Black Wall Street
Unearthing the horrifying truth about Oklahoma's Racist Massacre of 1921
BY KIM WHITING
Hard to believe this wasn’t a war. Airplanes shot citizens and buildings, and rained down balls of fire. Machine guns on the ground riddled houses and a church with bullets, and mobs of people broke into homes and businesses to terrorize or murder innocent people. Every structure in sight was looted, ransacked and torched. This wasn’t a scene from battle—these acts of terror in Tulsa, Oklahoma became known as the Black Wall Street Massacre of 1921 (also known as the Greenwood Race Massacre or Tulsa Race Massacre), considered by many to be the most horrific explosion of racial violence in U.S. history.
99 years ago this month, a mob of White Tulsans declared war on Black Wall Street (called that because of its thriving community of educated and well-to-do Black residents) and left its 34 blocks in ashes. At the time, 36 deaths were reported, but historians now put that number at close to 300—and Tulsa’s current Mayor, GT Bynam, is investigating long-told accounts of mass graves. Until recently, it was called a race riot, but it was no riot. It was a massacre, now known as the Massacre. All told, more than 1,200 homes, churches, schools, businesses, a hospital and library were burned to the ground, almost 10,000 of Black Wall Street’s residents were left homeless, and at least 700 were wounded.
Why did it happen? What prompted so much hatred? Inexplicably, this Massacre is still unknown to many Americans, and was never put in history books. In 2020, Tulsa is only just beginning to come to terms with the lasting and lingering impact of the Black Wall Street Massacre, as yet another painful anniversary arrived this spring.
According to Genevieve Elizabeth Tillman Jackson, one of the Massacre’s survivors, “I saw what I thought were little black birds dropping out of the sky over the Greenwood District. But those were no little birds; what was falling from the sky over the Negro district, as it was called in those days, were bullets and devices to set fires, and debris of all kinds.” Genevieve and other survivors were interviewed as part of a project by the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation.
White mobs terrorized and murdered citizens of Greenwood, and looted and torched every Black home and business they passed. Courtesy of the Tulsa Historical Society.
Another survivor, Julius Warren Scott, says, “My mother remembers running down the street, six months pregnant with me, dodging bullets that were dropping all around her. She said that it was a miracle that she escaped alive and that I was later allowed to come into this world.”
Survivor Otis Grandville Clark remembers, “I got caught right in the middle of that riot! Some White mobsters were holed up in the upper floor of the Ray Rhee Flour Mill on East Archer and they were just gunning down Black people, just picking them off like they were swatting flies. We never saw my stepfather again [after the Massacre], nor our little pet bulldog, Bob. I just know they perished in that riot. I just wish I knew where he was buried.”
How did it come to this? To understand the ending, you first have to understand the beginning.
Exploring Black Wall Street in the first two decades of the 20th century, you would’ve seen a vibrant community, with modest and stately homes, the luxurious Stradford Hotel, restaurants, furriers and maybe even a Model T Ford providing taxi service. What you probably wouldn’t have seen, however, was a White person. The Greenwood community, dubbed “Negro Wall Street” by Booker T. Washington because of its enterprising culture and financial success, was an all-Black community of close to 11,000 residents and an estimated 200 Black-owned businesses.
John and Loula Williams (and their son) were part of the financial prosperity of Black Wall Street in the early 1900s. The Williams family owned the Dreamland Theater, which was destroyed in the Massacre. Courtesy of the Tulsa Historical Society.
According to reports by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Race Riot of 1921, and the National Park Service Reconnaissance Survey of the Riot, after the Civil War, and even more so after emancipation, Oklahoma became known as a safe place for African Americans fleeing oppression in the South, to build their lives and livelihoods. By 1920, more than 50 Black Oklahoma townships had been created.
In 1906, O.W. Gurley, a wealthy Black landowner who had come to Oklahoma during the Land Rush of 1889, bought 40 acres of Native American land and created the Greenwood community with a boarding house for African Americans. He was known to give loans to those who wanted to start businesses and, as word got out, African Americans flocked to Greenwood and the area thrived. Gurley set a precedent so that others in the community who achieved success also gave a hand to those starting out.
J.B. Stradford, a freed slave-turned-lawyer, built a 55-room luxury hotel in Greenwood. He believed that Blacks had a better chance of economic progress if they pooled their resources, so he too played a central role in cultivating the community’s supportive and cohesive culture. In addition to Stradford’s hotel, Greenwood ultimately had two of its own newspapers, its own school system (with a high school that taught Latin, Chemistry and Physics), 23 churches, a bank, library, night clubs, two theaters (showing silent movies with pianist accompaniment,) doctors, dentists, pharmacists, lawyers, restaurants, an all-Black branch of the YMCA, photography studios, furriers, grocery stores, a post office, hair salons, barbershops, bus and taxi services, parks, and its own airplane.
Not everyone in Greenwood was affluent, however. Many worked as housekeepers and janitors, and the income they brought in was spent within Greenwood, making it all the more prosperous. Nehemiah Frank, the founder and editor of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street Times says, “It was said that a dollar would change hands 19 times in Greenwood before it left the community.”
The fact that Greenwood achieved such success just 60 years after slaves were emancipated, and at a time when Whites went to extremes to maintain their foothold on White supremacy, is extraordinary. It shows the power of a strong community that values and invests in its members. It was difficult to attain the kind of self-value that is key to emotional and career happiness when the racial majority deemed a person to be of little to no value. It was—and is—difficult to believe in oneself when society at large doesn’t believe in you. The citizens of Greenwood pulled it off, to varying degrees, by being self-contained enough to insulate themselves from the negative perceptions and interference of Whites—and then appreciating and valuing each other.
Not everyone, however, was immune to the especially oppressive and disdainful environment for Blacks at that time. Greenwood had its shabbier side: gambling, prostitution, drugs, and homes without running water that were little more than shacks. Although even the best communities tend to have poverty and a grungier side, this aspect of Greenwood gave angry and fearful Whites another negative focal point through which to fuel their prejudices.
African Americans of the time were also contending with more than prejudice and oppression. The dangers that African Americans routinely faced during this time (and still face today) took a psychological toll. Blacks were not only oppressed, they were often traumatized. Until 60 years prior, their world had been a highly predatorial one, in which a Black person could be removed from his or her village or family, stripped of dignity, freedom, and status as a human being, and even legally raped or killed.
Long after emancipation, Blacks continued to live in a predatorial environment, enduring the extreme stress of not knowing what might set off Whites—what might still get them scorned, beaten, raped or killed without legal recourse. Starting with slavery and continuing into 1920s Oklahoma (and beyond), Blacks lived in a world where their basic need for safety and security wasn’t met. These psychological stressors were with them from birth to grave. To achieve emotional and social wellbeing, and career success in that type of environment, took strength and resilience that most non-minorities never had to cultivate. The men and women who built Black Wall Street did so during an exceedingly dangerous and oppressive time.
By 1919, Whites across the country had gotten nervous about rising African American cultural pride and confidence, and in some cases (as was the case in Tulsa) jealous of their successes. Lower income Whites also felt resentment as the large inflow of Blacks from the South displaced them from menial jobs, subsidized housing, and public facilities.
Meanwhile, resentment by Blacks also grew as they were still hindered from voting due to racist literacy tests and poll taxes. Black veterans who had served their country in World War I, and those who had served on the home front, were no longer complacent with their status as second-class citizens. Tensions in the U.S. came to a head during the summer of 1919 when 25 anti-Black riots flared up across the country, leaving hundreds of Blacks dead or homeless.
As African Americans strived to lift themselves above the centuries-old social status quo, the Ku Klux Klan grew in prominence and numbers, and lynchings became a very real threat to Blacks. Tulsa was no exception. In the early 1900s, Oklahoma continued to maintain its frontier lawlessness and, between 1907 (when the state was established) and the time of the Massacre, 33 people were lynched, 27 of them Black.
Fear and tension in Tulsa was exacerbated when, in response to an increase in lynchings and violence against Blacks, groups from the Greenwood community showed up armed at courthouses and jails to ensure that Blacks who were on trial were not removed by a White mob and killed.
The breaking point in Tulsa’s racial tension came about on May 30, 1921, in an elevator. Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old African American who worked downtown as a shoe shiner, was riding with Sarah Page, a 17-year-old White elevator attendant. Accounts vary about what happened in that confined space, but when the elevator doors opened, Sarah ran screaming and Dick ran for his life. Rowland claimed he touched Sarah’s arm, but by the end of the day, rumors spread that he attempted to rape her.
It’s difficult to believe that a Black man in 1920s Tulsa would try to sexually assault a White girl in an office building in a White part of town, during the time it takes an elevator to travel from one floor to another. However, this logic wasn’t shared by White Tulsans of the era and the next day’s newspaper reported that Rowland had tried to rape Page. Worse, in a now lost editorial, the newspaper may have stated that Rowland would or should be lynched. (Michelle Place, Director of the Tulsa Historical Society, says that second and thirdhand accounts point to Rowland and Page being in a clandestine relationship, with a plan to escape to California and marry.)
The morning after Rowland’s arrest, large numbers of Whites began to gather outside the courthouse where he was being held, until they numbered about 1,000. At one point, three White men went into the courthouse and demanded that Rowland be handed over to them, but they were refused.
The Blacks in Greenwood got word of the White mob and, because a Black man had been lynched just nine months prior (and also because the threat of a lynching may have been published in the newspaper editorial), they felt certain Rowland would be killed. They believed Rowland’s safety was up to them and, in an act of bravery, 25 armed Black men arrived in cars and offered assistance to the authorities, should the White mob get out of hand. Assured by authorities that things were under control, the Black men left. Still, their presence enraged many Whites. Just a half-hour after the Black men departed, the White mob had grown to 2,000, most of them armed.
The situation was turning very bad, very quickly. While the new Sheriff did his best to protect Rowland, at no point did the Tulsa Chief of Police order his 75 officers to enforce order. By 10 p.m. he had left the scene altogether. Soon after, rumors reached Greenwood that Whites were storming the courthouse.
This time, 75 armed Black men arrived, walking single file to talk with the authorities. They again offered their assistance to protect Rowland. And again, their offer was refused. As they began to retreat toward Greenwood, a White man tried to take a gun from a Black WWI veteran and a shot rang out, leading to gunfire from both sides. In just 20 seconds, 20 men, Black and White, were dead.
At police headquarters, nearly 500 White men and boys were appointed “special deputies” and they then looted pawn shops and hardware stores for guns, with the help of police. Once armed, they began gunning down Blacks who remained in the downtown Tulsa area.
Between midnight and 1 a.m., on May 31 and June 1 of 1921, a group of Blacks and Whites, estimated in the hundreds, fired shots at each other across the railroad tracks that separated the White and Black parts of town, while small groups of Whites began driving down Black streets, terrorizing, vandalizing and murdering. At 1 a.m. the burning began, and when Tulsa fire fighters arrived to put out the initial fires, they were pushed back by armed White marauders.
Some of the 34 blocks destroyed in the Massacre.
Tulsa police were assigned the task of preventing Blacks from entering White areas and the National Guard was ordered to protect the police station, water facility and other primary Tulsa buildings. They were also given a machine gun to mount on the back of one of their trucks. The Guardsmen engaged in a shooting volley with Blacks defending their neighborhood, and then began rounding up captured Blacks and bringing them to the police.
At 5 a.m. a whistle went off that seemed to signal the White “troops” to move into Greenwood. White mobs swarmed into Greenwood while a machine gun atop a Tulsa granary shot rounds into Black-owned houses and buildings, and at fleeing citizens. The White mobs, with the help of police, broke into homes and businesses, rounded up occupants, and marched them at gunpoint to Tulsa’s Convention Hall and other holding centers. Any Black who resisted or was found armed was shot. Once businesses and homes were emptied, valuables were looted and then the properties were torched.
Two major skirmishes between Blacks and Whites erupted on the edges of Greenwood, as Blacks tried to stem the tide of Whites entering. One group of Black riflemen shot from the tower of the Mount Zion Baptist church, but they were outnumbered. It ended when the National Guard riddled the church with machine gun fire. As many as six airplanes, flown by Whites, flew over Greenwood and dropped turpentine “bombs.”
An estimated 300 blacks were murdered, 1,200 homes and businesses were burned and 10,000 were left homeless. The White part of the city (literally on the “other side of the tracks”) is seen in the background, still whole. Courtesy of the Tulsa Historical Society.
At the same time, the Whites in wealthy neighborhoods were rounding up their domestic help and sending them to buildings that were set up as internment centers. By 9 a.m., when 109 more National Guard officers arrived from Oklahoma City, most of Greenwood was in ashes and most of its inhabitants had either escaped to the countryside or were being held in internment areas. At 11:30 a.m. on June 1, 1921, Martial Law was declared.
Mary Elizabeth Jones, a young YMCA typing instructor in Greenwood, witnessed the riot first hand and wrote about what she and her peers experienced in a book entitled Events of the Tulsa Disaster (1921). She stated, “In the aftermath of the Massacre…our hearts felt burdened and heavy, as one feels after returning from the last rites over a loved one…I can never erase the sights of my first visit to the hospital. There were men wounded in every conceivable way, like soldiers after a big battle. Some with amputated limbs, burned faces, others minus an eye or with heads bandaged. There were women who were nervous wrecks, requiring confinement in some cases.”
Red Cross doctors (11 of whom were Black) conducted 163 surgeries on survivors, 82 of which were deemed major.”
According to Red Cross records, Greenwood citizens were hired to dig 120 graves, and bodies were put in the graves without coffins. Funeral home documents show that other Blacks were buried in unmarked graves in the Tulsa’s primary cemetery; oral histories point to more victims being buried in other areas of town, including the Black cemetery. Little effort was made to identify or even count the dead, but the director of the Red Cross who headed relief efforts for African Americans after the Massacre estimated that as many as 300 were killed.
Survivor Blanche Cole recounted, “Everything we owned had been stolen or burned…Even my child toys and treasures had been taken. What the mobsters hadn’t stolen, they scattered about, set on fire, or smashed and damaged. I just sat down and cried. I was a nervous wreck.”
No White person was ever held legally accountable for any of these crimes, insurance companies would not pay for the damage, and no restitution has ever been paid. Nearly 1,000 surviving Greenwood Blacks endured that winter in tents.
The Red Cross was instrumental in the slow rebuilding of Greenwood and the recovery of its citizens. The enormous effort began almost immediately after the Massacre and the Colored Citizens Relief Committee and East End Welfare Board helped as well. The city and county covered a significant portion of the cost for Red Cross relief, but otherwise didn’t contribute much to Greenwood’s rebuilding. In fact, the city impeded rebuilding by turning away outside offers to help, and initiating punitive zoning laws. Tulsa Historical Society Director Michelle Place says, “Even building codes were designed to obstruct the rebuilding of Greenwood. All buildings were required to be noncombustible, but the nearby brickyard wouldn’t sell bricks to Blacks, so they had to go all the way to Kansas or Arkansas to get bricks.” Resurrecting Greenwood was even more difficult because, as Place explains, “So many men were killed and the women were left behind to raise their families and keep going.”
Some survivors who had been children at the time of the Massacre recounted that they’d had to drop out of school and give up their dreams and aspirations, in order to help support their families.
Despite the City of Tulsa’s attempts to hinder rebuilding, the traumatized citizens of Greenwood rebuilt Black Wall Street (as seen in 1938) bigger and better.
There were some White private citizens who went a long way to assist the incredible number of homeless but, overall, it was up to the victims of the Massacre to (quite literally) raise themselves from the ashes. What’s more, a grand jury blamed Blacks for instigating the riot.
It’s extraordinary that, despite these obstacles and more, the citizens of Greenwood not only rebuilt their community eventually, they made it bigger and better. By the end of 1921, 800 of its buildings had been rebuilt. By the one-year anniversary of the Massacre, almost all of Greenwood’s homes had been replaced. In 1925, the National Negro Business League held its conference in Greenwood. By the 1930s, Black Wall Street had more Black-owned businesses than before the Massacre and, in the 1940s, famous jazz musicians played in its clubs. The community remained strong until, as Tulsa’s Black Wall Street Times’ editor Nehemiah Frank says, “Desegregation prompted Blacks to live and shop outside the community, and money that had previously circulated within the community, keeping it prosperous, began to go elsewhere.” By the early 1970s, Greenwood’s decline was apparent and, in 1975, when Highway 244 was constructed right through the center of the community, it was as if they’d hammered the last nail into Black Wall Street’s coffin.
The fact that no one talked about the Massacre didn’t help. For about 90 years, Tulsa carried on with a wound that no one seemed to be addressing or finding a way to heal. While White Tulsans didn’t want to dredge up a time when they’d behaved horrifically—and criminally—it was far less clear why Black Tulsans seemed to bury not only the Massacre, but the exemplary community that had been Black Wall Street. Frank, a fifth generation Tulsan, explains, “My grandfather once sat us all down and told us a little about the Massacre, but I was only 12 years old. It seemed like ancient history to me and not something that had to do with us today, so I never followed up with questions. Throughout the community, there was talk about White hostilities in general, and whispers about what took place during the Massacre, but maybe it was the sheer terror of the event that kept them from talking about it, afraid it would happen again.”
Tulsa Historical Society’s Michelle Place says, “I asked Brenda Alford, a Massacre descendent, and she said her family’s answer was that they were just past emancipation during the time of the Massacre. Blacks had wanted freedom, families that were intact, education, and to be able to support their families. And by 1921 they had obtained all of these things. Then, in just one night, all their hopes and dreams were taken away in the blink of an eye. Everything they’d built was gone. The fear that it could happen again, no matter how hard they worked, haunted them and they didn’t want to pass that kind of fear onto their children, or have them adopt those limitations.”
Place is a White woman who moved to Tulsa in 1986. She says she too had never heard of about Black Wall Street or the Massacre—until 2001. “I had been working at the Historical Society one week,” she explains, “when a reporter from New Zealand called to talk with someone about the race riot. I said to my coworker, ‘He wants to talk about the Tulsa Race Riot,’ thinking it was about riots in 1968. I had no idea. I quickly found out that in 1997, the state had commissioned a report, gathering any facts possible about the Massacre. Prominent Greenwood citizens Don Ross and Maxine Horner pushed the state to do it. It was the first time anyone had looked at the Massacre in 76 years.”
Place continues, “I did not understand the magnitude of Greenwood or the Massacre until Dick Warner, a volunteer for the Historical Society, handed me a box and said, ‘This is the most comprehensive collection that we have. It’s photos from the Race Riot, guard them with your life.’ At that point, I came to understand about the area called Greenwood –a place I had never been to or heard of, even though I worked a few blocks away from it.
“At the Historical Society, we focused on supposed ‘good’ history, meaning the history surrounding our oil industry,” Place says. “People just didn’t want to talk about the Massacre, and minority populations don’t trust the majority with their stories, so the Greenwood community wasn’t reaching out to us to share their story.”
In 2012, Place became director of the Historical Society, and she and her staff decided that they needed to be more committed to telling all of Tulsa’s stories. “But, if I didn’t have materials from that community,” she explains, “we couldn’t adequately tell the story of the Massacre. I knew they wouldn’t come to me. I had to go to them and build trust and relationships. My staff was equally committed to this. So, in 2012 I just started showing up at Greenwood events.”
Place and her team now have a permanent display about Greenwood and the Massacre at the check-in desk of the Historical Society’s museum, as well as roving exhibits. She says, “We have made all of our archives available online—everything we have in our collection. That’s the commitment we’ve made to immortalize that collection and make it available to anyone in the world.”
Nehemiah Frank says, “These days, African American Tulsans talk about Black Wall Street and the Massacre all the time. Whenever there’s a conversation in Tulsa about Greenwood and the Massacre, Black people are enraged because no one was arrested and no restitution was paid. We want restitution, not just for the Massacre, but for legislation that kept Black Oklahomans from joining unions, which prevented them from starting or furthering their careers.”
Frank continues, “Open conversations on the Massacre started happening in the late 1990s, when the state commissioned the investigation into the Massacre. And the digital era made people throughout the country more aware, so Oklahoma needed to make themselves aware.”
Black Wall Street today. Only a handful of the original buildings survived the Massacre. Courtesy of KTUL Tulsa.
Frank says the ways in which local Blacks have been historically portrayed in mainstream Tulsa media made him want to publish content that combatted negative stereotypes. He points to a letter to the editor in one publication that demonized the opening of a grocery store in North Tulsa, in which the writer stated, “Why put a store there, they’re just going to wreck it?” Frank says of his publication, Black Wall Street Times, “I want to provide a place where there’s a real sense of community for my community, where we not only talk about important issues, but support Black entrepreneurship and educate non-Blacks on the issues Blacks are facing and how we feel about things. About half the readers of the Black Wall Street Times are White and this is key, because we need to get our issues backed and believed in by non-Blacks.”
Frank says the country’s so-called “War on Drugs” also decimated the Greenwood community in the 1980s because so many residents were arrested and families were broken up. He says Oklahoma also passed “a sort of anti-affirmative action, to keep Blacks from getting government funded contracts.”
Frank continues, “Some people were intentionally not hiring Blacks even if they were equipped for the job. The police unions weren’t hiring Blacks either. It’s like a long-running Monopoly game has been going on and many of us haven’t even gotten a chance yet to roll the dice.”
It’s even more difficult to create change now, Frank says, because African Americans currently only make up 7 percent of Oklahoma’s population. He also points to laws that have been passed that have hindered Blacks from voting. “Today we have such a small number that our power to effect legislative change is low,” he says.
“The Greenwood community is still very tight-knit, and groups like the Black Wall Street Chamber of Commerce are working to cultivate economic vitality, but our intellectual power has dwindled too, because when people go to college they don’t come back. Their families encourage them to leave, because it’s still a hostile environment for Blacks in Tulsa.”
In 2010, the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park was dedicated, with a mission to give voice to the untold story of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and the important role African Americans played in building Oklahoma. This past April, the African American Civil Rights Historic Preservation Fund awarded $14 million in grants to a non-profit involved in preserving Black Wall Street. Greenwood Chamber of Commerce President Freeman Culver says the funding is vital for preserving the 10 original remaining buildings in Greenwood. This past April, Tulsa Mayor GT Bynum’s administration was scheduled to begin unearthing an area shown to have “anomalies,” and thought to be a mass grave, but the excavation had to be postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Next year will mark the 100th anniversary of the Massacre—and the first year that it will be a required study subject in Oklahoma schools. Progress toward racial equality (in Tulsa and throughout the country) and recognition of, as Frank puts it, “the excellence of Black Wall Street and the horrors of the Massacre,” has been painfully slow. But the pace is gaining speed.
At a recent rally for racial justice, participants gathered at the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park in Tulsa. Courtesy of jhfcenter.org
The U.S. is now in its fourth week of protests, and advocacy for Black Lives Matter, after the murder of Minnesotan George Floyd and other African Americans nationwide. There has been a significant increase in media focused on Black issues, corporations officially supporting Black Lives Matter, and Whites willing to stand with (and kneel with), their Black neighbors, co-workers, friends, and even strangers. The fact that more people in the racial majority are willing to listen and learn gives hope that we are finally, in earnest, beginning to heal. As a country, we have the potential to be so much more, as an equal and united people.
As Mary Elizabeth Jones, the young YMCA typing instructor in Greenwood who witnessed the riot first hand, wrote, “The Tulsa disaster taught us great lessons…Some of us who have been blessed with educational and financial advantages are often times inclined to feel superiority over others less fortunate…but we should look up, lift up and lend a helping hand, because we cannot rise higher than our lowest brother.”
Kim Whiting can be reached at email@example.com
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