They Didn't Teach Us That In History Class: The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre


From the Revolutionary War through the Iraq War, hundreds of years are covered in history classes across the United States. While many teachers work hard to cover everything they can, there are a number of historical events that fall by the wayside. Unfortunately, many of those historical events that are neglected in educational environments are about the Black experience in America. As a result, many people don't learn about the race riots of 1967 or the 1985 MOVE Bombing until adulthood. However, the most undertaught event in American history is the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Racism in the midwestern city not only killed hundreds, but also destroyed the city's Greenwood District. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the tragic event and the sting of the violent attack still sits in the hearts of survivors and their descendants.

What is the Greenwood District?

According to numerous figures in the area at the time, Booker T. Washington bestowed the name "Black Wall Street" or "Negro Wall Street" upon the Greenwood District during the early 20th Century. However, the term "wall street" was not used back then in the same way that it is today. The Greenwood District was one of the richest enclaves of Black Americans in the country, but leaders in the community often didn't make their money through stocks. Many of the more financially successful Black Tulsans were small business owners. Dancehalls, barbershop proprietors, department store owners and restauranteurs brought in the big dollars. The economic opportunities that were available in Tulsa attracted Black Americans from across the south. Entrepreneurs such as O.W. Gurley came from states like Arkansas to own hotels, lease properties and much more.

What caused the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre?

Racism is the short answer to the question written above. However, there is a more exact answer. Prior to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, there was an uptick in the number of public lynchings that occurred across the country. From 1917 to the early portions of 1921, there was growing anger among Black communities and there was a push to stop these inhumane murders. Simply put, Black folks were tired of being blamed for the violence that white communities were inflicting upon them. Much like the summer of 1964, the summer of 2020 and events like it, there were three points in time that kind of tipped the scale and turned what happened into a historic event.

From the end 1920 to the beginning of 1921, there were two very public lynchings in Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Then, something happened on the evening of May 31. A young Black man named Dick Rowland entered an elevator at the Drexel Building in Tulsa. It is widely believed that Rowland tripped and bumped into a young white woman named Sarah Paige. In response, Paige screamed, the police were called and Rowland fled in fear of being killed. Rowland was eventually found, arrested and taken into police custody the next morning.

By the time Rowland was taken into police custody, several white media outlets had reported that Rowland sexually assaulted Paige despite their being no hard evidence to prove that claim. As a result, a group of white Tulsans stormed down to the courthouse and demanded that the police turn over Rowland, so that he could be beaten and more than likely lynched. In defense of Rowland, a group of Black World War I veterans also went down to the courthouse. Scholars have explained that the Black group was turned away and the white mob attempted to break into the armory nearby. Not long thereafter, the group of Black men returned with weapons and they were met by a much larger group of white men with men. A few shots were fired and the rest is history.

White mobs stormed into Black neighborhoods to burn down businesses, homes and whatever else they could find. A Red Cross estimate found that more than 1,200 homes were burned and another 200 were looted or damaged. As city officials put together plans to identify mass graves, it is still unclear just how many people died and thousands more were left homeless. The "Black Wall Street" that many had flocked to had been destroyed.

If the situation wasn't infuriating enough, police ultimately determined that Rowland stumbled into Paige. No charges were filed and Rowland was released.

What happened after the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre?

None of the criminals who burned down houses, churches and businesses were charged. Thankfully, the people of Tulsa, Oklahoma are resilient. Landmark venues like the Vernon AME Church and North End Barbershop were built back up. In fact, the entire Greenwood District was nearly rebuilt or refurbished by the 1940s with more than 200 business owners. Unfortunately, the Greenwood District faced another tragedy in the form of policy. Post-Great Depression policies largely excluded Black Americans and made it nearly impossible to pass on wealth from generation to generation. As a result, the "Black Wall Street" that was known in the 1920s and rebounded in the 1940s never reached its full potential. It never got a chance to be Atlanta, George or Baldwin Hills in California. Adding insult to injury, no survivor has received any type of financial assistance from the federal or state government.

Photo Credit: Getty Images


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