The Community that Thrived and was then Massacred

Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty Images

Did you know that from 1906 to 1921 there was a flourishing and self-sustaining community in Tulsa, Oklahoma?  Do you know the name of that community?

And that on May 31st, 1921 there was a massacre that left hundreds dead, destroyed businesses and schools, and destroyed over a thousand homes?

I don’t remember where I was or what I was watching when I learned about this bit of Black History.  But I can tell you for sure that it was not in school.  Not only am I bringing this up for Black History Month, but also because I realized that many people don’t actually know about this major historical event.

Recently, my family was watching Watchmen on HBO.  In the first episode, the Tulsa Race Massacre is up highlighted.  I mentioned that it was amazing that the actually used the historical event, and everyone said “what?”

History is strife with war and massacres.  But since history is written by the winner, there are a surprising number of historical events that get swept under the rug.  American history is no exception to this.

Greenwood was founded in 1906, on Indian Territory, by O.W. Gurley.  The man had a vision of creating something for black people by black people.  Gurley started with a boarding house and loaning money to people that wanted to start a business.  This drew other prominent entrepreneurs such as J.B. Stradford and A.J. Smitherman.

Stradford, a lawyer and activist, built a luxury hotel.  He believed that pooling resources enhanced economic progress.

Smitherman founded the Tulsa Star, a building block for establishing the communities socially conscious mindset.  The newspaper was instrumental in keeping the public well-informed on legal rights, court rulings, and legislation that could impact their community.

Tulsa was strife with growing race tensions and crimes.  A vast majority of the black population lived in the Greenwood Community, which was basically separated from the white community by a railroad track.  But the business district of Greenwood (on Greenwood Avenue) was thriving and is often referred to as the Black Wall Street.  There were luxury shops, restaurants, grocery stores, hotels, jewelry and clothing stores, movie theaters, barbershops, salons, a library, pool halls, nightclubs, doctors, lawyers, and dentists.  The community had its own school system, its own post office, its own bank, its own hospital, and its own public transportation.  THIS is what brought the term Black Wall Street.  This thriving and very successful community.  It also turned some jealous and ignorant heads on the other side of the tracks.

On May 30th, 1921, a 19-year-old boy entered an elevator that was operated by a 17-year-old girl.  At some point after he entered, the girl screamed, and the boy ran.  Police were called and the boy was arrested the next morning.  The morning of a tragic and gruesome massacre.

Rumors were flying of what happened in the elevator, and a front-page story in the Tulsa Tribune only fanned the flame of racism.  By the evening of the 31st, an angry white mob gathered outside the courthouse where the boy was being held.  And we all know where this is going…

With the rumors of a lynching, a group of about 25 armed black men went to the courthouse to guard the young man, only to be met by about 1,500 white people.  Shots were fired and chaos ensued.  A group of whites (some having been deputized) started lashing out at any black person they saw.  Then someone spread a rumor that there was going to be an incursion of black people from surrounding communities that were going to fight.  This fueled white hysteria.

Thousands of white people poured into Greenwood, looting and burning homes and businesses.  Killing hundreds of innocent people.  All over fear, hate, and jealousy.  Martial law had been called by the National Guard, imprisoning about 6,000 black people at the local fairgrounds.  On about June 2nd, all charges against the young black man were dropped.

More than 8,000 black lives were impacted by this event.

Even though there is a 1921 Race Massacre Commission (renamed from 1921 Race Riot Commission) and Oklahoma is supposed to have this topic included in history class, it still is not common knowledge.  This is a MAJOR event!  And sadly, it is not alone in our history of sweeping under the rug.  American Indians have a long list of massacres.

Stop covering history and become more aware.  Awareness raises discussion.  Discussion AND awareness help to prevent history from repeating itself.  And right now, we need more awareness and discussion.


24 thoughts on “The Community that Thrived and was then Massacred”

  1. Thank you for publishing this. There is so much about our history that is suppressed. Unfortunately, so many people get their “information” from the media/ social media/celebrities rather than from reliable sources.

    1. Thank you. I was actually surprised about how many people didn’t know about this piece of history, including my kids (who are still in school). There is no excuse to erase history, for better or worse. The adage ‘you are doomed to repeat what you forget’ has always stuck with me.

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