Black Wall Street was shattered 100 years ago. How the racial massacre in Tulsa was covered up
Ruins of the Greenwood District after the Massacre of African Americans in Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 1921. American National Red Cross Photograph Collection.
GHI | Universal Images Group | Getty Images
A century ago this week, America’s richest black community was torched.
At the turn of the 20th century, the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma became one of the first communities in the country to thrive with black entrepreneurial businesses. The prosperous city, founded by many descendants of slaves, gained a reputation as America’s Black Wall Street and became a port for African Americans in a highly segregated city under the laws of Jim Crow.
On May 31, 1921, a white mob upset Greenwood in one of the worst racial massacres in U.S. history. Within hours, 35 square blocks of the vibrant black community were turned to smoldering ashes. Countless blacks were killed – estimates ranged from 55 to over 300 – and 1,000 homes and businesses were looted and set on fire.
A group of people gazing at smoke in the distance from properties damaged as a result of the racial massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 1921.
Oklahoma Historical Society | Archive photos | Getty Images
Yet for a very long time the massacre received little mention in newspapers, textbooks, and civil and government conversations. It wasn’t until 2000 that the massacre was included in the curriculum of Oklahoma public schools, and it has only entered American history textbooks in recent years. The 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Commission was formed to investigate in 1997 and officially published a report in 2001.
“The massacre has been actively covered up in the white community of Tulsa for almost half a century,” said Scott Ellsworth, professor of African American and African studies at the University of Michigan and author of “The Ground Breaking” “on the Tulsa massacre.
“When I started my research in the 1970s, I found that National Guard official reports and other documents were all missing,” Ellsworth said. “Tulsa’s two white dailies have done everything they can for decades not to mention the massacre. Researchers who had been trying to work on this as early as the early 1970s saw their lives threatened and their careers threatened.
The body of an unidentified black victim of the Tulsa race massacre lies in the street as a white man stands over him, Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 1, 1921.
Greenwood Cultural Center | Archive photos | Getty Images
Within a week of the massacre, the Tulsa Police Chief ordered his officers to visit all of Tulsa’s photography studios and confiscate all photos taken of the carnage, Ellsworth said.
These photos, which were later discovered and became the materials the Oklahoma Commission used to study the massacre, eventually landed on Michelle Place’s lap at Tulsa Historical Society & Museum in 2001.
“It took me about four days to go through the box because the photographs were so horrible. I had never seen these kinds of photos before,” Place said. “I didn’t know anything about the riot until I came to work here. I never heard of it. Ever since I’ve been here I’ve been at my desk to keep them to the best of my ability.”
Patients recovering from injuries sustained in the Tulsa massacre. American National Red Cross Photograph Collection, November 1921.
Universal History Archive | Universal Images Group | Getty Images
The Tulsa Museum was founded in the late 1990s, but visitors found no trace of the racial massacre until 2012, when Place became executive director, determined to tell all of Tulsa’s stories. A digital collection of the photographs was finally made available for online consultation.
“There are still a significant number of people in our community who don’t want to watch, who don’t want to talk about it,” Place said.
Not only did Tulsa city officials cover up the bloodshed, but they also deliberately altered the narrative of the massacre by calling it a “riot” and blaming the black community for what happened, according to Alicia. Odewale, archaeologist at the University of Tulsa.
The massacre was also not discussed publicly in the African American community for a long time. First out of fear – if it happened once, it can happen again.
“You see the perpetrators walking the streets freely,” Odewale said. “You are in the Jim Crow South, and there are racial terrors all over the country right now. They are protecting themselves for a reason.”
Moreover, it became such a traumatic event for survivors, and just like Holocaust survivors and WWII veterans, many of them did not want to burden their children and grandchildren with these. horrible memories.
Ellsworth said he knew descendants of massacre survivors who only discovered him after reaching their 40s and 50s.
“Silence is layered just like trauma is layered,” Odewale said. “The historical trauma is real and this trauma persists mostly because there is no justice, no accountability and no reparation or monetary compensation.”
A truck transports African Americans during a racial massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA in 1921.
Alvin C. Krupnick Co. | National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Archives | Library of Congress | via Reuters
On May 31, 1921, Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old black shoe shiner, tripped and fell in an elevator and his hand accidentally caught the shoulder of Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white operator. Page screamed and Rowland was seen running away.
Police were summoned but Page refused to press charges. However, that afternoon there was already talk of lynching Rowland in the streets of White Tulsa. Tensions then escalated after the white newspaper Tulsa Tribune ran a front-page article titled “Nab Negro for attacking girl in elevator”, which accused Rowland of stalking, assault and rape.
In the Tribune, there was also a now-lost editorial titled “To Lynch Tonight,” according to Ellsworth. When the Works Progress Administration microfilmed back issues of the Tribune in the 1930s, the editorial had already been ripped from the newspaper, Ellsworth said.
Many believe that the newspaper coverage undoubtedly helped spark the massacre.
People stand outside the Black Wall Street t-shirt and souvenir store at North Greenwood Avenue in the Greenwood district of Tulsa Oklahoma, the United States, Thursday, June 18, 2020.
Christopher Creese | Bloomberg | Getty Images
For black Tulsans, the massacre led to a decline in homeownership, professional status and educational attainment, according to a recent study in the 1940s, led by Alex Albright of Harvard University.
Today there are only a few black businesses on the only remaining block in the Greenwood neighborhood once hailed as Black Wall Street.
This month, three survivors of the 1921 massacre – aged 100, 106 and 107 – appeared before a congressional committee, and a Georgian congressman introduced a bill that would make it easier for them to seek reparations.
Reverend Dr. Robert Turner of the Historic Vernon AME Church Chapel holds his weekly Reparations March ahead of the centennial of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, United States on May 26, 2021.
Polly Irungu | Reuters
Meanwhile, historians and archaeologists continued to unearth what had been lost for decades. In October, a mass grave in an Oklahoma cemetery was discovered, which may be the remains of at least a dozen identified and unidentified African-American massacre victims.
“We’re able to look for signs of survival and signs of life. And really look for those Greenwood-built remains and not just how they died,” Odewale said. “Greenwood never left.”
– CNBC’s Yun Li is also co-author of “Eunice Hunton Carter: A Struggle for Social Justice”.