5 things to know about the Tulsa Race Massacre, 103 years later

On May 31, 1921, one of the worst incidents of racial violence in America began in Tulsa, Okla.

For 18 hours, thousands of homes and businesses were burned to the ground — and anywhere from 50 to 300 people were dead. The two days of violence would become known as the Tulsa Race Massacre.

More than 100 years later, survivors are still calling for justice.

Here are five things to know about the Tulsa Race Massacre.

What was Black Wall Street

The massacre targeted Black Wall Street, a flourishing business district of an all-Black community in Oklahoma.

The Greenwood District was built in the early 1900s in northern Tulsa. The neighborhood was home to some 10,000 residents, two newspapers, multiple churches and a library, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society.

But the community was known for its thriving Black businesses.

More than 70 businesses were clustered along Black Wall Street: Hotels, grocery stores, restaurants and theaters made up just some of the businesses in the community.

Almost all the businesses were owned by Black entrepreneurs.

About 40 percent of Greenwood’s residents were professionals or skilled craftspeople, such as doctors, pharmacists, carpenters and hairdressers, according to a New York Times analysis of the 1920 census.

But many of the businesses and homes would be burned to the ground in the late spring of 1921.

Dick Rowland and Sarah Page

On May 31, 1921, 19-year-old Dick Rowland stepped into an elevator on the third floor of the Drexel Building. The elevator was operated by 17-year-old Sarah Page.

Rowland was Black; Page was white.

It’s not entirely clear what happened in the elevator — there were no witnesses. But at some point, Rowland and Page allegedly had physical contact. Some say it was as simple as him stepping on her foot. Others say Page told police Rowland grabbed her arm.

Page screamed, drawing the attention of an employee at a department store in the building. Rowland fled, but the department store employee called the police. Rowland was arrested the next morning.

The city was already on edge — the previous August, a Black man was lynched by a mob that included the city’s mayor.

So police moved Rowland to the top floor of the courthouse in the hopes of keeping the peace.

But the Tulsa Tribune published an article with the headline “To Lynch Negro Tonight!”

A mob of white men gathered outside of the Tulsa Courthouse hoping to attack Rowland. In response, some 50 or so armed Black men — many veterans — began to arrive in the hopes of protecting Rowland.

According to the National Endowment for the Humanities, things were — relatively — peaceful until about 10:30 p.m., when “all hell broke loose.”

Bullets flew and buildings were looted. But it didn’t stop there.

In the predawn hours of June 1, Black residents woke to bullets ripping through the windows and walls of their homes.

Post-massacre rebuilding

According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, four hotels, eight churches, seven grocery stores, two Black hospitals, two candy stores, two pool halls, two Masonic lodges, real estate offices, undertakers, barber and beauty shops, doctors’ offices, drugstores, auto garages and choc joints were all destroyed.

In addition to the businesses, 1,256 homes were destroyed and another 400 were looted.

Oklahoma’s Tulsa Race Massacre Commission reported that 100 to 300 people were killed, though some estimate the number may be even higher.

Still, Black Americans worked to rebuild what was lost — and they had help from some of the most high-profile Black scholars of the time.

Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business League held its annual meeting in Tulsa in 1925. More than 200 Black businesses were rebuilt by 1945.

On the centennial anniversary, Bloomberg Philanthropies gave Tulsa $1 million for a public art project called the Greenwood Art Project.

In this image provided by the City of Tulsa, Crews work on an excavation at Oaklawn Cemetery searching for victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre on Oct. 26, 2022, in Tulsa, Okla. Officials say the search for remains of victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre has turned up 21 additional graves in the city’s Oaklawn Cemetery. (City of Tulsa via AP)
In this image provided by the City of Tulsa, Crews work on an excavation at Oaklawn Cemetery searching for victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre on Oct. 26, 2022, in Tulsa, Okla. Officials say the search for remains of victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre has turned up 21 additional graves in the city’s Oaklawn Cemetery. (City of Tulsa via AP)

Attempts to identify those killed continues

For many years, Tulsa officials tried to eliminate the massacre from the historical record, despite promises to rebuild the Black neighborhood, according to The New York Times.

But in recent years, authorities have been working to find and identify all those who were killed during the massacre. They are believed to have been buried in unmarked mass graves, approved by the white authorities of the time.

In November 2022, researchers uncovered 38 unmarked graves, including two child-sized graves.

Last April, officials said they were able to create genetic genealogy profiles for six of 22 bodies exhumed from Oaklawn Cemetery in 2021, though it’s not certain they were victims of the massacre.

But the profiles will allow genealogists to determine their last names and help begin the process.

Survivors call for reparations

Only two survivors of the massacre remain living today: Viola Ford Fletcher, known as Mother Fletcher, and Lessie Benningfield Randle are both 109.

Fletcher’s brother, Hughes Van Ellis, died at 102 in October.

They have been fighting for not only recognition of what happened in 1921, but for reparations.

Since 2021, the survivors have been entangled in court battles alleging the city of Tulsa and other departments were complicit in the massacre. They add that the effects of the massacre are still being felt today.

In 2021, Hughes Van Ellis testified before Congress about what his family endured 100 years previously.

“Because of the Massacre, my family was driven from our home. We were left with nothing. We were made refugees in our own country,” Van Ellis said in his written testimony.

Last year, Oklahoma’s Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal of a lawsuit seeking relief from damage inflicted during the massacre and to “recover for unjust enrichment” others gained from the “exploitation of the massacre.”

None of the survivors or their families ever received any compensation from state or city officials.

The plaintiffs have asked the Supreme Court to give them the “opportunity — before they die and there are no other survivors of the Massacre — take the stand, take an oath, and tell an Oklahoma court what has happened to them, their families and their community.”

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