The Tulsa Race Massacre Matters 100 Years Later
It was a safe space for Black soldiers to make a home and build families after they returned from fighting in the Civil War and later in World War I. In that time, the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma had risen from dirt plots to a thriving Black community, a place of wealth and prosperity with banks, theaters, schools and markets. What took decades to build was reduced to rubble in just 18 hours when a white mob armed to the hilt launched one of the deadliest attacks on the country’s Black population in a single day.
It was also two days that would be largely forgotten, intentionally…Photograph of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma before the massacre of May 31 and June 1 of 1921. (Photo courtesy of Tulsa World)
People raised not far from the old Greenwood District, and definitely those far and wide, would grow up oblivious to what happened on that Tuesday and Wednesday in 1921. They weren’t told that there were more than 300 women, children and men killed over those two days, that real and hopeful progress was demolished in seconds, that thousands of Black citizens who survived were interned and left homeless into the winter — people never knew because it was never taught.
Today, President Joe Biden faced that anniversary in a way no other president has in U.S. history. He met with survivors and publicly acknowledged what happened there. He brought context to that place, in an official way, in all its glory and demise, to life.
We say it was more than 300 killed because we genuinely don’t know how many unwitting people died in the attack, because the history of the event was erased and the bodies were left uncounted in mass graves.
Just now, 100 years later, people are excavating the graves in an attempt to understand the velocity of that tragic moment, when a neighborhood dubbed ‘Black Wall Street’ was taken down to no more than the dirt plots it rose from.
It all started when a 19-year old Black shoeshiner by the name of Dick Rowland was charged with assaulting Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white girl, in an elevator. Rowland, who was later released and exonerated, was arrested and it was widely known he’d be lynched, so the people of Greenwood descended on the jail to protect him, some of which were armed Black soldiers.
Taking exception to the Black resistance, a large group of angry white men were deputized to take their revenge on the town of Greenwood. With planes, guns and hoods, the white mob attacked the town, killing people at will, women and children alike. Bombs dropped and destroyed an oasis built from nothing into everything.
The Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma after the May 31-June 1, 1921 massacre on the thriving Black community by a white mob. (Photo courtesy of the Oklahoma Historical Society)
The people left behind, alive, were interned and only released by voucher of a white person.
It took just 18 hours to make very independent people very dependent, and there’s no part of that doesn’t suck.
When we talk about reparations, like our governor and president sort of did today, we’re talking about Greenwood, and Rosewood, and the multitudes of places that represented what life could be…if they weren’t robbed of being.