The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre: Healing Historical Racial Trauma

Ruins after the race riots, Tulsa, Okla. (Library of Congress)

The centennial of a defining, defiling moment in Tulsa history, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre (“Tulsa Massacre”), May 31 – June 1, 2021, presents an opportunity to reflect: How does 2021 Tulsa differ from 1921 Tulsa?

The legacy of the Tulsa Massacre lingers. Further advancement in race relations requires a reckoning with this history–binding the wounds of the past.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, Tulsa, the soon-to-be self-described “The Oil Capital of the World,” shone brightly. Black gold oozed from Indian Territory soil. J. Paul Getty. Thomas Gilcrease. Waite Phillips. These Tulsa titans extracted fabulous fortunes from Oklahoma crude and bankrolled the “Magic City.”

As Tulsa’s wealth and stature grew, so, too, did racial tensions. Tulsa’s adolescence coincided with a period marked by white supremacist ideology, widespread denial of Black civil rights, and anti-Black violence—the “nadir of race relations in America.”

Even amidst this “blacklash,” Tulsa’s Black community thrived, crafting an enviable entrepreneurial center. De jure segregation trapped dollars within this enclave, creating an economic detour, a diversion of Black-held greenbacks away from the off-limits white commercial sector. The thirty-five-square-blocks of Greenwood morphed into the “Negro Wall Street of America,” later, simply “Black Wall Street,” a dynamic business hub rife with risk-takers and deal makers. 

Small businesses proliferated in Greenwood: movie theaters, hotels, restaurants, grocery stores, haberdasheries, beauty salons, barber shops, pool halls, dance halls, shoeshine shops, pharmacies, garages, confectioneries, taxi services, and professional offices (e.g., doctors, lawyers, dentists, and accountants). Tulsa’s booming oil industry and the relative wealth of the Freedmen, Black members of the Five Civilized Tribes, buoyed the economic fortunes of the Greenwood originals.     

Simon Berry masterminded a nickel-a-ride jitney service, a bus line, a boutique hotel, and a charter plane service. At his peak, he reportedly earned $500 a day, the equivalent of more than $6,800 today.     

Dr. A.C. Jackson, a physician christened “the most able Negro surgeon in America” by the Mayo brothers, transcended the color line, servicing both white and “Colored” patients. A young white man snuffed out this bright Black light during the Tulsa Massacre.

John and Loula Williams launched multiple ventures: the Dreamland Theatre, a confectionery, a rooming house, and a garage. The Williams family awoke from the 1921 nightmare and rebuilt their Dreamland.

Mabel B. Little, a transplant from the all-Black town of Boley, piloted a popular beauty salon. She later emerged as a respected community advocate and activist. 

E.W. Woods, the first principal of the all-Black Booker T. Washington High School (1913), earned a reputation as “the quintessential Tulsan” for his preeminence in public education. Woods told his young charges: “You are as good as 99% of the people, and better than the rest.”

Greenwood architects parlayed Tulsa’s Jim Crow regime into a business advantage, drawing up a mostly closed market system that mocked the myth of Black mediocrity. Greenwood flourished.

Over time, fear and jealousy swelled within the white community. Black success, including home, business, and land ownership, fueled white rage. Black World War I veterans, having tasted freedom on foreign soil, returned to America with heightened, but all-too-soon-dashed, expectations. Racial oppression continued unabated. “Race riots,” lynchings, and other atrocities spread like wildfire, charring Black communities throughout the nation, largely without legal consequence or redress.

A chance encounter between two teenagers on May 30, 1921—the alleged assault on a white girl by a Black boy—lit the fuse that set the Tulsa tinderbox alight and scorched the fortunes of its Black residents. Authorities arrested the boy and held him in a jail cell atop the courthouse. Propelled by sensational reporting in The Tulsa Tribune, resentment over Black economic success, land lust, the Ku Klux Klan, and a racially hostile climate in general, a menacing contingent of white men amassed on the courthouse lawn. 

Black men, aware of lynching threats made against the boy, vowed to protect him. Several dozen marched to the courthouse on two separate occasions. The men in the large white group and the small Black group exchanged words. Scuffles ensued. A gun discharged. Soon, thousands of weapon-wielding white men, some of them deputized by local law enforcement, invaded Greenwood.

In sixteen hours, people, property, hopes, and dreams vanished. Hoodlums prevented firefighters from extinguishing the raging flames. Law enforcement failed to intervene. 

At least 1,250 homes and a host of commercial properties went up in smoke. Property damage in Greenwood exceeded $25M in present value. Most historians count deaths in the hundreds, though the official death toll stands at 37. Injuries were too numerous to count. Thousands of dazed Black Tulsans spent time in internment centers. Some Black Tulsans fled, never to return. 

Originally dubbed the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, this man-made calamity might also be given several other descriptors: white riot, assault, disaster, massacre (the mostly commonly used term today), pogrom, a holocaust, ethnic cleansing, or genocide. For decades after the decimation of Greenwood, a “conspiracy of silence” seemed to envelope Tulsa. Few spoke of the 1921 eruption.

Tulsa boosters, eager to promote Tulsa as a cosmopolitan city, erased the Tulsa Massacre from the community’s collective consciousness. Many Black Tulsans, beset by anxiety, fear and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, kept Tulsa’s dirty little secret. Educational systems perpetuated ignorance by not exposing this history to generations of Tulsans.

Three key publications punctuated the silence surrounding the Tulsa Massacre: Ed Wheeler’s article, “Profile of a Race Riot,” in Impact magazine (1971); Scott Ellsworth’s book, Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (1982); and the final report of the state-created Riot Commission, Tulsa Race Riot: A report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (2001).

Against great odds, Black Tulsans rebuilt their community, up from the ashes, one brick, one board, at a time. In 1925, Greenwood hosted a meeting of the National Negro Business League. By the mid-1940s, more than 200 Black-owned businesses called Greenwood home. In subsequent decades, integration, urban renewal, a lack of succession planning, and economic changes sparked a prodigious decline in Greenwood. Still, Tulsa’s Black community held fast to hope.

Preservation, restoration, and reconciliation became community watchwords. Healing history took center stage.

Buoyed by its powerful past, Greenwood still lives. No longer a Black entrepreneurial mecca, its new incarnation incorporates residential, business, educational, recreational, cultural, entertainment, and religious interests. It remains a community in which racial healing is a work in progress, with trust-building among the chief building blocks. 

Tulsa’s historical racial trauma persists. A gulf of distrust between Black and white Tulsans, exacerbated by the community’s utter failure, for decades, to claim its shame. The journey to racial reconciliation passes through acknowledgement, apology, and atonement.

Though patterns of blatant racism so evident in the 1920s no longer dominate, strands of latent racism woven into the American fabric remain. Today, it is about disparities and inequities that manifest in our systems: criminal justice, employment, health care, and education; curriculum that only marginally covers the prodigious contributions of people of color and, until recently, wholly omitted the compelling Greenwood story; and salt-in-the-wound reminders of anti-Blackness that come with schools, statues, and monuments named for white supremacists.

Tulsans have begun to discuss how sanitizing history—prettifying the past—does real harm to real people in real time. Race matters. Inclusion matters. Truth matters. We cannot simply gloss over that which disturbs and distresses.  The challenge is not simply healing from Tulsa’s signature historical racial trauma. Rather, it is doing that plus addressing ongoing traumas and, as best we can, inoculating ourselves against future traumas. It is about addressing the past, attending to the present, and advancing an inclusive vision for the future.

Tulsa has a ways to go if it is to heal its history. So, too, do countless communities across this land.

Healing history is a prickly process: messy, uncomfortable, and lacking finality. Nonetheless, it is, in so many ways, an existential imperative. That Tulsa has finally begun is cause for optimism.

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Hannibal B. Johnson

Hannibal B. Johnson is a Harvard Law School graduate, an author, attorney, independent consultant, and college professor. Johnson serves on the federal 400 Years of African-American History Commission, where he chairs the Economics, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee, and on the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, where he chairs the Education Committee and is local curator of its world-class history center, Greenwood Rising. His ten books, including Black Wall Street 100: An American City Grapples With Its Historical Racial Trauma, chronicle the Black experience in Oklahoma and its indelible impact on American history. He has received numerous honors and awards for this work and community service.