What Happened at the Massacre of Black Wall Street? Legacies of White on Black Crime

Tulsa Massacre- Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, American National Red Cross Collection

By Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

Introduction
History is full of triumphs, innovations and inspirational stories. It is also full of stories and events that consist of heartache, tragedy and pain. A little known historical tragedy that has recently come to light is the Black Wall Street Massacre. The event is also referred to as the Greenwood Massacre, the The Tulsa Race Massacre or the Tulsa Race Riot. However the title the “Tulsa Race Riot” is misleading because it suggests that there was mutual aggression between Blacks and Whites, however the term massacre is more fitting and accurate in describing the event. 

Resentment of Black Wealth and Affluence
The Black Wall Street Massacre took place on May 31 through June 1, 1921 for over 18 hours, when mobs of White residents attacked black residents and businesses of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Greenwood District was an area of Black affluence known as, Black Wall Street. Greenwood was at that time the wealthiest black community in the United States. The violence was a result of pent up White jealousy and resentment toward the success of the African American business district.

The Massacre and Desecration of Black Dreams
The massacre has been called by experts “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history.” The attacks were carried out both from private aircraft and from the ground, destroying more than 35 square blocks of the Greenwood district. The casualties, injuries and property damage was unconscionable. White citizens were deputized overnight and arrested as many as 6,000 black residents, putting them in makeshift internment facilities for several days. Although the Oklahoma Bureau of Vital Statistics officially recorded deaths at 36, in reality a 2001 state commission examination found that 150–300 deaths had occurred as a result of the massacre. In addition, over 800 people were hospitalized. The violence was began over Memorial Day weekend in 1921 “when 19-year-old Dick Rowland, a black shoe shiner, was accused of assaulting Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white elevator operator of the nearby Drexel Building.” Rowland was arrested and taken into custody. There was talk that the young man would be lynched. In order to protect Rowland a group of 75 armed black men descended upon the jail to stop a white mob from trying to lynch him, which triggered the violence.

The Damage and No Justice for Black Citizens
White rioters wreaked havoc upon the black neighborhood that night and morning killing African Americans and burning and looting stores, other businesses and homes. The violence was only staved when around noon the next day Oklahoma National Guard troops managed to “get control of the situation by declaring martial law. About 10,000 black people were left homeless, and property damage amounted to more than $1.5 million in real estate and $750,000 in personal property (equivalent to $32.25 million in 2019). Their property was never recovered nor were they compensated for it. Many survivors left Tulsa, while black and white residents who stayed in the city were silent for decades about the terror, violence, and losses of the event. The massacre was largely omitted from local, state, and national histories.”

A Graphic Portrayal of the Event in the Atlantic
The Atlantic recently created a graphic novel to detail the events in both word and picture form. See their illustrated portrayal of the event here. For more details of this historical tragedy check out the history channel’s article entitled the Tulsa Race Massacre

11 Comments

  1. How have I never heard of this massacre before? Stories like this are largely omitted from history and history classes in school. Schools need to teach about these fairly recent events to show that racism did not end when the emancipation proclamation came about. This ties in with schools never have been (and shouldn’t be) political neutral. Teaching the young ones about the other perspectives will help people recognize the racism still present today.

  2. This is my first time hearing about this massacre. When you here of riots you automatically associate them with African Americans and to find out about this massacre was very eye opening. La riots and other protesting incidents are the main riots you hear about, so it was bitter sweet, but also informational to know that this was done to us before and were not as aggressive as society makes us out to be.

  3. Shocking, I’m shock that I have never heard of this Massacre. I must do better to educate myself about these events in American History. The lack of education of these types of historical events shows how our educational institutions are focused around empowering the Whites, my dismissing the history of minorities.
    Dr. Child’s article pointed out the silence after the Massacre, as if the whites went on with no consequence and the black continue to live in fear just waiting for the next strike. That stood out to me and is proof why we can no longer be silent on racism.

  4. I had learned of this massacre earlier this year via social media of all formats. As this is deemed “the single worst racial violence in American history,” it is beyond shocking that this isn’t taught in History at any grade level. The omission in general is quite telling of the bias that still exists in public education. It is terribly disheartening to know that there was zero compensation for the black communities after this atrocious lawlessness.

  5. I have never heard of the black Wall Street massacre. For 150 to 200 people to have been killed, 10,000 left homeless and all the destruction of property during that weekend, it should definitely be in our history lessons, regardless of the race of the victims or perpetrators. The massive destruction and death is just heartbreaking. I find it so difficult to understand the reasoning of people to do this. It’s sad that people felt like they had to leave Tulsa, and rebuild their lives elsewhere. At the time, everyone called it a riot, which was not covered by insurance. If they had properly named it “Massacre,” insurance companies would have had to pay for the losses, but the white insurance companies were not about to change that.

  6. This article was very informative. The crazy thing about the Black Wall Street Massacre is that I have NEVER heard of this until after the events in Minneapolis. This event needs to be in more textbooks and children need to learning about this event as much as we learn about Boston Tea Party or Boston Massacre. I am ashamed by the curriculum at my schools for not educating me this event.

  7. The image of the destroyed Greenwood district heading the article is horrific. It looks like a war zone, not the most affluent black business district in the country. But resentful whites made it a war zone, burning it to the ground and killing hundreds of its residents. I don’t know what disgusts me most. That such a horrible crime could be done in our country by a terrorist white mob, going as far as to attack the neighborhood via aircraft, and it is still called by some a “race riot”? And to even more people, it is unknown history. The gall of those criminals, to play cop and arrest black citizens as they themselves are murdering and doing millions of dollars in property damage. It is tragic that this center of black culture and achievement was destroyed and erased from public memory, never to recover from this hateful event. As protestors urge for legal justice against the perpetrators of police-sanctioned white-on-black violence, we shouldn’t forget that turning a blind eye to injustice in this country has for centuries been the rule. Unless there is an active and continued effort to demand consequences for crimes against black Americans, our white supremacist tradition will win out.

  8. The Black Wall Street Massacre is an event in history that I had not heard much about so I really enjoyed learning more about it through reading this post. It is so disheartening that we have still not been able to eliminate racial injustice. No person should have to suffer simply because of the color of their skin. I had not previously heard about the story of Dick Rowland, but any time a name is attached to an event, it helps to put things in perspective and I truly feel sorrow for the pain that was caused to not only DIck Rowland during the Black Wall Street Massacre, but to each and every African American. The damage and heartbreak that this horrific event caused is something that I can hardly imagine. 10,000 homeless African Americans and $1.5 million in property damage are unfathomable numbers and I wish that topics such as the Black Wall Street Massacre were talked about more in the classroom because this would enlighten children at a young age and ultimately be a positive step in the right direction in terms of ending racial tension and violence.

  9. I am so saddend by the school system that I have never heard of this event before. How outrageous! I am thankful to you for educating me on this event so I can be a better ally. As a nation, we cannot continue to stay silent on such grave events in the public school or social level.

  10. I agree with the introduction that this is a little known occurrence. It’s sad that as an American, I did not know about this event prior to reading this article. I am completely stunned how this elevated and citizens were willing to take things into their own hands before Rowland was even proven guilty in the court of law. I am embarrassed that this has been kept so quiet for so long.

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