The 1921 Tulsa race massacre: the worst single incident of racial violence in US history

A century ago, America’s simmering racial tensions boiled over on the streets of one Oklahoma city, leaving dozens dead and hundreds more injured. Scott Ellsworth explores the 1921 Tulsa race massacre

Tulsa race massacre: A man surveys the wreckage of homes in the Oklahoma city of Tulsa, June 1921. Two days of racist violence and destruction left what had been one of the United States’ wealthiest black communities in ruins

Mary Parrish hurried home, anxious to finish a novel that she had begun the day before. During an era in which African-American women were routinely forced to the lowest levels of US society, Parrish stood out as a talented writer and successful entrepreneur: she ran her own secretarial school, where she taught typewriting, business correspondence and clerical skills to young black women hoping to find work as office clerks.

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Parrish was also a single mother, and she and her seven-year-old daughter, Florence, lived on Greenwood Avenue, in the heart of the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Within walking distance from their home, there were two theatres, dozens of restaurants, a public library, grocery stores and dress shops, doctors’ offices and billiard parlours.

“On Greenwood one could find a variety of business places which would be a credit to any section of the town,” Parrish wrote. Tuesday 31 May 1921 was a warm spring evening, and there was plenty to do and see.

Only Parrish wasn’t interested. Fetching her daughter from a neighbour, the two climbed the stairs to their second-storey apartment. Little Florence took her place on the sofa along the windows, where she could watch the automobile and pedestrian traffic along Greenwood Avenue, while her mother sunk into her favourite chair, looking forward to a quiet evening of reading.

That wasn’t going to happen, though. Within a couple of hours, Florence would watch an unfolding drama outside, as African-American men and women, some with guns, gathered on the street below. And before the clock on the mantel struck midnight, Mary Parrish and her daughter would find themselves at ground zero in the worst single incident of racial violence in American history.

Tulsa, the ‘Magic City’

Less than 40 years old, Tulsa was then known as the “Magic City”. Set along the banks of the Arkansas river in north-eastern Oklahoma, it had been a sleepy Creek Indian and cowboy town until 1905, when the discovery of the then richest small oil field on Earth transformed Tulsa into the oil capital of the world. By 1921, the city boasted skyscrapers, banks and movie theatres, churches with soaring steeples and more than 100,000 residents. In the wealthiest neighbourhoods, newly minted oil barons built massive Italianate and Tudor mansions and stocked them with antique furniture, crystal chandeliers and Renaissance art. Money had literally flowed out of the ground.

And some of it had made its way to the city’s African-American population. While black people were barred from employment in the oil fields, there was plenty of work for African-American men and women as maids, domestic workers and chauffeurs in the homes of rich white people, or as cooks, dishwashers, ditch-diggers and common labourers downtown.

Black Tulsans, including a large number of women, worked in white neighbourhoods during the week, where they drew good pay cheques, but they spent their money in the African-American community of Greenwood.

As a result, the Greenwood commercial district – later renamed Black Wall Street – flourished. A handful of black merchants, such as John and Loula Williams (who owned the Dreamland Theater, the East End Garage, a confectionery and an office building), became genuinely wealthy. But scores of other African-American entrepreneurs, who owned much more modest businesses, were also successful. More importantly, they helped each other. “It was said that a dollar bill changed hands more than a dozen times before it ever left Greenwood,” newspaper editor Jim Goodwin once told me. As a result, the community was an especially vibrant district, whose residents were able to carve out lives of dignity and, despite segregation, a degree of independence. As John Williams would tell his young son: “I came out to the promised land.”

But Greenwood’s rise had also coincided with a treacherous decline in American race relations, one marked by a new and aggressively militant form of white racism. The Ku Klux Klan, the homegrown, whites-only terrorist organisation, had been revived in 1915. It was no longer limited to states in the South, but soon controlled state governments in New Jersey, Indiana and Oregon. Ivy League universities routinely taught forms of scientific racism, while motion pictures such as DW Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation depicted African-American men as greedy savages who perpetually lusted after white women.

Cities in the north started to segregate restaurants and theatres, while the president, Woodrow Wilson, began to bar black people from jobs in the federal government. Lynchings were far from uncommon, with some African-American victims getting burned at the stake by white mobs. And in the years surrounding the First World War, race riots broke out across the country, as white mobs attacked African-Americans on the streets, and invaded black communities, destroying homes and property.

How were African-Americans to respond to such violence? Many, especially black veterans who had fought in France during the First World War, believed that armed self-defence was the only answer. As one African-American veteran said near the time of the 1919 Chicago race riot: “I ain’t looking for trouble, but if it comes my way I ain’t dodging.” These issues would loom large in Tulsa two years later.

A still from DW Griffiths’ 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, which depicts African-American people – many played, as here, by white actors in blackface – as greedy savages
A still from DW Griffiths’ 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, which depicts African-American people – many played, as here, by white actors in blackface – as greedy savages (Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

The elevator

Nineteen-year-old Dick Rowland had dropped out of Booker T Washington High School to take a job shining shoes downtown. There were no toilet facilities in the shine parlour where Rowland and the other African-American bootblacks worked, however, so the owner arranged for his employees to use a “colored” restroom in the Drexel Building, a block away on Main Street. To access the facilities, the shoe shiners would have to ride the elevator, operated by a 17-year-old white girl named Sarah Page, up to the top floor. On Monday 30 May 1921, that’s exactly what Rowland set out to do, as he had dozens of times before.

Only something was different this time. As Rowland entered the lift, Page screamed. No one knows for certain what happened. But the likeliest explanation was that Rowland tripped as he stepped onto the elevator (it’s been reported that the elevator often failed to line up with the various floors of the building) – and as he did so, instinctively threw out his hands to try to break the fall, catching the young elevator operator by the shoulder. Page cried out and Rowland, now terrified, ran from the building.

Tulsa police picked up Rowland at his mother’s home in Greenwood the next day, 31 May, and placed him in a jail cell in the courthouse, while he was being arraigned. Sarah Page, meanwhile, refused to press charges. The incident, it seemed, was about to be forgotten.

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But the Tulsa Tribune, the city’s white afternoon newspaper, had other ideas. “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in an Elevator” ran a front-page story of its 31 May edition, in which the newspaper claimed that Rowland had been seen stalking Page, and had “attacked her, scratching her hands and face, and tearing her clothes”. The editors at the Tribune also proposed what should happen next, in a now lost editorial entitled “To Lynch Negro Tonight”.

That was all it took. The first edition of the newspaper hit the streets shortly after 3.30pm. Within half an hour, there was lynch talk on the streets of Tulsa. By nine o’clock that night, a mob of more than 1,000 white people, many of them armed, had gathered outside the courthouse, demanding that the authorities hand over Dick Rowland.

The unrest unfolds

In Greenwood, meanwhile, news of what was happening downtown had spread like wildfire. An African-American war veteran jumped up on stage at the Dreamland Theater and shouted: “We’re not going to let this happen here! We’re going to go downtown and stop this lynching. Close this place down.”

Mary Parrish watched the drama unfold from her apartment. “I ran to the window and looked out,” she remembered. “I saw many people gathered in little squads talking excitedly.” A group of black veterans went home to put on their old army uniforms and gather their guns.

At about 10 o’clock, after hearing a rumour that the white lynch mob was storming the jail, 75 African-American veterans climbed into a caravan of automobiles and drove downtown. Presenting themselves at the courthouse, they offered their services to the sheriff to help defend the imprisoned Dick Rowland, but were turned away. As they were leaving, an elderly white man tried to take the gun from one of the black veterans. A shot went off, followed by another, and another. And with the gunplay, the white mob forgot about Rowland, and instead turned its wrath on anyone who was black.

Innocent African-Americans, likely workers finishing a late shift, were murdered downtown, while gangs of white people jumped into cars and did drive-by shootings along residential blocks in Greenwood, firing into homes on both sides of the street. Before midnight, the first fires had been set along the edges of the black district. Rather than stopping and disarming the white rioters, members of the Tulsa police instead deputised them and gave them guns. Greenwood’s residents fought back, firing from behind windowsills and along the darkened streets. But shortly before dawn on 1 June, they faced an enemy far greater than ever before.

Some of Tulsa’s black residents search through the rubble of their former homes, June 1921. The losses that many families suffered were huge, and often felt for generations
Some of Tulsa’s black residents search through the rubble of their former homes, June 1921. The losses that many families suffered were huge, and often felt for generations (Photo by Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty Images)

Just before sunrise, thousands of white people had gathered along the edges of the African-American district. Armed with rifles, pistols and shotguns, and far outnumbering Greenwood’s defenders, they soon moved en masse into the black neighbourhoods. “I took my little girl by the hand and fled out the west door on Greenwood,” Mary Parrish later wrote, as bullets flew past them. “We expected to be shot down at any moment.” Parrish and her daughter Florence made it out just in time, eventually finding safety out in the countryside.

Others were not so lucky. Black people who fought back were shot by the white mob, while those who came out with their hands up were led away, at gunpoint, to hastily organised internment centres. Once an African-American home or business had been emptied of its occupants, the white rioters then looted them before setting them on fire. All that morning, block by block, the mob of white people moved methodically across the black district, shooting, looting and burning.

The aftermath

By the time a contingent of state troops arrived later that morning from the state capital in Oklahoma City and martial law was declared, it was too late. Greenwood was gone. More than 1,000 African-American homes and businesses had been put to the torch; an elementary school, a hospital, a public library and more than a dozen churches had all been destroyed. More than 35 square blocks were a wasteland of ashes, charred foundations and blackened, leafless trees.

Dick Rowland was exonerated and set free, while an all-white grand jury blamed African-Americans for the violence. No white person was ever tried and convicted for the burning, looting, and killing that took place in Tulsa in the spring of 1921.

Incredibly, Greenwood rose again. Despite an attempt by white government officials to move the district further north, African-Americans stayed put. Living, at first, in tents provided by the American Red Cross, black men and women went back to their jobs in the white community, while African-American merchants started up their businesses again, first on the bare ground, then in wooden shanties. Some of the wealthiest black business people had kept their money in white banks downtown, and using that capital, started constructing replacement buildings for those burned in the fires of 1 June. By the 1930s and 1940s, it was felt that Greenwood was, in fact, even bigger than before. There was even a black-owned bus line.

Injured people are taken to hospital by the US National Guard, 3 June 1921. As many as 300 are thought to have been killed in the rioting
Injured people are taken to hospital by the US National Guard, 3 June 1921. As many as 300 are thought to have been killed in the rioting (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Despite the rebuilding, the economic loss suffered by Tulsa’s African-American community was immense. For many families, their savings were wiped out along with their homes and businesses – and with them, generational wealth that could have been used for college tuition, retirement income and down payments on first homes and new business ventures. By some recent estimates, if measured by the wealth that would have remained in Greenwood had the community not been burned to the ground during the massacre, African-American losses in Tulsa would top £440m in today’s currency.

Of course, there were other losses as well, including PTSD suffered by black survivors for decades. As late as the 1970s, one survivor even kept a loaded rifle by the front door to his home in Greenwood, “in case it should happen again”. Others forged ahead, creating new lives for themselves and their families, literally on the ashes of their pre-massacre lives. But the old Greenwood was not entirely forgotten, in part thanks to Mary Parrish. Less than two years after the massacre, she published Events of the Tulsa Disaster, the first book on the tragedy. This was an exceedingly rare volume (it was said that fewer than 50 were ever printed), with an original copy selling at auction last year for more than £1,800. Later this spring, Trinity University Press in San Antonio, Texas will publish a new edition of Parrish’s small but vital account of the attack.

To this day, no one knows how many people died in the Tulsa race massacre. In 2000, as part of a state commission investigating the tragedy, renowned forensic anthropologist Dr Clyde Snow used funeral home records, death certificates, and other historical sources to confirm at least 39 casualties – 13 white people and 26 African-Americans. But many believe that the actual death count is much higher. Maurice Willows, who directed the relief efforts of the American Red Cross in Greenwood after the catastrophe, hinted that the death count might be as high as 300. And while the events that took place in Tulsa in 1921 are now referred to as a race massacre, the ratio of black to white deaths is likewise still unknown. WD Williams, whose family owned the Dreamland Theater, told me in the 1970s that “we got as many of them as they got of us”.

Some answers, however, may be on the way. I have been helping to lead a team of historians, archaeologists and forensic scientists who are attempting to identify long-rumoured unmarked graves around Tulsa. Last October, we discovered one such site in a cemetery. This June, we plan on exhuming the human remains there, which will then be studied for age, sex, ethnicity, cause of death and, possibly, using DNA analysis, actual identification. The victims will then be reburied and – a century on from this horrific episode in Tulsa’s history – properly memorialised.

Scott Ellsworth is the author of The Ground Breaking: The Tulsa Race Massacre and an American City’s Search for Justice (Icon Books, 2021)

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This content first appeared in the June 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine