Today is the Centennial anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. Because America takes pride in erasing parts of our history that do not suit us, many people had never heard of the Tulsa Race Massacre until recently. The reports around what started the massacre are murky, but we do know that a white woman named Sarah Page, an elevator operator, screamed when a young Black man named Dick Rowland entered the elevator. Accused of sexual assault, Dick Rowland was arrested the following day. This was 1921, and Tulsa, Oklahoma like many American cities was segregated, and the roughly 10,000 Black residents lived in Greenwood. Within their neighborhood, there was a highly prosperous business district, nicknamed “Black Wall Street.”
As tensions increased, and a white mob formed demanding that the sheriff hand over Dick Rowland for vigilante justice. The sheriff refused, and had his men barricade the courthouse to protect Dick Rowland. A group of about 25 armed Black men went to the courthouse to aid in his protection. Upon hearing rumors of a lynching, 75 additional Black men went to the courthouse where they were met by 1500 white men, some who were armed. Shots were fired, and over the next 18 hours, white Tulsans (many who were deputized, and armed by city officials) committed murder, looted, and vandalized homes and businesses in the Greenwood district.
This white hysteria was fueled by rumors of a Black uprising against white people. Firefighters who arrived to help were threatened with violence if they intervened. In the ensuing violence, thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed, and it’s estimated that 300 lives were lost. Though Oklahoma officially recorded it as 36 lives; 8000 people were made homeless that night. After the massacre, the charges against Dick Rowland were dropped. They assumed he must have bumped into her or stepped on her foot. The Tulsa Race Massacre was erased from history. The Tulsa Tribune that first reported on the sexual assault, removed that front page from its bound volumes, and the state and police archives about the massacre were also missing.
But what really happened during those 18 hours was not just the loss of life, but the loss of wealth. It took years for the Black community to rebuild, and they couldn’t rebuild what they had lost. Government and local officials refused to invest in the Greenwood community; now 100 years later only 1.2% of businesses in Tulsa are Black-owned. Contrary to popular belief, wealth is historically generational. See, Black Wall Street was outperforming its white neighbors and that was something that couldn’t continue to happen. The Tulsa Race Massacre might have started because of a false accusation, but it was fueled by jealousy and hatred.
The unfortunate truth is that The Tulsa Race Massacre is not an isolated incident in American history. Race massacres happened in Rosewood, Florida, Colifax, Lousiana, Atlanta, Georgia, Elaine, Arkansas, and Wilmington, North Carolina. But with America’s history of covering up the truth, we’ll never know the true number. It’s taken almost 100 years, for the descendants of the Tulsa Race Massacre to get any recognition of what their ancestors went through. No reparations have been paid, even though under international human rights law governments have an obligation to provide effective remedies for violations of human rights.
This week Republicans blocked the formation of a commission to study the attempted coup on January 6th, that put many of their lives in danger. Is it any wonder that these events get swept under the rug? Every country, has bloody and messy parts of its history. But if you don’t learn your history your bound to repeat it.
This is a really helpful and informative blog — remembering the past as a source of strength & perspective for the future. Thanks as always for breaking this down in such an accessible & lucid way!