What Happened During the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, One of the Worst Episodes of Racial Violence in U.S. History

In Feb­ru­ary 1915, Thomas Dixon, author of pop­u­lar nov­el The Clans­man, and D.W. Grif­fith, the direc­tor who adapt­ed the book into the film Birth of a Nation, lob­bied then-pres­i­dent Woodrow Wil­son for a screen­ing at the White House. The two were sure their sto­ry would get a warm recep­tion from the “well doc­u­ment­ed racist” and one­time schol­ar who pro­duced a five-vol­ume His­to­ry of the Amer­i­can Peo­ple, in which he por­trayed the South as “over­run by ex-slaves who were unde­serv­ing of free­dom,” as Boston Uni­ver­si­ty jour­nal­ism pro­fes­sor Dick Lehr remarks.

Whether or not Wil­son actu­al­ly uttered the words attrib­uted to him after­ward (“It’s like writ­ing his­to­ry with light­ning”), he approved the film’s mes­sage and rebuffed Black lead­ers who were “appalled and out­raged,” says Lehr. The moment was piv­otal for the birth of the Civ­il Rights move­ment, he argues in a recent book. Fol­low­ing the country’s entry into World War I, it also lit the fires of what nov­el­ist, com­pos­er and exec­u­tive direc­tor of the NAACP James Wel­don John­son called “Red Sum­mer”… a sum­mer of lynch­ings, loot­ings, burn­ings, shoot­ings and oth­er vio­lence.

Mass lynch­ings — ignored or mis­con­strued as “race riots” for decades, though now prop­er­ly referred to as mas­sacres — took place all over the coun­try between 1917 and 1923 under var­i­ous pre­texts, “in at least 26 cities,” Deneen Brown writes at Nation­al Geo­graph­ic, “includ­ing Wash­ing­ton, D.C.; Chica­go, Illi­nois; Oma­ha, Nebras­ka; Elaine, Arkansas; Charleston, South Car­oli­na; Colum­bia, Ten­nessee; Hous­ton, Texas,” and — the blood­i­est and most destruc­tive of them all — Tul­sa, Okla­homa, an event many learned about for the first time when the cur­rent pres­i­dent pro­claimed its 100th anniver­sary, May 31st, a “Day of Remem­brance.”

On May 31 and June 1, 1921, the mob who ram­paged through the Tul­sa neigh­bor­hood of Green­wood, a pros­per­ous black com­mu­ni­ty just a gen­er­a­tion removed from slav­ery, killed over 300 Black res­i­dents, “dump­ing their bod­ies into the Arkansas Riv­er or bury­ing them in mass graves. More than a hun­dred busi­ness­es were destroyed, as well as a school, a hos­pi­tal, a library, and dozens of church­es. More than 1,200 Black-owned hous­es burned.” The attack­ers rained death from above: a report by a state-appoint­ed com­mis­sion found “Tul­sa was like­ly the first city” in the coun­try “to be bombed from the air.”

“The eco­nom­ic loss­es in the Black com­mu­ni­ty amount­ed to more than $1 mil­lion,” Brown notes, a fig­ure that can­not account for per­son­al loss­es that res­onat­ed through gen­er­a­tions, like those described by the massacre’s old­est liv­ing sur­vivor, who tes­ti­fied recent­ly before a House sub­com­mit­tee. Son­ali Kol­hatkar writes:

107-year-old Vio­la Fletch­er tes­ti­fied to Con­gress a few weeks ahead of the 100th anniver­sary and recalled grow­ing up as a child in Green­wood in “a beau­ti­ful home” with “great neigh­bors and… friends to play with.” “I had every­thing a child could need. I had a bright future ahead of me,” she said. A few weeks after Fletch­er turned sev­en, the armed men struck on May 31, 1921. After recount­ing the “vio­lence of the white mob,” and her mem­o­ries of see­ing “Black bod­ies lying in the street” and “Black busi­ness­es being burned,” she went on to describe the grind­ing pover­ty she was thrown into as a result of the mas­sacre.

Fletch­er nev­er made it past the fourth grade in school. The promis­ing future that her fam­i­ly had worked hard to give her was oblit­er­at­ed in the ash­es of the Tul­sa Race Mas­sacre. “Most of my life I was a domes­tic work­er serv­ing white fam­i­lies. I nev­er made much mon­ey. To this day I can bare­ly afford my every­day needs,” she told law­mak­ers dur­ing her tes­ti­mo­ny.

That the anniver­sary now falls on Memo­r­i­al Day (then cel­e­brat­ed on May 30th) seems a bit­ter irony giv­en that much of the back­lash toward Black com­mu­ni­ties came from fear of those return­ing Black sol­diers who stood up against the every­day vio­lence of Jim Crow when they returned from over­seas. Birth of a Nation inspired a reborn Ku Klux Klan and its sup­port­ers to turn that fear into a cru­sade, a kind of pre-emp­tive col­lec­tive retal­i­a­tion.

“Dur­ing the mas­sacres, they mur­dered and maimed peo­ple indis­crim­i­nate­ly, unpro­voked,” says Alice M. Thomas, a Carnegie schol­ar and a pro­fes­sor in the School of Law at Howard Uni­ver­si­ty. “They went into homes, stole per­son­al belong­ings, and burned down homes. They used the mas­sacres as a cov­er to mur­der with­out sanc­tion, maim with­out sanc­tion, and steal with­out sanc­tion. No one, to this day, has been held account­able.”

Red Sum­mer was pri­mar­i­ly dri­ven by what now gets cod­ed as “eco­nom­ic anx­i­ety.” Kar­los K. Hill, pro­fes­sor of African and African Amer­i­can Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Okla­homa, explains that “the Green­wood Dis­trict [of Tul­sa] was per­haps the wealth­i­est Black com­mu­ni­ty in the coun­try… a sym­bol of what was pos­si­ble even in Jim Crow Amer­i­ca.” Referred to as “Black Wall Street” — the moniker giv­en to many oth­er such com­mu­ni­ties — Green­wood posed a threat: “The fear was, if Black peo­ple could have eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal equal­i­ty, then social equal­i­ty would fol­low right behind.”

Rather than face the fright­en­ing prospect of an actu­al democ­ra­cy, thou­sands of white Amer­i­cans lashed out in Red Sum­mer, burn­ing Black Wall Streets to the ground nation­wide. After a cen­tu­ry of denial, the U.S. is only begin­ning to reck­on with the mas­sacres, and specif­i­cal­ly, with Tul­sa. The president’s procla­ma­tion marks a his­toric step in the right direc­tion. In the Vox video above, learn more about a sto­ry “you won’t find in most his­to­ry books.”

As NPR notes, you can also watch anoth­er doc­u­men­tary on the Tul­sa mas­sacre on PBS.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

When White Suprema­cists Over­threw a Gov­ern­ment (1898): The Hid­den His­to­ry of an Amer­i­can Coup

Take The Near Impos­si­ble Lit­er­a­cy Test Louisiana Used to Sup­press the Black Vote (1964)

Hear the Voic­es of Amer­i­cans Born in Slav­ery: The Library of Con­gress Fea­tures 23 Audio Inter­views with For­mer­ly Enslaved Peo­ple (1932–75)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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