs.”

The siblings, Lessie Benningfield Randle, 106, and some of the experts who testified called on Congress to provide reparations to the survivors and descendants of the massacre.

Hughes Van Ellis, left, a Tulsa Race Massacre survivor and Viola Fletcher, second right, oldest living survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre, testify before the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee hearing on "Continuing Injustice: The Centennial of the Tulsa-Greenwood Race Massacre" on Capitol Hill on May 19, 2021.Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images

“We are not asking for a handout,” Ellis said through tears. “All we are asking for is for the chance to be treated like a first-class citizen, that this is the land where there is liberty and justice for all. We are asking for justice for a lifetime of ongoing harm.”

That harm includes the city of Tulsa faulting Greenwood residents for the damage. “Let the blame for this negro uprising lie right where it belongs — on those armed negros and their followers who started this trouble and who instigated it and any persons who seek to put half the blame on the white people are wrong,” the Tulsa City Commission wrote in a report issued two weeks after the massacre.

Shortly after the massacre, a grand jury was empaneled to prosecute the rioting, weapons and looting and arson charges. The all-white jury indicted more than 85 people, who were mostly Black. Those indictments were largely dismissed or not pursued, according to the Human Rights Watch report.

The final grand jury report agreed with the Tulsa City Commission that Black people were the main culprits. “There was no mob spirit among the whites, no talk of lynching and no arms. The assembly was quiet until the arrival of the armed Negros, which precipitated and was the direct cause of the entire affair,” the grand jury wrote.

The case against Rowland was dismissed.

Black Wall Street did, eventually, rise from the ashes and Greenwood enjoyed another heyday in the 1940s, but integration and urban renewal in the 1960s and the 1970s led to new declines the neighborhood was unable to fully overcome, Johnson said. The setback has only compounded since then as Tulsa remains largely segregated and riddled with racial disparities.

Greenwood is just outside of North Tulsa, which is mostly Black, while South Tulsa is a mostly white area. These days, more than 30 percent of North Tulsans live in poverty compared to 13 percent of South Tulsans, the report said. On average, North Tulsans live 14 years less than South Tulsans. Black Tulsans are three times more likely to face police brutality in comparison to their white counterparts. Statewide, 43 percent of Black people own their homes compared to 72 percent of white people.

Vernon AME Church with a plaque commemorating the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, in Tulsa, Okla., on May 21st, 2021.Christopher Creese / for NBC News

Johnson said there are two main casualties of the massacre that contribute to these discrepancies and affect everyday life — a breach in trust between Black and white communities and the inability to transfer accumulated wealth.

“Many people in the white mob that destroyed the Greenwood community back in 1921 were deputized by local law enforcement. You have an incident like that, then the breach in trust is huge. The other thing that happened post-massacre — there are a lot of promises made by local leaders, these are white men, about rebuilding the Greenwood community, and they didn't really materialize. So, promises broken. So trust is a real lingering issue,” he said.

The other lingering issue is how Black wealth is generally one-tenth of white wealth. Johnson said the inability of Black people to accumulate wealth and transfer it intergenerationally is the root cause.

“Slavery was obviously a huge example of an inability to accumulate wealth — uncompensated labor,” he said. “But the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre is an example of the inability to transfer wealth intergenerationally because of disruptors — some of these wealthy Black men, their wealth was lost in the massacre, and it was not restored.”

That’s why, Randle said, it is important for the survivors and descendants of the massacre to recoup some restitution.

“Justice in America,” Randle said, “is always so slow or not possible for Black people and we are made to feel crazy just for asking for things to be made right.”

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