“I have lived through the massacre every day,” testified 107-year-old Viola Ford Fletcher before Congress last week. “Our country may forget this history, but I cannot.”
The survivors are among the plaintiffs who have sued the city of Tulsa, accusing the city of a cover-up and blaming the victims for the actions of its White citizens. Ford Fletcher was among three centenarians who testified. It is almost as if they live to tell the story of the massacre.
One hundred years ago, White settlers of Tulsa, Oklahoma, carried out a pogrom against a part of its population that had only been freed from chattel slavery a little over 50 years before. A pogrom is “a violent riot aimed at the massacre or expulsion of an ethnic or religious group.”
The pogrom targeted Greenwood, as Black Tulsa was known, a community so prosperous and self-contained that Booker T. Washington dubbed it Black Wall Street upon visiting in 1913. The Black community included every imaginable business: hotels, dry cleaners, restaurants, movie theaters, taxi service, dental offices, and a medical facility. However, among its businesses there was not one Black-owned bank or brokerage house. Blacks were employed in Greenwood’s businesses in large numbers, but many also worked as laborers, domestics, and washerwomen in the White community.
What supposedly and officially ignited the furor was a White teenaged woman, Sarah Page accusing a Black youth, 19-year-old Dick Rowland, of assault. While charges were eventually dropped, authorities grabbed the offending Black man and locked him up. Rowland would later be exonerated as it was determined he tripped and tried to brace his fall by grabbing the White girl.
Upon hearing that White virtue had been undermined by a Black male, word began to circulate among White citizens that Rowland should be lynched. Black folks, some among them World War I veterans, heard the rumors and determined that there would be no lynching in their city. They armed themselves and headed downtown, where they were met by a large crowd of Whites who had gathered outside the Tulsa courthouse and jail.
The local mainstream press, the Tulsa Tribune, helped instigate and incite the White population with the headline, “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator” and a story designed to inflame White sensibilities.
Though law enforcement had promised that their prisoner would be protected, they did not disperse the crowd. When a former law enforcement and city official tried to disarm a Black man in the crowd, the gun went off. That shot was the round that doomed Black Tulsa.
Whites broke into sporting goods stores and armed themselves. Law enforcement deputized them, reportedly saying, “Get a gun and get a n***er.” Whites systematically attacked Greenwood early in the morning the next day, June 1, 1921.
Black Tulsa was attacked with machine guns and planes flying overhead dropping dynamite and flammable liquids on buildings. No one knows the official death count, but it is estimated that at least 300 Blacks were murdered and several Whites were killed by Blacks defending themselves. No insurance claims for property loss were ever paid to Black proprietors.
According to survivors, Whites looted Black stores and Black homes, then lit them on fire to cover up their thievery, which some said was the primary purpose of the massacre—Black dispossession. Many believe that Tulsa’s Whites had long been looking for an excuse to rob their community.
Survivors pointed out that Whites let many of them live when they came out of their houses, making it easier to loot the homes before torching them. Not all were so favored: The mob murdered one of the best surgeons in Oklahoma, White or Black, while he was at his home.
The White Tulsa power structure blamed the pogrom on the Black folks who tried to prevent the lynching, even charging two of the more successful Black leaders with inciting a riot—A.J. Smitherman, the publisher of the African American newspaper the Tulsa Star, and J.B. Stradford, a successful entrepreneur who owned one of the largest Black hotels in the country,
The power structure also cited as an indirect cause of the pogrom “agitation among the Negroes for social equality.”
Envy of Black success
When the question is asked what drove Whites to such a murderous and hateful rage, some point to the source as Black success itself. Anti-lynching crusader and journalist Ida B. Wells had acknowledged that lynching was “an excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized and keep the n-g-ers down.” This flies in the face of the idea that Blacks are despised for failing to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.
“The colored people of Tulsa have accumulated property, have established stores and business organizations,” said W.E.B DuBois at the time. According to the scholar-activist, “Public displays of Black prosperity and self-reliance were inherently inflammatory and too much for White society. They [Blacks] feel their independent position and have boasted that in their community there have been no cases of lynching. With such a state of affairs it took only a spark to start a dangerous fire.”
Tulsa massacre historian Hannibal Johnson had an explanation as well. “The Greenwood pioneers parlayed Jim Crow into an economic advantage. They seized the opportunity to create a closed market system that defied Jim Crow’s fundamental premise: African American incompetence and inferiority. The success of the Greenwood District, given the prevailing racial pecking order, could scarcely be tolerated, let alone embraced, by the larger community,” he said.
The pogrom occurred on the heels of the Red Summer of 1919 in which cities all over the U.S., most notably East St. Louis and Chicago, exploded in White racist terror aimed at Black people and Black success. Oklahoma State Sen. Kevin Matthews has said that what inspired the massacre “was jealousy and envy.”
Despite opposition, Black Tulsa rebuilt. According to historians, by the early 1940s the Greenwood District boasted more than 200 Black-owned businesses. Black Wall Street regained its former glory, at least temporarily.
In subsequent decades the community declined, brought down by what some called the “second destruction of Greenwood.” It was plagued by the same issues that hindered, undermined and destroyed the development of Black urban communities all over the U.S.: urban renewal and eminent domain, which allowed for seizures of Black property to run the interstate highway system right through urban Black America.
A Guardian headline read “Biden visits Tulsa to honor victims of race massacre.” But the headline is a misnomer to many who consider reparations to the survivors and the families of those victimized as the best way to honor their memory.
“You can kill the people, but you cannot kill the voice of the blood,” said Rev. William Barber at a Tuesday ceremony to commemorate the dead. And the blood can’t rest until reparations come. You can’t cover over the blood by trying to make a tourist event out of a tragedy,”
“People in positions of power, many just like you, have told us to wait,” testified 106-year-old Greenwood survivor Lessie Benningfield Randle. “Others have told us it’s too late. It seems that justice in America is always so slow, or not possible for Black people. And we are made to feel crazy just for asking for things to be made right.”
Mel Reeves was the community editor at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder until he passed away on January 6, 2022. He had a long and storied history working at the MSR.
Find more about Reeve’s life and legacy here: spokesman-recorder.com/category/remembering-mel-reeves.