Remember Tulsa

On the Tulsa Massacre, the obscurity it has fallen into, and the continuing impact the massacre has on race relations today.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Ivy Jiang

Exactly a century ago, a Black teenage shoe shiner named Dick Rowland stepped into an office building near the center of Tulsa, Oklahoma on May 30, 1921. A few minutes after Rowland entered, the building’s white elevator operator, 17-year-old Sarah Page, screamed for help. Terrified of being accused of assault and rape, Rowland fled the scene. The next day, local police arrested and jailed Rowland in the Tulsa County Courthouse. Soon, the story of the escalator encounter pervaded the public consciousness as newspapers like The Tulsa Tribune manipulated age-old fears of Black men “corrupting” white women. An armed white mob assembled at Tulsa’s courthouse and began shooting into the Black crowd, setting off a chain of events known today as the Tulsa Race Massacre. Though nobody will ever know what truly unfolded in the elevator that fateful day, the horror that erupted over the next two days destroyed Tulsa’s flourishing Black community and left a permanent stain on the city’s character—a mark that continues to dictate Tulsa race relations today.

At the time of the massacre, Tulsa was an anomaly in a country increasingly characterized by white supremacist movements like the Ku Klux Klan and anti-Black violence. Just the summer before, racist mobs had murdered Black veterans returning home from “making the world safe for democracy,” a series of events euphemistically dubbed the Red Summer of 1919. Tulsa was different. The city’s Black residents built a prosperous community free from the harsher racial realities of life in the Jim Crow South. The thriving Greenwood District boasted a population of nearly 10 thousand residents, and the neighborhood was complete with movie theaters, hotels, pharmacies, and hair salons. The community’s self-sufficient business district, “Black Wall Street,” reflected Black Tulsa’s success. Founded by prominent Black landowner Ottowa Gurley in 1905, the sector blossomed into a district with one of the highest concentrations of Black businesses in the country. As a result, the city itself became a mecca synonymous with Black prosperity, a shining beacon of hope for a community long in conflict with the traditional American psyche.

The primary reason for Tulsa’s economic success was the Great Migration. Spurred on by the allure of job openings, urban residential districts, and boarding houses, Black Americans seized the opportunity presented by wartime prosperity to escape the persistent and violent racism of the South and start life anew. Though Black Americans hoped that a move to the North might mitigate racial tensions, their migration instead proved to be an explosive force. In St. Louis, Illinois, a mob of whites attacked African Americans and killed at least 100 residents in 1917. In Chicago, white gangs hunted Black Americans in the street and burned their homes. Local authorities held Black people responsible for the violence, and President Wilson refused requests for federal intervention and investigations.

The story was the same in Tulsa. Encouraged by the decisions of the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which continued to uphold restrictions on voting access to Black Americans by approving grandfather clauses and poll taxes, and eager to end an era of Black prosperity, white mobs burned the Greenwood District to the ground. The mob looted businesses, shot Black people dead on the sidewalk with machine guns, and prevented firefighters from saving Black Wall Street. Soon, martial law was declared, and the National Guard was brought in. They only worsened the situation as the police and National Guard arrested Black residents instead of white rioters, and some members of the National Guard even joined in the rioting and violence themselves. By the end of the massacre, more than 1,200 homes were destroyed, 35 blocks were burned, and as many as 300 people lay dead. An innocent elevator meeting, where it is commonly suggested that Rowland was trying to catch Page as she stumbled, had exploded into one of the nation’s deadliest and ugliest race massacres.

Today, the events of Tulsa remain relatively unknown—Stuyvesant’s own history textbooks contain no mention of the massacre, and the event is not typically taught in American history courses. Perhaps more striking, however, is the massacre’s legacy in Tulsa itself. Using eyewitness accounts to pinpoint mass burial sites of the massacre’s victims, two areas with anomalies in the soil were located in 2019. The excavation began in July of last year. While archaeologists did not find bodies, they did unearth a bullet, two pairs of shoes, and a buried road. In the future, excavations of Oaklawn Cemetery and “The Canes,” an area near the Arkansas River, are planned.

Culturally, the Tulsa Race Massacre has received newfound attention as well—a testament to the long-overdue awareness the massacre is finally receiving. In Tulsa, bipartisan efforts have resulted in “racial reconciliation efforts,” and a multimillion-dollar museum and cultural center to remember the massacre will open this spring to commemorate the event’s 100th anniversary. The massacre has also found the national spotlight. The popular streaming platform HBO released “Watchmen” in 2019, which provided a vivid and often harrowing depiction of the events that occurred between May 31, 1921, and now. Interestingly, the series does not reflect the events of modern-day Tulsa; instead, it presents an alternate history in which residents affected by the massacre have received reparations.

However, in our reality, local leaders have refused to compensate the victims financially while the Black community in Tulsa suffers a disproportionately high poverty rate. According to the Tulsa Race Massacre Commission, created by the Oklahoma state legislature to study the massacre and provide recommendations on moving forward, the Black community deserves reparations. Following the massacre, Black Tulsa faced significant opposition while attempting to rebuild, especially since the new government was controlled by the very people who had destroyed their community. Just as the end of the “40 acres and a mule” policy during Reconstruction set the precedent for present-day disparities in generational wealth within and outside the Black community, the rebuilding of a once burgeoning Black Tulsa came at the steep price of forgoing investment in other sectors. Without government assistance, rebuilding often meant the sacrifice of opportunities like the investment in education, health, property, and business, all factors which contributed to an overall decrease in wealth accumulation.

Excavations, new museums, and television shows are not enough to compensate for an ugly past that continues to have a tangible impact on Black Tulsa today. Justice for the atrocities of the past must finally be served through economic reparations for Black Tulsa and the introduction of the Tulsa Race Massacre into mainstream American culture. We owe it to Black Tulsa to recognize the psychological harm done to the Black community and the detrimental effects the massacre had on Tulsa’s economy. Atoning for the past will provide Black Tulsa with badly needed economic aid and recast the traditional depiction of the massacre by acknowledging the gross injustice.

Understanding American history remains more important than ever. Today, in a time of fraught racial tensions and continued violence toward Black Americans, best exemplified by the murders of unarmed Black men like George Floyd and Daunte Wright, reckoning with our history will color our perception of the present. In Tulsa, a white police officer named Betty Shelby fatally shot an unarmed Black man named Terence Crutcher in 2016 as he lowered his hands and reached into his vehicle. After being charged with first degree manslaughter, Shelby was acquitted in August of 2017, which caused outrage among the Black community. While the circumstances of the Crutcher shooting and the Tulsa Race Massacre are distinct, the two are the results of the same racism that dominates Tulsa today. In the words of Tulsa resident and the sister of Terence Crutcher, Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, “To be Black and to be Tulsan is to have your history erased.” Let’s change that narrative once and for all.