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What Was the Tulsa Race Massacre and Why Does it Still Haunt the City?

Tulsa Race Massacre
To this day, nobody knows for sure how Black men and women were killed during the Tulsa Race Massacre. For decades the city of Tulsa refused to even acknowledge what happened. Library of Congress/HowStuffWorks

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In Tulsa, Oklahoma, a group of scientists and historians is on the verge of unearthing a chunk of the city's past that long has been buried, and one that some people may prefer to keep that way: the worst incident of interracial violence in American history.

Beginning May 31, 1921, thousands of armed white Tulsans invaded the Black section of the booming oil town, terrorizing its residents, looting their homes and businesses, and burning to the ground some 35 square blocks of the city. Before the rampage was over, more than 10,000 Black people were left homeless and more than 6,000 were interned in camps where they'd stay, in some cases, for months.

"To this day, we don't know how many died," explains Scott Ellsworth, a native Tulsan and a professor of African American history at the University of Michigan. Ellsworth is the author of the 1982 book "Death in a Promised Land," one of the first books to take a comprehensive, historical look at the Tulsa Race Massacre — previously called the Tulsa Race Riot — of 1921. "Reasonable estimates range from, I would say 40, to as high as 300."

When it is excavated in July 2020, an unmarked, suspected mass grave in a Tulsa cemetery may provide a few answers to exactly what happened over two days in 1921. It will be, for many, a literal reopening of a wound that has festered within the city for nearly a century.

Tulsa Race Massacre
Part of the Greenwood District is seen here after it was burned and looted by armed white men in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Universal History Archive/Universal History Archive/Getty Images

A History of the Tulsa Race Massacre

The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 did not, in a word often used to describe such events, "erupt." The city, probably more accurately, simply reached what now seems an inevitable breaking point.

In early 1921, Tulsa was awash with cash from the oil boom. The good times reached into the north section of the city, dominated by African Americans. That area — later to be known as "the Black Wall Street" — contained 191 businesses, including hotels, a feed store, a roller rink, cleaners, mom and pop stores, and restaurants, plus offices for doctors, dentists and lawyers. The area had at least five churches, too, a library, a movie theater and hospital.

Like the rest of the city at the time, the Black area — also known as Greenwood — had its problems. Alcohol, even under Prohibition, was readily available. Illegal drugs were easy to find, too, as were gambling and prostitution. The city as a whole — not just Greenwood — struggled with crime and punishment. Less than a year before, an angry mob had lynched a man.

Maybe the biggest problem, though, was one that still plagues many parts of the United States. Though in 1921, thousands of Black Americans had just returned from fighting World War I, racial violence against Blacks was commonplace. Segregation, strictly against the law, still was a fact of life. Racial equality remained nothing more than a dream for African Americans.

And many white Americans wanted to keep it that way.

"During the weeks and months leading up to the riot, there were more than a few white Tulsans who not only feared that the color line was in danger of being slowly erased," Ellsworth wrote in a 2001 report on the then-called "riot," commissioned by the state of Oklahoma, "but believed that this was already happening."

How the Fuse Was Lit

Into that explosive milieu, a Black teenaged boy working as a shoe-shiner had a brief run-in with a white teenaged girl operating an elevator. The fuse was lit.

The boy was taken into custody. A group of more than 2,000 angry whites — some intent on lynching him (possibly prompted by an editorial in a white newspaper) — gathered on the courthouse steps, some armed Black war veterans and others squared off with them there, and soon shots were fired. Whites all over the city began their march on the Greenwood area to tamp down what many whites saw as a "Negro uprising."

"There's a story of a Black couple, elderly, living on the edge of town, whites broke into their room, and the man and woman were praying, kneeling before their bed, saying their evening prayers," Ellsworth recounts, "and the whites came in and murdered them both, shooting them in the back of their heads."

The terror went on for 18 hours, into June 1, the atrocities too numerous to list. Despite their sworn duty to serve and protect, Tulsa police (and no government agency) assisted at all. In fact, Tulsa police officers helped set some fires and an all-white unit of the National Guard joined the white invaders. Other public officials provided guns and ammo to white men. The KKK got involved. A semi-functioning machine gun was used on Black Tulsans. Airplanes dropped "turpentine balls," destroying more buildings.

Despite being largely outnumbered, Black Tulsans fought to protect their homes and businesses — and most of all Greenwood. But in the end, scores of Blacks — and even some whites — were killed, and Greenwood was left in ruins. The exact numbers of injured and dead, even after what's to be uncovered in three suspected mass graves, may never be known.

It's still unclear, looking back, exactly what happened between Dick Rowland, the Black boy, and Sarah Page, the white elevator operator, to spark the massacre.

This though, is known: She refused to bring charges. Rowland was vindicated.

Tulsa Race Massacre
The Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was burned to the ground in 1921 during what's become known as the Tulsa Race Massacre.
Library of Congress/HowStuffWorks

Facing a Troubled Past

For years, Tulsa refused to acknowledge in any meaningful way what happened in 1921. Nobody has ever been charged or prosecuted for the crimes that occurred during those 18 or so hours. Even those who grew up there — Ellsworth included — were not taught that part of the city's history. The Tulsa Race Massacre became a terrible, closely held secret.

That began to change with some earlier work and Ellsworth's "Death in a Promised Land." In 1995, when members of the national media descended on Oklahoma City after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, they were informed of another, more terrible episode of domestic terrorism in the state's history. More news accounts and more books on the massacre followed, and in 2019, the HBO comic book superhero series Watchmen, inspired in part by Tulsa 1921, enlightened many more to the story.

Ellsworth is working on a new book that centers on Tulsa's decadeslong cover-up of the event, titled "The Groundbreaking: An American City and Its Search for Justice." It's due out in May 2021, around the 100th anniversary of the massacre.

Tulsa's failed efforts to come to grips with its deadly past clearly has left scars of its own.

"The city was robbed of its honesty. You have entire generations growing up in Tulsa who have never heard of this. You have people growing up with a false reality, a false vision, of the land they were on," he says. "I mean, imagine if, today, right now, that you had young people growing up in Manhattan who have never heard of 9/11, that there were no books to talk about 9/11, that it's as if it didn't exist. The race massacre was a gigantic myth in the history of Tulsa. It was deliberately buried for a long time."

Next month — after the unearthing of one of at least three suspected mass graves in Tulsa — will mark another step in the long road to understanding and, perhaps one day, recovery.

"I know that this has been a process that has been going on for a while now. It's caused people to kind of reevaluate how they look at the past, how they look at their town and what's going on," Ellsworth says. "I think that's been a liberating process for some people. It's been a very difficult one for others."

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