Tulsa race massacre 1921: what happened in Greenwood Oklahoma - and why was it known as ‘Black Wall Street’?

One hundred years on from one of the most violent acts in US history, America is remembering the Tulsa race massacre
Greenwood was a flourishing neighbourhood before the Tulsa Race Massacre (Getty Images)Greenwood was a flourishing neighbourhood before the Tulsa Race Massacre (Getty Images)
Greenwood was a flourishing neighbourhood before the Tulsa Race Massacre (Getty Images)

In 1921 Greenwood was the centre of a flourishing black community.

Just over half-a-century on from the abolition of slavery, the Tulsa neighbourhood had evolved into one of the most prosperous black areas of the United States, home to tens of successful African-American businesses, including real estate agents, entrepreneurs, and doctors.

Due to its success the neighbourhood became known as the Black Wall Street – and with success came growing resentment from the white community who made up the majority of the population in Tulsa.

Then, on May 31, 1921, an explosion of violence from white residents all but vanquished the prosperous neighbourhood, murdering hundreds of black people in one of the most disturbing chapters in US history.

What happened in Tulsa in 1921?

White resentment towards the prosperous neighbourhood had been growing for some time when Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old black shoeshiner was accused of assaulting Sarah Page a 17-year-old elevator operator.

Rowland was taken into custody, and an angry mob of white men gathered outside the jail on May 31. With rumours that Rowland was to be lynched, an estimated group of 75 black men, many of them World War 1 veterans, and some of them armed, also gathered calling for Rowland not to be hanged.

The group of black men were persuaded to leave when assured that the situation was under control. As they left, a member of the white mob attempted to disarm one of the black men. A shot is then said to have been fired with the sheriff’s report saying that “all hell broke loose”.

By the end of firefighting 12 were dead, 10 of them white, two of them black.

News of the violence spread throughout the city, and violence washed over black neighbourhoods with white rioters, looting, killing and burning down stores and homes.

Eyewitness acounts also described how airplanes carried white assailants who shot at neighbourhoods and dropped firebombs on property from the air.

On the morning of the June 1 when the violence had slowed, around 10,000 black people were left homeless, $2.25m of property damage had been done to black businesses and homes (amounting to $32.65 million in 2020).

The estimates of those who died ranges from 75 to 300.

Many black residents fled the city, while those who remained lived in terror.

The awful events of May 31 and June 1, 1921 were largely omitted from local and national history, with the massacre only added to Oklahoma school curriculum in 2020.

In 2001 it was found that the city had worked with white citizens against black citizens

Why was Greenwood known as Black Wall Street?

Greenwood became known as Black Wall Street due to its affluence, with Booker T Washington labelling the neighbourhood Negro Wall Street.

Many moved to the area hoping to capitalise on the oil and mining boom, with African Americans from the Deep South and Kansas all migrating to Tulsa.

At the time the United States was under Jim Crow rules, with white businesses often refusing to serve black customers, meaning that black money was almost exclusively used at black businesses, many of them in Greenwood.

Black Wall Street was home to attorneys, real estate agents, entrepreneurs, and doctors, as well as several grocery stores, barbershops and a YMCA.

In the years following the massacre, efforts were made to rebuild Greenwood to its former peak, with black business owners sucessfully rebuilding much of the neighbourhood despite opposition from white political and business leaders.

Following desegregation in the 1950s and the 1960s the neighbourhood declined with black residents less reliant on the area.

Today, efforts are underway to rename the district “Tulsa Race Riot of 1921” in order to ensure that the shocking events are not forgotten.