100 Years Ago: 1921 Tulsa Massacre – State-Sponsored Racist Terror

Part of Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma burned during the 1921 Tulsa racist massacre. (Universal History Archive, Getty Images)

May 31st and June 1st mark 100 years since the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, in which mobs of white vigilantes, with support by city officials, carried out a wave of terror against the Black community, destroying much of it.

In the early 20th century, Oklahoma had attracted many former slaves who decided to leave behind oppressive Black codes in the South that criminalized and inflicted violence upon them. Majority Black towns were built that exercised a level of political and economic self-determination unusual for the time. Tulsa in particular had a booming oil industry, which led to the creation of a sizable Black middle class of educated professionals, including doctors and lawyers, as well as business owners. The Greenwood district in Tulsa was home to one of the most prosperous Black communities within the United States at the time. It has often been referred to as “Black Wall Street.” But as the white population in Tulsa grew, so did Jim Crow segregation.

In 1921, the Black population in Tulsa faced racist violence. There were thousands of Ku Klux Klan members that already carried out periodic lynchings. But there was also a culture of militancy within the Black community that ensured they would defend themselves against attack. This set the stage for conflict.

On May 30th, Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old Black shoeshiner, stumbled as he entered an elevator, allegedly grabbing the arm of Sarah Page, a white 17-year-old elevator operator. Police arrested Rowland and detained him at the courthouse. The white newspapers printed a story that painted a picture of a vicious sexual assault that didn’t happen. This incendiary story brought together mobs of angry armed white people who wanted to lynch Rowland. A group of armed Black men came downtown to ensure that there wouldn’t be a lynching. With tensions high, there was a skirmish between the two groups.

For the next two days white lynch mobs, with complete support from local and state officials, rampaged through the Black community with guns and explosives, using indiscriminate violence against people’s homes, businesses, and lives. Buildings were burned down by the hundreds, the governor of Oklahoma called out the National Guard, which fired machine gun bullets into a church, and police even dropped dynamite from airplanes.

The Greenwood district was flattened almost completely to the ground: 1,256 houses, 191 businesses, a junior high school, several churches, and the only hospital in the district were all burned without any intervention by the fire department. The Tulsa Real Estate Exchange recently estimated that people lost the equivalent of $33 million in 2020 dollars. At least 300 people were killed and over 800 people were hospitalized. An estimated 10,000 people were made homeless and 6,000 Black people were arrested by the National Guard for defending themselves. None of the white rioters or officials complicit in the terror were held accountable.

The Tulsa Massacre was state-sponsored, white racist terror, with one group openly oppressing another group in order to maintain their slightly higher position in the system. But it could occur only because we live in a system where individuals and groups are forced to compete for the crumbs from the tables of the wealthy in order to survive. When this is the case, it’s easy for a ruling class to turn people against one another to maintain their place in the system.

This brutal racist history cannot be forgotten. This capitalist system has proven over and over that it will never deliver justice, especially for Black people. We need to fight for Black freedom and at the same time for a system that can deliver real justice for all.