“Everything was burned down to the ground”: The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre

Today’s post was written by Bob Nowatzki, Archives Technician in Research Services at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.

**Please note some of the images are graphic and disturbing, but we include them as  important evidence in the historical record.**

The Tulsa Race Massacre of May 31-June 1, 1921 was one of the deadliest attacks on an African American community in U.S. history. It happened during one of the worst periods of racially motivated violence against Black Americans, the years immediately following the end of World War I in 1918.

view of a street w/burned out/destroyed buildings
“Ruins, June 1921”. Photograph of the aftermath of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. (NAID 157670060, image 177)

Before the massacre, Tulsa’s Greenwood District, nicknamed the “Black Wall Street,” was the home of many successful Black-owned businesses as well as a prosperous African American residential neighborhood. As often happened during this period, Black success was punished by violence from whites in the form of murder, arson, and other destructive acts targeting African Americans. Also typical of this period of racial violence was that a false allegation of a Black man sexually assaulting a white woman was used as a pretext for white-on-black racial terrorism.

The event that sparked the violence on May 31 was an ambiguous encounter on the day before in the elevator of the Drexel Building between Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old Black bootblack, and Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white woman who operated the elevator. A rumor soon began circulating that Rowland had assaulted Page in the elevator. Rowland was taken into custody in the Tulsa city jail and later the Tulsa County Courthouse jail. The local newspaper, the Tulsa Tribune, fanned the flames of racial animosity by printing an editorial that warned of a lynching. A white mob formed outside of the jail where Rowland was held, and a group of about 50 armed Black men formed to prevent a lynching. These men went to the courthouse to offer their support to the sheriff but were turned down. One report stated that a member of the white mob confronted one of the Black men and a shot was fired. This shot was immediately followed by a barrage of gunfire between the two armed groups. The violence escalated as the white mob killed many African American residents, forced others out of their homes, and burned many of the business buildings, churches, and homes in the Greenwood District. The entire commercial district of Greenwood was destroyed.  African American survivors whose homes were destroyed either fled to another community or lived in tent villages outside the Greenwood District. According to a report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, several eyewitnesses reported seeing airplanes flying over the Greenwood district, and that shots were fired on Black people from some planes. Other eyewitnesses claimed that explosives or inflammables were dropped from the air.

aerial view of city w/thick dark smoke clouds coming from buildings
Little Africa on fire, Tulsa, Okla. Race riot, June 1st, 1921 (Library of Congress)

Although not all historians agree on the actual numbers of deaths and property damage, the report by the Oklahoma Commission estimated the death toll of African Americans to be as high as 300 and damage to 191 Black-owned businesses properties in Greenwood at around $1,500,000 (the equivalent of about $22,000,000 in 2021). Personal property losses in Greenwood, including over 1,000 homes that were burned to the ground, were estimated at $750,000 (about $11,000,000 in 2021). In addition, in December 1921 the American National Red Cross’s Disaster Relief Report (NAID 157670060) estimated that approximately 10,000 people became homeless as a result of the massacre. No victims were compensated for their losses, and no one who participated in this massacre was charged.

The near total erasure of this horrific event from  historical narratives covering this period reveals how politically motivated historical accounts can be. For most of the past 100 years, the massacre was not mentioned in historical textbooks, and no copy of the inflammatory Tulsa Tribune editorial, “To Lynch Negro Tonight,” has survived. Although the survivors of this massacre have remembered the event all too well, their numbers have inevitably been reduced by the passage of time.  In May 2018, on the 97th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre, the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park was dedicated. This park, which was built in the Greenwood District, is named after the famous African American historian who grew up in Tulsa and whose father, Buck Colbert Franklin, was a respected lawyer who represented the victims of the massacre. Fortunately, there are records in the National Archives, as well as other resources listed below, that can help us keep the memory of this event and its survivors alive.

men in overalls sifting through building rubble w/shovels
“Searching for bodies in ruins of Gurley Hotel.” Photograph of the aftermath of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre (NAID 157670060, image 181)

NARA Records and Resources:

Other Resources:

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