April V. Taylor
The destruction of Black Wall Street during the Tulsa race riot of 1921 has conveniently been left out of American history books. What is even more unnerving is that many survey courses of African American history have also made this same glaring omission. One has to wonder how this is even possible, but in the American conscious, forgetting has always been easier than remembering. In a country where most would like to consider racial discrimination something that all but ended with emancipation and to think that holocausts are something perpetrated on foreign soils, a collective amnesia lasting nearly a century has buried the fact that a Black Holocaust did happen on American soil.
The Tulsa race riot of 1921 is considered by many to be the deadliest occurrence of racial violence in American history. The travesty occurred in Greenwood, a vibrant suburb of Tulsa, Oklahoma that was also nicknamed “Black Wall Street.” In early 1921, Tulsa was considered a thriving, modern city with a population of more than 100,000. The majority of Tulsa’s Black residents lived in Greenwood. The neighborhood was home to scores of black-owned businesses, several churches, two newspapers and even its own library branch.
Black Wall Street has been described as, “modern, majestic, sophisticated and unapologetically Black.” The area had been established by O.W. Gurley, who had moved to Tulsa in 1906 and purchased 40 acres of land which he set aside to be owned solely by Black residents. The oil booms of the early 1900’s provided unprecedented wealth for black residents of Tulsa. Since Tulsa was hostilely segregated like many American cities and towns, Black residents settled in the city’s northern region where Gurley had originally purchased land. The are became known as Greenwood.
The wealth that Greenwood’s residents enjoyed allowed them to build banks, hotels, cafes, clothiers, and movie theaters. Greenwood became one of the most affluent all-Black communities in America, and it became a symbol of the fact that Black people could create a successful, independent infrastructure in which a dollar would circulate within the community 36 to 100 times before being spent elsewhere. This wealth allowed Black residents to build superior schools systems and contemporary homes with luxuries such as indoor plumbing. Greenwood even had a bus system, and six of its residents owned their own planes. Many of these luxuries were things that many of Tulsa’s poorer white residents could not afford, and this fostered a deep and festering sense of jealousy. This jealousy was made worse as many white soldiers returned home from World War I to poverty as black soldiers returned to Greenwood as heroes.
While Blacks found a different kind of freedom, wealth and independence in Greenwood, Tulsa as a whole was plagued by crime and vigilantism. This crime and unbridled vigilantism as well as festering jealousy set the stage for tragedy when, on May 30, 1921, a Black shoe shiner, Dick Rowland and Sarah Page, a white elevator operator had a fateful encounter in the Drexel Building. Varying reports differ on what exactly occurred that day, but the widely accepted version is that Rowland accidentally stepped on Page’s foot as he entered the elevator, causing Page to cry out in pain.
The city’s afternoon daily newspaper, The Tulsa Tribune, sensationalized the story the next day, claiming that Rowland had tried to rape page. There are reports that the paper also ran a now-lost editorial about the alleged attempted rape entitled, “To Lynch Negro Tonight.” By mid-evening, hundreds of whites had gathered in a mob outside of the Tulsa County Courthouse demanding they be allowed to exact their own justice on Rowland.
When news of the mobs intentions reached Greenwood, a group of around 25 armed Black men, many of them World War I veterans, headed to the courthouse to help authorities protect Rowland. The town’s Sheriff turned the men away, and they returned to Greenwood. Within hours of their return, a false rumor arrived that the white mob was storming the courthouse. A group three times the size of the original group returned to the courthouse in an attempt to help protect Rowland, but they were again turned away. As the group of men were leaving, a white man tried to disarm one of the Black veterans in the group, and a single shot was fired. Chaos ensued.
The next six hours saw angry whites vent their rage about not being allowed to lynch Rowland on any Black people they encountered. Armed whites driving through black residential neighborhoods began shooting random Blacks as they drove past them. Fires were soon set in Greenwood’s commercial district, and the white mob began planning for a dawn invasion of Greenwood.
Although local units of the National Guard had been mobilized, they spent their time protecting a white neighborhood instead of protecting Greenwood’s Black residents from the onslaught of violence. At daybreak on June 1, thousands of armed whites poured into Greenwood, setting homes and businesses on fire and looting them. Renowned black surgeon A. C. Jackson was shot and killed after surrendering to members of the mob. Although Black Greenwood residents did their best to fend of the attack, they were outnumbered and outgunned. Some report that airplanes were even used in the destruction of Greenwood.
Martial law was implemented, and despite Dick Rowland eventually being exonerated of any wrongdoing, an all-white grand jury found Black Tulsa residents responsible for the riot. Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, no white person was ever sent to prison for the nearly 300 murders of Black people or the businesses that were looted and destroyed. Since many residents of Greenwood were left homeless, thousands of them spent the winter of 1921-1922 living in tents. No insurance claims were ever paid for the property that was destroyed.
While many have come to refer to these events as a race riot, the term is inaccurate and misleading at best because it implies that Tulsa’s Black residents held some responsibility in the lawlessness and violence that took place. The murderous assault on black lives and property are more accurately described as a terroristic Black Holocaust as more than 300 Black men, women and children were killed and some 40 square blocks of more than one thousand Black homes, hospitals, schools and churches were burned to the ground along with 150 businesses.
It was not until 2012 that the events that destroyed Black Wall Street were even made part of the history curriculum in classrooms across the country. A state commission was formed in 1997 to investigate the riots. The commission concluded that reparations should be paid to the remaining survivors of the Tulsa race riot based on several factors that included, “compelling, documented evidence of governmental complicity at the city and, arguably, the state level.”
A team of scientists and historians also found evidence that some of the unidentified victims of the riots had been buried in unmarked graves. One of the recommendations of the commission was that these victims be reburied in marked graves. All that remains of Greenwood is a block of red-brick storefronts that sit in a now transformed neighborhood that contains a new minor league ball field, a university campus and an elevated highway. Metal plaques set in the concrete of the sidewalks describe the hundreds of businesses that used to line the streets. The commission has recommended that payments be made to living survivors as well as descendants, that a scholarship fund be set up and that business tax incentives be put in place for the Greenwood District.
Despite the commission’s recommendations, survivors have only received a gold-plated medal. A lawsuit filed in federal court in February 2003 was dismissed in March 2004, and the dismissal has subsequently been upheld. In 2007, Congressman John Conyers introduced the Tulsa Greenwood Riot Accountability Act, but the Republican controlled committee took no further action on the legislation. Conyers has continued to fight for justice for victims, but as many of the last remaining survivors continue to die, many of the commission’s recommendations remain unfulfilled.
The same railroad tracks that once bordered Greenwood still divide Tulsa. While some feel that Black residents should not dwell on the compensation that has continued to allude them, others feel that forgiveness is not possible until genuine acknowledgement and recompense for what happened is made. Just as justice for survivors of the Jewish Holocaust had no expiration date, there should not be some arbitrary expiration date placed on justice for survivors and descendants of victims of the Black Holocaust.