The Tulsa Massacre

Justice demands closure

Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 18

In recent times, the story of the Tulsa Race Massacre has slowly reached the mainstream. After decades of being deliberately hidden, personal stories of what was lost are coming to light.

One hundred years ago, the thriving Black community of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was destroyed at the hands of a violent white mob. The two-day attack saw residents killed, homes destroyed, and businesses decimated.

The prosperous neighbourhood of Greenwood was a bastion of black-owned entrepreneurship and included prominent business like:

  • The 750-seat Williams Dreamland Theatre owned by husband and wife Loula and John Williams

  • Little Rose Beauty Salon owned by Mabel B. Little

  • Bell and Little Cafe owned by brother and sister Susie Bell and Presley Little

  • Stratford Hotel owned by prominent businessman J. B. Stradford

On 30 May 1921, an interaction between a 19-year-old Black shoe shiner, Dick Rowland, and a 17-year-old white elevator operator, Sarah Page, would set fire to an already volatile situation.

The prosperity of Tulsa was frowned upon by a large number of whites who were not just content with segregation but destruction and domination.

When recounting the interaction between Rowland and Page, the accepted course of events is thought to be that Rowland tripped and grabbed onto the arm of Page whilst trying to stop himself from falling. Page screamed and ran away, claiming assault. The next day Rowland was arrested and jailed in the Tulsa County Courthouse.

By that afternoon, The Tulsa Tribune published the front-page headline ‘Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator’, which, by design, mobilised a white lynch mob that showed up at the courthouse ready to kill Rowland.

In defence of Rowland, a group of Black Tulsans, many of whom were WWI veterans, also showed up at the courthouse. This escalated events, as the white mob, who grossly outnumbered the Black Tulsan community, responded with great violence.

Despite the valiant efforts of the Black Tulsans, this white mob descended on Greenwood. Rioters included white citizens and ‘law enforcement’ officers, who even distributed weapons among their fellow rioters.

The mob indiscriminately shot Black people in the streets, ransacked and burgled homes, stole money and other valuables, and systematically set fire to the community - house by house, block by block.

White pilots even flew aeroplanes over Greenwood, dropping explosives over the neighbourhood and making Tulsa the sight of one of the first aerial attacks ever sustained by an American city.

The numbers present a staggering portrait of loss: as many as 300 dead; hundreds more injured; up to 10,000 left homeless, 1,500 homes burned or looted; and eventually 6,000 detained in internment camps.

In 2001, a report by the Oklahoma Commission detailed the extent of damage from the riots. It recommended several reparation opportunities, including direct payment, scholarship funds, economic development and a memorial as ‘a starting place'.

“Justice demands closure as it did with Japanese Americans and Holocaust victims of Germany”, the report explained.

To this day, however, no compensation has ever been paid, and not one person has been prosecuted or punished for the devastation and ruin of the original Greenwood.