The Tulsa Race Massacre Was Almost Erased From History
A destructive and deadly riot obliterated Tulsa’s Greenwood area, known as Black Wall Street, because of its concentration of Black-owned businesses and prosperity, during the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. The victims were promptly buried in unmarked graves, and a silent movement to eradicate the memory of the massacre began.
The Tulsa Race Massacre was one in a string of mob attacks against Black neighborhoods in the early twentieth century, although it was not unusual at the time. Tulsa’s dark chapter began on May 31, 1921, when Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old Black shoe shiner, was arrested for the alleged sexual harassment of Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white elevator operator.
With the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, which by the mid-1920s had an estimated 100,000 supporters in Oklahoma, Black Greenwood citizens became painfully aware of white gang activity. Armed Black men, many of whom were World War I veterans, stood to watch at the courtroom where Rowland was being held to prevent him from being lynched.
A furious mob of white men then arrived as tensions increased, and the outnumbered Black guards fled to Greenwood. On the morning of June 1, crowds of white men arrived in Greenwood, looting houses, torching shops, and shooting African Americans. An eyewitness account from Buck Colbert Franklin detailed what he saw:
“Lurid flames roared and belched and licked their forked tongues into the air. Smoke ascended the sky in thick, black volumes, and amid it all, the planes — now a dozen or more in number — still hummed and darted here and there with the agility of natural birds of the air.
The side-walks were literally covered with burning turpentine balls. I knew all too well where they came from, and I knew all too well why every burning building first caught from the top. I paused and waited for an opportune time to escape. ‘Where oh where is our splendid fire department with its half dozen stations?’ I asked myself. ‘Is the city in conspiracy with the mob?’”
During the massacre, the Oklahoma National Guard detained at least 4,000 Black people and placed them in internment camps under martial law while their homes and businesses were set on fire. Survivors’ historical accounts say that scores of shooting victims were later buried in unmarked graves, unbeknownst to those who had been held for days and had no idea where any of the victims had been buried.
According to historical reports, the mob demolished 35 square miles, burning the entire commercial district and 1,200 houses. While the precise number of casualties is unclear, the shooting is said to have killed 300 people, the bulk of whom were African Americans. Although a few Black people have been charged with riot-related crimes, no white Tulsa residents have ever been convicted of murder or looting.
The riot weighed poorly on Tulsa, which was struggling to preserve its position as the world’s oil capital. It wasn’t included in history books or newspapers for decades, and it wasn’t widely addressed in both the Black and white communities.
Officials tried to eliminate the event from the historical record. White residents refused to accept that relatives or associates had taken part in the shooting, and Black residents refused to pass on their sorrow to their children. It was an infamously dark day in American history.
State lawmakers formed a commission to study the massacre following several simultaneous incidents in the 1990s. They included the Oklahoma City bombing, which saturated the state with reporters, who then heard about the Tulsa Race Massacre for the 75th anniversary, and Black city officials who sought to collect the oral histories of elderly survivors and demand reparations for the victims.
Tulsa Race Riot, the commission’s final report, released in February 2001, identified three likely mass grave sites: Oaklawn Cemetery, Newblock Park, and Booker T. Washington Cemetery (later renamed Rolling Oaks Memorial Gardens).
At the locations, the commission’s forensic archaeologists used ground-penetrating radar and uncovered anomalies associated with mass graves. However, internal disputes within the commission and numerous problems related to the grave searches caused the inquiry to be postponed for years.