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Why it took 100 years for America to learn about the Tulsa massacre

The long-hidden racist attack on “Black Wall Street” and its residents is finally in the open — and raising questions about all that Americans don’t know and have tried to hide.

An intersection of two streets in Tulsa showing burned-out houses.
Devastation of the Greenwood District seen after the Tulsa massacre in June 1921.
GHI/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Fabiola Cineas covers race and policy as a reporter for Vox. Before that, she was an editor and writer at Philadelphia magazine, where she covered business, tech, and the local economy.

The sky above Tulsa, Oklahoma, swelled with a thick, dark smoke on the evening of May 31, 1921.

That night and over the next 14 hours, white Tulsans, aided by local law enforcement officials and National Guard troops, destroyed 35 square blocks of segregated Black Tulsa and its affluent Greenwood community, which stretched for more than a mile and was home to an estimated 10,000 Black residents. When groups of hostile white invaders entered the area — incensed by a rumored assault of a white girl by a young Black man, which was later proven false — they looted and set more than 1,250 homes ablaze, according to an official government report commissioned almost 80 years later.

They razed what had been considered a promised land for Black Americans who traveled from afar to reach it. The elite enclave included doctor’s offices, butcher shops, drugstores, tailor shops, shoeshine parlors, cafes, restaurants, beauty parlors, barbershops, newspaper headquarters, a confectionery, a theater, hotels, billiards halls, dry cleaners, and grocery stores that were all burned down. Essential community spaces — a library, Dunbar Grade School, Frissell Memorial Hospital, and churches — were charred to bits, and even the trees that lined the once-bustling streets became sooty figures drooping over a wasteland.

Many of the people who had toiled for years to build Greenwood Avenue into what Booker T. Washington reportedly called the “Negro’s Wall Street” were shot and burned beyond recognition. Some reasonable estimates put the number of people killed between 70 and 300, historians told Vox. According to the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 report, bodies were dropped into unmarked graves in a city cemetery, while others, according to some oral histories, were thrown into the Arkansas River, and still others were hauled off to unknown locations. More than 800 people were treated for wounds and 8,000 were left homeless.

The front page of the Black Dispatch newspaper on June 11, 1921.
Greenwood Cultural Center/Getty Images

Five years ago, the Tulsa massacre was virtually unknown to the broader public — and even to people living in Tulsa. That a Black metropolis was destroyed in a matter of hours, let alone that it existed at the top of the 20th century, could sound like fiction to the most imaginative listener.

The Tulsa massacre remained buried under fear — Black families too afraid of a repeat event — and a conspiracy of silence as white perpetrators covered up their deeds so quickly that, 100 years later, many officials and historians believe some of the bodies of buried victims still haven’t been found. For generations, the pogrom of Black people in the heart of the Sooner State was absent from Oklahoma school curricula.

For decades, the story of the massacre remained untold so as not to deviate from the narrative that America is exceptional and founded on democratic ideals. But the Tulsa massacre is no longer a secret. The story is being told locally and nationally, in the media, on television, and before Congress: Two award-winning HBO series — Watchmen, which aired in 2019, and Lovecraft Country, which aired in 2020 — depicted the event for millions of viewers. Theater productions such as Tulsa ’21: Black Wall Street will soon open to Oklahoma audiences, following the earlier play Big Mama Speaks. The Bitter Root comic book series recently illustrated the massacre on its pages. Two upcoming documentaries, one executive-produced by NBA star Russell Westbrook and co-directed by Stanley Nelson and Marco Williams, will be released on the 100th anniversary of the massacre.

The three known remaining survivors of the disaster — Viola Ford Fletcher, Hughes Van Ellis, and Lessie Benningfield Randle — petitioned Congress for justice this month, justice that includes reparations and an acknowledgment of the harm done. And President Joe Biden will make his way to Tulsa on June 1 to commemorate the massacre’s centennial.

Even as the pogrom becomes common knowledge, there are many truths about it that likely won’t ever be known. Tulsa is forcing the nation to keep questioning all that it doesn’t know — and all that it has tried to hide.

“The irony of Oklahoma is that it’s one of the most — if not the most — conservative state in the country. Yet Tulsa, because it has such a big skeleton in its closet, has been wrestling with how to view its past. In some ways, it’s ahead of the country,” says Scott Ellsworth, historian and author of the recent book The Ground Breaking: An American City and Its Search for Justice, the first comprehensive book about the massacre. “Tulsa has a new chance — the story is out. But there’s still a dark shadow of the massacre hanging over the city. So how will the city move forward for the next 100 years?”

It was Mary E. Jones Parrish’s young daughter, Florence Mary Parrish Bruner, who peeled her away from the novel she was reading that night. Mary watched in fear for hours, crouched by the window as her daughter hid, before she decided it was best to flee. She was desperate to believe that a tragedy couldn’t happen in a haven like Greenwood: “One could hear firing in quick succession and it was hours before the horror of it all dawned upon me [...] I waited and watched. Waited and watched, for what — I do not know,” she wrote in the 1923 book Events of the Tulsa Disaster, where she collected the stories of many survivors.

When she eventually fled with her daughter, she wrote, they dodged bullets that sprayed out of machine guns and turpentine bombs that rained down from aircraft. (The National Guard denies having machine guns at the time, but headlines from the time and the state commission report have acknowledged their use in the massacre.) They traveled more than a dozen miles outside the city before they could find safety.

Parrish was hired by the Inter-Racial Commission, as it was called at the time, after the massacre to “do some reporting,” she wrote in the book. As the commission pointed out, it was survivors and eyewitnesses like Parrish who laid the foundation for a record in the early days to ensure that the massacre wouldn’t be erased from history.

“The reason we understand how the massacre happened is because those people told us how it happened,” Ellsworth said. “It’s important to remember that for 50 years the story of the riot was actively suppressed in the white community. Documents disappeared all the time. People had their lives threatened. In the African American community, it also wasn’t really discussed publicly. Massacre survivors were like Holocaust survivors in that they didn’t want to burden their children with these horrible stories.”

Parrish’s great-granddaughter, writer Anneliese M. Bruner, didn’t learn about the massacre until she was in her 30s, when her father, William Bruner Jr., handed her an original copy of his grandmother’s book in 1994. Bruner’s father, typically a gregarious and boisterous man, quietly gave her a slim volume one night, a red cloth-bound book that was worn around the edges, and assumed a somber tone.

“He said he had something to give me,” Bruner told Vox, “and he told me he hoped I could ‘do something with it.’” Bruner recalls being confused and stunned: “Here I am, a descendant of two survivors, and this had never been mentioned to me. Why had no one ever said anything?”

More than 1,250 homes were set on fire, along with doctor’s offices, butcher shops, drug stores, tailor shops, shoeshine parlors, cafes, restaurants, beauty parlors, and hotels.
Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty Images
The Tulsa massacre remained buried under fear — Black families too afraid of a repeat event — and a conspiracy of silence as white perpetrators covered up their deeds.
Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty Images
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Many of the people who had toiled for years to build Greenwood Avenue were murdered.
Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty Images

Bruner says she felt a weight of responsibility over the years, between deciding how to honor her great-grandmother’s groundbreaking journalism and feeling like her great-grandmother hasn’t gotten her due. For the centennial, Bruner is publishing an updated edition of Parrish’s book. She hopes the new edition can continue to keep the story, and her grandmother’s role in it, alive.

The stories Parrish collected provide details strong enough to haunt:

At about 5:30 am on June 1, 1921, high school teacher James T.A. West was in his home when white men with drawn guns entered and ordered all of the men out of the house. Outside, they were forced into a group of about 30 Black men, searched, and forced to walk down the streets to the Convention Hall with their hands in the air. The white men pursued them, shot at their heels as they ran forward, and drove a car into the group, before finally leaving the victims at the hall, wounded and unable to walk.

“This is the worst scene I have ever witnessed in my 92 years,” Jack Thomas told Parrish in her book. Thomas nearly died under the weight of smoke after fleeing his home, where a white man had killed a Black man with a shot to the back. Thomas was spared because of his age, he was certain.

One survivor in Parrish’s reporting who spoke on condition of anonymity recalled seeing white women with shopping bags enter homes and take everything from clothing to silverware to jewelry. “These d— Negroes have better things than lots of white people,” the survivor heard a white man say as he hauled furniture out of a home.

Though summoned, the fire department never arrived to help. Law enforcement officials deputized the white men, giving them weapons and ammunition, and contributed to the violence themselves, according to the commission’s report and firsthand accounts. Oklahoma National Guard members arrested Greenwood residents en masse and detained them, and many weren’t released until a white person had vouched for them.

The survivors of the massacre were left to pick up the pieces and restore Greenwood over time — not a single person or entity has been held responsible for the systemic destruction that obliterated the heart of Black progress and sacrifice. A whole way of life was rendered unsalvageable, by design. As massacre survivor and World War II veteran Hughes Van Ellis testified before Congress in May, “You may have been taught that when something is stolen from you, you can go to the courts to be made whole. You can go to the courts to get justice. This wasn’t the case for us. The courts in Oklahoma wouldn’t hear us. The federal courts said we were too late.

“We were made to feel that our struggles were unworthy of justice. That we were less valued than whites, that we weren’t fully American. We were shown that in the United States, not all men were equal under law. We were shown that when Black voices called out for justice, no one cared.”

Why new generations will know about the Tulsa massacre

Though the 1921 ethnic cleansing in Tulsa is only now getting widespread attention, there were other major breakthrough periods, according to scholar and Tulsa native Hannibal Johnson, author of Images of America: Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District and Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District.

The first significant opening came in 1971 when a Tulsan named Ed Wheeler published an article titled “Profile of a Race Riot” on the 50th anniversary of the event. About 10 years later, in 1982, Ellsworth published his comprehensive book, Death in the Promised Land, further bringing the events of the massacre to light. Perhaps the biggest breakthrough came in 1997, when the state created the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. The commission’s report, issued in 2001, received international attention because it created an official historical record for the event and addressed mass graves and reparations.

Ellsworth would add a few other significant milestones to the list: A series of 1968 articles in the Black newspaper the Oklahoma Eagle by civil rights activist and former Oklahoma legislator Don Ross was an early effort to publicly contend with the massacre; the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 gave Ross another opening. When national news outlets traveled to Oklahoma to cover the domestic terrorist incident, he told them that there was another Oklahoma story that rivaled the bombing. As a result, the Today show aired a special on the 75th anniversary of the massacre, a report that subsequently prompted coverage from the New York Times, NPR, and other outlets. It was these national stories that led the governor and state legislature to create the commission in 1997.

When the state-sanctioned commission completed its work in 2001, however, talk of Greenwood died down. “Nobody was talking about it. It still wasn’t being taught in schools across the state,” says Oklahoma state Sen. Kevin Matthews.

The centennial of the massacre has given America another opportunity to assess what has changed and what is still left to be done.

People watch Rebuilding Black Wall Street, a documentary about the massacre during centennial commemorations in Tulsa on May 26.
John Locher/AP

From 2015 to 2016, Matthews said, he started assembling a committee (which became the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission) to address how the story could be told and how they could bring resources — funding, community centers, research capacity — to Greenwood. It was a trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, in 2017 that helped Williams see how they could share the story of the massacre in Tulsa. “It was amazing how our story was being displayed there, and we weren’t doing it at that level in Oklahoma,” Williams told me.

After raising nearly $30 million, the centennial commission will soon unveil a flagship project, a $20 million Greenwood Rising History Center, at the gateway to Greenwood, celebrating the community that built Black Wall Street and memorializing the victims of the massacre. The project, which opens in June, will stand in stark contrast to the generational effort to keep the story of the massacre from the masses.

The pandemic, which itself disproportionately harmed Black communities across America, helped bring renewed focus to the slaughter of Black Tulsans. The killing of Black people at the hands of the police in Oklahoma and elsewhere in the past few years has, too. The murder of George Floyd in May 2020 “was a game changer,” Matthews told me. “This has happened across our country so many times, and particularly in Tulsa.” The police officer who shot Terence Crutcher in Tulsa in 2016 while Crutcher’s hands were in the air did not face charges. Monroe Bird was killed in 2015 while driving away from police officers. Eric Harris was also fatally shot that year while he was on the ground and unarmed. In 2017, a white former Tulsa police officer was convicted of fatally shooting Jeremy Lake, his daughter’s Black boyfriend.

Popular representations of the massacre, such as Watchmen and Lovecraft Country, have also brought the story to a wider audience.

Stanley Nelson, co-director of the forthcoming History Channel documentary Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre, however, says that the nation now needs art that centers the city and the community. “Both shows had segments on Greenwood and Tulsa and they really introduced the massacre to people for the first time,” he said. “They made people aware, but those shows weren’t about Tulsa. Tulsa was a background to them, and for us as African Americans, those stories are background to our lives. So we watch these shows and enjoy them, but you might not quite get the story.”

Even with greater public consciousness, we likely won’t ever know exactly what happened

The newfound focus on the massacre is bringing up old questions — some that many have asked but can never be answered, historians said. For example, we will never know how many were killed, Black or white. Some estimates put the number of those killed at just a dozen. Others have recently come forward to say that as many as 450 people were slain, Ellsworth said. Tulsa’s white Republican mayor, G.T. Bynum, has even ordered a wide search for mass graves.

“It’s a matter of perspective,” Matthews said. “There were many in the white community who were embarrassed and tried to sweep under the rug that so many Black people were killed. They wanted to minimize what happened, so they undercounted.”

Even the specifics of what led to the massacre are unclear, historians told Vox, though there are many theories. The most common story claims that on the morning of May 30, 1921, Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old Black shoeshiner, rode in the elevator in the Drexel Building at Third and Main with a 17-year-old white girl named Sarah Page, who was the elevator operator. Some accounts claim that Rowland stepped on Page’s foot by accident after he tripped, while others say he attempted to assault her, according to the commission’s report. The report also claims that some people believed they were lovers and having a lover’s quarrel in the elevator. Rumors of an attempted rape spread quickly among white people in the region, and Rowland was arrested the following morning.

A story ran in that afternoon’s Tulsa Tribune under the headline “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator.” The story claimed Rowland scratched Page’s hands and face and tore off her clothes. Though exactly what happened in the elevator isn’t known, many claim it was this yellow journalism that caused tensions to boil over, tensions that were already high following the “Red Summer” of 1919, dozens of lynchings across the state in the two decades prior, and jealousy and land lust around the rise of Greenwood, which some white people called “Little Africa” and “Niggertown.”

Fearing that Rowland would be lynched, a group of Black World War I veterans from Greenwood went down to the courthouse on the evening of May 31 to protect Rowland. There they found hundreds of white men, and when a gunshot rang out, what some initially called a “race war” broke loose.

A mural that depicts the Tulsa massacre is seen in the historic Greenwood neighborhood on May 27.
John Locher/AP

“There are going to be some historical loose ends. We have to be able to sit in a place of comfort with uncertainty. We won’t know certain things, and that’s fine,” Johnson said. “But we do know what happened, why it happened — and that’s what’s really critical. But the point is we don’t want to make the same mistake again.”

Tulsa is in the process of a mass graves investigation to try to resolve some of these unanswered questions. Archaeologists uncovered at least 12 sets of remains at Oaklawn Cemetery in October 2020, but it’s unclear whether the burials are connected with the massacre, according to Tulsa World. But it’s likely they are some of the bodies of 18 Black men killed in the massacre, according to researchers and records. Once a committee gets legal authorization to exhume the remains, they’ll be DNA-tested. A next phase of excavation is expected to start in June, with experts estimating that 30 sets of remains may be buried across other parts of the cemetery.

The Tulsa massacre reminds America of what it has always been. It also helps America see what it can be.

National recognition of the massacre doesn’t mean that justice has been delivered for survivors, for their descendants, for the community, or for Black Americans at large. That the massacre has become mainstream presents its own challenges.

For one, it has made people focus on the violence, without enough attention to the rebuilding that ensued in the years after the destruction. According to the commission’s report, $1.8 million (about $27 million in today’s dollars) in property damage claims were filed, though insurance companies refused to pay for the claims. Black Tulsans nevertheless rebuilt the city. The community rose from the ashes of the massacre, Johnson said, and was at its most economically successful in the early 1940s. “It’s not surprising that we’re attracted to the shiny object, the thing that is most dramatic, which is the massacre,” Johnson said.

Tulsa, and the rest of the country, has the opportunity to focus on the people who built Greenwood, not just on the violence committed against them. The story should be one about the community and its people and about how indomitable the human spirit is, Johnson said. “If we want to make progress, that requires the kind of persistence and tedium that is not glamorous. What’s the point of telling the story of the massacre if we’re not going to address the issues and challenges that it raises?” Johnson told me.

Among those issues are racial reconciliation and retribution. “My hope is that people will begin to understand the history and delve more deeply into it, and that they are encouraged and inspired to use their own agency to make even an incremental dent in the progress that we need to make to get to a place of racial reconciliation,” Johnson said.

That racial reconciliation will involve the acknowledgment of the wrong that’s been done, an apology, and atonement. Johnson notes that the conversation on reparations, which falls under atonement, needs to be expanded. There are different types of reparations — cash reparations for survivors and descendants, funds that boost the local economy and invest in education, public assets like history centers to help the community learn and move forward — that are complementary.

Tulsa massacre survivors (from left) Hughes Van Ellis, Lessie Benningfield Randle, and Viola Fletcher ride in a carriage at a remembrance walk during centennial commemorations on May 28.
John Locher/AP

There’s also an opportunity to give credit where credit is due. For Ellsworth, greater praise is due to the brave people who kept the story alive over generations, like Mary Jones Parrish, and the brave veterans who were willing to risk their lives to prevent Rowland’s lynching. “You have these 75 African American World War I vets who probably didn’t know Dick Rowland but they knew that a brother was in trouble. They risked their lives to go down and stop him from being lynched,” Ellsworth said. “If anyone is deserving of a memorial, it’s them.”

Education remains an issue. Oklahoma didn’t include the massacre in state academic standards until 2002, but the massacre was only a vague mention, with schools instructed to cover the “evolution of race relations” in the state and “rising racial tensions,” the Oklahoman reported. But there’s still no way to actually measure whether schools are actually teaching the massacre. In May, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed HB 1775, a new law prohibiting the instruction of any material that would make an individual feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish or any form of psychological distress” on account of their identity. Stitt’s action was condemned by the centennial commission, which removed him from his role on the committee.

“How can you teach anything as significant as women’s suffrage or the Trail of Tears? Those can be psychologically difficult,” Matthews said. “We’re passing bills based upon fear of what people may learn about the truth.”

The emergence of truth about the Tulsa pogrom helps us realize how history stays with us. One hundred years later, Tulsa is pushing America to see that the truth can’t just be swept away, that injustice must be addressed. Greater recognition of the massacre doesn’t mean there’s been a reckoning.

“This history isn’t history in the sense that it isn’t totally in the past,” Johnson said. “Why the massacre happened in Tulsa — white supremacy — is a great example of this. The whole philosophy that someone is better than or more deserving than someone else simply because of birth is absurd, irrational, and illogical. But that’s what racism is. And we’re still dealing with it.”


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