May 31, 2023, marked the 102nd anniversary of the Tulsa race riot and massacre that gunned down about 300 black residents of Greenwood, (Tulsa Oklahoma’s affluent black district), injured hundreds more, and left the neighborhood in ruins in 1921. The Tulsa Oklahoma massacre, also known as the Black or Negro Wall Street massacre, is an American tragedy, and one of the worst racial massacres in the history of the United States. The incident whereby white mobs broke into black homes and businesses at the crack of dawn stealing cash, jewelry, clothing, and other personal property before setting fire to buildings and killing the black residents, remained obscure for decades until just a few years ago. The white mob had a superior arsenal – machine guns and biplanes, which circled above and rained down bullets and incendiaries on the Greenwood neighborhood. Witnesses who survived the massacre described how white mobs looted black churches, businesses, and homes.
Tulsa Race Riot and Massacre - Greenwood District, May 31, 1921.
When the mayhem was over on June 1, 1921, less than 24 hours after it began, about thirty-five square blocks of the black neighborhood were burned to the ground, leaving thousands of black people including children homeless, and over 1,000 residences and numerous businesses and churches destroyed. The American Red Cross reported that out of the 1,471 black homes in Greenwood, 1,256 were burnt. The remaining houses were looted by the white mob. A total of 31 restaurants, 5 hotels, 8 doctor’s offices, 4 drugstores, 12 grocery stores, a school, a public library, 12 churches and Greenwood Hospital were burned to ashes.
A nationally renowned and respected black physician, Dr. A. C. Jackson, was shot dead outside his home as he tried to surrender to the white mob, and his business burnt. The losses in personal assets and property are estimated at about 200 million by today’s standards. Some of the black businesses were rebuilt but many, including the Stradford Hotel which was the largest black-owned hotel in the United States at the time, were never rebuilt. The Stradford Hotel, which opened in Greenwood on June 1, 1918, was a three-story brown brick building with 54 guest rooms, offices and a drug store, pool hall, barbershop, restaurant, and a banquet hall. The Dreamland Theater, a busy 750 seat venue, was the city’s first for black audiences. It showed silent movies and staged live shows. It was also a political hub for black elites and entrepreneurs. The theater was reopened but could not be maintained during the depression and was forced to be sold. North Tulsa, the historically black part of the city that includes Greenwood district, was once home to doctors, teachers, lawyers, and entrepreneurs. Today, one third of the residents of North Tulsa live in poverty – two and a half times the poverty rate of the largely white South Tulsa.
Can Tulsa, Oklahoma redeem itself from this unspeakable and shameful criminal history? In 2002, The Tulsa Race Riot Commission in its 200- page final report in 2001, concluded that white Tulsa city officials failed to prevent the bloodshed and the massacre. The Commission found that city officials deputized white civilians who participated in the property destruction and killings, for which no white person has ever been prosecuted or brought to justice. The Tulsa Race Riot Commission recommended financial reparations for the survivors and descendants of the black Greenwood residents who were massacred, but state and city officials rejected the recommendation. The Commission, however, brought national attention to the despicable Tulsa race riot and massacre. Human rights activists have demanded the government to fully implement the Tulsa Race Riot reparations recommendations.
The city of Tulsa can no longer hide its ugly history as many black Tulsans, including the youth, began to ask questions about the horrendous events in their city and neighborhood between May 31 and June 1, 1921. In 2002, city officials decided to act upon one of the recommendations of the Tulsa Riot Commission and make the teaching of the massacre mandatory in Oklahoma’s public schools. The Tulsa Department of Education then followed up by developing an in-depth inquiry-driven curriculum to teach students about the massacre. Students are challenged to study primary sources and find out for themselves if the city of Tulsa has made amends for the massacre. The following questions remain to be answered by the city of Tulsa and the state of Oklahoma:
Has Tulsa city now come out of hiding to face its ugly history?
Has the city demonstrated any remorse for such horrific wrongdoing?
Are Tulsa city and Oklahoma state willing to make reparations to the massacre survivors and their descendants?
What would such redemption look like and entail?
More information on The Tulsa Race Riot and Massacre can be accessed at the following sites:
Bernadine Ahonkhai, M.A., M.Ed., ED.D
Founder/President & CEO, Coalition4Justice
905 N. Bethlehem Pike, #754, Spring House, PA 19477
Advancing Equity and Justice Together