Overnight on May 31 and June 1, 1921, in a period of just about 12 hours, the single largest incident of racial violence in American history occurred in the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“More than a thousand African American homes and businesses were looted and burned to the ground; you had a thriving community occupying more than 35 square blocks in Tulsa that was totally destroyed,” Scott Ellsworth, the author of Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, told Quartz. “It looked like Hiroshima or Nagasaki afterwards.”
In a recently discovered account of the massacre, Buck Colbert Franklin, then a lawyer in Greenwood, paints a harrowing picture. “I could see planes circling in mid-air. They grew in number and hummed, darted and dipped low. I could hear something like hail falling upon the top of my office building,” he wrote. “Down East Archer, I saw the old Mid-Way hotel on fire, burning from its top, and then another and another and another building began to burn from their top.”
The destruction of Greenwood began as an attempted lynching of a Black teenager and turned into full-blown destruction perpetrated by a white mob. As many as 300 people were killed, more than 10,000 remained homeless, and according to the Tulsa Race Riot Report of 2001, an estimated $1,470,711 was incurred in damage—equal to about $20 million today.
Despite the gravity of the event, like other important chapters of African-American history, the Tulsa race massacre was all but deleted from the US’s collective memory for decades. Ellsworth’s book, published in 1982, was the first comprehensive history of the massacre. (“My book was the most stolen book out of the Tulsa City-County library system,” he remembered).
This might be why US president Donald Trump didn’t think it would be inappropriate to hold a political rally in Tulsa on June 19, celebrated as Juneteenth, the day marking the end of slavery. That the president could be so oblivious about this great tragedy in 2020 shows just how effective white supremacy has been in suppressing this episode in US history. (The rally was then moved to June 20, following criticism and protests for the date.)
In the 99 years since, no one has been held to account, and no one has fully calculated how much was lost that day.
The spark of the massacre was the attempts of whites living in Tulsa—by then already a booming city, known as “the oil capital of the world”—to lynch a 19-year-old African American falsely accused of trying to rape a white teenage elevator operator.
But beneath it there was something else, too: white jealousy. Greenwood was a thriving Black community of about 10,000 at an especially perilous time for African Americans, when the second Ku Klux Klan held power far beyond the Southern states, with representatives in local and state governments in New Jersey, Oregon, and Indiana. Some Black families had accumulated enough wealth to own large homes, automobiles, hotels, businesses—enough to generate racist anger from whites who didn’t think African-Americans were entitled to prosperity, according to Ellsworth and other researchers who compiled the 2001 riot commission’s report.
The Williams family, for instance, owned the Dreamland Theater, an automobile, and a three-story brick building with apartments and offices of lawyers and a confectionery on the bottom floor. J.B. Stradford, a man from Indiana who had invested in Greenwood, owned a 54-room hotel.
“There were people who did quite well, who lived in nice two-story homes with pianos and chandeliers and nice furniture,” Ellsworth said. “(But) it’s important to remember though that the vast majority of people who lived in Greenwood were poor, and they lived in shanties and shacks.” Only months before the massacre, the National Association of Social Workers had a meeting in Tulsa and found that about 90% of the African American population lived without indoor plumbing.
While Greenwood was a thriving community, and one that African Americans knew about and were attracted to, it didn’t truly compare to more prosperous Black communities, such as Harlem’s in New York City. Still, the African American community was long established in Oklahoma—which, like other Indian territories, had been a destination for escaped slaves—and when the massacre occurred it was just over a decade into profiting from the oil boom that had transformed Tulsa from a village into a city of hundreds of thousands in only a few years.
In 1922, when she wrote Events of the Tulsa Disaster, Greenwood survivor Mary E. Jones Parrish referred to Greenwood—and specifically the commercial district in the southern end of Greenwood avenue— as “the Negros’ Wall Street.” This was more a metaphor than a description, nor was it a common moniker for the area. “She didn’t mean that there were brokerage houses and investment [institutions],” Ellsworth said. “There wasn’t a bank in Greenwood at the time.”
Still, the nickname stuck, and in the 1980s, Oklahoma state representative Don Ross, who was instrumental in bringing national attention to the history of the massacre, made the expression “Black Wall Street” broadly known.
Perhaps just as shocking as the violence and disaster itself is the fact that, until somewhat recently, it was all but forgotten. The first time the massacre was mentioned on national television, Ellsworth said, was in 1996, on its 75th anniversary. An extensive report on the incident was filed by a commission established by the state of Oklahoma to report on the massacre only in 2001, 80 years later.
At the time, the commission was able to identify about 100 living survivors, and recommended giving them financial reparations. They first tried a political approach, hoping to persuade local and state governments to pass proposals for reparations, and then legal action. “We failed in each case,” said Ellsworth. The local government had no intention of paying monetary reparations, and the suits filed in the US district court were dismissed due to statute of limitations. This left Tulsa’s Black community essentially without justice: Nearly a century since the event, nobody has been in any way held accountable for it.
Things might have turned out differently if there hadn’t been, for decades, an active suppression of the accounts by anyone except the Black community.
“For 50 years, neither of Tulsa’s daily, white newspapers would mention the riot, and they would go to extreme lengths not to mention it,” Ellsworth said. The reason was as much a racist dismissal of the suffering caused by the incident as it was an effort to avoid tarnishing the reputation of Tulsa and Oklahoma, according to an essay Ellsworth co-wrote with famed historian John Franklin—the son of Greenwood lawyer Buck Franklin—for the Oklahoma Tulsa Race Riot Report.
In the essay, the authors mention many instances in which the memory of the riot was suppressed. For instance, a column in the Tulsa Tribune (pdf, p. 26) reconstructing June 1, 1921 in Tulsa, published exactly 15 years from the day of the massacre, didn’t make any mention of it.
Some African Americans over the years attempted to get the story out, but attempts were met with forceful denial. In the 1940s, for instance, a Jewish sociologist at a Tulsa university who had heard about the massacre from the Black community invited a survivor to her class to talk about it to her white students, says Ellsworth, and her dean threatened to fire her for it. As late as 1979, a researcher received death threats for working on the history of the massacre, said Ellsworth.
Because of the historical suppression, much about June 1, 1921 remains unknown. To this day there is no certainty about how many people were killed. In 2001, the commission working on the riot was able to identify 39 dead, but reasonable estimates go as high as 300 people.
An archeological excavation planned by the University of Oklahoma for July 13, resulting from two decades of research, is expected to find the site of a mass grave of victims. It is the researchers’ hope that it will help giving a more accurate account of the human losses.
The history of Greenwood isn’t just one of whites destroying what Blacks had built: it is, rather, a story of resilience, and of the ability African American communities to rise from literal ashes—bigger, and better.
The massacre was not, in fact, the end of Greenwood: By the 1930s, the area was thriving once again, wealthier than ever before despite the losses and devastation. The district flourished until after World War II, when changes in society—including desegregation, urban redesign, and competition from large-scale white businesses—led to its demise.
After the riots, the city government tried to seize land in Greenwood to build a railroad station, but lost the case in court. Afterward, the reconstruction began, thanks to the steady influx of money brought in by black workers who had steady jobs in the white parts of town but didn’t spend their salaries there. Curiously, too, the fact that there wasn’t a bank in Greenwood at the time of the riots turned out to be a small mercy: some Black business owners could recover their savings, which were held in a part of town that hadn’t been destroyed.
With no help from the city, African Americans were still able to rebuild their community, even if many had to first pay out the losses they incurred in them massacre, as insurances refused to cover the damage. The events were labeled as “riots” likely to provide insurance with an excuse not to compensate business owners for the losses, according to the Tulsa Historical Society.
“It’s remarkable: By 1923, the Greenwood commercial district was well on the way to being rebuilt,” Ellsworth said. “The vast majority of Black folks refused to leave the city after this horrific holocaust. That is an amazing human accomplishment, and it is a great testament to human perseverance and endurance against all odds.”