Black Wall Street

Oklahoma was once known as a "safe haven" for African Americans. Many migrated to Oklahoma for better opportunities like freedom from racial oppression and the option to purchase land etc. Others migrated by force through the Trail of Tears in earlier years.

Booker T. Washington declared Greenwood the "Negro Wall Street of America" after seeing the 108 black owned businesses, 2 theaters and 2 Black schools of the now known Black Wall Street of Tulsa, Oklahoma. 

May 31, 2021/June 1, 2021 marks the 100th year anniversary of the Tulsa "Black Wall Street" Massacre.

What Caused the Tulsa Race Massacre?

A young Black teenager named Dick Rowland entered an elevator at the Drexel Building, an office building on South Main Street, on May 30,1921. At some point after that, the young white elevator operator (Sarah Page) screamed; Rowland fled the scene. The police were called and the next morning, Rowland was arrested.

By that time, rumors of what supposedly happened on that elevator had circulated through the city’s white community. A front-page story in the Tulsa Tribune that afternoon reported that police had arrested Rowland for sexually assaulting Page.

As evening fell, an angry white mob was gathering outside the courthouse, demanding the sheriff hand over Rowland. Sheriff Willard McCullough refused, and his men barricaded the top floor to protect the Black teenager.

Around 9 p.m., a group of about 25 armed Black men—including many World War I veterans—went to the courthouse to offer help guarding Rowland. After the sheriff turned them away, some of the white mob tried unsuccessfully to break into the National Guard armory nearby.

With rumors still flying of a possible lynching, a group of around 75 armed Black men returned to the courthouse shortly after 10 pm, where they were met by some 1,500 white men, some of whom also carried weapons.

Greenwood Burns

After shots were fired and chaos broke out, the outnumbered group of Black men retreated to Greenwood.

Over the next several hours, groups of white Tulsans—some of whom were deputized and given weapons by city officials—committed numerous acts of violence against Black people, including shooting an unarmed man in a movie theater.

The false belief that a large-scale insurrection among Black Tulsans was underway, including reinforcements from nearby towns and cities with large African American populations, fueled the growing hysteria.

As dawn broke on June 1, thousands of white citizens poured into the Greenwood District, looting and burning homes and businesses over an area of 35 city blocks. Firefighters who arrived to help put out fires later testified that rioters had threatened them with guns and forced them to leave.

By the time the National Guard arrived and Governor J. B. A. Robertson had declared martial law shortly before noon, the riot had effectively ended. Though guardsmen helped put out fires, they also imprisoned many Black Tulsans, and by June 2 some 6,000 people were under armed guard at the local fairgrounds.

In the hours after the Tulsa Race Massacre, all charges against Dick Rowland were dropped. The police concluded that Rowland had most likely stumbled into Page, or stepped on her foot. Kept safely under guard in the jail during the riot, he left Tulsa the next morning and reportedly never returned.

The Oklahoma Bureau of Vital Statistics officially recorded 36 dead. A 2001 state commission examination of events was able to confirm 36 dead, 26 Black and 10 white. However, historians estimate the death toll may have been as high as 300.

Even by low estimates, the Tulsa Race Massacre stood as one of the deadliest riots in U.S. history, behind only the New York Draft Riots of 1863, which killed at least 119 people.

In the years to come, as Black Tulsans worked to rebuild their ruined homes and businesses, segregation in the city only increased, and Oklahoma’s newly established branch of the KKK grew in strength.

News Blackout

For decades, there were no public ceremonies, memorials for the dead or any efforts to commemorate the events of May 31-June 1, 1921. Instead, there was a deliberate effort to cover them up.

The Tulsa Tribune removed the front-page story of May 31 that sparked the chaos from its bound volumes, and scholars later discovered that police and state militia archives about the riot were missing as well. As a result, until recently the Tulsa Race Massacre was rarely mentioned in history books, taught in schools or even talked about.

Scholars began to delve deeper into the story of the riot in the 1970s, after its 50th anniversary had passed. In 1996, on the riot’s 75th anniversary, a service was held at the Mount Zion Baptist Church, which rioters had burned to the ground, and a memorial was placed in front of Greenwood Cultural Center.

Tulsa Race Riot Commission Established, Renamed

The following year, after an official state government commission was created to investigate the Tulsa Race Riot, scientists and historians began looking into long-ago stories, including numerous victims buried in unmarked graves.

In 2001, the report of the Race Riot Commission concluded that between 100 and 300 people were killed and more than 8,000 people made homeless over those 18 hours in 1921.

A bill in the Oklahoma State Senate requiring that all Oklahoma high schools teach the Tulsa Race Riot failed to pass in 2012, with its opponents claiming schools were already teaching their students about the riot.

In November 2018, the 1921 Race Riot Commission was officially renamed the 1921 Race Massacre Commission.

 “Although the dialogue about the reasons and effects of the terms riot vs. massacre are very important and encouraged," said Oklahoma State Senator Kevin Matthews, "the feelings and interpretation of those who experienced this devastation as well as current area residents and historical scholars have led us to more appropriately change the name to the 1921 Race Massacre Commission.”


James S. Hirsch, Riot and Remembrance: The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002).
Scott Ellsworth, “Tulsa Race Riot,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture.
1921 Tulsa Race Riot, Tulsa Historical Society & Museum.
Nour Habib, “Teachers talk about how black history is being taught in Oklahoma schools today,” Tulsa World (February 24, 2015).
Sam Howe Verhovek, “75 Years Later, Tulsa Confronts Its Race Riot,” New York Times (May 31, 1996).


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