In the History Corner… The Tulsa Massacre of 1921

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Smoldering ruins of African American homes following race riots in Tulsa, OK in 1921. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress)

During May 31 and June 1, 1921, white residents of Tulsa, Oklahoma, with assistance from local officials, engaged in a massacre that resulted in the destruction of Black homes and businesses as well as Black lives, up to perhaps 300 people. The prosperous district of town in which Black people lived, “Greenwood,” was burned to the ground and many of its residents rounded-up and interned.

The pretext for the massacre was an allegation that a Black male youth, Dick Rowland, had molested a young white female elevator operator, Sarah Page. Rowland was arrested and a white mob of several hundred quickly assembled with the intent of lynching him. Before that could happen, however, a group of roughly 75 Black men assembled to prevent the lynching. One of the white men then fired a shot, leading to a gun battle in which 10 whites and 2 Blacks were killed.

As news of the incident spread, thousands of whites armed themselves and attacked Black homes, businesses, and people. Burning, shooting, and bombing took place over a two-day period. There were even airplanes used to carry-out the bombing and burning.

Eventually, Oklahoma National Guard troops were called out by the governor. That ended the massacre, but the damage had been done. More than 800 residents had been wounded and up to 300 killed. More than 1,000 had been rounded-up and interned for several days. Ten thousand were left homeless and blocks of businesses, “Black Wall Street,” had been destroyed. The incident, itself, was kept out of the history books for years, but the memory was seared in the minds of survivors for a lifetime.

Although it is not something to be celebrated, the Tulsa Massacre must never be forgotten. Along with massacres in other places, such as New York City in 1863; Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898; the Red Summer Riots in 1919; Rosewood, Florida in 1923; and Detroit, Michigan in 1943, one can learn the extent to which racist white people will go in their opposition to Black people, especially to Black people acquiring wealth or political power.

It is this realization that underlies the wresting of this land from the Native Americans and slave labor from African people. It is this realization that led to the rise of the KKK and other such organizations. It is this realization that led the FBI to warn America that the greatest threat faced by the country now is the terrorism of white extremists.

In short, as Black Americans celebrate Memorial Day, they should not forget Tulsa, Oklahoma and how to be alert and prepared for the dangers of white racial violence, lest history repeats itself.

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In the History Corner… The Tulsa Massacre of 1921

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
June 13, 2021