The Afterlives of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre

Survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre receiving food from relief workers (Alfred C. Krupnick, Library of Congress)

What is it about May and Black death?  What is it about Memorial Day when it comes to white racial terrorism in the US?  On Memorial Day, May 31, 1921, the white terrorist attack on Black Tulsa’s Greenwood business district began. Ninety-nine years later, the brutal murder by police on Memorial Day, May 25th 2020 was carried out by a knee on the neck. I was born in North Tulsa, Oklahoma. I now live on the southside of Minneapolis, MN, not many blocks from Cup Foods, the site of the police murder. On the sidewalk in front of the store, cop Derek Chauvin murderously assaulted George Floyd. My life has been caught up in this vortex of anti-Black racism and resistance to it as a scholar, activist, and witness.

Let me begin in the city of my birth. I gave my first speech at 5 years old in the kindergarten class of Paul Lawrence Dunbar elementary school in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was the only school not destroyed decades earlier in the Tulsa race massacre/race war/race terrorism. It was a war because the very lives of the Black community and the resistance to the attack loom large in my mind. This is especially true as the 100th year of the anniversary approaches. The culpability was broad, not simply rabid white supremacists but a calculated attack running throughout the white racial state.  Local and state police, militia and national guard were on the side of white supremacy.  The entire governmental apparatus was arrayed against Black fighters standing up against the terror. Many of them had been veterans of World War I. They fought trying to protect a young Black man, Dick Rowland, who supposedly had assaulted an elevator operator, a young white woman. They were going to prevent a lynching of Rowland. They continued to fight trying to protect the lives of the Tulsa Black community

I graduated from the rebuilt Booker T. Washington High School. Decades earlier the original site had been burned to the ground in the 1921 massacre. It was the high school my mother attended and graduated from after my grandparents moved to Tulsa. Indeed, my life has been shaped profoundly by growing up in Tulsa, and I continue to reckon with the massacre 100 years after the 1921 destruction. I continue to unearth and come to terms with some of the complexities of that history. I often wonder who of the Black community returned to Tulsa after the massacre and why. Some of the survivors were children, of course. Why did my grandparents, for example, leave rural Oklahoma for this city of such racial ignominy? The answer to this question continues unanswered as they have long transitioned. There are descendants, of course, from other families. Nonetheless, this was U.S. racial terrorism, white supremacy, and ethnic cleansing in its rawest and most brutal form. 

We know this: Black Tulsa was bombed and burned. The white mob came with machine guns and used planes to fly over, gasoline and incendiary devices were deployed. Black Tulsa’s business district Greenwood and the surrounding Black community were burned to the ground. At least 300 people were killed, countless injuries, and 8000-10000 Black people held hostage. A few had been able to flee the city. According to what we know, at least 1200 homes were torched, many of which had been looted before they were set on fire. Thirty-five square blocks were destroyed. We also know this: The Black community of Tulsa did fight back against the violence perpetrated by white supremacists. There was a small chapter of the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB) in the city. The class and race analysis of the ABB opens additional questions about the Black Tulsa fight back. This formation also complicates the Black Wall Street narrative and its centering on the prosperity trope of Greenwood. The hegemonic idea of Black Wall Street and Black capitalism needs to be further investigated. What is known about the ABB and Tulsa, according to Cathy Bergin, is that “the July 1921 issue of their publication, The Crusader dedicated over six pages to the riot.” Oklahoma authorities blamed the ABB for Black resistance in Tulsa. The ABB retorted that it was not necessary for them to foment unrest. Black people had a right to defend themselves against white supremacy and did so in the case of Tulsa.

What of this Tulsa?

Tulsa, Oklahoma and Black Tulsa itself unfolded in the context of US white settler colonialism, enslavement and the wealth built on Black labor, Black bodies, and Indigenous lands. The area that would become the city of Tulsa was settled in 1836 by the Creek Nation from Alabama. They had been forcibly removed with other southeastern Indigenous nations by the US government, at gunpoint, genocidally pushed on the Trail of Tears where thousands died. Not as well-known is the fact that enslaved Africans dug the trail to so-called Indian Territory and many of them died.

Black settlement in Oklahoma would converge with Kansas settlement. There were Black Exodusters who thought this territory could be the site of an all-Black nation, free of whites and full of Black self-determination. Over 29 black towns were established in Oklahoma, perhaps the most well-known today being Langston and Boley. Thus, the earliest history of the state convergences with slavery and the extension of racial capitalism into so-called “Indian territory.” White southern confederates arrived in the post-Civil War period, setting the racist foundation of the territory, incorporating racial exclusion into the structure of  Oklahoma’s 1907 statehood. They flowed into Oklahoma bringing their venom and anti-Blackness with them. Oil was discovered in the state, and while no oil was found in Tulsa itself, the city profited greatly from the boom, becoming known as the “oil capital of the world.”

What of Black Tulsa?

This Tulsa was deemed Black Wall Street because of its prosperity. This is the surface piece of the story. There was a business elite and a majority working class servicing the oil rich of Tulsa. There certainly was notable entrepreneurship. It was a prosperity born of struggle and not because of integration into the white capitalist oil dynasties. This oil fueled the enormous wealth of a white oil elite. Evidence suggests some of it found its way into Black Tulsa. The heart of the prosperity was found in the business district of Greenwood. However, by 1919 after WWI, the race riots of red summer portended what was to come for Tulsa. Tulsa would be next in 1921. 

 The catalytic event, as noted, is an old story. A young Black man, Dick Rowland, was accused of assault. A white lynch mob formed and ultimately destroyed the Black community. By June 12, 1921, an all-white grand jury ruled that the Black community was responsible for the violence. No whites were ever charged. 

 The Afterlives of The Tulsa Massacre

I visit Tulsa often, haunts of my old neighborhood and stomping grounds necessary in my journey. Some of my people remain in the city and other parts of the state. The Northside is still across the tracks. Greenwood exists but is a shadow of its 1921 glory. It is a touch stone of  Greenwood Rising. Yet the intergenerational wealth that might have been passed on to some is not in much evidence on the North Tulsa I call home. A report by Human Rights Watch in 2019 speaks to the dispossessed afterlife  of the massacre. The data show that today Black Tulsa exists as the poorest part of city. High levels of income and wealth inequality exist. Health, housing and disparities loom large. It is a city still divided by race. It is a city with police killingspoor schools and blocked opportunities, with a third of the Black population living below the poverty line. Deeply rooted structural racism is the reality, and the struggle continues as another generation contends with and taps into the legacy of the Black community fight back. 

That spirit must be planted, reaffirmed through history, through Black Tulsa’s commitment to freedom, and communal obligations. Over the decades, the major mantra to my generation was commitment to education. I was nurtured in this value-–expected to learn–but also challenged and compelled to take on those forces that were bent on destroying me and my people. I was expected to live this resistance and pass it on. Tulsa lives in my commitment to this radical charge.

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Rose M. Brewer

Rose M. Brewer, Ph.D. was born and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She is a radical scholar and the Morse Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Department of African American & African Studies. She holds affiliated appointments in Gender, Women, Sexuality Studies and Sociology. Her most recent co-edited book is Rod Bush: Learning from a Radical Black Scholar on Liberation, Love, and Justice, 2019. She can be reached @rose_brewer.

Comments on “The Afterlives of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre

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    This is such a powerful personal & political testimony, to the effects of the aftermath of this particular extreme incident of genocidal anti-Black violence, the circumstances behind it, the context of it w/in the racism that permeates society, and how that connects to what’s happening to our Black relatives today…Oklahoma gotdamn!

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    Rose Brewer is well qualified to write this account of Tulsa. She not only narrates her story and connects it with the past and present but also is committed to a movement that believes in radical change.

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