AN ELEVATOR ENCOUNTER & WHITE SUPREMACIST TERROR
By May 1921, substantial resentment toward Greenwood had built up among white Tulsans, who envied Blacks’ increasing economic power and hated that the neighborhood was expanding closer to segregated “white” areas. There already existed in the U.S. a history of white racists lashing out violently against Black power and all-Black communities, including:
In Tulsa, the match to the fuel of racial resentment was lit on the morning of May 31, 1921. A nineteen-year-old Black shoe shiner named Dick Rowland got onto an elevator with a young white woman named Sarah Page. Shortly afterward, it was falsely reported by the Tulsa Tribune newspaper that Ms. Page ran out of the elevator screaming that Mr. Rowland had tried to rape her. No evidence that this was true was ever presented, however, Tulsa newspapers ran the story as a confirmed sexual assault, stoking local white outrage. A mob gathered at the Tulsa Town Hall with the intention of lynching Rowland.
When J.B. Stradford and several other Greenwood residents arrived to help the city sheriff protect Rowland, words and then gunfire were exchanged. The white mob exploded into violence and hundreds began to descend on the peaceful streets of Greenwood.
White terrorists surrounded the Greenwood neighborhood, many armed with firearms taken from looted Black stores. As they began looting and destroying homes, offices, and shops, Tulsa law enforcement joined in the mayhem and arrested Greenwood residents who were simply trying to survive the onslaught. Black residents tried to block the progress of the terrorists but were quickly overwhelmed by sheer numbers. As the terrible day wore on, about 2000 whites deputized the City of Tulsa, Tulsa police officers, members of the Oklahoma National Guard and the Ku Klux Klan, began to throw firebombs through the broken windows of buildings along Black Wall Street. At the same time, planes owned by local oil companies began circling above Greenwood and dropping more firebombs.
By the time night fell, the entire community was either ablaze or reduced to rubble. Hundreds of Black residents had been murdered, while the rest had fled in terror or been arrested. According to eyewitnesses, the bodies of the dead were piled in the streets, trucked down to the Arkansas River, and thrown into the current.
By the morning of June 1, 1921, Black Wall Street, the country’s greatest model of Black prosperity, ingenuity and hard work, lay in ashes. No whites were arrested.
TRAUMA, INTERNMENT & STOLEN WEALTH
The next day, the horrors continued for the stunned survivors. Due to fear of retaliation among white Tulsans, more than 6,000 Greenwood survivors were confined for up to eight days in internment camps at the city’s convention hall and fairgrounds. They were only permitted to leave—for example, to go to work—if they carried a green card and were signed out by a white person, who was then responsible for their conduct. This added a layer of humiliation to what was already a disgraceful act of domestic terrorism.
For the survivors, life became impossibly hard. Most had lost their homes, their incomes, and in many cases, their businesses. Commission, Insurance policies refused to pay claims because the Massacre was falsely designated as a riot, which relieved insurers from having to pay benefits to the stricken. Former Greenwood residents either were exiled (ex-hotelier J.B. Stradford fled to Chicago to start over) or simply tried to survive, living in constant fear.
Local history teacher Seymour Williams, speaking in Tulsa Race Riot: A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Race Riot of 1921, explained the silence of the Black community after the devastation. “Blacks lost everything,” he said. “They were afraid it could happen again, and there was no way to tell the story. The two Negro newspapers were bombed...[People] were too busy just trying to make it...the killers were still running loose, and they’re wearing blue suits as well as Klan sheets.” Despite being left on their own, and with no help from any government, Greenwood residents slowly tried to rebuild their community.
For many, rebuilding was all but impossible. They lacked capital and faced active opposition from the City of the Tulsa and other powerful White business interests.
The effects of the Greenwood Massacre resonated far beyond the trauma and loss of the survivors. White Tulsans pledged to rebuild the community, but nothing was done. Instead, many white residents attempted to purchase land from now-impoverished Blacks at bargain prices. The city also engaged in a decades-long campaign of gentrification that upgraded white neighborhoods while leaving the devastated area to rebuild on its own.
The economic damage extends to modern times. Some Greenwood residents owned their own airplanes, and the district featured luxurious homes, indoor plumbing, and an exceptional school system. And while there are no models for estimating the financial value of the businesses, careers, brands, and economic activity that existed in Greenwood before its destruction, we can do some of our own rough math.
The report “The Racial Wealth Gap in Oklahoma” found that white households in Oklahoma today have about 20 times the tangible financial assets (investments and property) of the average African-American household. One of the causes of this gap was the Greenwood Massacre, which destroyed substantial wealth that was not passed on to children and grandchildren. U.S. GDP per capita in 1921 was about $10,000 for people in the upper middle class, which many Greenwood residents occupied. That means the 11,000 residents of Greenwood represented economic value of approximately $110,000,000 in 1921 dollars. That is equivalent to $1.586 billion dollars in 2020.
Thus, the Massacre prevented perhaps one billion dollars in generational wealth—land, businesses, investments, intellectual property—from being passed down. Given how much wealth in the U.S. is inherited, and how much of that wealth is used to create additional wealth through investment, starting businesses and purchasing property, it is not unreasonable to propose that the Greenwood Massacre may have cost Black America tens of billions of dollars in assets—wealth that could have been used to improve the health, education and political power of African-Americans. In this way, the Massacre continues to victimize Blacks to this day.
For more than 75 years after it happened, the Massacre was a forbidden topic in Tulsa. Journalists and historians who tried to write about it were at risk of losing their jobs and sometimes, their lives. Official accounts were destroyed. Stories about the Massacre were removed from newspaper archives. An Orwellian conspiracy attempted to rewrite history and pretend that this atrocity never happened.
Finally, in 1968 a journalist named Don Ross wrote three columns about the riots for the Oklahoma Eagle, and in 1971 published a story about the attacks in Impact magazine. He was called a troublemaker by both whites and blacks for violating what he called a “conspiracy of silence going on for 50 years.” Slowly, schools began to teach the history of Greenwood, but the city of Tulsa never accepted legal responsibility for the Massacre. The Greenwood Cultural Center opened in 1995 as a monument and as a resource, but little else was done.
In the 1990s, State Representative Don Ross advocated for the formation of the Tulsa Race Riot Commission (“Commission”) to study the Tulsa massacre as a means of raising awareness of the Massacre, and moving discussion towards reparations for the survivors and their descendants, including providing an apology. These efforts led to the creation of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Commission (“The Commission”), established in 1997 with House Joint Resolution No. 1035. After four years of research, in February 2001, the Commission issued its “Tulsa Race Riot Report” and called for reparations to survivors. In her Epilogue to the Tulsa Race Riot Commission’s Report, Oklahoma State Senator Maxine Horner announced that “[w]hat is owed this community 80 years later is a repairing—education and economic incentives and something more than symbolic gestures or an official report as an apology extended to the survivors.”
In recent years, the hypocrisy over this act of domestic terrorism has become intolerable. Incredibly, in 2019 the city of Tulsa announced that the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission would be engaging in a series of events and dedications intended to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the Massacre, including a dubious attempt to final alleged mass gravesites of victims which probably do not exist.
Not a word about accountability. No apology. Not a word about reparations. Simply a cynical attempt to whitewash an atrocity against Black Americans—to transform it into not only a demonstration of the city’s virtue but a tourist attraction.