As of 1921, the city of Tulsa was home to a thriving African-American neighborhood, an area called Greenwood. This district was home to numerous black-owned businesses, two newspapers, several churches, and thousands of residents; the economic success of this area earned it the name “Black Wall Street.”
On May 30, 1921, an African-American shoe shiner stepped on the foot of a white elevator operator as he entered an elevator in the Drexel Building; she screamed. The next day, the afternoon newspaper in Tulsa, the Tribune, reported this incident as an attempted assault of the female elevator operator. Also, numerous sources report the paper included an editorial entitled “To Lynch a Negro Tonight,” though no copies of the editorial have survived.
Over the next 18 hours, Greenwood burned.
Armed whites entered the neighborhood, looting, killing, burning. The African-American citizens did their best to defend their homes and families, but they were outnumbered. Eventually the National Guard arrived, and many of the African-American victims were arrested; while they were being held, their dead were buried in unmarked mass graves.
By the time the riot was over, more than 1000 homes and businesses were destroyed, 15 churches were burned, and an estimated 50 – 300 people had been killed.
What’s most incredible is that the African-American community didn’t just leave Tulsa. They stayed in Greenwood, living in tents throughout the winter and gradually rebuilt their homes, even as the Tulsa Race Riot became a subject that was rarely spoken of. Even in our history classes in school when I was a kid, we’d only read a few pages about it.
Tulsa is finally coming to terms with its past, though, and the result is the recently completed Reconciliation Park. It’s a lovely, peaceful place to reflect on this tragic history, a place to remember.