Black History Month

The Tulsa Massacre, 1921

Revolutionary Worker #1043, February 20, 2000

On May 30, 1921, a rumor swept through the booming western oil town of Tulsa, Oklahoma that a young Black man had insulted a white woman in a downtown elevator.

According to the white supremacist rules of U.S. society, the accused man faced an immediate death sentence. Since the turn of the century, many hundreds of Black men in the U.S. had been brutally lynched and mutilated by vigilante gangs--without trial or investigation--often for accusations of "affronting white womanhood."

But this time, in Tulsa, it was different. This time there was resistance. Organized militant forces in the Black community stepped forward to defend Dick Rowland.

All the hateful forces of white supremacy in the area responded to that resistance with two feverish days of murder and fire. The dead of Tulsa's Black community lay stacked in piles. And the central Black business district of North Tulsa was totally burned out.

Tulsa 1921 is a story of brutal "ethnic cleansing" and genocide. This was the largest "civil disturbance" since the Civil War and the anti-Indian wars of the 1800s. It is a story that has been systematically censored by the system--despite the repeated efforts of the Black press, revolutionary forces and progressive historians to bring the facts to light.

Now, after almost 80 years, the truth about the Tulsa Massacre is finally breaking into the public arena, and the last survivors are stepping forward to tell the story that has been denied and suppressed.

Tulsa's Little Africa

For decades, Black people fleeing the horrors of the plantation South had found their way west to North Tulsa and forged a new community of 15,000--together with Black Seminoles who arrived in Oklahoma a century earlier after the infamous "Trail of Tears." This new community was called the Greenwood district, or "Little Africa."

Most of the people in this Black community were wage workers--often crossing the railroad tracks into South Tulsa for the worst jobs and domestic work. At the same time, the rigid segregation of Tulsa meant that "Little Africa" created its own business district along Greenwood Avenue. Supporters of Black capitalism nicknamed it "the Negro Wall Street."

There were Black-owned movie theaters, a newspaper, jewelry stores, 15 doctors, three law offices, a school, three grocery stores, many restaurants, churches, and a Black-owned bus line.

But the Tulsa Tribune and white racists of South Tulsa just called it "N*ggertown."

The invention of cars and intense demands of World War 1 brought explosive growth to the petroleum fields and to the notoriously corrupt and rowdy town of Tulsa. The local Tulsa owning class felt that their booming downtown business district was hemmed in by the Black Greenwood community. They wanted Blacks moved out. Police Commissioner Adkison and the Tulsa Tribune constantly accused Greenwood of being a center of prostitution, drugs, liquor and gambling.

Meanwhile in "Little Africa," like in other Black communities, there was a deeply impatient new mood of resistance. Black veterans came back from World War 1 with pride and a fresh belief that they deserved respect and equality. In urban areas, many Black people were bolder in questioning the lynch-law customs of Jim Crow. The revolutionary storms of Europe and Russia after World War 1 inspired the new revolutionary and communist organization among Black people.

The Call for Lynching

Dick Rowland, a young Black shoeshine man, knew the white elevator operator Sarah Page. An investigator from the NAACP uncovered that Rowland had called for the elevator. Page had been angry to be called by a Black man and closed the doors while he was only halfway in. Thrown off balance, he had stepped on her foot. As Rowland left that elevator, Page screamed that he had insulted her.

Rowland was arrested and taken to the Tulsa County Courthouse. No charges were ever pressed, no evidence was ever presented.

The next morning, the Tulsa Tribune printed a rabid editorial with the headline "To Lynch Negro Tonight." That evening, an armed mob of white people gathered outside the jail to lynch Dick Rowland.

A remarkable thing happened: Suddenly an armed group of Black men (variously reported at 50 to 75) arrived from Greenwood, dressed in World War 1 Army fatigues. With breath-taking courage, they confronted this growing crowd of 2,000 racists--announcing that they would fight to protect Rowland's life and see that he got basic justice.

There were shouts back and forth between the two groups--then shots. Several men fell dead. Greatly outnumbered, the Black militants retreated north, across the railroad tracks into Greenwood.

The local police organized a murderous attack on the Black community. They deputized hundreds of men from the lynch mob and told them, "Now you can go out and shoot any n*gger you see, and the law'll be behind you." Groups of white men broke into downtown hardware stores, pawnshops, and gun stores and took firearms and ammunition.

As the racist forces tried to cross the railroad tracks, fighters within the Black community held them off for hours with sniper fire. By dawn, huge numbers of armed whites had gathered--as many as 10,000--and at 5 a.m. they moved into "Little Africa." It was a full military invasion--complete with machine guns.

A 1924 legal brief by the American Central Insurance Company would later describe their "common intent to execute a common plan, to-wit: the extermination of the colored people of Tulsa and the destruction of the colored settlement, homes, and buildings, by fire."

There was continuous resistance. Teams of Black fighters formed to fight for the lives of the people. The combat was house-to-house, and even hand-to-hand in some areas. A Black woman, Mary Jones Parrish, later wrote: "Looking south out of the window of what then was the Woods Building, we saw car loads of men with rifles unloading up near the granary.... Then the truth dawned upon us that our men were fighting in vain to hold their dear Greenwood."

The survivors reported that their neighborhoods were strafed by airplanes. Explosives and firebombs were dropped. A Tulsa cop, Van B. Hurley, later reported that several prominent city officials met with local plane owners in a downtown office and planned the air attack. It was one of the first reported uses of aerial bombs in world history.

Fire and Mass Murder

"They set our house on fire and we were up in the attic... five kids... We were able to get out without injury but bullets were zinging around there... But when we got down, the telephone poles were burned and falling and my poor sister who was two years younger than I am said, `Kinney, is the world on fire?' I said, `I don't think so, but we are in deep trouble."'

Kinney Booker, who was 8
during the Massacre

The attackers immediately set the Black community on fire. A wall of flame swept through the Greenwood business district-- burning out everything in its path.

Meanwhile, gangs of heavily armed attackers went house-to-house--killing people, taking away Black men in a systematic roundup, stealing anything valuable and lighting Black homes on fire. Eyewitnesses reported that Sheriff's deputies used kerosene to burn down the finest homes in the district. About 1,200 houses, hotels, and businesses were destroyed. Thirty-five blocks were a burnt-out wasteland. Charred bodies were found in the debris.

Regular infantry of the Oklahoma National Guard rushed in on a special train, arriving June 1. The Guard's commander later wrote, "Twenty-five thousand whites, armed to the teeth, were ranging the city in utter and ruthless defiance of every concept of law and righteousness. Motor cars bristling with guns swept through the city, their occupants firing at will." The Guard soldiers were officially there to stop the "disturbance," but they quickly went to work rounding up Black people at bayonet point, wounding many in the process.

Behind the trees and walls near the foot of Standpipe Hill, the armed defense fighters of the Black community made their last stand. The National Guard set up two machine guns and poured deadly fire into the area. The last Black fighters surrendered. They were disarmed and marched in columns to four major internment areas that had been set up at the city's Convention Hall, McNulty Baseball Park, the Fairgrounds and the town's airport.

The killing was systematic and heartless. Death squads of armed whites, many of them organized Klansmen, went door-to-door in the burning neighborhoods killing people. They shot anyone moving in the streets. Black men were chained to cars and dragged to their deaths. In white areas, Black domestic workers were gunned down on their way home--without warning. Dr. A. C. Jackson (who was described by a founder of the Mayo Clinic as "the most able Negro surgeon in the country") was murdered after surrendering himself to police.

The National Guard organized teams to stack bodies and load them on wagons and trucks. The Red Cross reported treating almost 1,000 wounded people--overwhelmingly Black. The local Black school, which escaped the fire, became a field hospital. One observer wrote, "There were men wounded in every conceivable way, like soldiers after a big battle. Some with amputated limbs, burned faces, others minus an eye or with heads bandaged. There were women who were nervous wrecks, and some confinement cases. Was I in a hospital in France? No, in Tulsa."

Many Black people fled the city completely--into the Osage Hills and the many Black communities that dotted rural Oklahoma. Many thousands had been captured at gunpoint. Some were taken to killing fields and executed in cold blood. Others, including many children, were marched to the internment centers. At the entrance to the Tulsa Convention Center, a murdered Black man's body was publicly displayed as a trophy in the back of a truck. And columns of captured Black people were forced to pass in front of it, on their way into the building.

Reporter Brent Staples describes the aftermath (New York Times December 19, 1999): "Corpses stacked like cordwood on street corners, photographed for keepsakes. Corpses piled in the backs of wagons, dump trucks, and along railroad sidings. Corpses buried in an underground tunnel downtown, where one caller said 123 blacks had been clubbed to death. Corpses left to rot for days in a park under the blistering Oklahoma sun. Corpses dumped in the Arkansas River and allowed to float away."

By June 2, the fighting was over. The Black community had been completely burnt out --- turned into a smoking wasteland. After being held in internment, a thousand Black people were forced to spend the following winter in a refugee city of tents and board shacks under bitter conditions. For months, Black people would see white people on Tulsa's downtown streets wearing clothing and jewelry stolen during the pogrom.

The Fight for the Truth

The Black press in the U.S. fought hard to expose what had happened in Tulsa.

The newly formed Communist Party (CP) printed hundreds of thousands of flyers entitled "The Tulsa Massacre." The leaflet boldly supported the armed self-defense of Black communities and called for the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system for its brutal white supremacy. Activists distributed them very widely across the country--in factory districts, Black communities and conventions of organizations like the NAACP.

Government informants reported that a ton of the flyers were distributed in Chicago alone.

Revolutionaries and progressive people organized campaigns to aid the burned-out survivors of this massacre.

In Tulsa itself, amid the horror and sorrow, there was reportedly tremendous pride that Rowland had gone free and that the community had fought so fiercely with guns against racist attack.

Meanwhile, the U.S. power structure immediately moved to whitewash this event, and to suppress knowledge of it. A hastily convened grand jury announced that the events were caused by the Black community--specifically blaming "an effort on the part of a certain group of colored men who appeared at the courthouse..." In the second place they blamed the "agitation among the negroes of the social equality." Local authorities blamed a revolutionary organization, the African Blood Brotherhood, for instigating the resistance. Leading figures of the Black community were indicted for "inciting" the events of May 31. Not one white person was ever arrested or charged for the Tulsa Massacre.

Mayor Paul Brown reported that only 36 people died--10 whites and 26 Black people. This figure was repeated in history books and accounts--as an official accounting of these so-called "Tulsa Race Riots."

The headlines of the Tulsa Tribune raged:

  • "Propaganda of Negroes is Blamed"
  • "Black Agitators Blamed for Riot, Plot by Negro Society?"
  • "Bloodshed in Race War will Cleanse Tulsa"
  • "Negro Section Abolished by City's Order"
  • Local authorities made sure "Little Africa" would never be rebuilt--money was denied, new ordinances were passed.

    The newly formed FBI focused much of its activities during the summer of 1921, identifying and harassing the forces circulating the CP's "Tulsa Massacre" fliers. Insurance companies refused to compensate the victims of the Tulsa massacre and fire.

    And soon, this shameful Tulsa Massacre was simply erased from official American history and public discussion. Most people have simply never heard of it. Someone at the Tulsa Tribune removed all records that their newspaper had called for the lynching of Dick Rowland--no known copies of the inflammatory articles exist today.

    Over the years, there was an ongoing struggle to break through the silence. Survivors told of the air attacks and of bodies dumped in mineshafts and the nearby river. Officially, such reports were dismissed as unfounded exaggerations and lies. In the 1970s, thanks to the powerful Black Liberation movement, accounts of the Tulsa Massacre started to appear in progressive magazines, radical history books and the new courses on Black Studies.

    Memory and Mass Graves

    Six years ago, the world learned about the 1923 racist attack in Rosewood, Florida, through the movie and the court case where survivors received $2 million in restitution.

    Since 1997, a relentless movement has emerged to demand an accounting in Tulsa. Many participants demand reparations for the brutality and destruction. More than 150 witnesses, including 60 survivors, have testified at a "Tulsa Race Riot Commission" of the Oklahoma Legislature. And their powerful stories have brought out the truth--after all these many years. People have stepped forward to identify three places in Tulsa where Black bodies were buried in mass graves. Excavations at one of the mass grave sites are scheduled to begin this summer.

    Historians generally now estimate that at least 300 people died during this Massacre--over 90 percent of them Black. Some people suspect the number was much higher. In fact, the real number of dead may never be known.


    No force can undo the crimes of the Tulsa Massacre. But the struggle and determination of Black people has forced a public investigation of these events. Just demands are being made for a public accounting and reparations.

    At a time when official Amerikkka crudely denies the existence of systematic and institutional racism--the reality of Black people's lives and oppression has been wrenched into the light of day.

    This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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