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Tulsa race massacre: ‘We need to do something to right this wrong’

One hundred years on, historian Scott Ellsworth explores the untold story of the Tulsa race massacre – the worst race riot in US history

In May 2020, George Floyd was murdered by Derek Chauvin, a serving police officer. The killing shocked the world and galvanised the Black Lives Matter movement. Change is coming but it is long overdue.

In May 1921, the worst incident of racial violence in American history took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Greenwood district of the city was known as the Black Wall Street, the Black-owned businesses a shining example of early 20th century prosperity. Its destruction at the hands of white residents has been likened to Kristallnacht. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, died.

Only now, nearing the 100th anniversary, is its story being told. Scott Ellsworth is a historian leading efforts next month to exhume unmarked graves of victims. He explains why we need to remember.

The Big Issue: What was the Greenwood district of Tulsa like before the events of late May 1921?

Scott Ellsworth: Greenwood was an incredibly vibrant community, and home to 10,000 African American men, women and children. It was home to two newspapers, two schools, a hospital, a public library and a dozen churches. Thirty restaurants served everything from sandwiches and bowls of chilli to barbecue and steaks and chops with all of the trimmings. Two theatres – the Dreamland, which sat 750, and the Dixie, that had seats for 1,000 – offered motion pictures, jazz concerts, lectures and boxing matches. In Greenwood, there were three dozen grocery stores and meat markets, as well as clothing and dry goods stores, a photography studio, a feed and grain store, tailor shops, billiard halls, five hotels and the offices of more than a dozen African American physicians, surgeons, dentists, and lawyers. The wealthiest of Greenwood’s merchants lived in beautiful one and two-storey homes, complete with pianos, fine china and garages for their automobiles, while most citizens lived in simple wooden homes. But throughout the community there was a deep, abiding sense of pride. This was their neighbourhood. They had built it. And soon they would have to fight to defend it.

What were the roots of unrest and what was the spark that led to the riot?

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The late 1910s an early 1920s were an especially dark time for race relations in America. Segregation was on the rise, in 1915 there was a rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, the largest and most powerful terrorist group in US history. Race riots and lynchings were common nationwide. In 1920, an 18-year-old accused murderer was lynched by an all-white mob in Tulsa. From that moment on, Black Tulsans knew that they could not rely on white Tulsa police officers to protect African American prisoners from mob violence. 

Many survivors didn’t want to burden their children and grandchildren with the painful stories of what they had endured. So they just didn’t talk about it.Scott Ellsworth

<span class="s2">Scott Ellsworth</span>

What happened on May 31 and June 1?

On the afternoon of May 31, the Tulsa Tribune, one of the city’s white daily newspapers, published an inflammatory front-page story claiming that a 19-year-old African American shoe shiner named Dick Rowland had sexually assaulted a 17-year-old white female elevator operator in a downtown office building. The Tribune also published an editorial titled “To Lynch Negro Tonight.” Within a half hour of the newspaper hitting the streets, a lynch mob began to gather outside the courthouse in whose jail Dick Rowland was being held. When word hit Greenwood that evening that the white mob was storming the courthouse, a group of 75 African American World War I veterans went down to the courthouse and offered their services to the sheriff to help protect the prisoner. As they were leaving to return to Greenwood, an elderly white man attempted to disarm one of the veterans, a shot was fired, and the massacre had begun. The Tulsa police then showed up. But instead of stopping the violence, they deputised members of the lynch mob and provided them with arms, telling them to “Get a gun, and get a n*****.”

For the next few hours, crowds of whites murdered innocent African Americans – who were just getting off work – downtown, while gangs of whites took part in drive-by-shootings along residential streets in Greenwood, firing into parlours and children’s bedrooms. Some fires were set, and there was an attempt to invade the African American business district, but that was repulsed by armed Black home and business owners. By three o’clock in the morning, it seemed like the worst of the violence was over. It was not.

The next morning, just before dawn on June 1, thousands of whites invaded Greenwood, killing any African Americans who resisted, and imprisoning those who did not. Then the white mobs systematically looted and set fire to Greenwood. Not only did the police and local National Guard units fail to stop the invasion, but they also fired on Black citizens. Machine guns were unleashed upon Greenwood, and in at least one instance, an airplane dropped sticks of dynamite. Before the violence finally ended that afternoon, more than 1,000 African American homes were destroyed, while 10,000 Black citizens were now homeless. Thirty-five square blocks, the entirety of Greenwood, had been reduced to ash and rubble.

How many people were killed?

To this day, we still don’t know. Reasonable estimates run from somewhere in the 70s to 300. Nor do we know what the ratio is between white and Black casualties.

Not many people in the UK have heard of the Tulsa Race Massacre – is it better known in America?

Only fairly recently. I’ve been researching and writing about the massacre off and on for 45 years, and I still regularly hear from people who say, “Why haven’t I ever heard of this before?” The Watchmen series introduced the massacre to millions of television viewers worldwide.

Why isn’t it better known?

Initially, the massacre was front page news across the United States. Indeed, the massacre was even mentioned in London newspapers. But the white politicians and businessmen who ran Tulsa soon realised that the massacre was a big public relations problem, and so they planned to bury it. And that is exactly what they did. Official records were stolen, incriminating articles were cut out of newspapers, photographs were seized. For 50 years, the city’s white newspapers went out of their way to not mention the riot, while researchers who attempted to look into, talk about, or write about the massacre were threatened – some even with
their lives.

But the massacre wasn’t discussed, at least in public, in the African American community either. Some survivors suffered from PTSD as late as the 1990s. And many survivors didn’t want to burden their children and grandchildren with the painful stories of what they had endured. So they just didn’t talk about it.

So for 50 years the story of the massacre was actively suppressed. During the past 50 years, we’ve finally been getting the story out again. It’s been a long haul. But we’re getting there.

What happened after the riot and what is its legacy?

Tulsa was then touted as being the Oil Capital of the World, and Greenwood rebuilt itself. In less than two years, there were again two and three-storey brick buildings along Greenwood Avenue. Many old-timers told me that the Greenwood of the 1930s and 1940s was even bigger than the one that had existed before the massacre. And pride among the African American community skyrocketed. They had fought to defend their district, and after it had been destroyed, they rebuilt it again.

But there were also undeniable losses. It’s been recently estimated that had the massacre not occurred, there would be an additional £600m in generational wealth in Greenwood today. That represents decades of university fees, childcare payment, books for children, down payments on houses, seed money to create new businesses. Then, Greenwood was attacked once again, beginning in the 1960s, by the forces of urban renewal. An eight-lane interstate highway was built right through the Greenwood commercial district, while racist practices prevented African Americans from securing home and business loans. Today, while the heart of Greenwood Avenue is experiencing a renaissance, including the construction of a brand new, state-of-the-art museum, Tulsa’s African American citizens are burdened with significantly higher rates of poverty than their white neighbours on the other side of town.

It’s important that, as best as we can, we tell it like it was.Scott Ellsworth

Scott Ellsworth

What has recent research uncovered?

Nearly 25 years ago, I launched a search for the unmarked graves of massacre victims, most of them African American, who were hastily buried by the white authorities while their family members were still being held under armed guard in detention camps. Well, after getting a lot of help, and after interviewing some 300 survivors and eyewitnesses, this past October we discovered a mass grave in Oaklawn Cemetery in Tulsa of what we believe contains the remains of at least a dozen African American massacre victims.On June 1, our team of archaeologists and forensic scientists will begin exhuming the remains. The scientists will study the bones for clues as to the age, gender and ethnicity of the victims, as well as to seek to determine the causes of death. The surrounding soil will be carefully sifted for bullet fragments and other artefacts, while DNA will likely be extracted in order to attempt to identify some of the victims by name. The remains will then be buried with honour, and an appropriate memorial will be constructed.

Ninety-nine years after the riot, also in May, the murder of George Floyd reignited debate around race and racism in America. Can better understanding the Tulsa Race Massacre lead to a better understanding of the issue today?

Yes, absolutely. The famous African American historian Dr John Hope Franklin – who grew up in Tulsa and whose father was a survivor of the massacre – once remarked that in the aftermath of the tragedy, “Tulsa lost its sense of honesty.” Well, even though there’s been real progress made in terms of Americans gaining a fuller sense of our past, we still have a long way to go. I know that the same is happening in the UK. It isn’t easy to do, especially after people have been taught one version of history all their lives to learn that, in fact, our past was significantly different. But it’s important that, as best as we can, we tell it like it was, the good and the bad and the in-between, without pulling any punches.

A century on, is there a way to pay a fitting tribute to the victims?

There are many ways to do so. The first is to learn about, and tell, their stories. The second will be to properly honour the dead, which is what we are doing now. And the third way, in my opinion, is to pay some form of restitution to the remaining survivors and their descendants. There is no doubt whatsoever that the citizens of Greenwood in 1921 were let down by their city, their state, and their country. Even the insurance companies refused to honour their claims. We need to do something to right this wrong.

The Ground Breaking: The Tulsa Race Massacre and an American City’s Search for Justice by Scott Ellsworth is out now (Icon Books, £16.99)

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