Tulsa Race Massacre is a stark reminder of years of racial oppression on African-Americans, even 99 years later

This year's anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre was marked amid nation-wide protests


                            Tulsa Race Massacre is a stark reminder of years of racial oppression on African-Americans, even 99 years later
(Getty Images)

The death of an unarmed 46-year-old African-American man,  George Floyd, at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, sparked outrage among Americans who swarmed the streets immediately to protest against police brutality on May 25. Now seven days later, the progressive winds have swept across the nation and the protests continue, multiplied by manifold. Demonstrators armed with massive placards and posters sporting 'Black Lives Matter' and end police brutality slogans have stood in solidarity to ensure their voices are being heard.

As the fight against racial discrimination rages on, America solemnly remembers a historical tragedy of events transpiring out of racial injustice that occurred 99 years ago.  This year's anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre was marked amid nation-wide protests and the fight to bring George Floyd as well as others from the Black community who have become victims of cruelty and racism.  Here's what you need to know about the worst incident of racial violence that struck the 'Black Wall Street.'

What was Tulsa Race Massacre?

Photograph of an African-American man with a camera looking at the skeletons of iron beds which rise above the ashes of a burned-out block after the Tulsa Race Riot, Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1921. (Photo by Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty Images)

Following the culmination of World War I, Tulsa, Oklahoma, gained national recognition for its affluent African-American community or the Greenwood District. The area thrived as a business district with more than 300 black-owned businesses, and so comprising the surrounding residential area, it came to be known as 'Black Wall Street.' However, as the community flourished the population of white people that lived in Tulsa began growing envious and furious at their success.

In 1921, for a span of about 18 hours, between May 31 and June 1, a white mob reigned havoc on the black Greenwood neighborhood. They attacked residents, burned down over 1,000 houses, killing scores of African-Americans and leaving thousands homeless. The massacre is part of a long history of racial violence and intimidation since the Civil War and remains one of the least known incidents in US history as news reports from the time were stifled. 

What set it off

An African-American woman sits in the back of a truck, her legs hanging over the back. Several other people are in the back of the truck also, hidden by shadow. A man holding a rifle sits on the running board. (Getty Images)

After World War I, the country so a spike in racial tensions and the white supremacist group, the Ku Klux Klan reemerged. The cases in lynching and other racially-motivated acts of violence continued to mount despite the black community's incessant efforts to prevent them. The racial tensions in Tulsa were palpable and reached its breaking point after an elevator incident in 1921. On May 31, a 19-year-old black man named Dick Rowland rode the elevator at Drexel Building, an office building on South Main Street, with a 17-year-old girl, Sarah Page, who was the elevator operator. At some point, after the doors closed, Page screamed Rowland, who used that elevator almost everyday fled the scene. However, news spread like wildfire among the city's white community with an exaggerated retelling of the same story passing from one ear to another. 

He was arrested the next morning by the Tulsa police who also opened an investigation. Tulsa Tribune published a front-page story on the incident that afternoon and reported that the police had taken Rowland into custody for sexually assaulting Page. An angry white mob gathered in front of the court that evening, demanding that Sheriff hand Rowland over to them only to be refused. Then a group of around 25 armed black men, comprising many World War I veterans also approached the Sheriff to help guard Rowland and they too were turned down. By then, the rumor hill had been running wild and when a possibility of a lynching taking place was expressed, 75 armed blacks returned to the courthouse around 10 pm only to come face to face with some 1,500 whites, some of whom were armed. 

The storming of Greenwood

Black smoke billows from fires during the race riot of 1921 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (Getty Images)

Soon after, chaos ensued when shots were fired and the outnumbered group of blacks returned to Greenwood. All hell broke loose in the next several hours when groups of white Tulsans and they started to loot and burn businesses in Greenford, according to the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum. Some members of the mob were even acting on behalf of city officials and were equipped with weaponry. Later, the Red Cross estimated that at least 1,256 houses had been burned and 215 others had been looted over an area of 35 city blocks. Reports of the death toll were identified as 36, but historians now believe that at least 300 people died, per Tulsa Historical Society and Museum.

Aftermath

Martial law in Tulsa, Oklahoma after the race riots. Injured and wounded prisoners are being taken to hospital by National guardsmen (Getty Images)

Hours after the Tulsa Race Massacre subsided, the charges against Rowland were dropped, with police concluding that he had most likely stumbled into Page or stepped on her foot. He stayed guarded and safe in the jail during the course of the riot, but reportedly left Tulsa the very next day and never returned. The black community then began to rebuild their ruined homes and business, but the segregation in the city reached an all-time high, while Oklahoma's new brand of the KKK only grew.   

For decades, following this atrocity, there was no mention of the Tulsa Race Massacre in the pages of history books, neither was there a public ceremony or memorials for the dead. The day had never been commemorated, but instead, there was a very purposeful effort to cover it up. The Tulsa Tribune had removed the front-page story, dated May 31, that initially added fodder to the fuel, but scholars later discovered that the police and the state militia archives were devoid of any information, as well. The city of Tulsa still has investigations underway as they continue to probe into what happened to the victims' bodies. They have also been digging for mass graves. A service commemorating the massacre was held in 1996, on the 75th anniversary at Zion Baptist Church, which was burned to the ground back in the day. A memorial was also placed in front of the Greenwood Cultural Center.

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