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Tulsa Race Massacre and Greenwood District

Summary

The Greenwood District was a neighborhood on the outskirts of Tulsa settled by formerly enslaved and free Black people who migrated to the area in pursuit of opportunities and hopes of acquiring land. Forced to be self-reliant due to segregation, Greenwood developed an impressive infrastructure that included a bank, hospital, post office, schools, and transportation. The district was officially established in 1906 by O.W. Gurley, a wealthy Black man from Arkansas, who used some of his money to purchase 40+ acres of land which he set aside for sale to other Black people.

While the Greenwood District’s successful Black population inspired some it bred jealousy and hatred in others. On May 31 – June 1, 1921, the Tulsa Race Massacre tore through the prosperous all-Black Greenwood District leaving a trail of murdered Black people, looted homes, and burned-out buildings. The local and state government did not provide any meaningful intervention to rescue Black residents or protect property during the massacre. When the smoke cleared, an estimated 100-300 people had died, 9,000 Black residents were left homeless, and property losses totaled $1.8 million ($26 million in today’s money).

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Greenwood District

Following Emancipation and the end of the Civil War, Black people across America began to exercise their newly obtained independence. Having been subjugated and denied self-determination, Black people worked hard and pooled their resources to establish schools, businesses, and various cultural institutions for the betterment of our people. Some chose to build new lives on or close to the plantations where they’d previously toiled in bondage. While others migrated to new areas in search of a fresh start.

The Dawes Act of 1887 divided Native American tribal lands, in what would come to be known as Oklahoma, into plots that were then distributed to individuals. At the time, new all-Black communities were being settled across the country and several were founded in Oklahoma. Formerly enslaved people who had been owned by local Native Americans or moved to the area were able to acquire land. Aside from a desire to acquire land, people also moved to Tulsa in hopes of striking it rich or at least making a good living in the nearby oil fields.

One such town was the Greenwood District in Tulsa which was established in 1906 by O.W. Gurley. A wealthy Black man from Arkansas, Gurley, used some of his money to purchase 40+ acres of land. He made the avant-garde decision to restrict sales of the land to only other Black people and founded a boarding house. Before Greenwood’s official founding, entrepreneurial Black people had been moving to the area to take advantage of the option to purchase land. But, as news of Gurley’s plans and activities spread, droves of Black would-be entrepreneurs, professionals, and workers began to move to the area in pursuit of opportunities.

As Greenwood grew in prominence, it became a Mecca for some Black people looking to escape the crushing lack of opportunities in other parts of the country. But, Tulsa was still segregated and the Oklahoma government actively supported efforts to make it difficult for Black people to vote and otherwise held the dubious honor of having some of the strictest Jim Crow laws. Also, Tulsa was separated by race due to train tracks that ran between the all-Black Greenwood District and White Tulsa.

Yet, some of Greenwood’s success was a result of its being segregated from the rest of Tulsa. Local law prevented Black people from patronizing some businesses or purchasing properties in Tulsa’s White areas. This meant that Black residents of Greenwood had little choice but to spend their money within the community regardless of where it was earned. Thus the Black dollar circulated multiple times and over an extended period before leaving the community.

Black Wall Street

Forced to be self-reliant, Greenwood developed an impressive infrastructure that included a bank, hospital, post office, schools, and transportation. Entrepreneurs and professionals such as doctors, lawyers, merchants, etc. provided services that Black residents could not procure elsewhere locally. There were also rank and file workers and manual laborers who lived in Greenwood but likely also worked in Tulsa’s White areas bringing dollars from those areas into the neighborhood. The Greenwood District’s financial success and wealthy Black residents earned the neighborhood the nickname “Negro Wall Street” and later “Black Wall Street”.

But while Black Wall Street’s successful Black population inspired some it bred jealousy and hatred in others. Some residents from White Tulsa, particularly among the poor, began to take offense at the success of Greenwood and its residents. White supremacy could not comfortably exist in a city where simply crossing railroad tracks would prove the concept ridiculous.

If Black people were supposedly an inferior race by nature, what did it mean if they were able to build an independently successful district such as Greenwood? Black Wall Street’s success was an affront to white supremacy as it was regarded as Black people forgetting their place by breaking free from subjugation and oppression. Also, despite being located on the outskirts of Tulsa, Greenwood’s land was coveted as an area for the city’s expansion.

Tulsa Race Massacre

During Reconstruction, lynchings had emerged as a particularly gruesome form of racial terror. Originally founded in 1865, the Ku Klux Klan had experienced a lull in popularity but had a large-scale revival in 1915, gaining a foothold in Oklahoma. A few years later during the summer of 1919 racial tensions exploded in the form of anti-Black riots that swept the country. These racial conflicts gave some indication of the violence that simmered just beneath the surface of Tulsa society.

The powder keg exploded on May 31, 1921, and unleashed a torrential wave of violence that tore through the all-Black Greenwood District leaving a trail of murdered Black people as well as destroyed homes and businesses in its wake. The spark was lit a few days earlier on an elevator when a Black teenage boy, Dick Rowland, came into contact with a White teenage girl, Sarah Page. The exact details vary but it’s believed that Rowland either bumped into or stepped on the foot of Page who reacted by letting out a scream which sent Rowland running off the elevator.

Rowland was arrested and held by the sheriff at the local courthouse (the charges against him would eventually be dropped). But, Tulsa’s mainstream newspapers ran an incendiary story that framed the incident as an attempted rape. Looking for an excuse to utilize violence, a White mob gathered at the courthouse and demanded they be allowed to carry out vigilante justice. The police did not hand over Rowland but they failed to disperse the crowd while it was still manageable which allowed it to grow in size.

Upon hearing of the potential lynching, a group of approximately 25 armed Black men showed up to assist with protecting Rowland but were turned away. By the time a larger group of about 75 Black men returned, the White mob had grown to an estimated size of 1,500. Members of the two groups exchanged words and shots were fired. Some members of the mob were already armed with weapons while others stole weapons and ammunition.

After the group of armed Black men retreated to Greenwood the mob descended on the neighborhood and began wreaking havoc. The police had further escalated the situation by deputizing and arming some members of the rowdy White mob. Groups of armed White men indiscriminately opened fire on Black people on the street, killing many on sight. They forced their way into homes, looting possessions that they coveted in the belief that they were more deserving than the Black owners. Homes, businesses, and other establishments were destroyed with some burned to the ground or otherwise demolished.

Despite clearly being in a neighborhood that was not theirs, the White mob was not ordered to disperse or return home. Instead, for two days the mob was given free rein to plunder and pillage with no regard for Black lives or property ownership rights. Some survivors reported that planes flew overhead spraying bullets and dropping explosive devices containing kerosene or turpentine on Greenwood. There were also accounts of dead Black people being loaded onto trains, dumped into the river, and buried in mass graves.

When the National Guard arrived they helped put out fires but also contributed to the tumult by joining the local police in arresting Greenwood’s Black residents and holding them in internment camps. The local and state government did not provide any meaningful intervention to rescue Black residents or protect property during the massacre. They also didn’t provide any meaningful assistance once it ended. Greenwood was left a smoldering ruin with a devastated Black population due to its residents having been murdered, unjustly detained, or fleeing to save their lives.

The Aftermath

The NAACP, American Red Cross, churches, and some private White Tulsa citizens assisted with arranging short-term emergency housing and resources. As news of the massacre spread, the local government declined more long-term assistance that was offered by outside sources leaving Greenwood’s residents with the tremendous responsibility of rebuilding. The Red Cross organized relief efforts that took place over several months during which time the Red Cross’ director recorded accounts of the incident and its aftermath.

Official government records initially reported 36 casualties but the death toll was later increased to an estimate of 100-300 people. Approximately 9,000 Black residents were left homeless and the district suffered losses of $1.8 million ($26 million in today’s money). This should come as no surprise because leveling Greenwood and running off many of its residents was a way of clearing a path for external forces who hoped to take over the district. Within days property owners found themselves fending off White would-be profiteers who made insultingly lowball offers as part of their plan to carve up and repurpose the land for expansion of Tulsa’s business interests.

In the aftermath, the incident was initially referred to as a riot rather than a massacre in part due to it being a racial conflict. But, some sources believe this is also because insurance companies would not have been liable for paying claims resulting from property damaged during a riot versus during a massacre. No one was ever charged with or convicted of participating in the massacre.

The local mainstream press, police, and government began working to spin the story and suppress the truth about what had taken place. They went so far as to remove information and articles about the massacre from archives. Official reports provided a relatively low estimate of the number of lives lost. Local news articles fixated on the questionable story of the attempted rape and placed the blame on Greenwood’s Black population and rumors of a Black uprising. They ignored the culpability of racist Tulsans who were motivated by feelings of inferiority, jealousy, and covetousness. For decades the event was not included in Oklahoma’s textbooks or curriculum.

Yet, the memory of the Tulsa Race Massacre remained vividly imprinted on the minds of its Black survivors. It took several decades but renewed attention in the Tulsa Race Massacre eventually led to in-depth scholarly investigations. In 1997, the state government created the Race Riot Commission (later renamed the Race Massacre Commission) to investigate and the group released a report in 2001. The report provided updated estimates of deaths and the number of residents displaced by the massacre. It also provided several recommendations such as a limited excavation at a particular site to clarify if a mass grave was present and reparations to survivors and their descendants. Thus far none of the recommendations have been carried out.

Greenwood was eventually rebuilt but lacked its earlier shine and lost even more of its identity with the end of legal segregation in the 1960s. As with many other historically Black neighborhoods, the Greenwood District was affected by urban redevelopment in the 60s and 70s and in more recent years is becoming a victim of gentrification. Virtually none of the original Greenwood survives and much of rebuilt Greenwood has been redeveloped. But, a block of land was purchased and preserved by Edward Goodwin Sr. and is now home to the Greenwood Cultural Center which primarily houses exhibits about the history of Greenwood.

Bibliography

  1. “1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.” n.d. Tulsa Historical Society & Museum. Accessed April 16, 2020. https://www.tulsahistory.org/exhibit/1921-tulsa-race-massacre/.
  2. Brown, DeNeen L. 2018. “They Was Killing Black People: In Tulsa, One of the Worst Episodes of Racial Violence in U.S. History Still Haunts Black Wall Street.” The Washington Post. WP Company. September 28, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/.
  3. Clark, Alexis. 2019. “Tulsa’s ‘Black Wall Street’ Flourished as a Self-Contained Hub in Early 1900s.” History.com. A&E Television Networks. September 4, 2019. https://www.history.com/news/black-wall-street-tulsa-race-massacre.
  4. Fain, Kimberly. 2017. “The Devastation of Black Wall Street.” JSTOR Daily. JSTOR. July 5, 2017. https://daily.jstor.org/the-devastation-of-black-wall-street/.
  5. “Greenwood District, Tulsa.” 2020. Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. March 29, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenwood_District,_Tulsa.
  6. Lee, Kurtis. 2020. “Tulsa Finally Decides to Address 1921 Race Massacre with Search for Mass Grave.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times. February 5, 2020. https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2020-02-04/tulsa-set-to-excavate-bodies-from.

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