It's been 101 years since a white mob descended upon Greenwood District also known as the "Black Wall Street" — a predominantly Black area of Tulsa, Oklahoma — leaving dozens dead and a once flourishing area completely decimated. Businesses in the Greenwood District were burned and looted; thousands of Black citizens were left displaced and many residents ended up leaving the area, some never to return.
But, there is some hope in making sure the devastation in Tulsa doesn't fade into history.
Before we look at all the progress that's been made since those gruesome days of May 31, 1921, and June 1, 1921, let's look at why the Tulsa Race Massacre was left as a question mark in history for so many generations.
Decades of Silence
Not only were there years of the Tulsa race massacre not even mentioned, but there were deliberate efforts to cover up the atrocity. Oklahoma schools never taught the incident in school for decades, it was rarely mentioned in history books, and records of the riot were mostly erased from law enforcement and state militia archives.
According to NPR, local officials in the 1920s threatened Black Greenwood residents with violence if they tried to raise concerns over what happened. Not only that, but the trauma suffered by Black survivors, their loved ones, and their descendants was too painful to address. It became taboo in Tulsa.
"If you visit the city's local library to look at contemporary accounts of those two days, you'll find big holes in Tulsa's papers where stories about the carnage had been clipped out. And it wasn't discussed," reporters wrote. "White Tulsa was embarrassed: The massacre was a serious blot on many civic-minded Tulsans' interest in being seen as a sleek metropolis, not a lawless frontier town."
There weren't even ceremonies or memorials to commemorate the dead or what happened in 1921 -- until the 50th anniversary in 1971.
Revealing More Of The Truth
Scholars and historians started becoming interested in the Tulsa race massacre after generations of silence from both survivors and officials. Efforts to commemorate the massacre didn't come for another few decades.
In 1996, a service was held at Mount Zion Baptist Church on the riot's 75h anniversary. A memorial was placed in front of the Greenwood Cultural Center, and the following year, some initiative was happening on the government level. Oklahoma created a state commission dedicated to investigating the Tulsa race massacre, which was composed of scientists and historians tasked with looking into buried stories. One of their duties was to also look into the numerous victims buried in unmarked graves.
Come 2001, the Race Riot Commission reported that between 100 and 300 people were killed during the 1921 massacre, and over 8,000 people were left homeless in just 18 hours. Years later, archaeologists are still finding the remains of victims.
In 2012, a bill was introduced in the Oklahoma State Senate requiring all high schools to teach the Tulsa race massacre, but it failed to pass. The State Department of Education said teaching the topic has been requiring in state history classes since 2004. The race massacre has also been included in Oklahoma history books since 2009.
The Race Riot Commission was also renamed in November 2018 to reflect the tragedy Black Greenwood residents experienced back then.
“Although the dialogue about the reasons and effects of the terms riot vs. massacre are very important and encouraged," Oklahoma State Senator Kevin Matthews said, "the feelings and interpretation of those who experienced this devastation as well as current area residents and historical scholars have led us to more appropriately change the name to the 1921 Race Massacre Commission.”
Legal Actions & Federal Involvement
As more people come to learn and recognize the bloodshed in 1921, some survivors became empowered to take some action.
A group of Oklahomans filed a lawsuit in September 2020 to seek reparations from the city of Tulsa and other government entities due to the 2021 bloodshed and destruction. One of the plaintiffs includes 107-year-old survivor Lessie Benningfield Randle, who suffered "emotional and physical distress that continues to this day," according to the complaint.
The lawsuit also alleges that Tulsa officials are "enriching themselves by promoting the site of the Massacre as a tourist attraction" while Greenwood gets no significant benefit from those efforts. It also claims members of the National Guard, local law enforcement, and other city and county leaders participated in the attack.
In April 2021, attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons sued Tulsa on behalf of the survivors and descendants for documents relating to the massacre, including records of destruction in Greenwood, insurance claims, personal property taken from the area, internment camps that held Black people, and more.
Randle also testified to members of Congress alongside fellow survivors Viola "Mother" Fletcher and Hugh Van Ellis on May 20, 2021. They were arguing for the case of reparations and a formal acknowledgment of what happened a century ago.
Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia announced a bill called the Tulsa-Greenwood Massacre Claims Accountability Act on May 21, 2021, which aims to "create a federal cause of action for massacre-related claims for survivors & descendants."
President Joe Biden proclaimed a Day of Remembrance for the Tulsa Race Massacre on May 31, 2021. He says his administration will honor those who were killed or deeply affected by the massacre by "reaffirming" the nation's "commitment to advance racial justice."
"The federal government must reckon with and acknowledge the role that it has played in stripping wealth and opportunity from Black communities," the proclamation reads.
Justice for Greenwood, a nonprofit made up of survivors, descendants, community leaders, and attorneys, sent a letter to the Department of Justice in August 2021. In the letter, they demand federal officials investigate the City of Tulsa over the mass killing and intervene in the search for unmarked graves.
"There are innumerable reasons why the Department of Justice should intervene in this case, but a few stand out. First, the City perpetrated the massacre and then led the cover-up of the massacre for 75 years. Over the last 20 years and currently, the City’s official position is they are not responsible for the horrendous loss of life, land, or livelihood that they caused," the letter reads. "How can the City be trusted to handle this mass grave search with integrity, with the proper respect, and most importantly, with the accountability that is necessary for healing and justice?"
On May 2, 2022, an Oklahoma judge ruled that the civil rights case for reparations can move forward, which may be the last time the survivors can find justice.
"We believe this is the last opportunity for these survivors to have their day in court," Solomon-Simmons said.
Where Is Greenwood Today?
Immediately following the destruction and death from the massacre, Black people went right to work rebuilding Black Wall Street. Even though they faced challenges from the white establishment, Greenwood today is a rapidly developing and thriving part of Tulsa today.
Some Black residents remain skeptical of the rapid development, especially in the last decade, according to NPR. Some claim that the money going into development isn't going back into the Black community in Greenwood. Others think it's an erasure of history. One man told reporters that the city is building a freeway over the place where his great-grandfather's business used to be.
Other critics claim that while memorials recount the event, they don't delve into what's been lost in the conflict and destruction. Then, there's the issue of retelling the painful story for both Black and non-Black audiences.
"Personally, I've been asked to tell the story in a way that doesn't make people feel uncomfortable, that is not offensive," Michelle Brown-Burdex said, the project director and historian for the Greenwood Cultural Center. "You would think that no one would be comfortable, and you would hope that people would want to learn everything that there is to know about this history, to know the true history of what happened. So our concern cannot be what makes you comfortable, what makes someone okay with hearing this story."
Current & Future Media Projects
With more visibility on the Black struggle in recent years, people are looking to shine a light on the tragedy of the 1921 massacre. For example, National Geographic released a documentary about the massacre, which follows a Washington Post reporter's investigation into the gruesome riots. Lebron James and Maverick Carter’s production company was involved with CNN's 2021 film about Black Wall Street.
Angela Bassett is set to star in an MTV series focused on historical events.
Greenwood Rising, a museum dedicated to chronicling the event's history and long-term impacts, is now open with free admission. They're also trying to reach out to Tulsa race massacre descendants and survivors to keep them up to date on upcoming events and programs.
What was once a forbidden subject in just Tulsa alone is now an open reminder of the bloody past and what we can do to correct it for the future.