Remembering the Tulsa Massacre 100 years later

In only 16 hours, Greenwood went from riches to ruins

Black History

May 31, 2021 marks 100 years since the neighborhood known as "Black Wall Street" was destroyed by a white mob in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

May 31, 2021 marks 100 years since the Tulsa Massacre took place in Oklahoma, leaving a stain on this country’s history. It’s a story about a place and time that many have forgotten or buried deep inside their memory.  

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The Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma was full of Americans who were unapologetically Black and unbelievably wealthy. Their life was the realization of a dream that started with a man named O.W. Gurley. He bought 40 acres of land, partnered with entrepreneur J.B. Stradford and together they founded Greenwood as a home of Black wealth for the sons and daughters of formerly enslaved people.  

Business owners and land bearers whose attempt to create a legacy of wealth for future generations to come, built up the area to be known as Negro Wall Street. “These [were] mostly small businesses, entrepreneurial enterprises, so there were restaurants, grocery stores, movie theaters, dance halls, pool halls, haberdasheries, hotels and so forth. Also, service providers, professionals, doctors, lawyers, accountants and dentists,” describes Hannibal Johnson, author of Black Wall Street 100. 

Johnson, an award-winning author, attorney and educator, has written extensively about Greenwood. He described it as a segregated community in Jim Crow Oklahoma, but were however far from struggling. Greenwood was 35 blocks of Black success, which included 1,200 homes and more than 600 Black-owned businesses. 

On May 30, 1921, 19-year-old Dick Rowland, a Black shoe shiner, was accused of attacking a 17-year-old white woman named Sarah Page inside an elevator of a high-rise in downtown Tulsa. Rowland was taken into custody, and the Tulsa Tribune printed a story about the alleged attack, causing rumors to spread that Rowland would be lynched.  

A white mob of angry and well-armed men rushed to the jail and met a small group of armed Black men, there to protect Rowland. As the two groups met, a gun went off, causing chaos. Rowland was released and left town, and Page refused to press charges, but Greenwood was already under attack. 

White men, including members of the Ku Klux Klan, destroyed property, lit fires, looted and shot residents. Black men and women were hunted down, stabbed, shot and burned alive. Bombs were also dropped overhead from airplanes. 

The official death toll remains 37, but some say hundreds were killed. “There’s a possibility of mass graves that’s being investigated even as we speak,” Johnson said. Eyewitness accounts allege bodies were cremated inside an old mill or tossed in the Arkansas River. The city’s mayor says investigations are ongoing, but no one was ever charged for the violent acts.  

RELATED: Search for Tulsa massacre victims resumes, no remains yet 

Oklahoma State Senator Kevin Matthews says between 1997 and 2001, members of the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 spent four years conducting hearings and investigations. They concluded the victims and descendants of the massacre should receive reparations. “It’s many millions of dollars, and that debt has never been paid, and it needs to be addressed,” Matthews said.  

The Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, chaired by Matthews, secured funding to build Greenwood Rising, a Black Wall Street history center. “It’s going to tell the story of how vibrant this community is, and then it’s gonna tell the story of this terrible massacre and what happened to people just because they were Black and then how they rebuilt,” he said.  

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Greenwood Rising is a museum that will tell the story of the massacre that stole wealth and prosperity from an entire Black community. The hope is that it will educate, enlighten and leave visitors empowered with stories of Black Wall Street and the American tragedy that is the Tulsa Massacre.  

If you or someone you know is struggling from trauma triggered by this story, resources are available here