At the turn of the 20th century, African Americans founded and developed the Greenwood district in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Built on what had formerly been Indian Territory, the community grew and flourished as a Black economic and cultural mecca—until May 31, 1921.
That's when a white mob began a rampage through some 35 square blocks, decimating the community known proudly as "Black Wall Street." Armed rioters, many deputized by local police, looted and burned down businesses, homes, schools, churches, a hospital, hotel, public library, newspaper offices and more. While the official death toll of the Tulsa race massacre was 36, historians estimate it may have been as high as 300. As many as 10,000 people were left homeless.
The incident stands as one most horrific acts of racial violence, and domestic terrorism, ever committed on American soil.
In May 2021, 100 years after the massacre, 107-year-old Viola Fletcher testified before Congress: “On May 31, of ‘21, I went to bed in my family’s home in Greenwood," she recounted. “The neighborhood I fell asleep in that night was rich, not just in terms of wealth, but in culture…and heritage. My family had a beautiful home. We had great neighbors. I had friends to play with. I felt safe. I had everything a child could need. I had a bright future.”
Then, she said, came the murderous rampage, still vivid in her mind 100 years later: “I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams."
Below, a selection of photos that show Greenwood before, during and after the tragedy:
North Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa (above), prior to the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, was a main thoroughfare of the Greenwood commercial district. This photograph was taken looking north down the avenue from East Archer Street. Between segregation laws that prevented Black residents from shopping in white neighborhoods, and the desire to keep money circulating in their own community, Greenwood residents collectively funneled their cash into local Black businesses. Greenwood became a robust and self-sustaining community, which boasted barber shops and salons, clothing stores, jewelers, restaurants, taverns and pool halls, movie houses and grocers, as well as offices for doctors, dentists and lawyers.
Greenwood: Tulsa's Black Wall Street
At the time of the massacre, Greenwood was considered by many to be the wealthiest Black enclave in the nation. As the seven photos above show, it wasn't uncommon to see its residents stylishly dressed. Some boasted new luxury motorcars.
The incident began on the morning of May 30, 1921, after a young Black man named Dick Rowland, who worked shining shoes, rode the elevator of Tulsa's Drexel building to use one of the few available segregated public restrooms downtown. After the female elevator operator screamed, Rowland fled the elevator and rumors quickly spread of an alleged sexual assault. The next day, he was arrested, leading to an armed confrontation outside the courthouse between a growing white crowd and Black men hoping to defend Rowland from being lynched. As things became heated and shots were fired, the vastly outnumbered African Americans retreated to the Greenwood district. The white group followed, and as the night unfolded, violence exploded.
Throughout that night and into June 1, much of Greenwood became enveloped in billowing dark smoke, as members of the mob went from house to house and store to store, looting and then torching buildings. Fleeing residents were sometimes shot down in the streets. Many survivors report low-flying planes, some raining down bullets or inflammables.
Among the many buildings looted and torched by the white mob was the Mount Zion Baptist Church, above, an impressive brick structure that had opened its doors less than two months earlier. It was one of numerous houses of worship destroyed in the massacre.
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The east corner of Greenwood Avenue and East Archer Street, the epicenter of "Black Wall Street," is shown above, in the early aftermath of the attack. Among the thoroughfare's landmarks left in smoldering ruins were the Stradford Hotel and the Dreamland Theater.
By noon of June 1, Oklahoma Governor Robertson declared martial law and sent in the Oklahoma National Guard. Officials arrested and detained thousands of Black Tulsans, shepherding them to the local convention center and fairgrounds. Above, the rear view of a truck transporting Black people to detainment.
National Guard troops carrying rifles with bayonets escort unarmed Black men to detainment, above.
Above, a truck is shown carrying soldiers and Black men during the Tulsa race massacre. Officials rounded up Greenwood's Black residents, deeming them to be the primary threat to law and order—instead of any members of the white mob who had murdered and pillaged. Indeed, for decades after, the incident was erroneously characterized as a "race riot," implying that it had been instigated by the Black community. No one was ever held to account for the destruction or loss of life.
LISTEN: ‘Blindspot: Tulsa Burning’ from The HISTORY® Channel and WNYC Studios
After being rounded up under martial law, traumatized Greenwood residents were kept under armed guard—some for hours, some for days. To be released, Black Tulsans had to be vouched for by an employer or white citizen.
At Tulsa's American Red Cross hospital, victims of the massacre are shown still recovering from injuries months later. More than 800 people were treated for injuries.
According to the 2001 Tulsa Race Riot Commission report, the most comprehensive review of the massacre, in the year after the attacks, Tulsa residents filed riot-related claims against the city valued at over $1.8 million dollars. But the city commission, like insurance companies, denied most of the claims—one exception being when a white business owner received compensation for guns taken from his shop. Above, Black Tulsans salvaged what they could from their burned homes and businesses and began to rebuild on their own.
November 1921: With millions in property damage and no help from the city, the rebuilding of Greenwood nonetheless began almost immediately.
Many Black Tulsa residents fled the city, and never returned. But many stayed and started from scratch—some housed in Red Cross tents until they could rebuild their homes and, later, community landmarks like the Dreamland Theater. In 2001, the Tulsa Race Riot Commission report recommended that survivors be paid reparations, calling it "a moral obligation." The pursuit of restitution continues.