100 years ago today


A violent mob of white people descended on a community of black people in Tulsa, Oklahoma with the conscious intent of destroying them. The Tulsa police organized and aided them. The Tulsa Race Massacre had begun.

Fearing that the lynching of Dick Rowland was imminent, a small, armed contingent of Black men, some of whom had served in World War I, came to the courthouse around 9:00 p.m. to offer the authorities their assistance. They left upon being promised that no harm would come to Rowland, but their brief presence further enraged the growing white mob. By 9:30 there were almost two thousand angry whites milling around outside the courthouse, many with guns, and the county sheriff was preparing his deputies to make a stand should the building be attacked. When a second, larger group of Black men arrived in hopes of helping to protect Rowland, they were again told that their services were not needed. This time, however, a white bystander, perhaps angered by the sight of Black men carrying weapons, attempted to take the gun of a Black veteran who was walking away with the rest of the group. As the men struggled, one of their guns went off. In the chaos of the moment, armed whites began shooting indiscriminately at the retreating Black men, some of whom shot back. In that first quick interchange of gunfire, twenty people were killed or wounded. The Black men hastily left the scene, but they were followed by armed whites, who engaged them in further gunfire on Fourth Street and then on Cincinnati Avenue, resulting in additional casualties. That initial pursuit ended when what was left of the group of Black men made it across the tracks of the Saint Louis–San Francisco Railway (popularly known as the Frisco Railroad), the demarcation line between white Tulsa and Black Tulsa.

Believing that the armed Blacks had instigated the firefight, Tulsa authorities joined forces with the enraged white civilians who had been at the courthouse, and together they set out to put down the “negro uprising”. Tulsa police haphazardly appointed between 250 and 500 white men (and even white youth) as “special deputies”, granting them the authority to arrest as well as shoot and kill Black people whom they viewed as in rebellion against white Tulsans. According to one eyewitness and participant in the massacre, the deputized whites were specifically told to “get a gun and get a nigger”. When a group of Black men gathered north of the Frisco tracks, forming a defensive wall to prevent the swelling white mob from crossing en masse into Black Tulsa, they were violently confronted around midnight by the Tulsa police, the local unit of the Oklahoma National Guard, and the hastily assembled contingent of armed “deputies”. Whites who had already made it into the Black community were now shooting randomly through windows and setting homes and businesses on fire. In at least a few cases, Blacks were deliberately murdered, including an elderly couple who were gunned down inside their home. The most destructive and perhaps deadliest race massacre in American history had begun, and it would continue unabated for approximately twelve hours. By noon on June 1, by one contemporaneous estimate, as many as three hundred people had been killed, and Greenwood’s business district, as well as more than one thousand Black residences, lay in ashes.

The vast majority of contemporaneous press coverage, official reports, and subsequent histories refer to the events of May 31 and June 1, 1921, as the “Tulsa Race Riot”. To be sure, since the middle of the nineteenth century, “race riot” has been the generic term used to describe outbreaks of violence between different racial or ethnic groups. In the past five years, however, there has been a growing consensus within the news media and the general public around “race massacre” as the more appropriate descriptor, which is part of a larger effort to tell the story of what occurred from the vantage point of the Black victims and survivors. The Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission (2015–present), headed by Oklahoma state senator Kevin Matthews, is to be applauded for its leadership in initiating the conversation about how the events can be most accurately framed. I believe the shift in terminology from “race riot” to “race massacre” is a necessary and timely corrective.

First and foremost, the word “massacre” better captures what actually occurred. Had the Black community been able to keep the white invaders from entering the Greenwood District, or had the violence subsided that same night, the term “riot” might be more apt. The following morning, however, white civilians and authorities banded together to launch a systematic assault on Black people and property, and that coordinated incursion places the subsequent events squarely in the realm of a massacre.

According to testimony from both Black and white eyewitnesses, by daybreak on June 1, several thousand armed whites had amassed in various locations along the southern border of the Greenwood District. At approximately 5:00 a.m., a whistle or siren was sounded as a signal for the invasion to begin. As the white mob stormed into Greenwood, a machine gun that had been set up atop a grain elevator sprayed bullets into Black homes, businesses, and churches along Greenwood Avenue. Airplanes flew overhead, from which whites reportedly fired pistols and shotguns (and even dropped rudimentary explosives) down at Blacks fleeing the violence.

Once in Greenwood, the invading whites, civilians as well as authorities, reportedly shot and killed any Black person who was found to be armed or who did not immediately surrender, including some who were simply attempting to flee from the violence. Faced with this overwhelming show of force, Black Tulsans reluctantly emerged from their homes, surrendered whatever weapons they possessed, and were taken into custody. They were transported to temporary detention centers — at Convention Hall until it was full, and then to McNulty Park and the fairgrounds — where they were held until they were able to get a white person to vouch for them. There is no evidence that any of the whites involved in the mob violence were detained by authorities, let alone arrested.

They made postcards of the event, photographing dead bodies in the street and the smoking wreckage of the community. This event, and the willful blindness of the white people, the textbooks, and the law that followed it, are part of our shameful history. You can’t teach the history of the United States without acknowledging the disgraceful racism that befouls it from the very beginning.

Comments

  1. Mobius says

    I grew up in Oklahoma and had many friends in college from the Tulsa area. I did not hear a peep about this until I was 27, and that was from an old white man (a co-worker) who was trying to justify his racism – because the “race riot” was all the blacks’ fault.

    Last night I watch a report on the Tulsa Race Massacre on NBC and learned that even most blacks were not told about it as they grew up. Apparently talking about it in public could get you arrested, even years after the event.

  2. Artor says

    “You can’t teach the history of the United States without acknowledging the disgraceful racism that befouls it from the very beginning.”

    Consequently, most history classes never even attempt to acknowledge things like this. I was never told about it in school myself, and many American’s first heard of the Tulsa murders when they saw The Watchmen on TV recently.

  3. redwood says

    Another disgusting example of humanity’s inhumanity. I can’t understand how any person could so easily murder another person. It’s a total lack of empathy. One more reminder why I could never be a police officer.

  4. raven says

    I’d barely heard of the Tulsa massacre.
    Then again, our public school history of the USA was superficial and highly slanted. The Native American genocide wasn’t mentioned and the Civil War was still listed as a States Rights issue. They never mentioned that the States Rights issue was the ability to buy and sell slaves.

    It seems to have been covered up immediately after it happened. I looked up the death toll and no one knows. It’s all estimates.

    Hmmm, what does this remind me of.
    The January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol building. Which was by a bunch of rowdy tourists who were all BLM/Antifa commie leftists.
    Or, the number of dead in India in their current pandemic wave, where the official death toll is roughly 5 times less than the actual death toll because it’s not important to count the number of citizens dying.

    Wikipedia: Tulsa Massacre

    Deaths Total dead and displaced unknown:
    36 total; 26 black and 10 white dead (1921 records)
    150–300 black and 50 white dead (1921 estimate by W.F. White)[2]
    39 confirmed, 75–100 to 150–300 estimated (2001 commission)[3]
    Injured 800+
    183 serious injuries[3]
    Exact number unknown

  5. brightmoon says

    This country has always had a horrible history of abusing either non-whites or non-Christians . I remember how shocked I was that America had concentration camps for Japanese during WW2 . I was told I was lying by several of my high school peers because my hippie generation just didn’t know about it.

  6. says

    Why doesn’t the rest of the world shout “shut the fuck up you douchebags!” at Americans any time they try to congratulate themselves for their leadership role, or their democracy, or basically anything other than hanging our heads in shame. There’s something wrong with those people.

  7. NitricAcid says

    Because, Marcus, the rest of the world has done enough similar things that it would be insanely hypocritical. I grew up being taught that the British made their empire by going out, exploring, and making friends with the locals, and only fighting when they had to. And that Canada used exactly the same approach when dealing with the First Nations (and protecting said FN people from evil American whiskey traders).

    Did you hear the latest news about the mass grave found in Kamloops on the site of a residential “school”?

  8. robro says

    Incidentally, the assault case against Dick Rowland was dismissed in September 1921. In fact, the female elevator operator he was reported to have assaulted refused to file charges against him in the first place. The most accepted story of the “assault” is that he slipped entering her elevator and grabbed her arm to keep from falling. Startled, she screamed. A nearby white male store clerk heard her, saw some physical contact, and notified police that a black man assaulted a white woman and may have attempted rape. So, a community destroyed, many people killed…black and white…all because someone made assumptions and the police accepted the white man’s story over the woman’s, the presumed victim.

  9. Rob Grigjanis says

    NitricAcid @8: One difference between the UK and the US is that in the former, there has been a long and quite popular tradition of puncturing notions of imperialist “glory”*. Having gone to school and lived in UK and Canada, I think Canadian attitudes towards empire were actually more reverent than British attitudes.

    But yeah, plenty of shame to go around.

    *I wonder if the US has anything comparable to 1066 And All That, or the Flashman books. If so, I suspect they would inspire a lot more outrage from ‘patriotic’ types.

  10. unclefrogy says

    as has been said there is shame a plenty to go around, the time is approaching if not long past when the U.S. needs to get off the f’n high horse and stand on the ground with all the rest of the nations not as a superior but an equal.
    The galling thing is the difference between our ideals all noble and moral and the practice and reality of how we actually live them. The blatant overt hypocrisy of some of the people who profess in glowing language the greatest ideals and ignore them when it suits their own personal gain and bias is not new. We can see it daily but it is and will always be disgusting to a degree that is hard to put into words.
    a good subject for dead soldiers day
    uncle frogy

  11. says

    bUT oBaMA mAdE mURiCA rAcIsT!!! – every slack jawed dipshidiot on Facebook ever. Oh, and they’re the same dipshidiots who claim that if you teach “American history” in school, we’ll have oodles and oodles of obedient patriots.

    That’s when I ask which American history should be taught: the sanitized version or the truth with the racism and genocide. They block me pretty quick after that. I wonder why…?

    I lived in NC for twenty four years. This happened in my hometown and we even had a local park named after one of these racist asshats: Hugh MacRae.
    I learned about this last year:
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilmington_insurrection_of_1898

  12. Walter Solomon says

    Considering this is America, it may be that this tragic event is taught in many public school curriculums but with an untrue claim of how uncommon and extraordinary events like these were.

    The fact is, mass anti-Black racial violence was extremely common in the US before the Civil Rights Movement. In fact, some years had so many violent attacks across the country, all of the incidents were considered part of the same event (e.g. “Johnson-Jefferies Riots of 1910” and “The Red Summer of 1919”)

  13. says

    @ 13: Of course we just have to side with Israel! That’s how the good ol’ U S of A is gonna survive the end times! By supporting Gawd’s chosen people!

    If I roll my eyes any harder, I’m gonna be staring at my own optic nerve. But I figured this out back when I was a freshman in high school, back in 1989. It was all posturing and BS so we could survive Armageddon. Yeah, that year was pivotal for me.

  14. luoanlai says

    I also became aware of this event through watching the Watchmen series. I was dumbstruck to find out they hadn’t made it up.

    Similarly, I came across the story of Jesse Washington as a result of watching the film BlacKKKlansman. It prompted me write a song called Postcard From Waco (Witness). (It’s on YouTube if you want to look for it. I’m not here to plug the song).

    Not long after seeing Watchmen I also watched Lovecraft Country, which covered the efforts that black people had to make to travel (somewhat) safely in the USA. Green Book dealt the with same context in a different way.

    It is utterly shameful that these truths are only acknowledged in popular culture and not mainstream education. That reality is not limited to the USA, but the forces supporting it seem strongest there.

  15. chrislawson says

    brightmoon@6–

    It’s even worse than the surface story. Reading a recent interview with George Takei I learned that after WW2, when the Japanese-Americans were released from the internment camps, the US Govt. kept many of their properties or allowed companies and neighbours to ransack the properties with impunity.

  16. Kagehi says

    @chrislawson

    One of the latest lies of the GOP’s talking radioheads (and I presume also the idiots Fox lets babble on their station) is that “liberals don’t believe in property ownership and will take everything away from us!” This pissed me off, frankly, when I got into work and some twit on the night crew was there, listening to their radio, and the clown on there spouted off about it. Because, lets be clear here, the “standard” by which a lot of politicians, especially the ones lying about protecting people’s “rights” from the left, is, “If we need, or want it, or our corporate friends need or want it, it belongs to the state. If we don’t need or want it yet, or its useless too us, then you can pretend it still belongs to you for as long as you want, and we will lie, and lie, and lie, about how we are ‘protecting’ your right to keep it.” While this is done far more often to blacks, Japanese in and after WWII, and Native Americans, they have no f-ing problem taking shit from everyone, if they decide the “state” needs it for something.

  17. DanDare says

    Authoritarian vs liberal. Priveledged oligarchs vs hoi poloi. This is a world wide thing that has previously been settled for the authoritarian oligarchs. The false narratives support that but they are gradually being exposed and their overreach is breaking their hold on things. /rant

  18. Ichthyic says

    there has been a long and quite popular tradition of puncturing notions of imperialist “glory”

    evidently, the even more popular tradition is to imagine Brittain still IS an empire, and the only reason for lost glory is the EU, hence… Brexit.

    face the reality here. England voted Brexit (at least enough of them did to make it happen), and America voted for Trump.

    the disconnect with reality is getting WORSE, not better.

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