Editor’s note: The following may include first-person accounts of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre contain graphic depictions and antiquated racial terminology. We have chosen not to edit these survivor accounts to leave their stories unencumbered by interpretation or exclusion.
TULSA, Okla. – After 100 years, the stories of brutality and destruction are almost unfathomable. A white mob’s attack on Greenwood, a district of Tulsa, Oklahoma, home to about 10,000 people, left the community in ruins, reduced to a pile of smoldering bricks and debris.
May 31 – June 1, 1921, was a nightmare for Black Tulsans whose success and insistence on being treated fairly ended with a rumor triggering one of the worst race massacres in 20th-century America.
Estimated hundreds of the Black community’s residents were dead and injured. The true death toll may never be known. Even today, mass graves are being discovered.
Successful entrepreneurs who had turned the 35-block area into Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street” were left with nothing as their white attackers looted homes and businesses before setting the whole area on fire – churches burned, an elderly couple killed in their home, families seized and separated by “home guards” who then took their furnishings, jewelry and cherished possessions.
Only a few white residents were held responsible, though some were immortalized in images created to show off the violence.
The massacre lasted about 18 hours. But a century later, the legacy of that weekend is still being felt. After being reduced to whispers and left out of history books for decades, the victims’ stories are being told.
From the start of the massacre, the white assailants were looked upon as having restored law and order while the Black survivors were hauled off at gunpoint (for their “protection”) to the nearby ballpark and convention hall.
Meanwhile, just one day later, the city of Tulsa voted to enact new zoning and fire codes to prevent Greenwood from being rebuilt. Picture postcards were printed proclaiming “running the negro out of Tulsa” against a backdrop of the smoldering ruins of people’s homes.
Greenwood’s Tulsa Star newspaper was among the businesses destroyed by the white attackers. Ninety miles southwest of Tulsa, Black Dispatch editor Roscoe Dunjee quickly rebutted the revisionist tale spun by Oklahoma Gov. J.B.A. Robertson and Tulsa Mayor Thaddeus Evans that blamed “Black agitators” for the violence.
“The greatest crime committed was in a certain meeting of city commissioners where white men sat down and deliberately conspired to confiscate the very land and ashes where Black men had dwelt,” Dunjee wrote. “Men can be excused for some of the things they do when they are lashed in the throws of anger, but when sober men sit down to rob dead men of their property, they are ghouls, grave robbers, below the level of the common thief.”
A rumor about Dick Rowland and Sarah Page, then a gunshot
The often-told story of the massacre starts with an incident on May 30, 1921, in which a 19-year-old shoe shiner, Dick Rowland, stepped into an elevator to go to the top floor to use the “coloreds only” restroom.
He encountered the elevator operator, Sarah Page, 17, and according to the 2001 Tulsa Race Riot Commission, the pair likely knew each other.
What happened next is still a mystery.
The Tulsa Race Riot Commission investigation found police interviewed Page but that she made no allegations of assault against Rowland, who had fled to his family’s home in Greenwood knowing just the appearance of a Black man’s assault on a white girl could be deadly dangerous.
Police picked up Rowland the day after the alleged elevator incident, took him south across the tracks into white Tulsa and locked him up in the county jail. The Tulsa Tribune published a story that afternoon headlined “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator,” leading readers to perceive that Rowland had assaulted Page. Rumors flared that Rowland would be taken from the jail and lynched.
Several hundred white Tulsans demanded the newly elected Sheriff Willard McCullough turn Rowland over to them. Greenwood residents, meanwhile, wanted assurances there would not be a lynching. He stood his ground against the mob, positioned armed deputies on surrounding rooftops and set up blockades and turned off the building’s elevator.
By 10 p.m., the scene was set with both crowds in a chaotic standoff.
Someone fired shots. The white crowd opened fire on the Greenwood residents and stormed their neighborhood. The details of those 18 hours, kept quiet for decades, have been discussed and debated for the past quarter-century, including in congressional headings and arguments to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Those who have researched the massacre say Tulsa leaders had plenty of reason to hide the truth and recast the massacre as a “race riot” in which Black and white Tulsans were equally blamed. Multiple historic accounts now report some Tulsa police encouraged the attacks and participated in the lootings, burnings and killings.
But when an all-white grand jury wrapped up its investigation, the Tulsa World headline read “Grand jury blames negroes for inciting race rioting. Whites clearly exonerated.”
Dunjee’s Black Dispatch provided its readers a different take: ‘‘There is a whitewash brush, and a big one, in operation in Tulsa.’’
Tulsa Race Massacre destroyed ‘Negro Wall Street’
Carlos Moreno, author of “The Victory of Greenwood,” spent 20 years researching the massacre for the recently released book and argues the stage was set for the massacre years before it happened.
Moreno said the massacre was part of an effort by Tate Brady, a founding father of Tulsa and a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and others to rob Black Tulsans of their property, possessions, community, pride and dignity.
It’s a tale of Black entrepreneurs like J.B. Stradford and O.W. Gurley, sons of slaves, who made their vision of a successful Black community a reality, and of white Tulsans like town founder Brady whose greed and bigotry toward his Black neighbors served as a backdrop to the attempted theft of Greenwood in 1921.
Brady moved to the area in 1890, when it was still a part of the Creek Nation and got his start as a shoe salesman. Five years later, he married Rachel Davis, who was part Cherokee, leading to Brady being adopted into the tribe. In 1898, Brady led the signing of a charter to incorporate Tulsa.
By 1901, money was flowing with the discovery of the Red Fork oil field. Brady started building his fortune in real estate with the opening of a hotel, the first in town with bathrooms, to host visiting oilmen and business owners.
He was a member of the Sons of the Confederacy and the Ku Klux Klan, and he built a mansion designed to resemble the home of Confederate war general Robert E. Lee.
Stradford, meanwhile, was already an attorney and owner of pool halls, bathhouses, shoeshine parlors and boarding houses in Kentucky and Missouri when he and his wife, Augusta, moved to Tulsa in 1899.
Records reviewed by Moreno show the first purchase in Greenwood by Gurley’s wife, Emma, in 1905.
In the book “Black Fortunes,” author Shomari Wills lists Gurley as one of the country’s first six Black millionaires. In that first year of Gurley’s development efforts, Wills wrote, the district attracted a Black doctor, a dentist, a Baptist church and a hardware store.
Gurley built the first building, a rooming house, and later the home of a church. Gurley opened a grocery and built a $55,000 hotel. Stradford responded by building a $75,000 hotel, which at the time was promoted as the nicest in Tulsa.
Moreno believes the two men were friendly competitors who shared a vision of creating a wealthy Black enclave where residents and merchants could take dollars made working for white Tulsans and circulate that money in Greenwood.
Oil dollars were continuing to flow into Tulsa, and fortunes were being built on both sides of the tracks. To the west of Greenwood, Brady opened the Convention Hall, while that same year, 1914, Loula Williams – who along with her husband, John Williams, were among Greenwood’s thriving business owners – opened the 750-seat Williams Dreamland Theatre.
Gurley was enjoying a rise in prominence among both Greenwood residents and white Tulsans across the tracks. Gurley’s wealth was reported as topping $150,000 ($3.6 million in today’s dollars).
Gurley took that money and plowed it back into starting a Black Masonic Lodge, an employment agency and launched campaigns to fight against Black voter suppression. White Tulsa, meanwhile, commissioned Gurley as a sheriff’s deputy charged with policing Greenwood.
Demand among oilmen and their families for domestic help resulted in unheard of wages for Black workers, Wills wrote.
Greenwood boasted among the country’s lowest Black illiteracy rates, and high school graduation rates topping 50%.
All of this success prompted Booker T. Washington to name Greenwood “Negro Wall Street” – a name that would later morph into Black Wall Street.
Hate and fear in the ‘Magic City’
Wills writes that in those early years, boosterism and unity muted racial tensions; Black and white residents lived next door to one another, ate at the same restaurants and allowed their children to play together as they worked to build the “Magic City” as they liked to call it.
But the good feelings didn’t last long. Jim Crow laws were passed immediately after Oklahoma was admitted as a state in 1907. In his book “Black Fortunes,” Wills wrote Gurley and Stradford believed the racial harmony in Tulsa was temporary.
White Tulsans, Wills wrote, alleged these Black proprietors in Greenwood were getting rich operating juke joints, gambling houses and saloons, and catering to white man’s vices. Literature was distributed alleging Black men were raping white women.
Divisions arose between Gurley and Stradford and Star publisher A.J. Smitherman as white Tulsans grew hostile to the prosperity they saw in Greenwood. Smitherman and Stradford took a more militant position as encouraged by W.E.B. DuBois, Wills wrote, while Gurley followed the less confrontational teachings of Washington.
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Stradford urged Black Tulsans to arm themselves and protect one another from lynching. And Robertson invited Smitherman to an interracial conference convened in 1920 in response to growing mob violence.
Black Tulsans had reason to be worried. In August 1920, a white drifter accused of killing a popular cab driver was taken from the Tulsa jail and murdered in a public hanging. That same month, future Oklahoma City Mayor O.A. Cargill participated in the lynching of an 18-year-old Black teen.
Gurley, Stradford and Smitherman remained at odds until all three lost their fortunes in the massacre. Stradford and Smitherman were both arrested, their stances against lynching and following DuBois’ teachings deemed to be inciting of the massacre.
Smitherman, his press, business and home destroyed, fled after being charged with rioting and headed to Massachusetts and New York, successfully avoiding extradition back to Tulsa.
Stradford, bailed out of jail by his son, escaped to Kansas and then Chicago, where he two spent years fighting extradition back to Tulsa. Stradford unsuccessfully tried to build a hotel and other enterprises in Chicago and never recovered his financial standing.
A tally of losses after the massacre showed the Gurleys lost more than $250,000 ($3.4 million). A couple of years later, they left Tulsa and resettled in Los Angeles.
Rebirth of Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood
Save for a white-owned grocery and a few other structures, Greenwood was leveled.
A total of 1,256 homes and 191 businesses were torched, along with churches, schools, a hospital and a library.
With some of Greenwood’s leaders in jail or on the run, those remaining, including Gurley, formed the Colored Citizens Relief Committee and East End Welfare Board to seek immediate help for the thousands of refugees.
The Tulsa Real Estate Exchange estimated total losses at $2.25 million, the equivalent of $30 million today. The Black community at the time filed more than $4 million in claims that were denied by insurance companies using as an excuse a proclamation by white Tulsa authorities the massacre was a race riot.
The American Red Cross rushed in to help injured and homeless Black Tulsans. Judge L.J. Martin called for reparations and set out to raise $500,000 from the city’s wealthy elite, only to be ousted by the mayor from the city relief committee.
Author Moreno said the Red Cross relief coordinator, Maurice Willows, and his staff were embraced as “angels of mercy” by the time they finished their work, which included rebuilding 764 homes over the six months that ended on New Year’s Eve of 1921.
Willows also refused in a report issued that December to agree with the mayor that the massacre was a race riot.
“This is not a riot, this is a disaster,” Willows wrote, as quoted by Moreno. “And the mission of the Red Cross is to help the community overcome disasters. And this was a manmade disaster.”
Black Tulsans were still being set up in temporary tent shelters as Evans and city commissioners were passing new fire codes and zoning to prevent Greenwood from ever being rebuilt. Moreno believes a scheme was underway to transfer ownership of Greenwood from its Black residents and merchants to white power brokers like Brady.
“While the court case was going on, Tate Brady ran ads in the World offering to buy land from anybody who had lost their house during the destruction,” Moreno said. “You could say this was planned before June 1, or you could say on June 1, Tate Brady and his business associates, and the city, saw an opportunity to take advantage of the destruction of Greenwood.”
Attorneys B.C. Franklin and Isaac Spears filed suit against Tulsa’s quick passage of more restrictive fire codes for rebuilding and a change in zoning for Greenwood from residential to commercial.
The pair scored a rare win for the survivors, one that made rebuilding Greenwood possible. Without reparations, without insurance, the survivors rebuilt Greenwood bigger and better than before.
The second rise, fall and survival of Greenwood
Films taken by Baptist preacher Solomon Sir Jones a few years after the massacre show a bustling Greenwood lined with shops and street vendors, a far livelier scene than those captured in photos taken before the massacre.
It’s a persisting myth, Moreno says, that Greenwood never rebuilt, that the buildings still standing were all that remained from the original community.
“It certainly got rebuilt,” Moreno said. “It continued to thrive well into the late 1960s.”
As president of the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce, Freeman Culver III oversees what is left of the district in addition to continuing its mission to promote Black businesses. The organization was started a few years after the massacre as Greenwood came back to life.
The second destruction of Greenwood coincided with a movement nationwide in which predominantly Black communities were acquired through eminent domain and then torn down to make way for highways.
What was left was then targeted for further acquisition and clearance by urban renewal authorities in the name of combatting blight.
Moreno said the stage was set for the second destruction of Greenwood starting in the mid-1930s when the community was hit with “red-lining” by banks and the government that deemed the area unqualified for loans and services.
“That caused property values to drop,” Moreno said. “These were primarily Black neighborhoods that were deemed hazardous. That made the land cheaper. And they were not going to build a highway through the most expensive parts of town.”
Almost everything that was rebuilt after the massacre was lost once again. In the 1980s, what was left was turned over to the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce to preserve for future generations.
“It was really a Black Main Street of small businesses in this one enclave,” Culver said. “It’s amazing how they were able to sustain this growth before and after. There were more businesses after the massacre than before. It took resiliency for that generation to do that. The highway hurt the community. We lost our commercial growth, and it was just horrible.”