In the early 20th century, Tulsa, Oklahoma, was home to one of the wealthiest black neighborhoods in America — a neighborhood so well-off that it earned the moniker "Black Wall Street." But in just a couple of days in 1921, a white mob bombed and burned down the community, brutally killing hundreds of black residents in the process.
The attack, which happened 95 years ago on May 31 and June 1, 1921, is now known as the Tulsa race massacre of 1921. The event is seldom mentioned in history books, but it is a big part of black history in America — an event that demonstrates the broader violence perpetrated against black Americans throughout the Jim Crow era.
Last year, the Smithsonian Institution obtained a 10-page manuscript with a detailed eyewitness account of the massacre. Allison Keyes reported part of the manuscript for Smithsonian.com, detailing one of the most damaging race riots of the time:
"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. Down East Archer, I saw the old Mid-Way hotel on fire, burning from its top, and then another and another and another building began to burn from their top," wrote Buck Colbert Franklin (1879-1960).
The Oklahoma lawyer, father of famed African-American historian John Hope Franklin (1915-2009), was describing the attack by hundreds of whites on the thriving black neighborhood known as Greenwood in the booming oil town. "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."
Franklin writes that he left his law office, locked the door, and descended to the foot of the steps.
"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," he continues. "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?'"
The Tulsa massacre began on May 31, 1921. Before the attack, a newspaper reported that a black man had attacked a white elevator operator. The black man was arrested, and black World War I veterans raced to the courthouse to defend him and prevent a lynching. A white mob armed itself and attacked the black community, killing around 300 people and destroying more than 1,200 homes over two days.
In response to the attacks, Oklahoma's governor declared martial law, called in the National Guard, and arrested all surviving black residents who weren't already imprisoned, jailing them for as long as eight days.
As extreme and horrifying as the attack was, similar anti-black race riots and assaults happened all across the US. Although these attacks generally occurred after a white mob was enraged by very specific events, they were really part of a broader pattern of systemic violence meant to oppress black Americans — decimating some of their wealthiest neighborhoods, like Black Wall Street, and eliminating economic and political opportunities to rise up in the process.
Lynchings killed thousands of black people through the 19th and 20th centuries
The Tulsa race massacre of 1921 was not a traditional lynching. But the massacre, like lynchings, was part of a broad pattern of anti-black violence throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
A 2015 report by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) found lynchings of African Americans by white communities in the South killed nearly 4,000 black people between 1877 and 1950. That's 700 more lynchings than prior studies estimated, but that number likely doesn't account for all deaths due to racist attacks. (For one, the count doesn't include Oklahoma.)
The attacks were triggered by different events, but they weren't typically carried out simply to punish a crime. As EJI noted, "Racial terror lynching was a tool used to enforce Jim Crow laws and racial segregation — a tactic for maintaining racial control by victimizing the entire African American community, not merely punishment of an alleged perpetrator for a crime."
Some examples of the attacks:
- In 1904, a white mob lynched General Lee, a black man, for knocking on the door of a white woman's house in Reevesville, South Carolina.
- In 1916, white men in Cedarbluff, Mississippi, lynched Jeff Brown because he accidentally bumped into a white girl while running to catch a train.
- In 1919, a white mob in Blakely, Georgia, lynched William Little for refusing to take off his Army uniform after returning from World War I.
These acts had a deep impact on Southern governance and culture. Many black people left the South out of fear that they could be the next victims of lynchings. Those who remained in the region were oppressed by Jim Crow laws that imposed segregation — and many were afraid to speak out due to concerns for their lives.
But by and large, many of these events have been erased from history. EJI noted that in the Southern states it studied, there was "an astonishing absence of any effort to acknowledge, discuss, or address lynching." Many places have erected monuments memorializing Confederate, Southern, and civil rights leaders, but they've rarely paid similar tribute to victims of lynchings.
As Smithsonian.com notes, the Tulsa race massacre of 1921 has experienced a similar kind of erasure. It is rarely mentioned in history books, and most Americans seemingly know nothing about it.
But the history matters: If Americans don't know the full depth of systemic racism that oppressed black people for centuries, it's going to be a lot more difficult to understand how to help some of the communities still suffering the effects of such oppression.