One hundred years ago, the deadliest white-on-black crime in U.S. history took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Not only were hundreds killed in mob violence, but one of the most prosperous Black neighborhoods in America was obliterated, and thousands more Tulsans were displaced. Only in recent years, through the hard work of archivists and historians, has this event been brought to light. A recent book of photographs of the mayhem puts what happened in Tulsa beyond the reach of the deniers.
The murder of George Floyd last summer by a Minneapolis police officer set off a wave of protest and destruction the likes of which had not been seen in the U.S. since the so-called ‘race riots’ of the 1960s. And yet, one hundred years ago (on May 31), an event took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma that was 300 times worse. And it was not greeted by loud protests; it was greeted by dead silence.
Three hundred. That’s the number of Black Tulsans murdered by roving white mobs from May 31 to June 1, 1921. These mobs were armed to the teeth and pumped to the gills with racist propaganda.
It was an event so heinous that it defies belief even when hearing the particulars a century later. In fact, an episode of HBO’s The Watchmen in 2019 tried to compress what happened in Tulsa in 1921 into a ten-minute opening segment. The violence and mayhem, however, seemed so over-the-top that many contemporary viewers assumed it was completely made up. Even so, the reality of what happened in Tulsa was far worse than what was depicted in The Watchmen.
Watchmen – The Tulsa Race Massacre
In little more than 24 hours, more than 300 Black residents of the city were murdered by an angry white mob. Even dubbing it “the Tulsa Massacre” doesn’t fully capture the magnitude of what happened. Plainly and simply, it was the deadliest white-on-black crime in U.S. history. Not only were hundreds killed in mob violence, but the wealthiest black neighborhood in America was completely obliterated in the mayhem, leaving behind rubble reminiscent of the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 or the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. That neighborhood, called Greenwood, comprised a 30-square-block area and was known as “The Black Wall Street.”
The spark that set off the raging inferno was the same one that fueled hundreds of other mob lynchings: An unconfirmed rumor that a Black man had attempted to rape a white woman.
Obviously, this did not happen in a vacuum. The roots of the mayhem, in fact, date back to the origins of the city itself, which took its name from The Creek peoples, Native Americans who in the 1830s were “relocated” via the so-called “Trail of Tears” from their ancestral lands in Alabama, to a place they called Tulasi, for “Old Town.” The founder of the settlement, Benjamin Perryman, was a mixed race (Black/white/Creek Indian) who set up a trading post around which the crossroads community grew.
In 1905, a massive oil field was discovered in the area, turning Tulsa almost overnight into the self-proclaimed “Oil Capital of the World.” By 1920, the wealth obtained by oil transformed Tulsa (then with a population of 70,000) into what, for the American west, was a cosmopolitan place, with regular opera concerts at the Convention Hall, decent public schools and roads and, as mentioned, a thriving black neighborhood called Greenwood. Though nicknamed “the Black Wall Street,” it was really more middle-class than wealthy, but it was a solid, thriving, self-supporting community within the city of Tulsa.
Of course, there was a flip side to the city, too: gambling, drugs, bootlegging (this was during Prohibition), 14 brothels, and a large white working-class slum along with a smaller Black slum—shanties with dirt floors. Add to this the fact that Oklahoma, which became a state in 1907, had a long history/tradition of vigilante justice. And, according to the 1920 Census, Oklahoma had the highest percentage of native-born (read: white) Americans in the United States.
In 1919, following World War I, Black veterans who’d fought overseas returned home expecting to be accorded more rights, including voting. Meanwhile, Tulsa’s predominantly white population—most of whom arrived after the oil was discovered—was staunchly conservative. As Randy Krehbiel writes in his 2019 book Tulsa, 1921: Reporting a Massacre, “Tulsa had demonstrated its vigilance against foreigners, slackers, and reds, the more zealous going so far as to mete out beatings and hot tar to the local membership of the IWW.”
In Tulsa, patriotism was valued over just about any other civic virtue. An “Americanism Day Parade” was celebrated there annually, and the day before the massacre, the city had staged a Memorial Day Parade at which, despite a heavy, sustained rainfall, most of the white citizenry appeared.
This veneer of respectability notwithstanding, all it took to unleash the racist beast in Tulsa was a rumor, misreported by one of the local newspapers, that a young Black man accosted a white teenage girl in a department store elevator. From that one dubious strand, an anarchistic tapestry of violence was woven. By the next day, Greenwood was razed, hundreds of Black citizens killed, thousands displaced.
Perhaps the strangest aspect to this horror was the silence that greeted it. Tulsa’s black community was denied redress and even the right to rebuild on their own decimated properties. And the perpetrators of the violence were never held to account. Historians and journalists largely ignored the event and it eventually went down what George Orwell called “the memory hole.” One of the worst outbursts of mob violence in U.S. history was soon forgotten.
In recent years, as researchers and activists pieced together the events—most notably, the Tulsa Race Riot Commission and the North Tulsa Oral History Project—much has been written about the events of 1921. However, no matter how the events are presented, the accounts are shocking, unthinkable, an act of pure “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” 12 years before Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany.
Now, with the publication of The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacreby Karlos K. Hill (Univ. of Oklahoma Press), the events are simply undeniable. If one picture is worth a thousand words, then the 186 pictures in this “photographic history”—compiled by Karlos K. Hill—are worth hundreds of thousands more. Not to mention, they’re worth far more than thoughts and prayer, apologies and hand wringing long after the fact. Indeed, the images and firsthand accounts provided in this large format hardcover would make compelling exhibits in a case for reparations.