AFRICANGLOBE – At the start of the roaring twenties, Tulsa, Oklahoma housed America’s wealthiest Black community. But on the night of June 1, Tulsa became the site of one of the worst hate crimes in US history as white rioters took to the streets to act out horrific violence.
The 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, otherwise known as the Destruction of Black Wall Street, encompassed the mass murder of as many as 300 affluent African American residents of Tulsa’s thriving Greenwood Avenue business district and the firebombing of approximately 1,200 homes and businesses between May 31 and June 1. An estimated 10,000 were left homeless in the aftermath of the attack.
The massacre came on the heels of the alleged assault of a white elevator operator by a Black man. The local white newspapers at the time flamed tensions, supposedly even calling for a “lynching,” but historical documents and research show that there was very likely no attack at all. However, the supposed assault was quickly used as an excuse to destroy the prosperous Greenwood neighborhood and all the Black citizens living there.
As CBS reported in the below segment, city officials seemed to be in on the mob, focusing on disarming and detaining Black citizens rather than working to contain the blaze or subdue the white rioters.
During the massacre, mobs of white rioters went door to door throughout Greenwood’s 35 blocks, disarmed the residents, ransacked their homes, and then set them ablaze. White rioters even took to the skies, firebombing houses from small planes. Oklahoma lawyer Buck Colbert Franklin described the horrific attack in his autobiography.
“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. 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 governor’s response was to declare martial law, calling in the national guard to arrest and imprison all the remaining Black Greenwood residents, jailing them for up to eight days.
Following the riots, 57 Black people were arrested for rioting, with no white people being prosecuted. The men, women, and children who were killed were thrown into mass graves, with orders from city officials to not conduct any funeral or burial ceremonies. Despite some promises to rebuild Greenwood, city ordinances were passed to discriminate against them and prevent the rebuilding of burned properties.
The violence of the Tulsa Race Riot was forgotten among history, remembered only as a “taboo” topic not to be discussed in classrooms. It wasn’t until 1996 when the Oklahoma legislature agreed to commission a historical record of the terrorist attack, along with compensatory programs for the descendants of those murdered in the senseless massacre, with the report finally being published in 2001.
Even 85 years after the attack, some legislators balked at the idea of reparations for Greenwood’s descendants, arguing it was unconstitutional. In 2010, the legislature commissioned a park to be built in the Greenwood district, along with a memorial to honor those slaughtered.
On June 1, after Americans celebrated Memorial Day, it’s important to also memorialize those massacred simply for the crime of having darker skin and daring to share economic prosperity with white people. America can only move on from its violent and hateful past by making sure the victims of its most violent and senseless acts are never forgotten.
By: Zach Cartwright