Ruins of the Greenwood District after the Tulsa, Oklahoma massacre of African Americans in June 1921. American National Red Cross photo collection.
WHI | Universal picture group | Getty Images
This week, a century ago, the richest black community in the United States was burned to the ground.
At the turn of the 20th century, the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma, became one of the first communities in the country to flourish from black entrepreneurs. The prosperous city, founded by many descendants of slaves, gained the reputation of the Black Wall Street of America and became a haven for African Americans in a heavily segregated city under the laws of Jim Crow.
On May 31, 1921, a white mob turned Greenwood upside down in one of the worst racial massacres in US history. Within a few hours, 35 square blocks of the vibrant black community were turned into glowing ashes. Countless blacks were killed – estimates range from 55 to more than 300 – and 1,000 homes and businesses were looted and set on fire.
A group of people looking at smoke in the distance from damaged property after the massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in June 1921.
Oklahoma Historical Society | Stock photos | Getty Images
For a long time, however, the massacre was barely mentioned in newspapers, textbooks and public and government talks. It was not until 2000 that the slaughter became part of the Oklahoma public school curriculum, and it was only in recent years that it entered American history books. The 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Commission was established in 1997 to conduct an investigation and officially released a report in 2001.
“The massacre has been actively covered up in the white Tulsa community for nearly half a century,” said Scott Ellsworth, professor of African American and African studies at the University of Michigan and author of The Ground Breaking on the Tulsa massacre.
“When I began my research in the 1970s, I found that official National Guard reports and other documents were missing,” Ellsworth said. “Tulsa’s two white dailies, they went out of their way for decades, not to mention the massacre. Researchers who tried to work on it in the early 1970s were threatened for their lives and careers.”
The body of an unidentified black victim of the Tulsa massacre lies in the street as a white man stands over him, Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 1, 1921.
Greenwood Cultural Center | Stock photos | Getty Images
In the week following the massacre, Tulsa’s police chief ordered officers to go to any photo studio in Tulsa and confiscate any images of the slaughter, Ellsworth said.
Those photos, which were later discovered and became the materials used by the Oklahoma Commission to investigate the massacre, eventually ended up on the lap of Michelle Place at the Tulsa Historical Society & Museum in 2001.
“It took me about four days to search the box because the photos were so horrible. I had never seen pictures like this before,” said Place. “I didn’t know about the uproar before I came here. I’ve never heard of that. Since I’ve been here, I’ve been at my desk to guard them to the best of my ability. “
Patients recovering from injuries sustained in the Tulsa massacre. American National Red Cross Photo Collection, November 1921.
Archive of World History | Universal picture group | Getty Images
The Tulsa Museum was established in the late 1990s, but visitors couldn’t find a trace of the racial massacre until 2012 when Place became Executive Director determined to tell all of Tulsa’s stories. A digital collection of the photographs was eventually made available online.
“There are still a significant number of people in our community who don’t want to watch it, who don’t want to talk about it,” said Place.
“The silence is complex”
According to Alicia Odewale, an archaeologist at Tulsa University, Tulsa city officials not only covered up the bloodbath, but also deliberately changed the narrative of the massacre, calling it “riot” and making the black community responsible for what went down did.
For a long time, the massacre was not discussed publicly in the Afro-American community either. First out of fear – once it happens, it can happen again.
“You see the perpetrators roaming the streets free,” said Odewale. “You are in Jim Crow South and at this time there are racist terrorist attacks across the country. You protect yourself for a reason. “
Furthermore, it became such a traumatic event for the survivors, and much like Holocaust survivors and WWII veterans, many of them did not want to burden their children and grandchildren with these horrific memories.
Ellsworth said he knew of descendants of survivors of the massacre who did not find out about it until their 40s and 50s.
“The silence is layered as the trauma is layered,” said Odewale. “The historical trauma is real, and this trauma persists mainly because there is no justice, no accountability, and no reparation or financial compensation.”
A truck transports African Americans during a racing massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA in 1921.
Alvin C. Krupnick Co. | National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) records | Library of Congress | via Reuters
What started the massacre?
On May 31, 1921, Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old black shoe shiner, tripped and fell into an elevator and his hand accidentally hit the shoulder of Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white operator. Page yelled and Rowland was seen running away.
The police were summoned, but Page refused to bring charges. That afternoon, however, there was already talk of lynching Rowland on the streets of white Tulsa. Tension then escalated after the white newspaper Tulsa Tribune published a cover story, “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl In Elevator,” alleging Rowland stalking, assault and rape.
The Tribune also had a now-lost editorial entitled “To Lynch Tonight,” according to Ellsworth. By the time the Works Progress Administration microfilmed the old editions of the Tribune in the 1930s, the comment had already been torn from the paper, Ellsworth said.
Many believe that newspaper coverage undoubtedly helped start the massacre.
People stand in front of the Black Wall Street T-Shirts and Souvenirs Store on North Greenwood Avenue in the Greenwood District of Tulsa Oklahoma, USA, June 23, 2020.
Christopher Creese | Bloomberg | Getty Images
For the Black Tulsans, the massacre resulted in declines in home ownership, professional status, and educational attainment, according to a recent study from the 1940s led by Harvard University’s Alex Albright.
Today there are few black shops left in the only remaining block in Greenwood that was once hailed as Black Wall Street.
That month, three survivors of the 1921 massacre – ages 100, 106, and 107 – appeared before a congressional committee and a Georgia congressman introduced a bill that would make it easier for them to seek redress.
Rev. Dr. Robert Turner of Historic Vernon Chapel AME Church holds his weekly reparations march ahead of the 100th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, United States, on May 26, 2021.
Polly Irungu | Reuters
Meanwhile, historians and archaeologists have continued to excavate what was lost for decades. In October, a mass grave was discovered in an Oklahoma cemetery that could be the remains of at least a dozen identified and unidentified African American massacre victims.
“We’re able to look for signs of survival and life. And really look for the remains of built Greenwood, not just how they died,” Odewale said. “Greenwood never left.”
– CNBC’s Yun Li is also the co-author of Eunice Hunton Carter: A Lifelong Struggle for Social Justice.