100th Anniversary of Tulsa Race Massacre
Did you learn about the Tulsa Race Massacre in school?
What's the story?
- On May 31, 1921, angry white mobs attacked and burned down the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma—a segregated area of the city so prosperous it was known at the time as Black Wall Street.
- For decades, the Tulsa Race Massacre - one of the most shameful historical chapters in American history - was shrouded in shared silence by perpetrators, victims, and their offspring. (Various friends and family members had informed me that they hadn't heard of the massacre before it was dramatized in the recent HBO series Watchmen and Lovecraft Country.)
- The state declared the death toll to be only 36 people, including 12 who were white. But according to the 2001 Tulsa Race Riot Commission report - the most comprehensive review of the massacre - over 1,200 homes and buildings were destroyed by the violence, with mobs killing between 100 and 300 Black Americans and displacing 10,000 others.
What Caused the Tulsa Race Massacre?
- On May 30, 1921, 19-year-old Dick Rowland, a Black shoeshiner, entered an elevator at the Drexel Building, an office building on Tulsa's South Main Street. Moments later, Sarah Page, the 17-year-old white elevator operator, screamed. Rowland fled the scene.
- The following day, police arrested Rowland for sexually assaulting Page. By nightfall, a white mob had surrounded the courthouse, demanding Sheriff Willard McCullough hand over Rowland.
- The sheriff refused and ordered his men to barricade the top floor and protect Rowland.
- Hearing that a white mob had gathered to lynch Rowland, a group of 75 Black men - some armed, some World War I veterans - arrived at the courthouse and offered to help guard Rowland.
- Sheriff McCullough persuaded the group to leave, assuring them he had the situation under control and Rowland would not be lynched.
- As the group was leaving, they were met by 1,500 white men, some of whom also carried weapons.
- A shot was fired, and then, according to the reports of the sheriff, "all hell broke loose."
- Mobs of white residents, many deputized and given weapons by city officials, poured into Greenwood, looting and burning an area of 35 city blocks.
- Some survivors have claimed that airplanes flew over the area shooting at Black residents and dropping firebombs on buildings.
- This summer marks the 100th anniversary of what has been described as “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history.”
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