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  • Tulsa, Then and NowReflections on the Legacy of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre
  • Hannibal B. Johnson (bio)

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Next year, 2021, will be the 100th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, a defining and defiling moment in our history. An essential question for Tulsa, as well as the USA, will be: What has Tulsa done in the interim between 1921 and 2021 to advance race relations and to build a unified, just community?

In 1921, Tulsa descended into madness. Some Tulsans preyed upon the least among us. The hours spanning May 31 and June 1, 1921, became a tragic, but illustrative, case study of the human potential for inhumanity. Fear and jealousy swelled within Tulsa's white community as African American economic successes, including home, business, and land ownership, mounted. For some white Tulsans, putting those "uppity Negroes" back in their place became a rallying cry. Land lust set in. White corporate and railroad interests coveted the turf on which the heart of the Greenwood District sat.

The Ku Klux Klan made its presence known. This notorious white supremacist cult grew exponentially in Oklahoma during the 1920s. Newspapers, the media of the day, fanned the flames of racial discord. One media outlet, the [End Page 181] Tulsa Tribune, a daily afternoon newspaper, published a series of inflammatory articles and editorials that denigrated Tulsa's Black citizens and fomented anti-Black hostility among white Tulsans.

A chance encounter between two teenagers on an elevator lit the fuse that ignited the Tulsa tinderbox and set Greenwood District alight. The girl, Sarah Page, recanted her original assault claim, refusing to bear witness against the boy, Dick Roland. Her recantation came too late. The Tulsa Tribune got wind of the incident. The paper's May 31, 1921, edition ran an article entitled "Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in an Elevator." That piece painted a scurrilous portrait of an attempted rape on a virtuous white girl by a villainous Black boy in broad daylight in a public building in downtown Tulsa.

Authorities arrested Dick Rowland and held him in a jail cell atop the courthouse. A burgeoning white mob threatened to lynch him. African American men, some armed, raced to Rowland's defense, marching to the courthouse on two separate occasions. Conflict ensued. A gun discharged. Chaos erupted. After an overnight gun battle, thousands of weapon-wielding white men, some deputized by local law enforcement, invaded and decimated the Greenwood District, employing a scorched-earth policy that left little unscathed.

After some sixteen hours, the National Guard quelled the violence and restored order. Ultimately, "order" included a declaration of martial law, the internment of Black Tulsans, and some still-mysterious burial processes that may have included mass graves. Property damage ran into the millions. Hundreds of people died, with still more injured. Some fled Tulsa, never to return.

Initially dubbed the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, but now widely known as the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, this man-made calamity might more accurately be labeled an assault, a disaster, a massacre, a pogrom, a holocaust, or any number of other ghastly descriptors. The Tulsa tragedy would remain a taboo topic for decades. African American Tulsans faced institutional resistance to rebuilding their beloved community: rejected insurance claims, the arrests of Black men for "inciting" the violence that leveled their community, efforts to take their land, and media attacks on their humanity. Still, Black Tulsa rose from the ashes, reconstructed with the sheer force of the indomitable human spirit.

Tulsa's African Americans resurrected their community. By the early 1940s, the Greenwood District boasted more than 200 Black-owned businesses. In subsequent decades, integration, urban renewal, and a host of social, political, and economic dynamics spurred a second decline, but Greenwood District denizens held fast to hope. Preservation, restoration, and reconciliation became watchwords as healing history became priority one.

Who were the men and women who laid the foundation for the success of the Greenwood District? What, specifically, did they create? How might we leverage this history in service of our community today? Many of the Greenwood District's...


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pp. 181-185
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