At the turn of the 20th century, African Americans founded and developed the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma.Built on what was once Indian territory, the community grew and flourished as an economic and mecca. black culture – until May 31, 1921.
It was then that a white mob began a rampage through some 35 square blocks, decimating the community proudly known as “Black Wall Street”. Armed rioters, many of whom were deputized for by local police, looted and torched businesses, homes, schools, churches, a hospital, hotel, public library, newspaper offices and more. While the official death toll from the Tulsa race massacre was 36, historians estimate it may have been as high as 300. As many as 10,000 people were left homeless.
This incident is one of the most horrific acts of racial violence and domestic terrorism to ever occur on American soil.
WATCH: Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre, premiering Sunday May 30 at 8 / 7c on The HISTORY® Channel. Watch a preview now.
In May 2021, 100 years after the massacre, Viola Fletcher, 107, testified before Congress: “On May 31, 21, I went to bed at my family’s house in Greenwood,” she said. asleep that night was rich, not only in terms of wealth, but also in culture… and in heritage. My family had a beautiful house. We had very good neighbors. I had friends to play with. I felt safe. I had everything a child could need. I had a bright future.
Then, she said, came the murderous rampage: “I still see black men being shot, black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see black businesses burned down. I still hear planes flying overhead. I hear the screams. “
Below is a selection of photos that show Greenwood before, during and after the tragedy:
North Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa (above), before the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921, was a main thoroughfare in the Greenwood shopping district. This photograph was taken north on the avenue from East Archer Street. Between segregation laws that prevented black residents from shopping in white neighborhoods and the desire to continue flowing money through their own community, Greenwood residents collectively funneled their money to local black businesses. Greenwood grew into a robust and self-sufficient community, which included hair salons and barber shops, clothing stores, jewelers, restaurants, taverns and pool halls, cinemas and grocers, as well as offices. for doctors, dentists and lawyers.
READ MORE: 9 Entrepreneurs Who Helped Build ‘Black Wall Street’
Greenwood: Tulsa’s Black Wall Street
At the time of the massacre, Greenwood was considered by many to be the richest black enclave in the country. As the seven photos above show, it was not uncommon to see its residents dressed in style. Some boasted of new luxury cars.
READ MORE: Tulsa’s ‘Black Wall Street’ flourished as a stand-alone hub in the early 1900s
The incident began on the morning of May 30, 1921, after a young black man named Dick Rowland, who worked as a shoe shiner, climbed into the elevator in the Drexel building in Tulsa to use one of the few separate toilets. available. After the elevator operator screamed, Rowland ran off the elevator and rumors quickly spread about an alleged sexual assault. The next day he was arrested, leading to an armed confrontation outside the courthouse between a growing white crowd and black men hoping to defend Rowland from the lynching. As things warmed up and gunshots were fired, the largely outnumbered African Americans retreated to the Greenwood District; the white group followed, and as the night progressed, violence erupted.
Throughout that night and through June 1, much of Greenwood became shrouded in rippling black smoke, as members of the mob went from house to house and store to store, looting and then torching buildings. Fleeing residents were sometimes shot dead in the streets. Many survivors report low-flying planes, some raining bullets or flammable products.
READ MORE: What role did planes play in the Tulsa race massacre?
Among the many buildings looted and set on fire by the white crowd was the Mount Zion Baptist Church, above, an impressive brick structure that had opened less than two months earlier. It was one of the many places of worship destroyed in the massacre.
East corner of Greenwood Avenue and East Archer Street, the epicenter of “Black Wall Street”, is pictured above, at the very beginning of the attack. The Stradford Hotel and the Dreamland Theater were among the artery monuments left in smoldering ruins.
At noon on June 1, Oklahoma Governor Robertson declared martial law and dispatched the Oklahoma National Guard. Officials arrested and detained thousands of black Tulsans, leading them to the local convention center and exhibition grounds. Above, the rear view of a truck carrying black people in detention.
National Guard troops carrying bayonet rifles escort unarmed black men to detention, above.
Above a truck is shown carrying soldiers and black men during the Tulsa racial massacre. Officials rounded up the black residents of Greenwood, seeing them as the main threat to law and order, instead of all of the white mob who had murdered and looted. Indeed, for decades later, the incident was mistakenly referred to as a “race riot”, suggesting that it was instigated by the black community. No one has ever been held responsible for the destruction or loss of human life.
READ MORE: How the Tulsa Race Massacre was covered up
After being arrested under martial law, the traumatized residents of Greenwood have been kept in armed custody – some for hours, others for days. To be freed, Black Tulsans had to be guaranteed by a white employer or citizen.
At the American Red Cross hospital in Tulsa, victims of the massacre are shown to be recovering from injuries months later. More than 800 people have been treated for injuries.
According to the 2001 report of the Tulsa Race Riot Commission, the most comprehensive review of the massacre, within a year of the attacks, residents of Tulsa filed riots-related complaints against the town worth over $ 1.8 million. But the city commission, like insurance companies, denied most of the claims – one exception being when a white business owner received compensation for guns taken from his store. Above, Black Tulsans got what they could their homes and businesses burned down and began to rebuild on their own.
November 1921: With millions of property damage and no assistance from the city, the however, the reconstruction of Greenwood began almost immediately.
Many residents of Black Tulsa fled the city and never returned. But many stayed and started from scratch, some staying in Red Cross tents until they can rebuild their homes and, later, community monuments like the Dreamland Theater. In 2001, the Tulsa Race Riot Commission report recommended that survivors receive reparations, calling this a “moral obligation”. The pursuit of restitution continues.