The 1921 Tulsa massacre

Today June 19 is Juneteenth, that commemorates the day in 1865 when Union general Gordon Granger gave the news to the last outpost of slavery in east Texas in Galveston that the civil war had ended and that all slaves were now free. Note that the Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 formally ending slavery, and confederate general Robert E. Lee had formally surrendered in April of 1865. Why it took more than two years for the Emancipation Proclamation to take effect in Texas was possibly because the federal government had such a weak presence in much of the country that it could not enforce its laws and edicts.

This was the day that Trump originally planned to host his first rally after the pandemic shutdown and the sight of his supporters whooping it up to his racist rhetoric on this particular day was a little much even for him and so they shifted it to tomorrow. The site he has chosen of Tulsa, OK is also problematic because of its history as the site of one of the worst racist massacres in US history, carried out as part of white supremacists’ attempts to crush any attempt by the black community to achieve any kind of economic independence, measures that continued later in the form of Jim Crow, redlining, and a host of other things that continued under the cover of legality what was done in Tulsa by sheer brutal force.

Gabriel H. Sanchez has compiled a gallery of photographs taken after the massacre that show the scale of the death and destruction wreaked on the black community in Tulsa. Here is his short introduction to the gallery, describing what happened.

Following World War I, the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was a mecca for Black entrepreneurship and home to a vibrant community of upper- and middle-class Black families who embodied the optimism of the American dream. With the city of Tulsa thoroughly segregated, the central hub of the Greenwood District became known as “Black Wall Street” for its economic strength and influence. Black-owned businesses, banks, and schools ensured that the local economy was not only thriving, but was also reflective of the community in which they served. Similar to the Harlem Renaissance concurrently unfolding on the East Coast, Tulsa’s Black Wall Street brought forth the promise of a brighter tomorrow and offered a roadmap for what success could look like for Black communities in the 20th century.

In the early hours of June 1, 1921, white rioters set fire to the Greenwood District, looting businesses and killing as many as 300 Black residents, leaving thousands more without shelter. Days earlier, a 19-year-old Black shoeshine named Dick Rowland was accused by a white store clerk of sexually assaulting a white, 17-year-old elevator operator named Sarah Page. In only a matter of hours, the promise and glory of Black Wall Street had been reduced to ashes. It was later determined by police that Rowland had accidentally stumbled into the elevator and had only grabbed the attendant’s arm to avoid falling.

But the damage had already been done. News of the alleged assault spread across white communities in Tulsa, inciting racially motivated violence across the city. According to a 2001 report by Tulsa officials titled Race Riot Commission Report, “At the eruption of violence, civil officials selected many men, all of them white and some of them participants in that violence, and made those men their agents as deputies.” Under the watch of these newly ordained police officers, white mobs proceeded to torch the Greenwood District, stealing valuables and killing all those who resisted. The report goes on, “Not one of these criminal acts was then or ever has been prosecuted or punished by government at any level: municipal, county, state, or federal.”

The photographs are heartbreaking. When you see things like this, you begin to really appreciate what writer Kimberly Jones means when she says at the end of this clip that those who are complaining about the way that some businesses were damaged during these days of protest should consider themselves lucky that what black people are demanding is equality and not revenge.


  1. blf says

    the Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 formally ending slavery

    Ignoring the spurious “the”, that is perhaps misleading — the Emancipation Proclamation only ended slavery in the confederate states, but not in the Union states which had slavery (Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, and Missouri) for variety of reasons. One was political: Washington DC is surrounded by Virginia (confederate) and Maryland (Union), and he didn’t want to risk “losing” Maryland and isolating Washington DC.

    Another reason (of several) is doubts that he had the power to end slavery in the Union or free the slaves in those Union states. The confederate states had said they weren’t in the Union, and hence those doubts didn’t apply; as a result, the Proclamation applied to Union-held confederate lands, which (eventually) was all of the confederate states, albeit, as you note, it took awhile to be fully applied.

    From memory, slaves in the Union states (and a few other territories) weren’t officially freed until the 13th Amendment was ratified (in December 1865).

  2. John Morales says

    OK, since I am interested in words and in grammar, this has been bugging me:
    Why we capitalize ‘Black’ (and not ‘white’).

    we capitalize Black, and not white, when referring to racial groups. Black is an ethnic designation; white merely describes the skin color of people who can, usually without much difficulty, trace their ethnic origins back to a handful of European countries.

    I find the basis specious (both are “racial groups”, by their own claim), but at least I know, now.

  3. Hans Tholstrup says


    I used to follow you with admiration, Mano.
    If you have any vestigial empiricism in you, look around, sample different sources of news and opinion, and consider.
    (But if you notice anything, please keep it to yourself: don’t write anything, or they will come for you, too).

    One day soon -- Newton’s statue will go (he’s too admired!) . Feynman’s books will be burned (wasn’t he sexist?). Shakespeare’s statues defaced and his works banned (too universal, too good).

    Oh well. At least we can dress all in black (very slimming) and a mask and settle some scores of our own …

  4. John Morales says

    Hans Tholstrup, wow, you sure are silly. And reactionary.

    (And you pick this post to wank on about iconoclasm? Heh)

  5. wsierichs says

    I’m doing this from memory, but as I recall, the Emancipation Proclamation declared all slaves in Confederate-controlled territory to be contraband property that the North could seize. This effectively ended slavery in the Confederate territories unless the Confederacy had won/survived. Lincoln had no authority in non-Confederate states, and technically could not even free slaves in areas that the Union army had occupied.

    At the start of his presidency, Lincoln was a racist and an emancipationist. He once said the races could not live together, so he presumably sided with emanacipationists, who opposed slavery but wanted to find some way to separate them from the white population before ending slavery. That’s the origin of the Liberia project. Most slavery opponents were emancipationists; from things I’ve read, abolitionists were a minority -- probably a fairly small one -- and by the 1850s were often as angry at emancipationists as they were at slave holders. From what I’ve read, Lincoln became an abolitionist during the war -- partly (it appears) because the cost of the war had grown to a point that he had to do something to justify it to the public, but also because he was increasingly influenced by abolitionists, such as Frederick Douglass. So when he issued the proclamation, it had a strategic value but he may also have become an abolitionist by then.

    A good read is “What This Cruel War Was Over,” by Chandra Manning. She researched soldiers’ writings to show that the soldiers generally agreed the war was about slavery. Southern soldiers refused to accept legal, social and political equality with the slaves. Northern soldiers were more ambivalent early in the war, but abolitionism increased as the war went on. She argues that Lincoln was influenced by the army, which in turn improved soldiers’ opinions of him.

  6. springa73 says

    @wsierichs #6

    As far as I know, everything you wrote is true, except that I think that historians usually use the term “colonizationists” for those who wanted to end slavery in the US but also send the former slaves out of the country to some other part of the world. The term “colonizationist” comes from the fact that these people wanted to send ex-slaves to colonize other places -- usually Liberia or other parts of West Africa, or sometimes somewhere in Central America or the Caribbean. Some colonizationists wanted this to be a purely voluntary process, while others believed that it should be forced on all former slaves -- a mass expulsion. Not surprisingly, support for colonizationism largely came from whites who found slavery immoral but also held white supremacist views and believed that whites and blacks could not live together successfully. A small minority of African Americans supported colonizationism for their own reasons, such as the belief that whites in the US would never accept them as equals so they might as well try going someplace else, but I think most evidence is that the vast majority of African Americans (and also a growing number of white abolitionists) were hostile to the colonization movement, which was clearly opposed to any movement for racial equality or justice.

  7. Hans Tholstrup says

    John, I agree it is hugely naive to post any half-way conservative views here. (“Wanking” is a fair description! So, I’m a wanker.)
    But the people destroying statues of great but imperfect people are not heroes. They are just vandals.
    Today any wrong think leads to ‘cancelling’ and job loss. It’s McCarthyism all over again. (Could Mano imagine an academic NOT signing the D.I.E. pledge at a tertiary institution?! You would not be hired either. )
    I’m foreign, and always used to admire the energy and innovation of Americans. And it’s very sad to see the current slide to intolerance, violence and bloodshed.

  8. says

    What current slide to intolerance,violence and bloodshed? What do you think those statues were put up for? What do you think the KKK was doing during the Civil Rights Movement? I remember the bombing of the church in Birmingham in 1963

  9. blf says

    On the capitalisation of “Black”, Associated Press changes influential style guide to capitalize ‘Black’ (my added emboldening):

    The Associated Press has changed its influential writing style guide to capitalize the “b” in the term Black when referring to people in a racial, ethnic or cultural context […].

    The change conveys “an essential and shared sense of history, identity and community among people who identify as Black, including those in the African diaspora and within Africa,” said John Daniszewski, AP’s vice-president of standards. “The lowercase black is a color, not a person.”

    The news organization will also now capitalize Indigenous in reference to original inhabitants of a place.

    Daniszewski said the revisions aligned with long-standing identifiers such as Latino, Asian American and Native American. […]

    The current Grauniad stylebook says: “black should be used only as an adjective when referring to race, ie not ‘blacks’ but ‘black people’ or whatever noun is appropriate. Lower case unless an individual or organisation specifically prefers to use Black”.

  10. M. Currie says

    I think Mr. Tholstrup would have a better case if this were some time like 1960. The powers that be have used legal intimidation and corruption and social backwardness and bad faith to fend off reasonable change for generations. We never learn. As long as there’s one more chance, why change anything? I’ll quit tomorrow. Bad planning. Tomorrow has arrived.

    Revolutions bring about change, but they also attract crazy people, extremism and excess. And yes, that’s too bad. We shouldn’t have to fear that every equivocal hero is dethroned, that mobs will run wild, that things we value are damaged; but if we pushed the pendulum so hard in one direction for so long we shouldn’t be surprised when it comes back so far the other way. Most of those confederate statues should never have gone up in the first place. But even then, if they’d been taken down 50 years ago, 30 years ago, 10 years ago, or even last year, would we have to worry now about unruly mobs?

  11. mnb0 says

    @8 HansiePansie: “And it’s very sad to see the current slide to intolerance, violence and bloodshed.”
    I love your unintentional black humour, given the topic of this blogpost. You’re a fine example of getting priorities totally wrong, getting fed up about statues torn down instead about a systematical massacre
    Btw I’m foreign too (Dutch, to be precisely) and I’ve been reading MS’ blog for many years. His stance against racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination hasn’t changed a bit. So this

    “I used to follow you with admiration”
    is another exquisite bad joke.
    I also suspect that you’re a liar as you’ve never commented here before. In case I’m wrong and you have been following this blog for a while it tells us a lot about your sympathy for white supremacy that exactly this blogpost inspired your first comment.

    Making racism salonfähig again is your biggest dream, I bet.

  12. blf says

    I presume the people who think statues must always be kept in public spaces without context also deplore the Berlin Wall being breached and removed. “It’s part of history!”

  13. wsierichs says


    The term I’ve seen generally is emancipationist, but I’m sure there were other terms in use -- not all of them polite :). Liberia was created as a supposed place to send the slaves, so colonizationist would have applied to Liberia proponents. My guess is, they were one branch of emancipationism.

  14. says

    Also not everyone who opposed slavery did it out of concern for the slaves. There was concern about free white labor having to compete with black slave labor.

  15. jenorafeuer says

    Much like a lot of the big slave owners in the South were perfectly fine with ending the trans-Atlantic slave trade (the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves came into effect in 1808) because preventing new imports made the existing breeding stock worth more.

    Being in favour of ending the slave trade didn’t necessarily mean even being in favour of ending slavery.

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