Nearly 100 years ago one of the largest massacres of non-military Americans in the history of the U.S. occurred, destroying thousands of lives and hundreds of businesses.
The terrorist attack on the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 was not the only large-scale tragedy to occur in that state. Nearly 75 years before, more than 3,000 Americans lost their lives in an unprovoked yet brutal attack that destroyed a community.
The Greenwood District
Unknown to many, the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma was an established and growing community of Black Americans since 1908. Having settled there after the Civil War, Blacks in the area began to thrive. Encompassing over 600 businesses in a 36-square block radius, and with a population of over 15,000 Black Americans, the Greenwood District became an almost self-contained area with a sound infrastructure, boasting physicians, restaurants, banks,movie theaters, schools, libraries, grocery stores, a hospital and a host of other businesses and services. Black Americans built their own homes, one doctor owned the bus system and six Black Americans even owned six planes. Many people owned farmland and a lot of them had gone into the oil business.
The wealth in his community was a direct result of Jim Crow laws passed in1908 legalizing segregation. Though the laws were later repealed in 1915 by the United States Supreme Court, these laws nevertheless were the impetus of the growth and success of this community. The Black community in Greenwood, as in other cities and towns throughout the South, were forced to trade dollars hand-to-hand, forbidden to utilize many white establishments. In Greenwood, this caused the people to become very tight-knit; they became dependent on each other and eventually, their wealth began to increase. The area became so prosperous that it became nationally known as Black Wall Street.
The Tulsa Race Riot
But all of that changed on June 1, 1921. A series of violent attacks that occurred several years prior to this event and included lynchings, killings and shootings of innocent Black Americans, culminated when a Black man, Dick Rowland, was accused by white female Sarah Page of sexual assault. Though Rowland was never charged with the crime, inflammatory statements by the white-owned newspaper caused the white citizens to dispense vigilante justice to Rowland.
Confrontations between angry white mobs and the people of Greenwood ensued. On May 31, 1921, outnumbered Blacks were shot at; this led to a vicious attack the following day on the citizens of Greenwood. Led by the Ku Klux Klan and their synmpathizers, and enforced by ranking officials of the police department, the people of Greenwood were lynched, shot, and murdered, their homes looted and burned. In a period spanning 12 hours, the carnage left over 3,000 Black Americans dead and over 600 successful businesses burned and destroyed. Over 1,500 homes were burned as the police flew airplanes overhead, dropping nitroglycerin and incendiary kerosene bombs on homes and businesses over a 36-square block radius.
The attack completely destroyed Greenwood. Those citizens who were not killed fled the area, though there was nothing to come back to. The governor declared martial law and the National Guardsmen reestablished law and order. Eventually, the community was rebuilt; however, it never again regained its former prominence.
In 2003, a lawsuit for reparations was filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma, seeking damages and restitution, based on violations of the Fourteenth Amendment. To date, no reparations have been given to the victims of what is known as the Black holocaust.
- Brown, Gregory, Black Holocaust Society
- Black, Samuel, Burning of Greenwood, Oklahoma-The Black Wall Street
- Johnson, Hannibal B., Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District, Eakin Press, Austin, TX, copyright 1998 by Hannibal B. Johnson