One hundred years ago, Memorial Day was the start of perhaps the worst anti-Black racist violence in the history of the United States in the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Okla. Thirty-five blocks were burned to the ground, 10,000 Black Tulsans needed emergency relief, more than 800 people were treated for serious injuries and as many as 300, almost all African-American, died in the massacre. The Red Cross provided about 200 tents to survivors who had lost homes and were displaced by the violence.
On the morning of May 30, 1921, Dick Rowland, a young Black man who worked at the Drexel Building in downtown Tulsa, rode in the elevator with a 17-year old white woman who was the elevator operator. The next day, Tulsa police arrested Rowland and charged him with assaulting her. An inflammatory article in the Tulsa Tribune led to a confrontation between black and white armed groups outside the courthouse where Rowland was held. Blacks feared Rowland would be lynched. The white mob probably included over 2,000 men, many of whom were armed. After shots were fired, the outnumbered African-American group retreated to the largely black Greenwood district.
That night, white rioters looted and burned over 1,200 buildings in Greenwood, a prosperous Black business and residential neighborhood known as Black Wall Street. White mobs bombed, looted and set fire to buildings and opened fire on Black residents who tried to defend their homes and businesses. According to the Tribune, “machine guns were set up and for 20 minutes poured a stream of lead on the negroes who sought refuge behind buildings, telephone poles, and in ditches.”
Municipal and police officials were complicit in the attack, deputizing and arming white men who participated in the riot and massacre. The governor of Oklahoma declared martial law, and National Guard troops were sent to the city, where they proceeded to intern Black Tulsans, supposedly for their own protection. Many were held captive for over a week.
After the massacre, a local African-American lawyer documented the events: “I could see planes circling in mid-air. They grew in number and hummed, darted and dipped low. I could hear something like hail falling upon the top of my office building . . . Lurid flames roared and belched and licked their forked tongues into the air. Smoke ascended the sky in thick, black volumes and amid it all, the planes — now a dozen or more in number — still hummed and darted here and there with the agility of natural birds of the air . . . The side-walks were literally covered with burning turpentine balls. I knew all too well where they came from, and I knew all too well why every burning building first caught from the top. I paused and waited for an opportune time to escape. ‘Where oh where is our splendid fire department with its half dozen stations?’ I asked myself. ‘Is the city in conspiracy with the mob?’”
A subcommittee of the House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary is holding hearings on a proposal to provide financial reparations to the remaining survivors of the massacre and the Tulsa African-American community as a whole. Survivors and descendants of people injured during the massacre have filed a lawsuit in Tulsa County District Court demanding payment for damages from the county sheriff, the Oklahoma National Guard and the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce.
One hundred years after the Tulsa Massacre, the United States needs to stop pretending that racism ended with the Civil War and take steps to address the lingering impact of slavery and systemic racism on American society.
Dr. Alan Singer is a professor of teaching, learning and technology and the director of social studies education programs at Hofstra University. He is a former New York City high school social studies teacher and editor of Social Science Docket, a joint publication of the New York and New Jersey Councils for the Social Studies.