“Greenwood: The Precarity of Black Prosperity”

Truck carrying soldiers and African Americans, Tulsa, 1921 (Alvin C. Krupnick/Library of Congress).

Committed to Booker T’s dream for Black success,

Black Tulsans devoted themselves to business and self-help.

Investing as entrepreneurs and property owners,

they built a prosperous town of 10,000

with oil money during segregation.

Modelling enterprise and independence and

brimming with culture and vitality, they

daily demonstrated their humanity

through economic savvy and

upright, disciplined hard work. 

Engaged as housekeepers, teachers, doctors, craftsmen, and attorneys,

this ebony town supported newspapers, stores, banks, a library, hotels, and churches,

networking for supplies and self-sufficiency with nearby

Black towns and farms for supplies and self-sufficiency.

Everything needed to prosper.

 

Across the tracks from thriving Greenwood sat boom town Tulsa. 

Home to white Christian people who believed in their god given superiority.

Home to people who hired Greenwood folk to work for them. 

Home to the Klan and many prospecting Southern sympathizers

conservative and liberal, educated at various levels,

striving to improve their own lives during segregation

while trying to stay ahead of their darker neighbors.

“Successful Blacks?  Who do they think they are?

 How dare they have things that I don’t have!

They don’t know their place.“ 

 

Few know the full truth of the initial happenings

on that fateful 31st day in May 1921.  Some think

teenage Dick Rowland tripped and

unexpectedly fell into Sarah.  No matter.

White Sarah Page’s scream from the elevator.

Black boy Rowland ran.

Rumors flew that that Black savage brute did the unthinkable,

tarnishing white womanhood.

This hearsay fanned the fuse of

churning toxic tensions about

white America’s deepest fears into an intense frenzied RAGE.

 

Revenge and a rush to lynch brought

a swarming, roiling mob down to the jail

where Rowland was held—

for self-protection.  

Knowing racial sentiments,

Black World War I vets

marched a small militia to the jail

to ensure Rowland might receive

a modicum of justice.

Only weeks earlier, a lynching had taken place.

Tensions flared as these Black men tried to guard

the Tulsa jail against the apoplectic white horde. 

Though shots rang out

igniting the torch of mob rage with accelerant

and erupting chaos,

after an armed scuffle deep into the night,

and Rowland spared,

the vastly outnumbered Black vets retreated

back to Greenwood for the night.

 

By the break of dawn,

Tulsa’s seething fury,

leavened with swirling rumor, rabid hysteria,

covetous envy, and sanctioned superiority, 

detonated on the residents of Black Greenwood.

As vigilante marauders invaded the thriving community,

they burned and pillaged a path through the town,

murdering with mirth

those who pleaded, resisted, or existed.

Slaughtering men, women, and children.

People they knew. . .

by the hundreds,

with rifles.

Black bodies in houses,

Black bodies in the streets,

Black Bodies in yards,

Black lifeless bodies strewn everywhere

Like trash, for all to see.

                                              

At the end of eighteen chaotic and terrifying hours on June 1, 1921,

Untold numbers of Black folk burned in their homes,

and killed in the streets,

At least 300 dead.

More than 1200 houses torched.

Cherished treasures ruined.

Over 60 businesses charred to cinders,

firebombed by planes,

ensuring complete destruction.

Churches, businesses, theatres, and hotels

razed to the ground.

35 square city blocks eradicated,

obliterating everything prosperous with grievous intent.

Legacy investments annihilated.

An entire community leveled to mere ashes and rubble.

 

As unspeakable terror filled the air.

Inconsolable cries of grief,

saturated screams of pain,

Tears of fierce resistance,

agitated whispers, and shocked silences

could only tell part of the story. 

Black prosperity,

No matter how hard worked for,

could not make

Black humanity respected.

 

Of the survivors:

Some saddled with sorrow escaped,

never to return.

Thousands of stalwart others,

traumatized and scarred,

and rounded up for interminable months of internment,

remained—to find family

persist and resist.

          Those survivors scrapped a way out of no way to

rebuild parts of segregated Greenwood

at their own expense,

without insurance or outside help.

They painstakingly rebuilt

a Black place to raise their families

with knowledge of prosperity with precarity. 

 

With remorse, rare Tulsa officials acknowledged

the perpetration of indefensible horror

and unspeakable shame—in the beginning.

However, official stories that ruled the day

trafficked in blatant denials and burying lies

minimizing the costs to life and treasure.

Greenwood residents even blamed

for causing their own misery.

As white supremacy dictates,

No one was held accountable

for murdering dark precious souls and

no compensation provided

for decimated Black prosperity and

no apology. 

But truth will out.

 

Since 1921, Greenwood residents’ valorous resilience

Requires accompaniment by ever present stamina

for precarity. 

Since this sacred ground continues to be a target.

Redlining, Urban Removal and

Interstate highway displacement

designed to foil

full revitalization of Greenwood

back to prosperity. 

 

For a hundred years, the unheard stories of this heinous event

Have waited for a just airing

and healing time.

As this centennial anniversary arrives,

The ancestors have begun to call

Tulsa into an overdue reckoning for

TRUTH about

 the extermination of myriad lives and immense wealth

 in a never to be repeated time of precarity.

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Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Phyllis M. May-Machunda

Phyllis M. May-Machunda is a folklorist/ethnomusicologist and Professor Emerita of American Multicultural Studies at Minnesota State University Moorhead. An Iowa native, she earned a B.Mus. (Voice) with Honors from the University of Iowa, and her M.A. and Ph.D. from Indiana University Bloomington in Folklore and Ethnomusicology. Prior to teaching for 30 years and serving as founding chair of her department in Minnesota, Phyllis was employed as a folklorist/curator in the Office of Folklife Programs, and a contract researcher for the Program in Black American Culture at the Smithsonian Institution.Through Local Learning, a national folklore and education nonprofit, she is part of a team working in collaboration with educators in Oklahoma, to equip classroom teachers with skills to teach about the Tulsa Massacre.

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