Black citizens of Tulsa, Oklahoma, confronted White supremacist state violence long before Tulsa Police Department officer Betty Shelby fatally shot Terence Crutcher on camera without legal ramifications. Today (May 31) marks 96 years since White mobs, abetted by police, destroyed the city’s Greenwood neighborhood in one of the U.S.’s worst racist massacres.
Historian John W. Franklin of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture explained to Smithsonian Magazine last year that Black and Native people built wealth after discovering oil near the city in the early 1900s. That wealth anchored Greenwood’s thriving Black business district, which placed it among the country’s most affluent Black neighborhoods. “That’s what leads to Greenwood being called the Black Wall Street,” said Franklin. “It had restaurants and furriers and jewelry stores and hotels.”
That wealth infuriated White residents and business owners, and their anger exploded on May 31, 1921. According to the Tulsa Historical Society & Museum, police arrested a Black man named Dick Rowland on suspicion that he assaulted Sarah Page, a White woman, in an elevator the previous day. Local newspapers circulated unsubstantiated reports about Rowland allegedly raping Page, and an armed White group confronted a similarly armed Black group of World War I veterans outside the courthouse where the sherriff held Rowland. The two sides exchanged shots until the outnumbered Black militia, initially trying to prevent a lynching, had to retreat.
White Tulsans then attacked the Greenwood neighborhood for two days. Smithsonian Magazine says the mobs destroyed 35 blocks and killed almost 300 Black people. Police and the National Guard intervened primarily to put out building fires and arrest Black people, some of whom were taken out of vigilante custody. Franklin says that White rioters, aided by city government and the National Guard, ”were deputized and handed weapons” to carry out the massacre.
But while anger towards Rowland may have lit the fuse, Franklin says the riots systematically targeted Black wealth. Franklin helped bring a manuscript from his grandfather, Tulsa lawyer Buck Colbert Franklin, to the museum last year. The manuscript includes the elder Franklin’s description of private planes, commissioned either by the city or White business owners, that were used to bomb Greenwood:
“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.
“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.”
The massacre remained largely ignored until 1997, when Oklahoma’s state legislature authorized the Oklahoma Commission to review the destruction. Its resulting 2001 report recommended reparations for survivors and their descendants, plus investment in contemporary Greenwood.