Walking Tour of the Black Wall Street Massacre (formerly known as the Tulsa Race Riots)
On Friday I had the great pleasure of joining the Association for Black Collegians (ABC) on a guided tour of the historic districts of Downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma recounting the true story of the Tulsa Race Wars or Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. As someone who was born and raised in this city, I realized that so many people still don’t know the full story of what has been called the “worst race riot in US history”. Scholars and those who are sensitive to this historical narrative no longer call this tragic event that destroyed the most prolific Black community in American history the “Tulsa Race Riots”. The term “riot” signifies an internally focused attack by our own people but the terms “war” and “massacre” signify an external force that causes destruction, which provides a more accurate depiction of what really happened during the summer of 1921. This simple change in semantics in how we describe the event is significant in itself since calling it a riot suggests that the African American community did this to themselves and removes any burden of responsibility or guilt from those who actually caused this to happen. Our tour guide labeled this and subsequent racially charged events happening in our own generation across the county as symptoms of a “disease” that started with slavery and the birth of America on the backs of enslaved people. The tour itself was amazing and I would highly recommend taking a tour like this if you get a chance.
Up until recently most sources claimed that only 22 people died, then the number increased to 39. However, eyewitness testimonies, surviving photos, and more recent scholars have led to the most recent estimates of death tolls climbing as high as 175-300. Where are all these bodies buried? There are different oral traditions among local Tulsans that victims of the 1921 massacre were thrown into the Arkansas river but evidence suggests that bodies were buried in unmarked graves or a massive pit underneath the top layer of graves at Oaklawn Cemetery, identified through ground surveys but the city of Tulsa will not allow anything to be done about this.
2. Only a few businesses burned down
The damages that were incurred between the evening of May 31, 1921 and the morning of June 1, 1921 total in the amount of $2-4 million dollars according to actual damage reports filed against the city of Tulsa, which in today’s currency translates to about $20 million dollars in damage, most of which the city never paid since “riots” don’t warrant repayment or reparations and most likely repaying the opulence that was hard earned in North Tulsa would have bankrupted the city.
The Greenwood business district was completely burned to the ground, 1256 houses in the North Tulsa residential district were burned down, 215 houses were looted, 314 businesses were looted. Some sources claim the devastation was similar to a bomb going off, taking half of the city with it.
3. The event itself only lasted one day and ended quietly with no lasting implications for Tulsa today
The burning, looting, and killing associated with the Tulsa Race Wars did occur over a 24 hour period from the night of May 31 to the night of June 1, 1921. However for weeks after the actual fighting stopped a large proportion of the African American community in Tulsa, which in 1921 numbered around 11,000, were rounded up and sent to internment camps/detention areas and were not allowed to leave unless they had a pass signifying a white person vouched for them, eerily similar to freedom papers that freed slaves had to carry with them at all time to prove their status. Six Days after June 1, 1921 an ordinance was passed by the City to prevent African Americans from rebuilding their community at the same time bids were being made by white businessmen for their lands that were now reduced to vacant lots. A majority of the African American community in the weeks following the event were either in hiding or trapped in internment camps, recently homeless, left penniless without a business, fled the city altogether, or presumed dead. Compounding this tragedy was the fact that the African American community was blamed for causing the riot and thousands of African-Americans, after their homes were burned to the ground, were forced to live in tents to survive the winter of 1921.
Unfortunately, this event has lasting implications to how Tulsa is structured today and remains a segregated community with a predominately African American community to the north and predominately white community in the Southern parts of town.
4. This event was started by the African-American community
This war was sparked by an already snowballing accumulation of hatred and aggression on behalf of some whites in Tulsa that saw the prosperity and wealth of the African American community as a threat to their way of life. But most say the match was lit on the morning of May 31, 1921 after Dick Rowland was falsely accused and arrested for assaulting a white woman on an elevator. As the local newspaper the Tulsa Tribune called for a lynching of this young man, a mob of white citizens, many as members of the KKK (since about 24% of the white population in Tulsa were clansmen) was forming outside of the jailhouse. A group of black recently returned WWI veterans went to the jailhouse to prevent the mob from getting to Dick Rowland. One shot was all it took for the whole city to be set ablaze.
5. The fighting is often described as a skirmish similar to a street fight with no military or air force involvement
Several eyewitness testimonies are recorded seeing planes dropping bombs from the air on the black district and the National Guard was called in to help end the fighting but ended up joining the rioting white citizens of Tulsa in shooting down its own citizens, which goes against the constitution to use military force against US citizens. Unfortunately, there were not that many people left to tell this side of the story since the two “Negro newspapers” were bombed along with the rest of Greenwood district.
Here are my top picks for books on the Tulsa Race Wars (Riots) if you are interested and would like more information check these out.