Sparks that ignited the Tulsa race massacre


Seated; survivors Lessie Benningfield Randle (left), Viola Fletchter (centre), and Hughes Van Ellis (right) during the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre on June 1, 2021 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. President Biden was in Tulsa to mark the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre. PHOTO | AFP



  • For a long time, this event has been known as the Tulsa Race Riots, in the few times that it has been mentioned in public, but in fact it was a premeditated massacre. The white perpetrators were too scared of their shameful act while the black victims were traumatised into silence.

Tulsa is a wealthy city in Oklahoma, a state in the south central region of the United States. It was settled between 1828 and 1836 by the Lochapoka Band of Creek Native American tribe and most of Tulsa is still part of the Muskogee (Creek) Nation. The city was officially incorporated on January 18, 1898 and Edward Calkin was elected as the first mayor.

Historically, the economy of Tulsa was driven by a robust energy sector. The first of many oil wells, Sue Bland No. 1, was established in 1901 and Tulsa was known as the “Oil Capital of the World” for most of the 20th century.

Tulsa called itself the Magic City, the Coming Metropolis of the Southwest. By the spring of 1921, it had grown from a dusty little town of a few thousand, two decades earlier, to a city of 75,000. That may have barely put it in the nation’s largest municipalities, but for a place that a bare 15 years earlier did not have a single paved street, Tulsa may have been punching above its weight.

Untold millions had passed through Tulsa since the discovery of the Glenn Pool oil reserves in late 1905, and millions more had stayed. The pipelines, refineries, foundries, railroads, hotels, and banks that brought in the Cushing Field and the vast Osage reserves, and that powered Allied forces during World War I, were all in Tulsa, or connected to it in some other way.

Some of that money found its way into the pockets of a growing entrepreneurial black population comprising professionals such as lawyers, doctors, tradesmen, and recently returned servicemen. The black community was largely sequestered in the northeast corner of the city.

Known to its residents as Greenwood, for Greenwood Avenue, its main north-south thoroughfare or Black Wall Street, the district was a beehive of activity with stores, schools, hotels, movie theatres, nightclubs, numerous churches and even banks.

It would be argued, apparently with some justification, that not all that activity was legal. But the newspapers of the day suggest that it was no different from other parts of Tulsa, where police regularly raided rooming houses, cheap hotels, gambling dens, and “unlicensed pharmacies”.

Greenwood residents sometimes complained about their neighbourhood’s unpaved streets, poor-to-nonexistent sanitation, and uneven policing, but they treasured it as an oasis in a time and place in which African Americans’ rights and opportunities were severely limited.

In Tulsa and elsewhere, African Americans were refusing to accept their second-class status. Whites, some of them anyway, reacted violently to this attempt to disrupt the status quo. In Chicago and a remote settlement in Arkansas’ Mississippi Delta, in Washington, DC, and small towns in Alabama to Oklahoma, retribution was visited on individuals and communities that dared to test the racial boundaries.

In Tulsa, it arrived in the spring of 1921.

On May 12, 1921, a brief item in the Tulsa Tribune, a white-owned daily, noted that an elderly black couple, Mr and Mrs Gilbert Irge had been fined $10 for refusing to sit in the back of a streetcar. The incident, predating Rossa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott by 35 years, seems to have attracted little attention.

But two and a half weeks later, when a young black man, Dick Rowland, was arrested for allegedly trying to press himself against an equally young white woman elevator operator, Sara Page, notwithstanding that she did not wish to press any charges, a company of armed black men went to the courthouse to protect him, some say at the urging of the local police chief, following rumours that white men were planning to lynch him. The city’s carefully cultivated reputation went up in flames following inflammatory reports in the Tulsa Tribune.

Outnumbered, African Americans began retreating to Greenwood with the white armed mobs in hot pursuit.

In the early morning hours of June 1, 1921, Greenwood was looted and burned by white rioters, some flying private airplanes dropping Molotov cocktails on buildings and others firing into fleeing black residents.

Governor Robertson declared martial law and called in the National Guard who assisted firemen in putting out fires, took African Americans out of the hands of white vigilantes and imprisoned all black Tulsans not already interned. Over 6,000 people were held at the Convention Hall and the Fairgrounds, some for as long as eight days.

Twenty four hours after the violence erupted, it ceased as quickly as it had started.

In the wake of the violence, 35 city blocks lay in charred ruins, more than 800 people were treated for injuries while contemporary reports put the number of dead at 36. Historians now believe that up to 300 people may have lost their lives.

To understand the Tulsa race massacre, it is important to be aware of the complexities of the time. Dick Rowland, Sara Page and an unknown gunman were the sparks that ignited the long smoldering fire. Jim Crow laws, jealousy, white supremacy, and land lust all played roles leading up to the destruction and loss of life.

This week, President Joe Biden visited Tulsa as the nation is assessing race relations, past, present and future.

“For much too long the history of what took place here was told in silence and cloaked in darkness. But just because history is silent, doesn’t mean that it did not take place. And while darkness can hide much, it erases nothing,” Biden said. He is the first US President to visit the site of this massacre which took place 100 years ago.

For a long time, this event has been known as the Tulsa Race Riots, in the few times that it has been mentioned in public, but in fact it was a premeditated massacre. The white perpetrators were too scared of their shameful act while the black victims were traumatised into silence.

It is gratifying to note that the massacre has now been admitted at the highest office and hopefully this will be the beginning of meaningful reparations.