The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, took place on May 31 and June 1, 1921, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In what some historians have called “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history,” residents and businesses of Tulsa’s predominantly Black Greenwood District were attacked on the ground and from the air by mobs of Whites angered by the financial prosperity of the residents of what was then known as the “Black Wall Street.” In less than 18 hours, at least 1,000 homes and businesses were destroyed, with hundreds of people killed.
Tulsa in 1921
As in much of the United States in the years following World War I, racial and social tensions in Oklahoma were running high. During the great land rushes of the 1890s, Oklahoma had become home to many settlers from the South who had owned slaves before the Civil War. With the Civil War still a sore spot, the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan had resurfaced. Since being granted statehood in 1907, Oklahoma had been the scene of the lynchings of at least 26 Black men and boys. Segregation was the rule throughout the state, with many of its old apartheid-like Jim Crow laws still enforced.
By 1921, the Sunbelt region oil boom had turned Tulsa into a growing city of nearly 75,000 people, including a disproportionally large number of employed and affluent Black citizens. Despite the oil boom, Tulsa suffered from a stalling economy that had resulted in widespread unemployment, especially among the White population. As returning war veterans struggled to find jobs, Tulsa’s unemployed White residents grew to resent the working Black residents. The city’s high crime rate was spiked by acts of racial violence, many in the form of White-inspired vigilante “justice.”
The ‘Black Wall Street’
In 1916, Tulsa had enacted a local segregation ordinance that virtually prevented Black persons from living or working in White neighborhoods. Although the United States Supreme Court declared the ordinance unconstitutional in 1917, Tulsa’s all-White city government, supported by a majority of the White population, continued to enforce both de jure and de facto segregation. As a result, most of Tulsa’s 10,000 Black residents had congregated in the Greenwood district, a thriving business district that had become so prosperous it was referred to as “Black Wall Street.”
Very much functioning as a separate city, the Greenwood district was home to many profitable Black-owned grocery stores, theaters, newspapers, and nightclubs. Black doctors, dentists, lawyers, teachers, and clergy served the district’s residents. Even more aggravating to Tulsa’s White population, Greenwood’s residents elected their leaders who used their personal wealth to promote even greater economic growth within the district.
It was in this supercharged atmosphere of racial animosity in which the events that ignited the Tulsa Race Massacre took place.
Events of the Tulsa Race Massacre
At about 4 p.m. on Monday, May 30, 1921—Memorial Day—a 19-year-old Black shoeshine shop worker named Dick Rowland allegedly entered the only elevator in the Drexel Building on South Main Street to use the “Coloreds-only” restroom located on the top floor. Minutes later, a White female clerk at a nearby store heard the 17-year-old White elevator operator, Sarah Page, scream and saw a young Black man running from the building. Finding Page in what she described as a “distraught state,” the clerk called the police. Dick Rowland was arrested the next morning.
Tuesday, May 31, 1921
Rumors of what had occurred on the Drexel Building’s elevator quickly spread through Tulsa’s White community. Around 3 p.m., a front-page story in the Tulsa Tribune, printed under the glaring headline, “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in an Elevator,” reported that Rowland had been arrested for sexually assaulting Sarah Page. Within an hour, rumors of a lynching moved newly elected Tulsa County sheriff Willard M. McCullough to place city police on alert.
By late afternoon, several hundred angry White residents had gathered at the courthouse demanding that Rowland be handed over to them. Sheriff McCullough tried to talk the demonstrators into dispersing but was shouted down. Seeing the crowd turning into a lynch mob, McCullough ordered several armed deputies to barricade the top floor of the courthouse, disabled the building’s elevator, and ordered the deputies to shoot any intruders on sight.
At the same time, members of the Black community had gathered at a Greenwood district hotel to discuss the situation at the courthouse. Around 9 p.m., a group of about 25 armed Black men—many of whom were World War I veterans—arrived at the courthouse offering to help Sheriff McCullough protect Rowland. After McCullough convinced them to go home, some members of the White mob unsuccessfully tried to steal rifles from the nearby National Guard armory.
At about 10 p.m., a group of 50 to 75 armed Black men, concerned that Rowland might still be lynched, arrived at the courthouse where they were met by some 1,500 White men, many of whom also carried guns. A witness later testified that a White man told one of the armed Black men to drop his gun. When the Black man refused, a single shot was fired. Whether that shot had been an accident or a warning, it set off a short but deadly first exchange of gunfire that left ten Whites and two Blacks dead in the street.
As the Black men who had come to help protect Rowland retreated toward Greenwood Avenue, the White mob gave chase, setting off a running gun battle. As the battle spread into the Greenwood district, hundreds of Black residents exited local businesses to see what was causing the commotion. Seeing the growing crowd, the police panicked and began firing at any Black person on the street. Police were also seen deputizing members of the lynch mob, instructing them to “get a gun” and start shooting Blacks.
Around 11 p.m., troops from the Oklahoma National Guard, joined by members of the Tulsa chapter of the American Legion, surrounded the courthouse and police station. Other armed members of this group were reportedly sent to protect White-owned homes and businesses adjacent to the Greenwood district. Just before midnight, a smaller White lynch mob attempted to force its way into the courthouse but was turned away by sheriff’s deputies.
Wednesday, June 1, 1921
Just after midnight, sporadic gunfights between Whites and Black residents began breaking out. Cars filled with armed Whites drove through the Greenwood district randomly firing shots into Black-owned homes and businesses. By 4:00 a.m., a larger White mob had set at least a dozen Greenwood district businesses on fire. In many cases, Tulsa Fire Department crews who showed to fight the fires were turned away at gunpoint.
As the sun rose over Tulsa, the sporadic violence had turned into an all-out race war. Chased by an ever-growing mob of armed White attackers, the Black residents retreated deeper into Greenwood. In cars and on foot, the Whites pursued the fleeing Black residents, killing several along the way. Though overwhelmed, the Black residents fought back, killing at least six Whites. Several Black residents later testified that they were driven from their homes by armed Whites and forced to walk at gunpoint to hastily set up detention centers.
Several eyewitnesses reported seeing “a dozen or more” airplanes carrying White attackers firing rifles at fleeing Black families and dropping “burning turpentine balls” bombs on Greenwood district homes and businesses.
At around 9:15 a.m., a special train arrived carrying at least 100 additional Oklahoma National Guard troops who began helping Sheriff McCullough and local police restore order. National Guard General Charles Barrett placed Tulsa under martial law at 11:49 a.m., and by early afternoon, his troops had at last ended most of the violence. By the time peace was restored, as many as 6,000 black Greenwood residents had been interned at three local detention centers, and thousands more had fled the town.
Casualties and Damages
Due to the chaotic nature of the Tulsa Race Massacre and the fact that many victims were buried in unmarked graves, estimates of casualties resulting varied widely. The Tulsa Tribune reported a total of 31 deaths, including 21 Black and nine White victims, while the Los Angeles Express reported 175 deaths. In 2001, the Oklahoma 1921 Race Massacre Commission report concluded that 36 people, 26 Black and 10 White, had died. Today, the Oklahoma Bureau of Vital Statistics officially reports 36 dead. However, based on the verbal and written accounts of survivors and American Red Cross volunteers, some historians estimate as many as 300 may have died. Even by the lowest estimates, the Tulsa Race Massacre remains one of the deadliest racially inspired riots in U.S. history.
The entire 35 blocks of the Greenwood commercial district were destroyed. A total of 191 Black-owned businesses, several churches, a junior high school, and the district’s only hospital were lost. According to the Red Cross, 1,256 homes were burned with another 215 looted and vandalized. The Tulsa Real Estate Exchange estimated total real estate and personal property losses at $2.25 million, the equivalent of nearly $30 million in 2020.
On the 100th Anniversary, heavily-armed “Black Power” activists marched through the streets of Tulsa and announced they’re planning to “kill everything white in sight” to cheers from a black nationalist mob.