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A century later, story of America's worst race massacre finally being told

  • 9 min to read

TULSA— John W. Franklin wept as he read his grandfather’s account of the Tulsa Race Massacre.

The fragile, yellowing, 90-year-old document — an eyewitness description of the worst race massacre in U.S. history — now sits in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“I wept the first time I read it, the second time I read it, and the third time I read it,” he said about B.C. Franklin’s account of the 1921 massacre. It describes the horrors in Tulsa’s affluent, thriving Greenwood District when a white mob — fueled by racism, envy and fear — murdered, looted and burned out the Black community with impunity. The account, written in 1931, was not discovered until 2015 in a storage unit.

Tulsa Race Massacre Image 8 (mugshot)

John W. Franklin

For decades, many details of what happened in Tulsa a century ago were “rigorously suppressed,” said John Franklin, now senior manager emeritus of the museum. and to the extent that what happened in Tulsa came down in history at all, it was inaccurate, blaming Black residents for what happened by calling it the “Negro uprising.” Later, it was called the Tulsa Race Riot; today, it is known, more accurately, as the Tulsa Race Massacre.

B.C. Franklin called it a “race war.”

Tulsa Race Massacre Image 7 (Mugshot)

Paul Gardullo

“It’s crucial that we rename this event for what it is,” said Paul Gardullo, supervisory curator at the museum, which includes an exhibit on Tulsa. “I think the term that is being used right now — Tulsa Race Massacre — is the right term.”

John Franklin thinks other terms do a better job conveying what happened. He notes that the Jewish press referred to the 1921 attack as a “pogrom” — the organized massacre and expulsion of a particular religious or ethnic group, such as Jews had experienced in Europe.

“I use the term pogrom as well,” Franklin said.Death toll

The assault, which began May 31, 1921, lasted less than 16 hours and officially killed 38, according to an analysis released in 2001 by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.

A century later, the exact death toll — now estimated between 100 and 300 — may never be known because bodies lying in streets and yards were quickly scooped up and buried in unmarked mass graves without a coroner’s report or death certificate. Today, state archaeologists continue looking for mass grave sites, which are likely spread across North Tulsa.

Phil Armstrong, project director of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, said Tulsa was a “powder keg of racial animosity” at the time. The explosion was triggered May 30, 1921, when Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old shoe shiner, was accused of assaulting white public elevator operator Sarah Page, 17, according to the 2001 commission report.

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Phil Armstrong, project manager of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, awaits completion of Greenwood Rising, shown in the background.

“What happened next is anyone’s guess,” the commission concluded. “After the riot, the most common explanation was that Dick Rowland tripped as he got onto the elevator and, as he tried to catch his fall, he grabbed onto the arm of Sarah Page, who then screamed.”

There is no record of Page’s version of events, but the next morning, Rowland was arrested. An angry white lynch mob gathered outside the courthouse on May 31. A group of armed Black men then arrived, intending to protect Rowland. The groups scuffled and a shot was fired, and events quickly escalated.

“These white men are deputized, given weapons, and they raze the community,” John Franklin said.

What is known for certain is that the mob destroyed more than 1,200 Black homes and businesses, along with churches, schools, a hospital and a library in Greenwood, which because of its affluence was also known as Black Wall Street.

All charges against Rowland were eventually dismissed.

B.C. Franklin, a prominent Greenwood attorney, described Black residents being attacked with a machine gun, buildings being set on fire by “turpentine balls” dropped from airplanes, and mothers frantically searching for missing children. Some Black residents attempted to fight back, while authorities — some of whom actually participated — did nothing to stop the carnage.

Martial law was eventually declared, and thousands of Black survivors were interned. During that imprisonment, white residents looted Greenwood for cars, money and clothes. In all, Black residents filed more than $4 million in insurance claims. All were denied.

Armstrong, with the centennial commission, said the massacre was forever seared in victims’ memories, and for many, it was too traumatic to share even with their own children amid an overarching fear that it could happen again. For many white residents, it was simpler to forget or ignore what many historians now consider the worst race massacre in America. The event disappeared from the pages of history.

“This was a black eye on the rise of this new place called Tulsa ...” said Armstrong. “There was a systematic effort to just not talk about this anymore. and so the result of that is generations of people growing up and not even knowing that it happened.”

The challenge of the centennial is to make this generation and the next aware of it, said John Franklin, and there’s a growing push to educate those inside as well as those outside Oklahoma about what happened, along with the historical context for the attack and the recovery of Tulsa’s Black community.“Part of our challenge as Americans,” he said, “is to get past not wanting to know.”

Period of suppression

“By the ‘20s, Tulsa isn’t talking about this,” John Franklin said. “The Tulsa press isn’t talking about this. We begin the period of suppression.”

People who tried to investigate it were threatened, he said, and facts — including the use of airplanes to drop incendiary devices for the first time on an American city — were denied.

Suppression went on for decades; only relatively recently has the massacre been discussed, investigated and brought to the forefront. Still, John Franklin finds it telling of how far the country has yet to go that what happened is only now accurately characterized as a massacre. and while history knows the names of many of the Black victims and survivors, it has not recorded the name of any of the whites who committed atrocities.

He also thinks suppression has given way to what he characterized as “avoidance” — Black residents don’t talk about it because they don’t want their children traumatized, white residents don’t want to feel guilty and accept responsibility.

“America doesn’t grapple well with its history of violence, especially racial violence,” Gardullo said. “We need to help people develop their comfort with discomfort. We can’t avoid the past. People coming face to face with the reality of this story creates an atmosphere where avoidance gives way to empathy, and from empathy to action.”

Monroe Nichols, a former member of the centennial commission, said that for decades it was more convenient not to talk about the massacre.

“I think that we oftentimes, as a society, have a history of either not telling or romanticizing bad aspects of our history,” Nichols said. “The race massacre is probably the greatest individual example. One of the reasons it was never really talked about was because it wasn’t ancient history. There were a lot of people probably on the other side of that particular massacre that maybe didn’t want to talk about it so much.”

Nichols, now a Democratic state lawmaker who lives in Tulsa, grew up in Texas. He didn’t learn about the massacre until he attended the University of Tulsa, and only then because a guest speaker brought it up to make a broader point about Oklahoma being a crossroads for troublesome times in U.S. history, as well as a place of opportunity.

“It was almost unfathomable that 300 people would die and the section of town would be burned down, and that’s not a very prominent piece of what we’re taught in our history classes,” Nichols said.

Three sentences

Today, the Tulsa Race Massacre merits just three sentences in a history text used by juniors at McAlester (Oklahoma) High School, two hours south of Tulsa. Dewayne Hampton, MHS vice principal and a former history teacher, said the district supplements that with videos and other material in an effort to teach it, as well as to teach tolerance and diversity.

“It’s something that we need to go back and examine, and understand why it was the way it was — and appreciate the fact that things are different,” Hampton said. “If we do that right, then we produce higher-quality students, we produce higher functioning citizens within society.”

Oklahoma’s standards for state history require examination of the emergence of Black Wall Street in the Greenwood District; causes of the attack and its continued social and economic impact; and the role labels — riot vs. massacre — play in understanding events. The state’s standards for U.S. history also require examining rising racial tensions in American society, including the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings, race massacres as typified by Tulsa, the rise of Black nationalism, and the use of poll taxes and literacy tests to disenfranchise Black residents from voting.

Hampton has taught the Tulsa Race Massacre at other Oklahoma schools and said most students now learn about it.

In Miami, Oklahoma, east of Tulsa, Amie Harrison found another way to educate her students about the massacre. She teaches honors sophomore and senior English and uses “Dreamland Burning” by Jennifer Latham, a Tulsa author. The story flashes between current events and 1921 Tulsa.

“It’s a huge piece of our state history, and no one talked about it at all, and it was just an hour and 20 minutes down the road,” Harrison said.

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Thousands of Black residents were interned following the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921, and images in the Greenwood District today recall that history.

Jerah White, 16, a sophomore at Miami High School of both Cherokee and Black ancestry, said she found the book “a real eye-opener” as it explored issues of historic and contemporary injustice and race. White moved to Miami the summer before her freshman year of high school and said that as a newcomer to the state, she was not only surprised to learn about the Tulsa Race Massacre, but also that her classmates in Oklahoma did not know about it.

“Before reading it, I had heard about racial injustice, but I never imagined a group of people being discriminated against (like this), the whole town. Today, I can’t imagine it happening; the thought is mind-boggling,” White said.

‘The other story ...’

Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Joy Hofmeister, a Tulsa resident, led the push in 2019 to include the Race Massacre in the state’s academic standards for the first time.

Prior to 2019, the massacre was included as “a reference point,” or an example to teach a particular concept, like genocide, she said. But with the Legislature’s blessing, the massacre must now explicitly be taught in an age-appropriate way beginning in elementary school. In 2019, her agency worked with historians to draft a framework to guide districts when teaching the massacre, and it includes primary documents and resources to enhance the teaching.

While districts must teach it, the instructional materials and textbook selections are left up to local school district leaders.

Hofmeister said the massacre is now included in state and national history texts, but still not at the level of detail Oklahoma educators believe it deserves. She said she isn’t sure why the tragedy wasn’t required teaching prior to 2019.

“I can guess that there are many who did not speak of what they either witnessed or endured,” Hofmeister said. “We know that historians who have interviewed the survivors have been able to bring now more resources to be able to teach this, but I think this was the shame of our state. and we have to face the horrific events of that massacre and learn from it.”

Armstrong, the centennial project manager, said there’s an ongoing push to make the massacre required teaching nationally. But Hofmeister said that’s not enough; schools also have to teach the resiliency of the bustling Greenwood community, both before the massacre and after it.

“The other story people don’t know is the story of Black success that engendered the riot and the story of Black resilience,” Gardullo said.

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John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park in Tulsa, Oklahoma, memorializes not just the Tulsa Race Massacre, but the role of Black residents in building Oklahoma.

Historians say the decades after the massacre represented another success story for Greenwood as Black residents fought to reclaim their community, despite efforts to keep them from rebuilding — an effort B.C. Franklin viewed as a “land grab” and fought to stop, John Franklin said.

Today, John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park in Greenwood honors that effort to rebuild. Named for B.C. Franklin’s son and for John W. Franklin’s father, the eminent historian John Hope Franklin, it includes a plaque that reads: “And brick by brick, block by block, Greenwood rose again. Out of the ashes of intolerance and the fires of hatred came new homes and businesses, schools and churches … Out of the horrors of 1921 came renewed strength and pride, grit and determination.”

After the massacre

Carlos Moreno, a Tulsa resident and author of the forthcoming book “The Victory of Greenwood,” said his book focuses on what happened after the massacre: the rebuilding of the district from the mid-’20s to the mid-’60s.

“The history of Greenwood doesn’t end June 1, 1921,” Moreno said. “Why the rest of Oklahoma doesn’t know about Greenwood’s rebuilding, I really don’t know. I suspect that maybe it’s an easier story to tell that the massacre happened than North Tulsa looks and feels the way it does because of this horrible event that happened 100 years ago.”

To fully understand the neighborhood, it’s imperative to understand both its founding and rebuilding, Moreno said, noting that Greenwood again became a thriving community after 1921. He said everyone recalls Greenwood’s second “heyday” when it was once more a bustling, diverse neighborhood. Then, in the 1960s, the federal government partnered with the city of Tulsa to construct federal highways that cut through the heart of the district — against the will of the community, Moreno said.

“It’s not possible to build Greenwood now because Greenwood doesn’t own any of the land,” he said. Today’s Greenwood District, which once spanned dozens of city blocks and had up to 200 businesses, is a fraction of the size it was before the massacre and the highways, he said, and much of the land surrounding Black Wall Street is no longer Black-owned.

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Construction crews worked this spring to finish Greenwood Rising, a state-of-the-art history center located in Tulsa’s Greenwood District.

But Nichols, the lawmaker, said he believes the events of Greenwood, along with the new Greenwood Rising museum being constructed in the district, will live on long after the international media spotlight generated by the centennial fades.

Nichols also said the centennial is only the beginning of efforts to educate the country and world about what happened 100 years ago.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of curiosity around what happened there,” he said. “I hope what the curiosity turns into is real recognition, recognition in the history books.”

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