Tulsa race massacre

Tulsa race massacre
Part of the nadir of American race relations
Tulsa Aftermath.jpg
Homes and businesses burned in Greenwood
LocationGreenwood District, Tulsa, Oklahoma, U.S.
Coordinates36°09′34″N 95°59′11″W / 36.1594°N 95.9864°W / 36.1594; -95.9864Coordinates: 36°09′34″N 95°59′11″W / 36.1594°N 95.9864°W / 36.1594; -95.9864
DateMay 31 – June 1, 1921
TargetBlack residents, their homes, businesses, churches, schools and municipal buildings over a 40 square block area
WeaponsGuns, explosives, intentionally set fires or arson, incendiary devices dropped from airplanes[1]
DeathsTotal dead and displaced unknown:
36 total; 26 black and 10 white dead (1921 records)
150–200 black and 50 white dead (1921 estimate by W.F. White)[2]
39 confirmed, 75–100 to 150–300 estimated (2001 commission)[3]
183 serious injuries[3]
Exact number unknown
PerpetratorsWhite American mob[4][5][6][7][8][9]

The Tulsa race massacre took place on May 31 and June 1, 1921, when mobs of White residents, many of them deputized and given weapons by city officials, attacked Black residents and destroyed homes and businesses of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma, US. Alternatively known as the Tulsa race riot[10] or the Black Wall Street massacre,[11] the event is among "the single worst incident[s] of racial violence in American history".[12] The attacks, carried out on the ground and from private aircraft, burned and destroyed more than 35 square blocks of the neighborhood – at the time the wealthiest Black community in the United States, known as "Black Wall Street".[13]

More than 800 people were admitted to hospitals, and as many as 6,000 Black residents were interned in large facilities, many of them for several days.[14][15] The Oklahoma Bureau of Vital Statistics officially recorded 36 dead.[16] A 2001 state commission examination of events was able to confirm 39 dead, 26 Black and 13 White, based on contemporary autopsy reports, death certificates and other records.[17] The commission gave several estimates ranging from 75 to 300 dead.[18][19]

The massacre began during the Memorial Day weekend after 19-year-old Dick Rowland, a Black shoeshiner, was accused of assaulting Sarah Page, the 17-year-old White elevator operator of the nearby Drexel Building. He was taken into custody. After the arrest, rumors spread through the city that Rowland was to be lynched. Upon hearing reports that a mob of hundreds of White men had gathered around the jail where Rowland was being kept, a group of 75 Black men, some of whom were armed, arrived at the jail in order to ensure that Rowland would not be lynched. The sheriff persuaded the group to leave the jail, assuring them that he had the situation under control. A shot was fired, and then, according to the reports of the sheriff, "all hell broke loose." At the end of the exchange of fire, 12 people were dead, 10 White and two Black. As news of these deaths spread throughout the city, mob violence exploded.[2] White rioters rampaged through the Black neighborhood that night and the next morning, killing men and burning and looting stores and homes. Around noon on June 1, the Oklahoma National Guard imposed martial law, ending the massacre.

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 $32.65 million in 2020). Many survivors left Tulsa, while Black and White residents who stayed in the city largely kept silent about the terror, violence, and resulting losses for decades. The massacre was largely omitted from local, state and national histories.

In 1996, 75 years after the massacre, a bipartisan group in the state legislature authorized the formation of the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. The commission's final report, published in 2001, states that the city had conspired with the mob of White citizens against Black citizens; it recommended a program of reparations to survivors and their descendants.[20] The state passed legislation to establish scholarships for the descendants of survivors, encourage the economic development of Greenwood,[citation needed] and develop a park in memory of the victims of the massacre in Tulsa. The park was dedicated in 2010. Schools in Oklahoma have been required to teach students about the massacre since 2002,[21] but in 2020, the massacre officially became a part of the Oklahoma school curriculum.[22]


A map of Tulsa in 1920. The Greenwood District was in northern Tulsa.

In 1921, Oklahoma had a racially, socially, and politically tense atmosphere. The territory of northern Oklahoma had been established for the resettlement of Native Americans from the southeast, some of whom had owned slaves.[23] Other areas had received many settlers from the South whose families had been slaveholders before the Civil War. Oklahoma was admitted as a state on November 16, 1907. The newly created state legislature passed racial segregation laws, commonly known as Jim Crow laws, as its first order of business. The 1907 Oklahoma Constitution did not call for strict segregation; delegates feared that, should they include such restrictions, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt would veto the document. Still, the first law passed by the new legislature segregated all rail travel, and voter registration rules effectively disenfranchised most Black Americans. That meant they were also barred from serving on juries or in local office. These laws were enforced until after passage of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. Major cities passed additional restrictions.[24]

On August 4, 1916, Tulsa passed an ordinance that mandated residential segregation by forbidding Black or White people from residing on any block where three-fourths or more of the residents were members of the other race. Although the United States Supreme Court declared such an ordinance unconstitutional the following year, Tulsa and many other cities continued to establish and enforce segregation for the next three decades.[25][26]

Many servicemen returned to Tulsa following the end of the First World War in 1918, and as they tried to re-enter the labor market, social tensions and anti-Black sentiment increased in cities where job competition was high. Northeastern Oklahoma was in an economic slump that increased unemployment. The American Civil War, which ended in 1865, was still in living memory; civil rights for African Americans were lacking, and the Ku Klux Klan was resurgent (primarily through the wildly popular 1915 film The Birth of a Nation).[27] Since 1915, the Ku Klux Klan had been growing in urban chapters across the country. Its first significant appearance in Oklahoma occurred on August 12, 1921.[28] By the end of 1921, 3,200 of Tulsa's 72,000 residents were Klan members according to one estimate.[28][29] In the early 20th century, lynchings were common in Oklahoma as part of a continuing effort to assert and maintain white supremacy.[28][30][31] By 1921, at least 31 people, mostly men and boys, had been lynched in the newly formed state; 26 were Black.

At the same time, Black veterans pushed to have their civil rights enforced, believing they had earned full citizenship by military service. In what became known as the "Red Summer" of 1919, industrial cities across the Midwest and Northeast experienced severe race riots in which Whites, sometimes including local authorities, attacked Black communities. In Chicago and some other cities, Blacks defended themselves for the first time with force but were often outnumbered.

Tulsa, as a booming oil city, also supported a large number of affluent, educated and professional African-American people. Greenwood was a district in Tulsa which was organized in 1906 following Booker T. Washington's 1905 tour of Arkansas, Indian Territory and Oklahoma. It was a namesake of the Greenwood District that Washington had established as his own demonstration in Tuskegee, Alabama, five years earlier. Greenwood became so prosperous that it came to be known as "the Negro Wall Street" (now commonly referred to as "the Black Wall Street").[32] Most Black people lived together in the district. Black Americans had created their own businesses and services in this enclave, including several grocers, two newspapers, two movie theaters, nightclubs, and numerous churches. Black professionals, including doctors, dentists, lawyers, and clergy, served their peers. During his trip to Tulsa in 1905, Washington encouraged the co-operation, economic independence and excellence being demonstrated there. Greenwood residents selected their own leaders and raised capital there to support economic growth. In the surrounding areas of northeastern Oklahoma, they also enjoyed relative prosperity and participated in the oil boom.[32]

Monday, May 30 (Memorial Day)

Encounter in the elevator

On May 30, 1921, 19-year-old Dick Rowland, a Black shoeshiner employed at a Main Street shine parlor, entered the only elevator of the nearby Drexel Building at 319 South Main Street to use the top-floor 'colored' restroom, which his employer had arranged for use by his Black employees. There, he encountered Sarah Page, the 17-year-old White elevator operator on duty. Whether—and to what extent—Dick Rowland and Sarah Page knew each other has long been a matter of speculation. The two likely knew each other at least by sight as Rowland would have regularly ridden in Page’s elevator on his way to and from the restroom. Others have speculated that the pair might have been interracial lovers, a dangerous and perhaps deadly taboo then.[citation needed] A clerk at Renberg's, a clothing store on the first floor of the Drexel, heard what sounded like a woman's scream and saw a young Black man rushing from the building. The clerk went to the elevator and found Page in a distraught state. Thinking she had been sexually assaulted, he summoned the authorities. Apart from the clerk's interpretation that Rowland attempted to rape Page, many explanations have been given for the incident, with the most common being that that Dick Rowland tripped as he got onto the elevator and, as he tried to catch his fall, he grabbed onto the arm of Sarah Page, who then screamed. Others suggested that Rowland and Page had a lover’s quarrel.[33]

The 2001 Oklahoma Commission Final Report notes that it was unusual for both Rowland and Page to be working downtown on Memorial Day, when most stores and businesses were closed, but has also speculated that Rowland was there because the shine parlor he worked at may have been open, to draw in some of the parade traffic, while Page had been required to work in order to transport Drexel Building employees and their families to choice parade viewing spots on the building’s upper floors.[33]

Brief investigation

Although the police questioned Page, no written account of her statement has been found, but apparently she told the police that Rowland had grabbed her arm and nothing more, and would not press charges.[34] However, the police determined that what happened between the two teenagers was something less than an assault. The authorities conducted a low-key investigation rather than launching a man-hunt for her alleged assailant. [35]

Regardless of whether assault had occurred, Rowland had reason to be fearful. At the time, such an accusation alone put him at risk for attack by angry mobs of White people. Realizing the gravity of the situation, Rowland fled to his mother's house in the Greenwood neighborhood.[36]

Tuesday, May 31

Suspect is arrested

One of the news articles that contributed to tensions in Tulsa

On the morning after the incident, Henry Carmichael, a White detective, and Henry C. Pack, a Black patrolman, located Rowland on Greenwood Avenue and detained him. Pack was one of two Black officers on the city's police force, which included about 45 officers. Rowland was initially taken to the Tulsa city jail at the corner of First Street and Main Street. Late that day, Police Commissioner J. M. Adkison said he had received an anonymous telephone call threatening Rowland's life. He ordered Rowland transferred to the more secure jail on the top floor of the Tulsa County Courthouse.[37][38]

Rowland was well known among attorneys and other legal professionals within the city, many of whom knew him through his work as a shoeshiner. Some witnesses later recounted hearing several attorneys defend Rowland in their conversations with one another. One of the men said, "Why, I know that boy, and have known him a good while. That's not in him."[39]

Newspaper coverage

The Tulsa Tribune, owned, published, and edited by Richard Lloyd Jones, and one of two White-owned papers published in Tulsa, broke the story in that afternoon's edition with the headline: "Nab Negro for Attacking Girl In an Elevator," describing the alleged incident. According to some witnesses, the same edition of the Tribune included an editorial warning of a potential lynching of Rowland, titled "To Lynch Negro Tonight."[40] The paper was known at the time to have a "sensationalist" style of news writing. All original copies of that issue of the paper have apparently been destroyed, and the relevant page is missing from the microfilm copy.[41] The Tulsa Race Riot Commission in 1997 offered a reward for a copy of the editorial, which went unclaimed.[41] Other newspapers of the time like The Black Dispatch and the Tulsa World did not call attention to any such editorial after the event.[41] So the exact content of the column – and whether it existed at all – remains in dispute.[41][42][43][44] However, Chief of Detectives James Patton attributed the cause of the riots entirely to the newspaper account and stated, "If the facts in the story as told the police had only been printed I do not think there would have been any riot whatsoever."[34]

Stand-off at the courthouse

The afternoon edition of the Tribune hit the streets shortly after 3 p.m., and soon news spread of a potential lynching. By 4 p.m., local authorities were on alert. White residents began congregating at and near the Tulsa County Courthouse. By sunset around 7:30 p.m., the several hundred White residents assembled outside the courthouse appeared to have the makings of a lynch mob. Willard M. McCullough, the newly elected sheriff of Tulsa County, was determined to avoid events such as the 1920 lynching of White murder suspect Roy Belton in Tulsa, which had occurred during the term of his predecessor.[45] The sheriff took steps to ensure the safety of Rowland. McCullough organized his deputies into a defensive formation around Rowland, who was terrified.[failed verification] The Guthrie Daily Leader reported that Rowland had been taken to the county jail before crowds started to gather.[46] The sheriff positioned six of his men, armed with rifles and shotguns, on the roof of the courthouse. He disabled the building's elevator and had his remaining men barricade themselves at the top of the stairs with orders to shoot any intruders on sight. The sheriff went outside and tried to talk the crowd into going home but to no avail. According to an account by Scott Ellsworth, the sheriff was "hooted down".[47] At about 8:20 p.m., three White men entered the courthouse, demanding that Rowland be turned over to them. Although vastly outnumbered by the growing crowd out on the street, Sheriff McCullough turned the men away.[48]

A few blocks away on Greenwood Avenue, members of the Black community gathered to discuss the situation at Gurley's Hotel.[4][5][6] Given the recent lynching of Belton, a White man accused of murder, they believed that Rowland was greatly at risk. Many Black residents were determined to prevent the crowd from lynching Rowland, but they were divided about tactics. Young World War I veterans prepared for a battle by collecting guns and ammunition. Older, more prosperous men feared a destructive confrontation that likely would cost them dearly.[49] O. W. Gurley stated that he had tried to convince the men that there would be no lynching, but the crowd responded that Sheriff McCullough had personally told them their presence was required.[5] About 9:30 p.m., a group of approximately 50–60 Black men, armed with rifles and shotguns, arrived at the jail to support the sheriff and his deputies in defending Rowland from the mob. Corroborated by ten witnesses, attorney James Luther submitted to the grand jury that they were following the orders of Sheriff McCullough who publicly denied he gave any orders:

I saw a car full of negroes driving through the streets with guns; I saw Bill McCullough and told him those negroes would cause trouble; McCullough tried to talk to them, and they got out and stood in single file. W. G. Daggs was killed near Boulder and Sixth street. I was under the impression that a man with authority could have stopped and disarmed them. I saw Chief of Police on south side of court house on top step, talking; I did not see any officer except the Chief; I walked in the court house and met McCullough in about 15 feet of his door; I told him these negroes were going to make trouble, and he said he had told them to go home; he went out and told the Whites to go home, and one said "they said you told them to come up here." McCullough said "I did not" and a negro said you did tell us to come.[5][6]

Taking up arms

Having seen the armed Black men, some of the more than 1,000 Whites who had been at the courthouse went home for their own guns. Others headed for the National Guard armory at the corner of Sixth Street and Norfolk Avenue, where they planned to arm themselves. The armory contained a supply of small arms and ammunition. Major James Bell of the 180th Infantry Regiment learned of the mounting situation downtown and the possibility of a break-in, and he consequently took measures to prevent. He called the commanders of the three National Guard units in Tulsa, who ordered all the Guard members to put on their uniforms and report quickly to the armory. When a group of Whites arrived and began pulling at the grating over a window, Bell went outside to confront the crowd of 300 to 400 men. Bell told them that the Guard members inside were armed and prepared to shoot anyone who tried to enter. After this show of force, the crowd withdrew from the armory.[50]

At the courthouse, the crowd had swollen to nearly 2,000, many of them now armed. Several local leaders, including Reverend Charles W. Kerr, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, tried to dissuade mob action. Chief of Police John A. Gustafson later claimed that he tried to talk the crowd into going home.[51]

Anxiety on Greenwood Avenue was rising. Many Black residents worried about the safety of Rowland. Small groups of armed Black men ventured toward the courthouse in automobiles, partly for reconnaissance and to demonstrate they were prepared to take necessary action to protect Rowland.[51] Many White men interpreted these actions as a "Negro uprising" and became concerned. Eyewitnesses reported gunshots, presumably fired into the air, increasing in frequency during the evening.[52]

In Greenwood, rumors began to fly – in particular, a report that Whites were storming the courthouse. Shortly after 10 p.m., a second, larger group of approximately 75 armed Black men decided to go to the courthouse. They offered their support to the sheriff, who declined their help. According to witnesses, a White man is alleged to have told one of the armed Black men to surrender his pistol. The man refused, and a shot was fired. That first shot might have been accidental, or meant as a warning; it was a catalyst for an exchange of gunfire.[12]

Violent outbreaks

Smoldering ruins of African-American homes following the massacre

The gunshots triggered an almost immediate response, with both sides firing on the other. The first "battle" was said to last a few seconds or so, but took a toll, as ten Whites and two Black men lay dead or dying in the street.[45] The Black men who had offered to provide security retreated toward Greenwood. A rolling gunfight ensued. The armed White mob pursued the Black contingent toward Greenwood, with many stopping to loot local stores for additional weapons and ammunition. Along the way, bystanders, many of whom were leaving a movie theater after a show, were caught offguard by the mobs and fled. Panic set in as the White mob began firing on any Black people in the crowd. The White mob also shot and killed at least one White man in the confusion.[53] According to the Oklahoma Historical Society some in the mob were deputized by police and instructed to "get a gun and get a nigger".[54]

At around 11 p.m., members of the National Guard unit began to assemble at the armory to organize a plan to subdue the rioters. Several groups were deployed downtown to set up guard at the courthouse, police station, and other public facilities. Members of the local chapter of the American Legion joined in on patrols of the streets. The forces appeared to have been deployed to protect the White districts adjacent to Greenwood. The National Guard rounded up numerous Black people and took them to the Convention Hall on Brady Street for detention.[55]

At around midnight, a small crowd of Whites assembled outside the courthouse. They shouted in support of a lynching, but they did not rush the building and nothing happened.[53]

Wednesday, June 1

Throughout the early morning hours, groups of armed White and Black people squared off in gunfights. The fighting was concentrated along sections of the Frisco tracks, a dividing line between the Black and White commercial districts. A rumor circulated that more Black people were coming by train from Muskogee to help with an invasion of Tulsa. At one point, passengers on an incoming train were forced to take cover on the floor of the train cars, as they had arrived in the midst of crossfire, with the train taking hits on both sides. Small groups of Whites made brief forays by car into Greenwood, indiscriminately firing into businesses and residences. They often received return fire. Meanwhile, White rioters threw lighted oil rags into several buildings along Archer Street, igniting them.[56]

As unrest spread to other parts of the city, many middle class White families who employed Black people in their homes as live-in cooks and servants were accosted by White rioters. They demanded the families turn over their employees to be taken to detention centers around the city. Many White families complied, but those who refused were subjected to attacks and vandalism in turn.[57]

Fires begin

Fires burning along Archer and Greenwood during the massacre

At around 1 a.m., the White mob began setting fires, mainly in businesses on commercial Archer Street at the southern edge of the Greenwood district. As news traveled among Greenwood residents in the early morning hours, many began to take up arms in defense of their neighborhood, while others began a mass exodus from the city.[58] Throughout the night both sides continued fighting, sometimes only sporadically.

As crews from the Tulsa Fire Department arrived to put out fires, they were turned away at gunpoint.[59] Scott Elsworth makes the same claim,[60] but his reference makes no mention of firefighters.[61] Parrish gave only praise for the National Guard.[62] Another reference Elsworth gives to support the claim of holding firefighters at gunpoint is only a summary of events in which they suppressed the firing of guns by the rioters and disarmed them of their firearms.[63] Yet another of his references states that they were fired upon by the White mob, "It would mean a fireman's life to turn a stream of water on one of those negro buildings. They shot at us all morning when we were trying to do something but none of my men were hit. There is not a chance in the world to get through that mob into the negro district."[46] By 4 a.m., an estimated two dozen Black-owned businesses had been set ablaze.

Tulsa founder and Ku Klux Klan member W. Tate Brady participated in the riot as a night watchman.[64] This Land Press reported that previously, Brady led the Tulsa Outrage, the November 7, 1917 tarring and feathering of members of the Industrial Workers of the World — an incident understood to be economically and politically, rather than racially, motivated.[65] Previous reports regarding Brady's character seem favorable, and he hired Black employees in his businesses.[66]


Upon sunrise, around 5 a.m., a train whistle sounded (Hirsch said it was a siren). Some rioters believed this sound to be a signal for the rioters to launch an all-out assault on Greenwood. A White man stepped out from behind the Frisco depot and was fatally shot by a sniper in Greenwood. Crowds of rioters poured from their shelter, on foot and by car, into the streets of the Black neighborhood. Five White men in a car led the charge, but were killed by a fusillade of gunfire before they had traveled one block.[67]

Overwhelmed by the sheer number of White attackers, the Black residents retreated north on Greenwood Avenue to the edge of town. Chaos ensued as terrified residents fled. The rioters shot indiscriminately and killed many residents along the way. Splitting into small groups, they began breaking into houses and buildings, looting. Several residents later testified the rioters broke into occupied homes and ordered the residents out to the street, where they could be driven or forced to walk to detention centers.[68] A rumor spread among the rioters that the new Mount Zion Baptist Church was being used as a fortress and armory. Purportedly twenty caskets full of rifles had been delivered to the church, though no evidence was found.[69]

Attack by air

Flames across the Greenwood section of Tulsa

Numerous eyewitnesses described airplanes carrying White assailants, who fired rifles and dropped firebombs on buildings, homes, and fleeing families. The privately owned aircraft had been dispatched from the nearby Curtiss-Southwest Field outside Tulsa.[70] Law enforcement officials later said that the planes were to provide reconnaissance and protect against a "Negro uprising".[70] Law enforcement personnel were thought to be aboard at least some flights.[71] Eyewitness accounts, such as testimony from the survivors during Commission hearings and a manuscript by eyewitness and attorney Buck Colbert Franklin, discovered in 2015, said that on the morning of June 1, at least "a dozen or more" planes circled the neighborhood and dropped "burning turpentine balls" on an office building, a hotel, a filling station and multiple other buildings. Men also fired rifles at Black residents, gunning them down in the street.[72][70]

Richard S. Warner concluded in his submission to The Oklahoma Commission that contrary to later reports by claimed eyewitnesses of seeing explosions, there was no reliable evidence to support such attacks.[73] Warner noted that while a number of newspapers targeted at Black readers heavily reported the use of nitroglycerin, turpentine and rifles from the planes, many cited anonymous sources or second-hand accounts.[73] Beryl Ford, one of the pre-eminent historians of the disaster, concluded from his large collection of photographs that there was no evidence of any building damaged by explosions.[74] Danney Goble commended Warner on his efforts and supported his conclusions.[75] State representative Don Ross (born in Tulsa in 1941), however, dissented from the evidence presented in the report concluding that bombs were in fact dropped from planes during the violence.[76]

Franklin's account

In 2015, a previously unknown written eyewitness account of the events of May 31, 1921, was discovered and subsequently obtained by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. The 10-page typewritten letter was authored by Buck Colbert Franklin, noted Oklahoma attorney and father of John Hope Franklin.[72][77]

Notable quotes include:

Lurid flames roared and belched and licked their forked tongues into the air. Smoke ascended the sky in thick, black volumes and amid it all, the planes – now a dozen or more in number – still hummed and darted here and there with the agility of natural birds of the air.

Planes circling in midair: 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.

The sidewalks were literally covered with burning turpentine balls. I knew all too well where they came from, and I knew all too well why every burning building first caught fire from the top.

I paused and waited for an opportune time to escape. 'Where oh where is our splendid fire department with its half dozen stations?' I asked myself, 'Is the city in conspiracy with the mob?'

Franklin states that every time he saw a White man shot, he "felt happy"[78] and he "swelled with pride and hope for the race."[79] Franklin reports seeing multiple machine guns firing at night and hearing "thousands and thousands of guns" being fired simultaneously from all directions.[80] He states that he was arrested by "a thousand boys, it seemed,...firing their guns every step they took."[78]

Arrival of National Guard troops

National Guard with the wounded

Adjutant General Charles Barrett of the Oklahoma National Guard arrived by special train at about 9:15 a.m., with 109 troops from Oklahoma City. Ordered in by the governor, he could not legally act until he had contacted all the appropriate local authorities, including Mayor T. D. Evans, the sheriff, and the police chief. Meanwhile, his troops paused to eat breakfast. Barrett summoned reinforcements from several other Oklahoma cities. Barrett declared martial law at 11:49 a.m.,[69] and by noon the troops had managed to suppress most of the remaining violence.

Thousands of Black residents had fled the city; another 4,000 people had been rounded up and detained at various centers. Under martial law, the detainees were required to carry identification cards.[81] As many as 6,000 Black Greenwood residents were interned at three local facilities: Convention Hall (now known as the Tulsa Theater), the Tulsa County Fairgrounds (then located about a mile northeast of Greenwood) and McNulty Park (a baseball stadium at Tenth Street and Elgin Avenue).[14][82][83]

A 1921 letter from an officer of the Service Company, Third Infantry, Oklahoma National Guard, who arrived on May 31, 1921, reported numerous events related to suppression of the riot:

  • taking about 30–40 Black residents into custody;
  • putting a machine gun on a truck and taking it on patrol, although it was not functioning and much less useful than "an ordinary rifle";
  • being fired on from Black snipers from the "church" and returning fire;
  • being fired on by White men;
  • turning the prisoners over to deputies to take them to police headquarters;
  • being fired upon again by armed Black residents and having two NCOs slightly wounded;
  • searching for Black snipers and firearms;
  • detailing an NCO to take 170 Black residents to the civil authorities; and
  • delivering an additional 150 Black residents to the Convention Hall.[63]

Captain John W. McCune reported that stockpiled ammunition within the burning structures began to explode which might have further contributed to casualties.[84] Martial law was withdrawn on June 4, under Field Order No. 7.[85]



Little Africa, apparently taken from the roof of the Hotel Tulsa on 3rd St. between Boston Ave. and Cincinnati Ave. The first row of buildings is along 2nd St. The smoke cloud on the left (Cincinnati Ave. and the Frisco Tracks) is identified in the Tulsa Tribune version of this photo as being where the fire started.
Newspapers nationwide reported the massacre, reporting the growing number of people killed.[86]

The massacre was covered by national newspapers, and the reported number of deaths varies widely. On June 1, 1921, the Tulsa Tribune reported that nine White people and 68 Black people had died in the riot, but shortly afterwards it changed this number to a total of 176 dead. The next day, the same paper reported the count as nine White people and 21 Black people. The Los Angeles Express headline said "175 Killed, Many Wounded".[87] The New York Times said that 77 people had been killed, including 68 Black people, but it later lowered the total to 33. The Richmond Times Dispatch of Virginia reported that 85 people (including 25 White people) were killed; it also reported that the police chief had reported to Governor Robertson that the total was 75; and that a police major put the figure at 175.[88] The Oklahoma Department of Vital Statistics put the number of deaths at 36 (26 Black and 10 White).[89] Very few people, if any, died as a direct result of the fire. Official state records show five deaths by conflagration for the entire state in 1921.[90]

Walter Francis White of the NAACP traveled to Tulsa from New York and reported that, although officials and undertakers said that the fatalities numbered 10 White and 21 Black, he estimated the number of the dead to be 50 Whites and between 150 and 200 Blacks;[91] he also reported that 10 White men were killed on Tuesday; six White men drove into the Black section and never came out, and 13 Whites were killed on Wednesday; he reported that Major O.T. Johnson of the Salvation Army in Tulsa, said that 37 Blacks were employed as gravediggers to bury 120 Blacks in individual graves without coffins on Friday and Saturday.[92] The Oklahoma Commission described Johnson's statement being that his crew was over three dozen grave diggers who dug "about" 150 graves.[93] Ground-penetrating radar was used to investigate the sites purported to contain these mass graves. Multiple eyewitness reports and "oral histories" suggested the graves could have been dug at three different cemeteries across the city. The sites were examined, and no evidence of ground disturbance indicative of mass graves was found. However, at one site, ground disturbance was found in a five-meter square area, but cemetery records indicate that three graves had been dug and bodies buried within this envelope before the riot.[94]

Oklahoma's 2001 Commission into the riot provides multiple contradicting estimates. Goble estimates 100–300 deaths (also stating right after that no one was prosecuted even though nearly a hundred were indicted),[95] and Franklin and Ellsworth estimate 75–100 deaths and describe some of the higher estimates as dubious as the low estimates.[96] C. Snow was able to confirm 39 casualties, all listed as male although four were unidentifiable; 26 were Black and 13 were White.[17] The 13 White fatalities were all taken to hospitals.[97] Eleven of them had come from outside of Oklahoma, and possibly as many as half were petroleum industry workers.[98] Only eight of the confirmed 26 Black fatalities were brought to hospitals,[97] and as hospitals were segregated, and with the Black Frissell Memorial Hospital having burned down, the only place where the injured Black people were treated was at the basement of Morningside Hospital.[99] Several hundred were injured.[99]

The Red Cross, in their preliminary overview, mentioned wide-ranging external estimates of 55 to 300 dead; however, because of the hurried nature of undocumented burials, they declined to submit an official estimate, stating, "The number of dead is a matter of conjecture."[100] The Red Cross registered 8,624 persons; 183 people were hospitalized, mostly for gunshot wounds or burns (they differentiate in their records on the basis of triage category not the type of wound), while a further 531 required first aid or surgical treatment; eight miscarriages were attributed to be a result of the tragedy; 19 died in care between June 1 and December 30, 1921.[101]

Taken from the southeast corner of the roof of Booker T. Washington High School, this panorama shows much of the damage within a day or so. The road running laterally through the center is Greenwood Avenue; the road slanting from the center to the left is Easton; and the road slanting off to the right is Frankfort.

Property losses

The commercial section of Greenwood was destroyed. Losses included 191 businesses, a junior high school, several churches, and the only hospital in the district. The Red Cross reported that 1,256 houses were burned and another 215 were looted but not burned.[102] The Tulsa Real Estate Exchange estimated property losses amounted to US$1.5 million in real estate and $750,000 in personal property[103] (equivalent to a total of $33 million in 2020).

The Red Cross report on December 1921 estimated that 10,000 people were made homeless by the destruction.[104] Over the next year, local citizens filed more than US$1.8 million (equivalent to $26 million in 2020) in riot-related claims against the city.[105]

Identities of the Black victims

On June 3, the Morning Tulsa Daily World reported major points of their interview with Deputy Sheriff Barney Cleaver concerning the events leading up to the Tulsa riot. Cleaver was deputy sheriff for Okmulgee County and not under the supervision of the city police department; his duties mainly involved enforcing law among the "colored people" of Greenwood, but he also operated a business as a private investigator. He had previously been dismissed as a city police investigator for assisting county officers with a drug raid at Gurley's Hotel but not reporting his involvement to his superiors.[106] He had considerable land holdings and suffered tremendous financial damages as a result of the riot. Among his holdings were several residential properties and Cleaver Hall, a large community gathering place and function hall. He reported personally evicting a number of armed criminals who had taken to barricading themselves within properties he owned. Upon eviction, they merely moved to Cleaver Hall. Cleaver reported that the majority of violence started at Cleaver Hall along with the rioters barricaded inside. Charles Page offered to build him a new home.[4]

The Morning Tulsa Daily World stated, "Cleaver named Will Robinson, a dope peddler and all-around bad negro, as the leader of the armed Blacks. He has also the names of three others who were in the armed gang at the court house. The rest of the negroes participating in the fight, he says, were former servicemen who had an exaggerated idea of their own importance... They did not belong here, had no regular employment and were simply a floating element with seemingly no ambition in life but to foment trouble."[4] O.W. Gurley, owner of Gurley's Hotel, identified the following men by name as arming themselves and gathering in his hotel: Will Robinson, Peg Leg Taylor, Bud Bassett, Henry Van Dyke, Chester Ross, Jake Mayes, O. B. Mann, John Suplesox, Fatty, Jack Scott, Lee Mable, John Bowman and W. S. Weaver.[5]

Public Safety Committee

By June 6, the Associated Press reported that a citizens' Public Safety Committee had been established, made up of 250 White men who vowed to protect the city and put down any more disturbance. A White man was shot and killed that day after he failed to stop as ordered by a National Guardsman.[107]


Governor James B. A. Robertson had gone to Tulsa during the riot to ensure order was restored. Before returning to the capital, he ordered an inquiry of events, especially of the City and Sheriff's Office. He called for a Grand Jury to be empaneled, and Judge Valjean Biddison said that its investigation would begin June 8. The jury was selected by June 9. Judge Biddison expected that the state attorney general would call numerous witnesses, both Black and White, given the large scale of the riot.[108]

State Attorney General S.P. Freeling initiated the investigation, and witnesses were heard over 12 days. In the end, the all-White jury attributed the riot to the Black mobs, while noting that law enforcement officials had failed in preventing the riot. A total of 27 cases were brought before the court, and the jury indicted more than 85 individuals. In the end, no one was convicted of charges for the deaths, injuries or property damage.[109]

On June 3, a group of over 1,000 businessmen and civic leaders met, resolving to form a committee to raise funds and aid in rebuilding Greenwood. Judge J. Martin, a former mayor of Tulsa, was chosen as the chairman of the group. He said at the mass meeting:

Tulsa can only redeem herself from the country-wide shame and humiliation into which she is today plunged by complete restitution and rehabilitation of the destroyed black belt. The rest of the United States must know that the real citizenship of Tulsa weeps at this unspeakable crime and will make good the damage, so far as it can be done, to the last penny.[108]

Many Black families spent the winter of 1921–1922 in tents as they worked to rebuild. Charles Page was commended for his philanthropic efforts in the wake of the riot in the assistance of 'destitute Blacks'.[110]

A group of influential White developers persuaded the city to pass a fire ordinance that would have prohibited many Black people from rebuilding in Greenwood. Their intention was to redevelop Greenwood for more business and industrial use and force Black people further to the edge of the city for residences. The case was litigated and appealed to the Oklahoma Supreme Court by Buck Colbert Franklin, where the ordinance was ruled as unconstitutional. Most of the promised funding was never raised for the Black residents, and they struggled to rebuild after the violence. Willows, the regional director of the Red Cross, noted this in his report, explaining his slow initial progress to facilitate the rehabilitation of the refugees. The fire code was officially intended to prevent another tragedy by banning wooden frame construction houses in place of previously burnt homes. A concession was granted to allow temporary wooden frame dwellings while a new building, which would meet the more restrictive fire code, was being constructed. This was quickly halted as residents within two weeks had started to erect full sized wooden frame dwellings in contravention of the agreement. It took a further two-month delay securing the court decision to reinstate the previous fire code. Willows heavily criticized the Tulsa city officials for interfering with his efforts, for their role in the Public Welfare Committee which first sought to rezone the "burned area" as industrial, and for constructing a union station in its place with no consideration for the refugees. Then he criticized them again for the dissolution of the Public Welfare Committee in favor of the formation of the Reconstruction Committee which failed to formulate a single plan, leaving the displaced residents prohibited from beginning reconstruction efforts for several months.[111]

Tulsa Union Depot

Despite the Red Cross's best efforts to assist with reconstruction of Greenwood's residential area, the considerably altered present-day layout of the district and its surrounding neighborhoods, as well as the extensive redevelopment of Greenwood by people unaffiliated with the neighborhood prior to the riot, stand as proof that the Red Cross relief efforts had limited success.[112]

Tulsa's main industries at the time of the riot were banking (BOK Financial Corporation), administrative (PennWell, Oklahoma Natural Gas Company), and petroleum engineering services (Skelly Oil), earning Tulsa the title of "Oil Capital of the World". Joshua Cosden is also regarded as a founder of the city, having constructed the tallest building in Tulsa, the Cosden Building. The construction of the Cosden Building and Union Depot were overseen by the Manhattan Construction Company, which was based in Tulsa. Francis Rooney is the great grandson and beneficiary of the estate of Laurence H. Rooney, founder of the Manhattan Construction Company.

City planners immediately saw the fire that destroyed homes and businesses across Greenwood as a fortunate event for advancing their objectives, meanwhile showing a disregard for the welfare of affected residents. Plans were made to rezone 'The Burned Area' for industrial use.[112] The Tulsa Daily World reported that the mayor and city commissioners expressed that, "a large industrial section will be found desirable in causing a wider separation between negroes and whites."[113] The reconstruction committee organized a forum to discuss their proposal with community leaders and stakeholders. Naming, among others, O.W. Gurley, Rev. H.T.F. Johnson and Barney Cleaver as participants in the forum, it was reported that all members were in agreement with the plan to redevelop the burned district as an industrial section and agreed that the proposed union station project was desirable. "... not a note of dissension was expressed." The article states that these community leaders would again meet at the First Baptist Church in the following days.[114] The Black Dispatch describes the content of the following meeting at the First Baptist Church. The reconstruction committee had intended to have the Black landholders sign over their property to a holding company managed by Black representatives on behalf of the city. The properties were then to be turned over to a White appraisal committee which would pay residents for the residential zoned land at the lower industrial zoned value in advance of the rezoning. Professor J.W. Hughes addressed the White reconstruction committee members in opposition to their proposition, coining a slogan which would come to galvanize the community, "I'm going to hold what I have until I get What I've lost."[115]

Construction of the Tulsa Union Depot, a large central rail hub connecting three major railroads, began in Greenwood less than two years after the riot. Prior to the riot, construction had already been underway for a smaller rail hub nearby. However, in the aftermath of the riot, land on which homes and businesses had been destroyed by the fires suddenly became available, allowing for a larger train depot near the heart of the city to be built in Greenwood instead.[112][116]

1921 grand jury investigation

Allegations of corruption

Chief Chuck Jordan described the conduct of the 1921 Tulsa Police as, "... the police department did not do their job then, y'know, they just didn't."[117] Parrish, an African-American citizen of Tulsa, summarized the lawlessness in Oklahoma as a contributing factor in 1922 as, "if...it were not for the profitable alliance of politics and vice or professional crime, the tiny spark which is the beginning of all these outrages would be promptly extinguished."[118] Clark, a prominent Oklahoma historian and law professor, completed his doctoral dissertation in law on the subject of lawlessness in Oklahoma specifically on this period of time and how lawlessness had led to the rise of the second KKK, in order to illustrate the need for effective law enforcement and a functional judiciary.[119]

John A. Gustafson

Chief of Police John A. Gustafson was the subject of an investigation. Official proceedings began on June 6, 1921. He was prosecuted on multiple counts: refusing to enforce prohibition, refusing to enforce anti-prostitution laws; operating a stolen automobile-laundering racket and allowing known automobile thieves to escape justice, for the purpose of extorting the citizens of Tulsa for rewards relating to their return; repurposing vehicles for his own use or sale; operating a fake detective agency for the purpose of billing the city of Tulsa for investigative duties he was already being paid for as chief of police; failing to enforce gun laws; and failure to take action during the riots.[120]

The attorney general of Oklahoma received numerous letters alleging members of the police force had conspired with members of the justice system to threaten witnesses in corruption trials stemming from the Grand Jury investigations. In the letters, various members of the public requested the presence of the state attorney general at the trial.[121][122] An assistant of the attorney general replied to one such letter by stating that their budget was too stretched to respond and recommending instead that the citizens of Tulsa simply vote for new officers.[123]

Gustafson was found to have a long history of fraud pre-dating his membership of the Tulsa Police Department. His previous partner in his detective agency, Phil Kirk, had been convicted of blackmail.[124] Gustafson's fake detective agency ran up high billings on the police account. Investigators noted that many blackmail letters had been sent to members of the community from the agency. One particularly disturbing case involved the frequent rape, by her father, of an 11-year-old girl who had since become pregnant. Instead of prosecuting, they sent a "Blackhand letter."[125] On July 30, 1921, out of five counts of an indictment, Gustafson was found guilty of two counts: negligence for failing to stop the riot (which resulted in dismissal from police force), and conspiracy for freeing automobile thieves and collecting rewards (which resulted in a jail sentence).[126]

Breaking the silence

Three days after the massacre, President Warren G. Harding spoke at the all-Black Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. He declared, "Despite the demagogues, the idea of our oneness as Americans has risen superior to every appeal to mere class and group. And so, I wish it might be in this matter of our national problem of races." Speaking directly about the events in Tulsa, he said, "God grant that, in the soberness, the fairness, and the justice of this country, we never see another spectacle like it."[127]

There were no convictions for any of the charges related to violence.[109] There were decades of silence about the terror, violence, and losses of this event. The riot was largely omitted from local, state and national histories: "The Tulsa race riot of 1921 was rarely mentioned in history books, classrooms or even in private. Black and White people alike grew into middle age unaware of what had taken place".[128] It was not recognized in the Tulsa Tribune feature of "Fifteen Years Ago Today" or "Twenty-five Years Ago Today".[129] A 2017 report detailing the history of the Tulsa Fire Department from 1897 until the date of publication makes no mention of the 1921 massacre.[130][131]

Several people tried to document the events, gather photographs and record the names of the dead and injured. Mary E. Jones Parrish, a young Black teacher and journalist from Rochester, New York, was hired by the Inter-racial Commission to write an account of the riot. Parrish was a survivor, and she wrote about her experiences, collected other accounts, gathered photographs and compiled "a partial roster of property losses in the African American community." She published these in Events of the Tulsa Disaster.[132] It was the first book to be published about the riot.[133] The first academic account was a master's thesis written in 1946 by Loren L. Gill, a veteran of World War II, but the thesis did not circulate beyond the University of Tulsa.[134]

In 1971, a small group of survivors gathered for a memorial service at Mount Zion Baptist Church with Black and White people in attendance.[135] That same year, the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce decided to commemorate the riot, but when they read the accounts and saw photos gathered by Ed Wheeler, host of a radio history program, detailing the specifics of the riot, they refused to publish them. He then took his information to the two major newspapers in Tulsa, both of which also refused to run his story. His article, "Profile of a Race Riot"[136] was published in Impact Magazine, a publication aimed at Black audiences, but most of Tulsa's White residents never knew about it.[137]

In the early 1970s, along with Henry C. Whitlow, Jr., a history teacher at Booker T. Washington High School, Mozella Franklin Jones helped to desegregate the Tulsa Historical Society by mounting the first major exhibition on the history of African Americans in Tulsa. Jones also created, at the Tulsa Historical Society, the first collection of massacre photographs available to the public.[138] While researching and sharing the history of the riot, Jones collaborated with a White woman named Ruth Sigler Avery, who was also trying to publicize accounts of the riot. The two women, however, encountered pressure, particularly among Whites, to keep silent.[139]

In June 2021, American actor Tom Hanks called for the truth about the 1921 Tulsa race massacre to be taught in schools, stating:[140]

"I never read a page of any school history book about how, in 1921, a mob of white people burned down a place called Black Wall Street, killed as many as 300 of its Black citizens and displaced thousands of Black Americans who lived in Tulsa."


The Tulsa Massacre claimed an estimated 150–300 lives; over 800 people were seriously injured, and many more are estimated to have had their lives drastically changed forever.[141]

Olivia Hooker

Olivia Hooker was born on February 12, 1915, in Muskogee, Oklahoma. Her family was one of the many families affected by the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 when she was only six-years-old. Her family's home in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma was broken into by a group of white men with torches and was torn apart. Many of her family's belongings were destroyed. One item that Hooker recalls is her sister's piano. She remembered hearing a group of white men wacking into the piano as she and her four other siblings hid under the dining room table which their mother covered with a tablecloth. Her father owned a store in Tulsa which she recalls was absolutely destroyed and only one safe was left standing. The only reason it was left standing was because it was too big and heavy to be destroyed or stolen. Olivia also remembered vividly her schoolhouse being destroyed and blown up with dynamite. After this horrendous experience, Hooker and her family moved to Topeka, Kansas to rebuild their lives. Olivia recalls her mother telling her, “don’t spend your time agonizing on the past.” With a new fresh start in Topeka, Kansas, Olivia Hooker lived on to build an impressive life for herself.[142] Hooker was the first African American to join the Coast Guard (in February 1945). [143] After leaving the Coast Guard, Hooker went on to earn her Master’s degree in psychology from Teacher's College, Columbia University. She earned her doctorate in clinical psychology at the University of Rochester.[144] Hooker went on to have multiple jobs with her degree in psychology, mostly basing her work on the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. Olivia Hooker retired from work at the age of 87. She died at the age of 103 on November 21, 2018, peacefully, in her home in New York.

Eldoris McCondichie

Eldoris McCondichie was born on September 1, 1911, in Tyler, Texas. She was just four-years-old when she and her family moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma in the Greenwood district. Her family was part of the working class. Her father had work in a field and her mother did housework. On May 31, 1921, Eldoris was just 9 years old. She remembers being frantically awakened by her mother. She remembers clearly her mother saying, “the white people are killing the colored people.” Eldoris and her family evacuated their Tulsa home to find refuge up north from the massacre. Eldoris described how “airplanes were raining down bullets,” and how no one had enough time to even put clothes on and evacuate their homes. Young Eldoris recalls seeing women walking on the railroad track with no shoes in their nightgowns. She recalls finding shelter in a chicken coop during the riots to protect herself from the machine guns. After Eldoris and her family evacuated Tulsa, they found refuge in a farmer’s home overnight. After that, her family made the trip to Pawhuska, Oklahoma, which is about an hour drive from Oklahoma where they stayed for about 2–3 days until they knew it was safe to return back home. Upon returning to Tulsa, Eldoris describes what was left of the Greenwood district as “war-torn.” She recalled many businesses and homes were burnt to the ground, with no mercy. Her family slowly re-built their lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and never left, referring to it as their “forever home.” She went on to live a beautiful life in Tulsa.[145] Eldoris was married to Arthur McCodichie for 67 years and had four children; two sons and two daughters. She died on September 12, 2010, a couple of days after celebrating her 99th birthday. Her final resting place is in the Crownhill Cemetery in Tulsa, Oklahoma.[146]

George Monroe

George Monroe was only 5 years old during the attack on the Greenwood district on May 31, 1921.[147] He remembers very little due to his age, but he remembers enough. He claims some images could never leave his mind. He remembers seeing people getting shot and his own curtains being set on fire by a mob of white men. He also recalls hiding under a bed with his older sister, when a rioter stepped on his finger causing his sister to throw her hand over his mouth to prevent the men from hearing his screams. George Monroe lived out the rest of his life in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He became a musician, owner of a Tulsa nightclub, and the first Black man in Tulsa to sell coca-cola. George Monroe died in 2001.[148]

Lessie Benningfield ("Mother Randle")

Lessie Benningfield, also known as Mother Randle, was born in Morris, Oklahoma on November 10, 1914. Her parents were farmers; she had three sisters and a brother. Mother Randle has a hard time recalling a lot due to her young age during the massacre, but she remembers traumatic bits and pieces from the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. Randle remembers a mob of white men barging into her home. She recalls them tearing up and destroying her family’s house right in front of her eyes. She has memories of feelings of intense fear while trying to evacuate her home and get somewhere safe with her family. She spent the rest of her childhood and young adulthood in Tulsa and graduated from Booker T. Washington High School.[149] Mother Randle is now a part of an active lawsuit with the Greenwood Advocates, which is a team of human and civil rights lawyers fighting for justice for victims and their families still being affected by the massacre that took place 100 years ago. Mother Randle claims she still has nightmares of seeing the piles of dead bodies she saw during the massacre. Mother Randle is still alive and has now reached the age of 106 years old. For her 106th birthday that took place in 2020, the community raised thousands of dollars for her to remodel her home.[150]

Hal Singer

Hal Singer was born on October 8, 1919 in Tulsa, Oklahoma to two working-class parents. His mother worked in a wealthy white resident's home as a cook and his father worked producing oil rigging tools. Singer was only 18 months old when the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 took place. A white woman, for whom his mother worked, put his family on a train to Kansas City during the massacre so the Singer family would have a safe place to wait it out. Up to the day of his passing, Singer recalled how forever grateful he was for the woman’s kindness. When his family returned to their home, it was burnt to the ground. They had to rebuild their whole lives again from scratch. However, they stayed in Tulsa in the Greenwood district all through his childhood.[151] As a young boy, Hal hung out by the rail tracks and invited jazz bands to come over and have some of his mother’s cooking. This helped him in the long run as he became an iconic saxophonist of his generation. Singer went on to play with and for Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, and Billie Holiday. He was married for over 50 years to his wife Arlette Singer. On August 18, 2020, just months before his 101st birthday, he died in Chatou, a suburb of Paris, France.[152][153]

Essie Lee Johnson Beck

Essie Johnson was just five-years-old when the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 took place. Her family evacuated their Tulsa home in their early hours of May 31. Essie remembers her parents making her and her siblings stay away from the windows because there were active shooters targeting windows of homes. She describes the feelings of fright and confusion. Her family had to evacuate their home since almost all homes were being burnt to the ground in her neighborhood. Her mother took Essie and her four other siblings and started running to find shelter elsewhere. Essie recalls watching airplanes above her dropping unidentified things onto the roof of houses causing them to catch on fire. Her mother was trying to get her and her siblings to Golden Gate Park. Essie’s father stayed behind to help as much as possible and to assist injured people. Essie recalls once they got to Golden Gate Park, they hid behind trees. Essie and her family soon after that found shelter in churches and school basements for the remaining days. Once they were cleared to go back, their home was burnt to the ground. Essie recalls having to live in a tent on the dirt waiting for their house to be rebuilt. She describes the whole experience to be awful.[154]

Vernice Simms

Vernice Simms was 17-years-old when the riot took place. She lived in the Greenwood district with her family as she attended Booker T. Washington High School, where she was preparing for her prom. Vernice remembers vividly being in her backyard when bullets started raining down and everyone was cautioned to get into the house as quickly as possible. As the riots and massacre progressed, Vernice and her family found refuge at a white family’s home, where they were safe from the massacre. When they returned to their Greenwood home, everything was burnt to the ground. Vernice and her family had to live in a tent. Vernice recalls Booker T. Washington High School being turned into a hospital for the wounded. Vernice volunteered at the hospital where she fed and gave water to people who were injured during the massacre. While her house was being rebuilt by her father, Vernice went to go finish her high school at a school in Oklahoma City. Afterwards, Vernice studied at Langston University. After she graduated from University, she came home to see her house finally rebuilt. She recalls never getting any money from insurance or the government to help. Vernice overall described the events as devastating and scary.[155]

Tulsa Race Massacre Commission

In 1996, as the riot's 75th anniversary neared, the state legislature authorized an Oklahoma Commission to investigate the Tulsa Race Riot, by appointing individuals to study and prepare a report detailing a historical account of the riot. Authorization of the study "enjoyed strong support from members of both political parties and all political persuasions".[156] The commission had originally been called the "Tulsa Race Riot Commission", but in November 2018, the name was changed to "Tulsa Race Massacre Commission.[157] The commission conducted interviews and heard testimony in order to thoroughly document the causes and damages.

The commission delivered its final report on February 21, 2001.[158] The report recommended actions for substantial restitution to the Black residents, listed below in order of priority:

  1. Direct payment of reparations to survivors of the 1921 Tulsa race riot;
  2. Direct payment of reparations to descendants of the survivors of the Tulsa race riot;
  3. A scholarship fund available to students affected by the Tulsa race riot;
  4. Establishment of an economic development enterprise zone in the historic area of the Greenwood district; and
  5. A memorial for the reburial of the remains of the victims of the Tulsa race riot.[159]

Post-commission actions

Search for mass graves

The Tulsa Race Massacre Commission arranged for archaeological, non-invasive ground surveys of Newblock Park, Oaklawn Cemetery, and Booker T. Washington Cemetery, which were identified as possible locations for mass graves of Black victims of the violence. Oral histories, other sources, and timing suggested that Whites would have buried Blacks at the first two locations; Black people were said to have buried Black victims at the third location after the riot was over. The people buried at Washington Cemetery, which is reserved for Black people, were thought perhaps to be those who had died of their wounds after the riot had ended, since it was the most distant suspected burial location from downtown.

Investigations of the three potential mass grave sites were performed in 1997 and 1998. Though the total areas could not be surveyed, preliminary data suggested there were no mass graves in these locations. In 1999, an eyewitness was found who had seen Whites burying Black victims at Oaklawn Cemetery. A team investigated the potential area with more equipment. In the end, searches for any mass graves were made using ground-penetrating radar and other technology, followed by core sampling.[160] The experts' report, presented to the Commission in December 2000, could not substantiate claims of mass graves in Oaklawn Cemetery, Washington Cemetery, or Newblock Park.[160] A promising spot in Washington Cemetery had turned out to be a layer of clay, and another in Newblock Park had turned out to be an old basement.[160] The suggestion that the bodies had been burned in the city incinerator was also discounted as unfeasible, given the incinerator's capacity and logistical considerations.[160]

In preparation for the 100th anniversary of the massacre, state archaeologists, using ground-penetrating radar, are probing Oaklawn Cemetery for "long-rumored" mass graves.[161] Mayor G. T. Bynum calls it "a murder investigation."[162] After input from the public, officials from the Oklahoma Archeological Survey used three subsurface scanning techniques to survey Newblock Park, Oaklawn Cemetery, and an area known as The Canes along the Arkansas River.[163] The Oklahoma Archeological Survey subsequently announced that they were discontinuing search efforts at Newblock Park after not finding any evidence of graves.[164] On December 17, 2019 the team of forensic archaeologists announced they had found anomalies consistent with that of human-dug pits beneath the ground at Oaklawn Cemetery and the ground where the Interstate 244 bridge crosses the Arkansas River. They announced them as likely candidates for mass graves, but further radar survey and physical excavation of the sites is needed.[165] Researchers secured permission from the city to perform "limited excavations" to determine the contents of these sites beginning in April 2020, and while they did not expect to dig up any human remains, asserted they would treat any they find with proper respect.[166] An initial dig at a suspected area of the Oaklawn Cemetery in July 2020 found no human remains.[167]

On October 21, 2020, a forensic team said that it had unearthed 11 coffins in Oaklawn Cemetery; records and research suggested that as many as 18 victims would be found. Further work will be required to identify whether the remains are from victims of the massacre. The remains will not be moved until they can be exhumed properly to avoid deterioration, said Kary Stackelbeck, a state archaeologist. She said the discovery "constitutes a mass grave...We have a high degree of confidence that this is one of the locations we were looking for. But we have to remain cautious because we have not done anything to expose the human remains beyond those that have been encountered."[168][169] The team plans to exhume the remains in June 2021.[170] Forensic anthropologist Phoebe Stubblefield will analyze the remains to determine whether they belong to victims of the 1921 massacre.


In March 2001, each of the 118 known survivors of the riot still alive at the time, the youngest of whom was 85, was given a gold-plated medal bearing the state seal, as had been approved by bi-partisan state leaders.[171][172] The Tulsa Reparations Coalition, sponsored by the Center for Racial Justice, Inc., was formed on April 7, 2001, to obtain restitution for the damages suffered by Tulsa's Black community, as recommended by the Oklahoma Commission.[173] Tulsa Mayor Kathy Taylor held a "celebration of conscience" at which she apologized to survivors and gave medals to those who could be located.[171]

On June 1, 2001, Governor Frank Keating signed the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Reconciliation Act into law. The act acknowledged that the event occurred but failed to deliver any substantial reparations to the victims or their descendants. In spite of the commission's recommendation for reparations in their report on the riot, the Oklahoma state legislature did not agree that reparations were appropriate and thus did not include them in the reconciliation act.[171] The act provided for the following:

  • More than 300 college scholarships for descendants of Greenwood residents;
  • Creation of a memorial to those who died in the riot. A park with statues was dedicated as John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park on October 27, 2010, named in honor of the notable African-American historian from Tulsa;[174] and
  • Economic development in Greenwood.[175]

Survivors' lawsuit

Five survivors, represented by a legal team that included Johnnie Cochran and Charles Ogletree, filed suit against the city of Tulsa and the state of Oklahoma (Alexander, et al. v. Oklahoma, et al.) in February 2003, based on the findings of the 2001 report. Ogletree said the state and city should compensate the victims and their families "to honor their admitted obligations as detailed in the commission's report."[176] The federal district and appellate courts dismissed the suit on the grounds that a recommendation was not an "admitted obligation" and noting the statute of limitations had been exceeded on the 80-year-old case.[177] The state requires that civil rights cases be filed within two years of the event. For that reason, the court did not rule on the issues. The Supreme Court of the United States declined to hear the appeal.

In April 2007, Ogletree appealed to the U.S. Congress to pass a bill extending the statute of limitations for the case, given the state and city's accountability for the destruction and the long suppression of material about it. The bill was introduced by John Conyers of Michigan and heard by the Judiciary Committee of the House but it did not pass, because of concerns about ex post facto legislation.[178] Conyers re-introduced the bill in 2009 as the John Hope Franklin Tulsa-Greenwood Race Riot Claims Accountability Act of 2009 (H.R. 1843), and in 2012.[171]

John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park

John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, 2010

A park was developed in 2010 in the Greenwood area as a memorial to victims of the riot. In October 2010, the park was named for noted historian John Hope Franklin, who was born and raised in Tulsa.[179] He became known as a historian of the South. The park includes three statues of figures by sculptor Ed Dwight, representing Hostility, Humiliation and Hope.[180]

Renewed calls for restitution

An extensive curriculum on the event was provided to Oklahoma school districts in 2020.[181]

On May 29, 2020, the eve of the 99th anniversary of the event and the onset of the George Floyd protests, Human Rights Watch released a report titled "The Case for Reparations in Tulsa, Oklahoma: A Human Rights Argument", demanding reparations for survivors and descendants of the violence because the economic impact of the massacre is still visible as illustrated by the high poverty rates and lower life expectancies in north Tulsa.[182] Several documentary projects were also announced at this time with plans to release them on the 100th anniversary of the event, including Black Wall Street by Dream Hampton, and another documentary by Salima Koroma.[183] In September 2020, a 105-year old survivor of the massacre filed a lawsuit against the city for reparations caused by damages to the city's Black businesses.[184] In 2021, Oklahoma librarians were finally able to get the Library of Congress to change the official subject headings, which place limits on the terms which people are allowed to use whenever they conduct searches for some of the information, for the event from "riot" to "massacre."[185]

On May 19, 2021, a 107-year old survivor, Viola Fletcher, her 100-year-old brother, Hughes Vann Ellis, and 106-year old survivor, Lessie Benningfield Randle, testified before a House Judiciary subcommittee about their experiences of the massacre and their reparations lawsuit.[186][187] Their testimony coincides with pending resolutions before the U.S. House and Senate Judiciary Committees proposing federal recognition of the centennial of the massacre on May 31 and June 1.[188]

President Biden's visit

On June 1, 2021, the 100th anniversary of the massacre, President Joe Biden visited the area, the first sitting president to do so, and gave a speech where he stated, "Some injustices are so heinous, so horrific, so grievous, they cannot be buried, no matter how hard people try."[189] Biden toured the Greenwood Cultural Center and met with survivors Viola Fletcher, Hughes Van Ellis, and Lessie Benningfield Randle.[190]

Tulsa Historical Society & Museum

Tulsa Race Massacre: Traveling Panels

The Tulsa Historical Society and Museum offer a virtual exhibit of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 that is open all times during the day and is free of charge to the public. This online exhibit offers many photos, audios, documents, and resources that cannot be found anywhere else.[191] It also offers a traveling exhibit consisting of 4 panels regarding the Tulsa Race Massacre that are allowed to travel to locations within the Tulsa Metropolitan Area. The main goal of the panels is to educate the community.[192]

Present-day Black Wall Street

A drive through the present day Greenwood District (March 2021)

Black Wall Street can still be found today under the Historical Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma. After the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, it took about 10 years to rebuild the district. The historical Vernon AME Church is the only building standing today which is a part of the last remaining structure of the 1921 massacre.[193] The residents of the Greenwood district try to keep the memory of the Tulsa Race Massacre prominent within the community. Today, many memorials stand out of respect for the memory of what was once Black Wall Street. Many investigations are still underway in the Greenwood District in the hope that more unmarked graves can be found and more victims of the Massacre can be identified.[194]

In popular culture


  • The Nation Must Awake: My Witness to the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 (2021; Trinity University Press: ISBN 9781595349439) by Mary E. Jones Parrish, previously entitled The Events of the Tulsa Disaster (1923; self-published), eyewitness statements compiled by a woman who survived the massacre
  • Magic City, (1998; HarperCollins: ISBN 978-0060929077), portrays a fictionalized version of the massacre.
  • Fire in Beulah, (2001; Penguin Books: ISBN 978-0142000243), a novel by Rilla Askew, is set during the riot.
  • The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, (2001; St. Martin's Press: ISBN 978-0312272838), a nonfiction account by Tim Madigan.
  • If We Must Die, (2002; TCU Press: ISBN 978-0875652627), a novel by Pat Carr about Tulsa's 1921 Greenwood Riot. A poem of the same name was published by Claude McKay in 1919 about the Red Summer race riots.
  • Tulsa Burning (2002), a novel by Anna Myers, is a novel for middle grade readers set during the riot.
  • Big Mama Speaks (2011), Hannibal B. Johnson's one-woman play featuring Vanessa Harris-Adams, features remembrance and reminiscence about the Black Wall Street.[195]
  • "The Case for Reparations" (2014) in The Atlantic. an article by Ta-Nehisi Coates that brought larger attention to the riots.[196]
  • Dreamland Burning, (2017; Little, Brown and Company: ISBN 978-0316384902), a novel by Jennifer Latham about events in Tulsa in 1921 interwoven with modern consequences.

Film and television

  • The Tulsa Lynching of 1921: A Hidden Story (2000), a documentary directed by Michael Wilkerson, was first released on Cinemax in 2000.[197][198]
  • Before They Die, (2008), a documentary by Reggie Turner which is endorsed by the Tulsa Project, chronicles the lives of the last survivors of the Tulsa Race Riot and their quest for justice from both the city and the state.[199]
  • Hate Crimes in the Heartland (2014), a documentary by Rachel Lyon and Bavand Karim which provides an in-depth examination of the riot.[200]
  • Watchmen (2019), TV series on HBO, based on the characters of the graphic novel with the same name. The producer of the series, Damon Lindelof, was inspired to open the pilot episode with depictions of the riots and base the series on racial tensions after he read Coates' article about them.[201] Many aspects of the series' plot center on the legacy of the graphic novel and the massacre in an alternate timeline in the present day in Tulsa, where racial conflict remains high.[202] Due to its popularity, Watchmen was considered the first exposé of the Tulsa race massacre via the entertainment industry because its history was not widely discussed and it had never been depicted in that way before.[203]
  • Lovecraft Country (2020), a TV series on HBO, based on the 2016 novel with the same title. In episode 9, titled "Rewind 1921", its main characters Atticus "Tic" Freeman, his father Montrose Freeman, and Letitia "Leti" Lewis travel back in time to the night of the massacre in order to retrieve a spell-book (which was burned in the fictional reality on that night) and use it to save the life of a family member.[204][205][206][207]

Music and art

See also


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