February 19, 2012


UPDATED: MAY 20, 2021

Greenwood is a neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. As one of the most successful and wealthiest African-American communities in the United States during the early 20th Century, it was popularly known as America's "Black Wall Street" until the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. The riot was one of the most devastating race riots in history; and it destroyed the once-thriving Greenwood community. Here is the story of what led up to the riot and what occurred, thereafter. It is a bit long, but please bear with me because I think it is a story worth telling; and the details are necessary.

In the early 1900s, Tulsa [at that time, aka Indian Territory] had quickly become a very impressive, modern city. It gleamed so much, that it became known as Magic City.  There were tall office buildings, electric trolleys, a bridge across the Arkansas River, and freshly-painted homes, which continued to push the boundaries of the city limits. By 1910, it had become a boomtown of 10,000 residents – and the word was spreading that fortunes could be made, and lives could be built and rebuilt, there.

What caused this remarkable, economic growth? In a word: OIL. It gushed like water.

Glenn Pool Oil Gusher

The discovery of the nearby Glenn Pool, which, at the time was reputed to be the ‘richest small oil field in the world’, helped to soon establish Tulsa as the "Oil Capital of the World," headquartering the offices of four-hundred different oil and gas companies and their suppliers.

By 1920, Tulsa’s population had skyrocketed to 100,000 people. The city boasted four different railroads, a commercial airport, a convention hall, new government buildings, schools and parks, four different telegraph companies, 10,000 telephone lines, seven banks, dozens of service businesses, such as insurance and accountancy, 250 attorneys, 150 doctors, 60 dentists, two newspapers, and lots of shiny automobiles.

By 1921, there was prosperity for almost everyone – including the nearly ten-thousand African-American residents, who lived in the [what was later named] Greenwood section of Tulsa. But this caused significant tensions between the races; and many White Tulsa residents derogatorily dubbed the neighborhood, “Little Africa”. They felt threatened by the success of the African-American community, and worried that it might continue to grow.

Many Greenwood residents had ties to the region that stretched back for generations. Some were the descendants of slaves, who had accompanied the Native-Americans on the Trail of Tears; others were the children and grandchildren of runaway slaves who had fled to the Indian nations in the years prior to, and during, the Civil War; and a few elderly residents had been born into slavery, but eventually emancipated.  However, most of Tulsa's African-American residents had come to Oklahoma – primarily from Southern States, in wagons, on horseback, by train, and on foot – like their White neighbors, in the great boom years, just before and after Statehood. For many, Oklahoma represented not only a chance to escape the harsher racial realities of life in the former States of the Old South, but was literally a land of hope; a place worth sacrificing for; a place to start anew.

Prominent Greenwood Residents

The area was founded by wealthy African-Americans, O.W. Gurley and J.B. Stradford, who had arrived in Tulsa at the turn of the century. Among Mr. Gurley's first businesses was a rooming house which was located on a dusty trail near the railroad tracks. This road was given the name Greenwood Avenue, named for a city in Mississippi. Mr. Stradford built the Stradford Hotel on Greenwood Avenue, where Black people could enjoy the amenities of the downtown hotels who served only White people. It was said to be the largest Black-owned hotel in the United States, at the time. Another early resident was B.C. Franklin, who moved to Tulsa to set up law practice.

B.C. Franklin

Greenwood was home to several prominent Black businessmen, many of them multimillionaires and six of whom owned their own planes. There were also thriving churches, schools, grocery stores, clothing stores, barbershops, newspapers, and much more, in the area. Not only did African-Americans want to contribute to the success of their own shops and businesses, but also the racial segregation laws prevented them from living or shopping anywhere other than Greenwood (In 1916, Tulsa had passed an ordinance forbidding Blacks or Whites from residing on any block where three-fourths or more of the residents were of the other race. This made residential segregation mandatory in the city). Although multimillionaires, most of the African-Americans’ homes were much more modest than their White neighbors’ homes. They were poorly constructed, with outdoor plumbing and unpaved streets, which only had surface drainage systems. Other residents included realtors, lawyers and doctors, including Dr. A.C. Jackson, who was considered the “most able Negro surgeon in America,” by the Mayo brothers.

Greenwood was one of the most affluent communities and it became known as “Black Wall Street [originally, Negro Wall Street].”  The citizens of Greenwood took pride in its affluence because it was something they had all to themselves and did not have to share with the White community of Tulsa, which probably added to the tension between the two races. Exacerbating this ‘tinder box’ was the fact that by 1921, there were an estimated 3,200 members of The Ku Klux Klan living in the city.

Tulsa KKK Meeting 1921

On May 30, 1921 – a Memorial Day holiday – a young, African-American man, named Dick Rowland, reportedly sexually assaulted a young White woman, named Sarah Page, in an elevator. Many felt, and still feel, that this story was, at least in part, fabricated by Miss Page. What was known was that they worked in the same building – The Drexel Building – he, as a shoe shiner, and she, as an elevator operator. Mr. Rowland entered the elevator that afternoon to use the top floor restroom, which was restricted to Black people. Soon thereafter, a White man, who worked in the building, heard what sounded like a woman’s scream, and subsequently saw Mr. Rowland running from the building, so he alerted the authorities. What was not known was why they were both working on Memorial Day, when most businesses were closed for the holiday; and whether the two may have been forbidden, secret lovers, who may have had an argument. It was also speculated that Mr. Rowland may have had a simple accident, such as tripping, and unavoidably had to steady himself against Miss Page – causing her to scream.

Many who knew Mr. Rowland – both White and Black – defended his character and said that he was not capable of such an assault. After the police questioned Miss Page, she said that she would not be pressing charges; however, the next morning, Mr. Rowland was still arrested and detained at the courthouse.

Tulsa Courthouse  - 1921

The Tulsa Tribune, one of the two, White-owned newspapers, got word of the incident and chose to publish the story in the paper, the next day, on May 31, 1921, with the headline: "Nab Negro for Attacking Girl In an Elevator.” 

In the same edition, the paper published an editorial warning of a potential lynching of Mr. Rowland. The editorial, titled "To Lynch Negro Tonight", was said to have reported White residents assembling that evening to lynch the teenage, Mr. Rowland. Mysteriously, that second editorial is now missing from the paper's archives.

Because of the second editorial, the White Tulsa residents organized a mob; and the Greenwood residents armed themselves, as well, to try to defend Mr. Rowland, themselves, and personal and commercials properties. A direct confrontation between the two groups quickly ensued in front of the courthouse, where guns were fired. Soon, the mob moved into Greenwood and began to loot and torch 35 blocks of the poorly-constructed residents’ homes and businesses – killing anyone who tried to stop them, including the aforementioned, Dr. Jackson, who was shot to death as he left his home during the riot. 

Greenwood Burning - May 31, 1921

Greenwood Burning - May 31, 1921
Greenwood Burning - May 31, 1921

Those who were not killed and who were not armed, tried to flee from Greenwood

Children Fleeing the Tulsa Race Riot

Those who were not successful, were arrested and detained.

Greenwood Resident Surrendering

Aerial firebombs were dropped from airplanes; and firemen were held at gunpoint to prevent them from dousing the infernos. Over 600 successful businesses were lost. Among these were 21 churches, 21 restaurants, 30 grocery stores and two movie theaters, plus a hospital, a bank, a post office, libraries, schools, law offices, and the public buses.

National Guard Troops were eventually deployed on the afternoon of June 1; but by that time, there was not much left of the once-thriving Greenwood district.

Greenwood - June 1, 1921

At the time of the riot, headlines estimated 100 people dying.

However, the American Red Cross estimated that over 300 people were killed – many of whom were buried in unmarked, mass graves. It also listed 8,624 persons in need of assistance, in excess of 1,000 homes being destroyed, an estimated 10,000 people being left homeless and having to live in tents, and more than 6,000 Greenwood residents being arrested and detained at three, local facilities – many of whom died while in custody. 

Tulsa Race Riot - Red Cross Workers

Tulsa Race Riot - Tent Living

A Grand Jury in Tulsa ruled that Police Chief, John Gustafson, was responsible for the riot because he neglected his duty; and removed him from office. In a subsequent trial, he was found guilty of failing to take proper precautions for protecting life and property, and for conspiring to free automobile thieves and collect rewards. However, the former Chief never served time in prison. Instead, he returned to his private detective practice. No legal records indicate that any other White official was ever charged of wrongdoing or even negligence. No charges were filed against any individual White rioters.

Within five years after the riot, surviving residents who chose to remain in Tulsa rebuilt much of the district. The neighborhood was a hotbed of jazz and blues in the 1920s. They accomplished this despite the opposition of many White Tulsa political and business leaders. It resumed being a vital Black community until segregation was overturned by the Federal Government during the 1950s and '60s. Desegregation encouraged Black residents to live and shop elsewhere in the city, causing Greenwood to lose much of its original vitality. Since then, city leaders have attempted to encourage other economic development activity nearby.

The division between White and Black Tulsa residents was so deep that the end of the riot did not even begin to bring reconciliation. The events of the riot were omitted from local and State history; "The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 was rarely mentioned in history books, classrooms or even in private. Black and White residents grew up being unaware of what had taken place."  

Revitalization and preservation efforts in the ‘90s and Noughties resulted in tourism initiatives, such as the Dr. John Hope (descendant of survivor, B.C. Franklin) Reconciliation Park and memorials. 

The Greenwood Cultural Center, dedicated in October 1996, was created as a tribute to Greenwood’s history. 

That same year, following increased attention to the riot because of the 75th anniversary of the event, the State Legislature authorized the Tulsa Race Riot Commission, to study and prepare an "historical account" of the riot. The study "enjoyed strong support from members of both political parties and all political persuasions." The Commission delivered its report on February 21, 2001

The report recommended actions for substantial restitution; in order of priority:

  1. Direct payment of reparations to survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot;
  2. Direct payment of reparations to descendants of the survivors of the Tulsa Race Riot;
  3. A scholarship fund available to students affected by the Tulsa Race Riot;
  4. Establishment of an economic development enterprise zone in the historic area of the Greenwood district; and
  5. A memorial for the reburial of the remains of the victims of the Tulsa Race Riot

Some of those were implemented. Others were not.

Five elderly survivors of the riot, led by a legal team including Johnnie Cochran and Charles Ogletree, filed suit against the City of Tulsa and the State of Oklahoma (Alexander, et al., v. Oklahoma, et al.) in February 2003, based on the findings of the 2001 report. The plaintiffs did not seek reparations as such; rather, they asked for the establishment of educational and health-care resources for current residents of Greenwood. The Federal District and Appellate Courts dismissed the suit, citing the Statute of Limitations on the 80-year-old case, and the US Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal. In April 2007, Dr. Ogletree appealed to the US Congress to pass a bill extending the Statute of Limitations for the case. It never received a vote, and they are still seeking justice.

Dr. Olivia Hooker - February 2012

One of those survivors who sued was Dr. Olivia Hooker, who celebrated her 97th birthday last week. When the riots happened, she was just 6 years old; but she remembers the whole incident quite vividly, as people broke into and destroyed her family’s home and arrested her father, saying, “You don’t forget something like that.” She feels blessed to have survived and went on to become the first Black woman in the Coast Guard and to earn a Doctorate in Psychology. She continues to live in Oklahoma.

Other key players who survived, but moved away from Tulsa included Greenwood Founder, Mr. Gurley, who exiled himself to California and drifted into obscurity; and Dick Rowland, who had remained safe in the courthouse until the morning of June 1st , when he was taken out of town in secrecy. All charges were dropped; and he never returned to Tulsa.

In 2011, the Greenwood Cultural Center lost 100% of its funding from the State of Oklahoma. As a result, the Center may be forced to close its doors. A fundraising campaign in now underway to try to raise private funds to keep the educational and cultural facility open. If you would like to learn more, please click here

The survivors are all now being honored in a recently-released documentary, called "Before They Die! The Road to Reparations for the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Survivors". If you are living in NYC, and have time tomorrow, Feb. 20, there will be a benefit screening of the documentary, with a Q&A with the film's Director, Reggie Turner. Click here to learn more. 

The horrific events which took place over 90 years ago will be etched in Tulsa's history and in the ‘soil’ forever. However, I know both Black and White people, who live in the city; and I feel very confident that the city is now well on its way to achieving harmony between the two races.

UPDATED: MAY 20, 2021

Since I first wrote this blog post, several more documentaries, docuseries, TV series, and films have been broadcast.

Just before the centenary, on May 19, 2021, two of the last living Tulsa Race Massacre survivors, brother & sister, Mr. Hughes Vann Ellis, Age 100, and Ms. Viola Fletcher, Age 107, gave searing, first-account testimony at a Congressional Hearing, asking for the US Government to finally acknowledge the Massacre, and right the wrongs from 100 years, prior.

To watch Ms. Fletcher's testimony, click here.

# # #

Chef Justin Thompson has recently opened a restaurant in Tulsa, called Juniper. This is one of his favorite recipes, which he often makes for himself. Enjoy!

Sweet Corn Rotisserie Chicken Salad
Serves 2 to 4

  • 2 ears corn (or canned sweet corn, if you are pressed for time or it out of season)
  • 1/4 cup diced celery
  • 1/4 cup diced Sweet onion
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped chives
  • 1/4 cup crumbled feta cheese
  • 1/4 cup Dijon mustard
  • 1/4 cup mayonnaise (Hellmann’s always tastes best)
  • 1 teaspoon curry powder
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 store-bought rotisserie or roasted chicken, meat pulled from the bone into large pieces


Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Place ears of corn on a baking sheet and roast for 5 minutes. Let cool slightly and remove kernels from cobs; set aside in a bowl. Add all remaining ingredients except for the chicken to the bowl and stir to combine. Gently fold in the chicken to keep it in large pieces. Serve as a sandwich on toasted bread, or as a salad over greens with some sliced tomatoes.

Sources: Wikipedia, TulsaReparations.org, Harlem OneStop, Google, Bing 

No comments:

Post a Comment