The 1921 attack by a White mob on the all-Black Tulsa neighborhood of Greenwood was one of the worst episodes of racial violence in U.S. history.
As the city marks the massacre’s 100th anniversary this week, this is what happened and what was lost.
LEFT: Smoke billows over Tulsa in 1921. (Avin C. Kurpnick/Library of Congress) RIGHT: The sun casts a golden light on downtown Tulsa last year near what's nicknamed Black Wall Street. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)
The devastation of the Tulsa Race Massacre
On May 30, 1921, Greenwood was one of the wealthiest Black communities in the country, home to doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs.
It boasted restaurants, grocery stores, churches, a hospital, a savings and loan, a post office, three hotels, jewelry and clothing stores, two movie theaters, a library, pool halls, a bus and cab service, a highly regarded school system, six private airplanes and two Black newspapers, according to the Greenwood Cultural Center.
Two days later, it was all gone.
The destruction was sparked after Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old Black shoe shiner, was accused of assaulting a White elevator operator named Sarah Page in an office building in downtown Tulsa.
Though the charges against Rowland were eventually dropped and Page later wrote a letter exonerating him, a White mob gathered outside the Tulsa courthouse where he was being held. Black World War I veterans who wanted to protect Rowland from being lynched rushed to the courthouse to defend him.
The two sides clashed. A shot was fired. Then the White mob — armed and agitated — marched to Greenwood.
What followed was a rampage that historians think left as many as 300 dead and 10,000 homeless.
“They tried to kill all the black folks they could see,” a survivor, George Monroe, who was 5 years old, recalled in the 1999 documentary “The Night Tulsa Burned.” He and his sister hid under their parents’ bed.
Houses of worship were torched by the mob and 10,000 Black people were left homeless. (Library of Congress)
Houses were looted and torched. Businesses were attacked and destroyed. Planes dropped kerosene bombs from the skies, according to witnesses and a 2001 report by an Oklahoma commission that studied the massacre.
“The sidewalk was literally covered with burning turpentine balls,” wrote Greenwood lawyer B.C. Franklin, the father of famed Black historian John Hope Franklin. “For fully forty-eight hours, the fires raged and burned everything in its path and it left nothing but ashes and burned safes and trunks and the like that were stored in beautiful houses and businesses.”
When it was over on June 1, 1921, 35 square blocks of what was nicknamed Black Wall Street lay in smoldering ruins. There were reports that bodies were thrown into the Arkansas River or buried in mass graves. Hundreds of survivors were rounded up at gunpoint and held for weeks at camps.
Survivor Lessie Benningfield Randle, 106, testifies to Congress on May 19.
No one was ever held accountable for the lives lost or the property destroyed. Insurance claims filed by homeowners and business owners were rejected, though some people were able to rebuild with donations or from cash stashed in chimneys and other places untouched by the flames.
For decades after the massacre, there was silence about what happened. Few in Tulsa learned about it at school. Or at church. Or at family dinner tables.
In addition to the deaths of as many as 300 people, the massacre left hundreds injured and hospitalized, and Greenwood in ruins. (Library of Congress)
And slowly, those who’d witnessed the violence died, taking their memories with them. There are just three known survivors left: Viola Fletcher, now 107, her 100-year-old brother, Hughes “Uncle Red” Van Ellis, and 106-year-old Lessie Benningfield Randle.
Last week they testified before a House Judiciary subcommittee, trying to describe what their families and their community had endured.
“I have lived through the massacre every day,” Fletcher told the lawmakers. “Our country may forget this history, but I cannot. I will not. And other survivors do not. And our descendants do not.”
Survivor Viola Fletcher, 107, testifies to Congress on May 19.
All three survivors are seeking reparations for themselves and their descendants in a lawsuit filed last year against Tulsa, Tulsa County, the state, and the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce.
“The city police department and the county sheriff’s office deputized and armed white Tulsans to murder, loot, and burn the nearly 40 city blocks of the Greenwood District,” according to the reparations lawsuit. “The State National Guard participated with this angry white mob in killing and looting and destroying the property of Black residents of Greenwood. The city, sheriff, chamber, and county targeted Black community leaders and victims of the massacre for prosecution as instigators of the massacre — despite knowing who were truly responsible.”
But such efforts have failed in the past. In 2005, the Supreme Court dismissed without comment an earlier lawsuit against Tulsa, its police department and the state, demanding reparations for survivors. Lower courts had ruled that a two-year statute of limitations on claims had expired in 1923.
Even as the city marks the 100th anniversary of the massacre in the coming days with events that include a visit from President Biden, Tulsa is still trying to answer questions about what happened a century ago.
Are there mass graves? In 2018, Mayor G.T. Bynum (R) announced that the city would reopen its investigation into whether bodies were dumped into pits at Oaklawn Cemetery and two other sites, calling it “a homicide investigation.”
In October, scientists discovered a mass grave at Oaklawn, which is blocks from the site of the race massacre. But they don’t know yet whether those remains are connected to the violence in 1921.
“There is so much that is buried,” said Paul Gardullo, a historian and curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture who chose the objects for its exhibit on Tulsa. “I hate to get metaphoric about this. But it is. It is both a literal search for truth and evidence and a metaphorically unearthing of things that have been far too long buried.”
Survivor Hughes Van Ellis, 100, testifies to Congress on May 19.
He describes the massacre as part of a long history of white supremacist violence against African Americans. Greenwood was a target because of what it symbolized.
“Booker T. Washington called it 'Negro Wall Street.’ We call it ‘Black Wall Street.’ Black Wall Street was not just about wealth,” Gardullo said. “It’s about community, churches, schools, businesses, homes, social clubs, people pulling together to demonstrate Black power in a Black community in a world that was denying them Black power and a sense of authority.”