TULSA, Oklahoma- Rioters have burned and looted an affluent business section of Tulsa prompting the governor to declare martial law.

“I could see planes circling in mid-air. They grew in number and hummed, darted and dipped low. I could hear something like hail falling upon the top of my office building. Down East Archer, I saw the old Mid-Way hotel on fire, burning from its top, and then another and another and another building began to burn from their top,” said eyewitness Buck Colbert Franklin.

Over 800 were treated for injuries and up to 300 may have been killed by the bombing and possible machine gun fire, although the Oklahoma Bureau of Vital Statistics puts the number at a much lower figure.

Now that I have your attention, it’s only fair that I let you know this is not contemporary news, although headlines nationally are now pointing again to Tulsa as protests are planned after police shot and killed a black man.

No, the former is an historical event that happened in Tulsa on May 31 and June 1, 1921 when white rioters set siege to what was known as “Black Wall Street” (a more archaic term was used.)

The Greenwood district in Tulsa had grown into a prosperous African-American community on the heels of Oklahoma oil wealth, being segregated from the rest of the city by Jim Crow laws. The about one-square mile neighborhood boasted black-owned and operated hotels, restaurants, shops, groceries, offices for doctors, dentists, and lawyers, even two independent newspapers. The Red Wing Hotel, Mann’s Grocery,  and the Dreamland Theatre were mainstays. Young people were being educated and entertained. Cab Calloway performed there. It was vibrant, bold and hopeful.

This was an oasis where blacks could dream about bettering themselves, and in many cases, see those aspirations come true. This indeed, was the wealthiest black enclave in the nation at the time.

However, that was all to change for the 35 blocks of the district, when racial turmoil set it ablaze over Memorial Day weekend. This storm had been brewing, 1919 had seen over two dozen race riots around the country in what was called “Red Summer.” The economy was faltering in surrounding Oklahoma and the Ku Klux Klan was making a stronghold.

Accounts say that the violence erupted after  inflammatory reports in two white-run newspapers said that a black young amn had sexually assaulted a white woman in an elevator. A white woman had called rape against a black man.

Emory Associate Professor of African American Studies, Carol Anderson, says the accused was a messenger and the son of a prominent businessman. She says the woman was the elevator operator.

One of the newspapers in an opinion column said the man ought to be hanged. Fears spread through the black community against the backdrop of speculation of an impending lynching of the young man. Vigilante justice surely was not uncommon at the time. Acting on that alarm, a group of armed black men hurried to the police station. No lynch mob was found but a confrontation ensued with emotions running at fever pitch. Shots were fired and several whites were killed.

src-adapt-960-high-tulsa_riots_body-1406030191283

A dead body in the street, June 1, 1921. Tulsa Historical Society

The news of the skirmish quickly traveled through the city, and mob violence erupted. Some say thousands of whites descended onto Greenwood killing men and women. They also burned and looted the neighborhood’s businesses.

 

Buck Colbert Franklin writes in his accounts that planes dropped drop burning balls of turpentine on the city’s rooftops. He wondered if it wasn’t a conspiracy and that the police had joined in. Some claim a machine gun was brought in to mow the blacks down. One thing is for certain though, not a single white fire department responded to the resulting conflagration.


“And so when this terrible thing happened, it really destroyed my faith in humanity,” survivor Amanda Hooker, who was six at the time said in a Aljazeera article. 

At the end, some 6,000 black residents of Greenwood were rounded up and detained. Some were jailed for over a week following the unrest.

This history indeed happened, but I would hazard a guess that most are unaware of these events that happened in our backyard. You see, this is something you will not find widely in textbooks, but reflecting on this bygone tragedy may set a startling context to the events in present-day America.

The atrocity was repeated, to a lesser scale, in 1923 during the Rosewood Massacre in Florida.

src-adapt-960-high-tulsa_riots_street-1406030191283

The Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, after the Tulsa race riot.Tulsa Historical Society

 

 

Sources:

The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow . Jim Crow Stories . Tulsa Riot | PBS

Survivors of infamous 1921 Tulsa race riot still hope for justice

Tulsa Historical Society