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Tulsa 1921 Revisited

Tulsa 1921 Revisited

            Robert A. Levine

During the Jim Crow era in the United States, stretching from the end of Reconstruction through World War II, lynchings were common in the South, analysts believing they averaged about three per week. However, there were also a number of massacres of multiple Blacks by whites occurring for various reasons. Envy of Black entrepreneurs and shopkeepers by poor whites was one of the driving forces as they did not want to see Blacks who were wealthier and more successful than they were. One of the most appalling of these racial massacres took place in the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma over a century ago during about an eighteen hour period on May 31 and June 1, 1921. The Greenwood area of Tulsa with about 10,000 residents had been known as the Black Wall Street because of the large number of successful businesses and affluent men and women, some of whom lived in beautiful homes. Tulsa was a thriving city of about 100,000 people that was greatly segregated and had high crime rates. The oil boom flooded the city with money and many Southerners migrated there for jobs.

Prior to the vehement white action against Greenwood, there was a story circulating that a Black teenager had sexually assaulted a white female elevator operator and had been arrested by the police. When a white mob assembled around the courthouse and demanded that the sheriff hand over the supposed perpetrator to them, the sheriff refused, barricading the building and angering the mob. Seventy-five armed Black men gathered near the courthouse and asked the sheriff to let them aid him in protecting the teenager, but he turned them down. At the same time, the white mob at the courthouse grew to about 1500 men, many of them also armed. Some shots were fired and in the ensuing chaos, the Black men withdrew to Greenwood. More white Tulsans arrived at the scene and some of them were deputized by city officials and given weapons. Groups of these white men engaged in many violent acts against peaceful Blacks, including murder.

False rumors then spread that a major insurrection by armed Black Tulsans had started, with Black reinforcements from neighboring towns and cities. By morning, thousands of white men with weapons surged into the Greenwood section, looting and torching homes and businesses over an area of thirty-five city blocks. Firefighters who tried to put out some of the fires were threatened by the white mob and had to withdraw. Some days later, the Red Cross estimated that over 1200 homes were burned, with an additional 215 looted. In addition, two newspapers, a school, a library, a hospital, churches, hotels and numerous businesses owned by Blacks were destroyed by arson. Though the official count noted 36 deaths, historians have put the death toll at over 300, the vast majority being Black, and over 8,000 were made homeless. The Tulsa massacre was believed to have been one of the worst riots in American history, though it was virtually unknown until recent years.

Officials in Tulsa and Oklahoma downplayed the event right from the beginning, hoping to keep the stigma of the massacre from interfering with the city’s economic growth. The cover-up included removing the newspaper archives in Tulsa with reports about the riot, and removing the police and National Guard reports relating to the massacre. There was little about it in the history books and nothing about it was taught in the schools. From the 70s on, however, more information about the massacre was obtained by scholars and historians and in 1997, a state government commission was formed to investigate the massacre to present a reliable depiction of what had happened. Of interest, the Black teenager was released from jail without a trial when the white elevator girl denied that he had sexually assaulted her.

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