Perhaps the ugliest, largest and most shameful blot on Oklahoma’s history is the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. And until recently, it was an event largely swept under the rug, or – at best – wildly downplayed, essentially rewritten to fit a racist agenda. The event was halted from rising to the forefront of discussions about our state’s history.

In the last Few Years, things have changed. Conversations have shifted. Finally, a horrible event is being presented factually. The truth has been brought to the light. 

Motivations have morphed into education, into reconciliation, into healing. In this retrospective, we take a look at Oklahoma’s burgeoning all-Black communities prior to the massacre; the event and its aftermath; the evolving education surrounding the Massacre; the Flourishing Greenwood District as it stands today; and the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission and its hopes for a better, more united Tulsa.

What Came Before

Tulsa-based author Clifton Taulbert often poses a question when he lectures about the history of Black Oklahomans.

“How did these people recently freed from enslavement get the mental wherewithal to go out and found towns and universities and start businesses?” Taulbert typically asks his audience.

A primary answer, he says, is that they were “driven by creating a future for their children.”

Many of the more than 4 million formerly enslaved people left the South. The first all-Black town, Nicodemus, Kan., was founded in 1877 and exists today, Taulbert says. By 1901, dozens of Black towns were thriving across Oklahoma.

“Pioneering was the way of life for all Americans about that time period,” he says. “You were always looking for a place to plant your dreams. That did not get lost on their aspirations.”

Langston founder E. P. McCabe was a primary Black towns proponent “and perhaps the most important booster for Oklahoma as an all-Black state,” says Karlos Hill, P.h.D, chairman of the department of African and African-American studies at the University of Oklahoma.

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Though McCabe’s proposal “did not come close to happening,” says Hill, “the vision was that it could be a place where Black people could own land, could build businesses, could see in Oklahoma a promised land, could live out their lives to the fullest extent, without racism.”

Tulsa’s Greenwood district was platted in 1906. With statehood in 1907, “it was uniquely positioned to prosper because of legal segregation,” says Taulbert. “They had to open their own businesses because they weren’t always allowed in white businesses. They were ready to build their field of dreams.”

The merchants were making good money, and “all that money was exchanged over and over again in the area of Greenwood known as Black Wall Street,” says Taulbert. An example of such entrepreneurship was Simon Berry, who migrated to Tulsa about 1915. 

“He established several profitable transportation businesses at a time when Blacks were banned from using white taxi companies and, of course, train travel was segregated,” says Hill. “He likely was the largest employer in the Greenwood district circa 1921, and maybe even moving forward.”

Some Greenwood pioneers came from Mississippi, says Taulbert, who grew up in the Delta.

“That has always been my pride and joy, to know that many were from Mississippi,” he says. “Berry, who owned the only Black air charter service at the time, was from Grenada, Mississippi.”

Such prosperity led to jealousy, Hill says, which was likely a major factor in the brutal Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. 

“The resentment toward Greenwood can be illustrated by the way in which white Tulsans, and especially the Tulsa Tribune, referred to it in a variety of disparaging ways that ran counter to how the Black community thought of itself,” says Hill. “For whites to talk about it so derisively, and particularly in ways that belittled it, helps us to understand the kind of animosity toward the community.”

The Massacre and its Reverberations

Fresh out of Oral Roberts University, Taulbert interviewed Tulsa Race Massacre survivor Opal Dargan. 

“She was not quite 10 years old when the massacre took place,” he says. “Opal observed with her own eyes the fear that her mother had, because her father was not at home when it started. Their neighborhood was on fire, so they had to join a group of people running for their lives.”

When Dargan talked about the fire, Taulbert says: “You could almost feel the flames. Her persona changed as she told the story. It was like she was that little girl again, living in fear.”

Taulbert – whose memoir, Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored – was made into a movie in 1996, spent 15 years interviewing survivors or their children, but says he has yet to publish the manuscripts. 

Hannibal Johnson – an author and attorney who serves as local curator of Greenwood Rising, the history center scheduled to open in June – sets the tone in his writings from tulsa2021.org:

“A chance encounter between two teenagers lit the fuse that set Greenwood District alight,” he writes.

“The alleged assault on a white girl, Sarah Page, by an African-American boy, Dick Rowland, triggered unprecedented civil unrest. Propelled by sensational reporting by The Tulsa Tribune, resentment over Black economic success, and a racially hostile climate in general, mob rule held sway.”

Rowland was arrested on May 31, 1921, accused of accosting Page as they rode in an elevator in downtown Tulsa. A white mob threatened to lynch him, and Black residents vowed to protect him. 

“The groups exchanged words. Scuffles ensued. A gun discharged,” Johnson writes. “Soon, thousands of weapon-wielding white men, some of them deputized by local law enforcement, invaded the Greenwood District. In fewer than 24 hours, people, property, hopes and dreams vanished.”

Historians believe as many as 300 people died.

Hill says that a century after the tragedy, some of the story has been lost to the ages.

“We do know that Sarah Page did not want to testify against Dick Rowland,” he says. “The case against him was dropped. They both kind of fade from history.”

Tulsa Deputy Mayor Amy Brown says newspaper accounts, death certificates and funeral home records are being studied by committees appointed by the city for the 1921 Graves Investigation. Last October, an excavation revealed that at least 11 people were buried in coffins in a single grave shaft in a segregated area of Oaklawn Cemetery. Brown says the city hopes to obtain permission from the state for forensic anthropologists to examine the remains for signs of trauma and look for artifacts that would help determine if they were the victims of violent crime. A further step would be to obtain DNA samples from descendants of race massacre victims in an effort to identify the remains.

City leaders “are coming to this from a place of reverence, a place of remorse, but also from a place of hope,” says Brown. “It’s helping us build better relationships.”

Education: An Intentional Omission

Many native Oklahomans were never taught about the Tulsa Race Massacre, but every year, the story makes it into more classrooms.

A professional development workshop has been held every year since 2018, says Hill. More than 100 educators enrolled in the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Educator Institute, which met weekly for 10 weeks starting in March and was held virtually this year due to the pandemic.

Hill, who serves on the 2021 Race Massacre Centennial Commission, says his role there has been to support the educational initiatives. The teachers are not spoon-fed.

“What we are trying to do is empower teachers to develop their own curriculums and their own lesson plans, that are age-appropriate and appropriate for the time they have in their classrooms,” he says. 

A course description on the tulsa2021.org website says “teachers will immerse themselves in the history of the massacre, examine their own biases, build relationships with a diverse cohort of teachers statewide and learn ways to create a culturally responsive classroom.”

Tulsa was on its way to becoming the self-described oil capital of the world when the massacre happened, says Johnson.

“The leaders of Tulsa sought to minimize [the news of the massacre],” he says. “This was not talked about for many, many years. Generations of folk who grew up here were not aware of it. It was an intentional omission.”

In 2001, a report was issued by the Oklahoma Commission to study the ‘Tulsa Race Riot,’ as the massacre was then referred to. 

“That drew attention nationally and internationally to this history,” says Johnson. “Things began to change at that point.”

The Oklahoma History Center and the Oklahoma State Department of Education are among the agencies that have resources, including lesson plans and teaching tools, on their websites. 

“Tulsa Public Schools is working on making sure it’s incorporated in kindergarten through twelfth grade,” says Johnson. “They are developing curriculums in the schools right now.”

The Commission 

As the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre approached, Sen. Kevin Matthews was ready to listen.

“I went to the Greenwood Cultural Center and asked what they needed,” says the District 11 state senator, who also lives in Greenwood.

He was told that the cultural center needed some renovation work. That conversation, along with Matthews’ visit to the National African-American Museum of History and Culture in Washington, D.C., led to his 2017 senate bill granting initial funding and the formation of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, of which he is the chair.

Led by project coordinator Phil Armstrong, the commission has been responsible for the new history center, Greenwood Rising, as well as the observance that started a year before the actual centennial date and will culminate this month and next. 

The commission’s mission is to “leverage the rich history surrounding the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre by facilitating actions, activities and events that commemorate and educate all citizens,” according to its website. Apart from Matthews and Armstrong, the group includes 24 commissioners, including Gov. Kevin Stitt and Mayor G.T. Bynum, as well as sub-committees in arts and culture; economic development; tourism; education; reconciliation; and marketing/public relations. 

Planning during a pandemic has not been easy, says Matthews, but organizers expect most, if not all, of the upcoming activities to be presented in a live format.

Scheduled events include the dedication of historic Greenwood landmarks on May 22; the John Hope Franklin National Symposium on May 26-29; a Faith Still Standing Unity Day on May 30; and the centennial commemorative program with keynote speakers and candlelight vigil on May 31.

An economic empowerment conference is planned for June 1; the Greenwood Rising dedication on June 2; a global online history lesson on the story of Greenwood on June 3; a Greenwood Film Festival on June 4; and a Black Wall Street Memorial Run on June 5.

More information on centennial events is available at tulsa2021.org.

Armstrong says his goal for the centennial observance is that people “will learn how vibrant and wonderful this community was back in the 1920s, and that we are still reaping the benefits of it today.”

Greenwood Today

Venita Cooper, owner of Silhouette Sneakers and Art, says her store on Greenwood Avenue “is a very integrated space.”

That matters to Cooper, a former educator who says Tulsa remains a racially segregated city. 

“A lot of that is a product of the history,” she says. “There’s a lot of distrust in the community, especially in the older community.” 

But among young people, Cooper says, “it feels different.

“It gives me a lot of pride, in a place that was once segregated by law, to be a space where all races want to engage.”

Cooper’s boutique, which opened in November 2019, sells limited-edition sneakers, streetwear, vintage clothing and local apparel. The gallery features local artists.

Cooper says one of her inspirations for starting the business was Phil Knight, co-founder of Nike.

“What I’m learning is that this guy had no idea what he was doing,” she says. “He had an idea and just pursued it. I said to myself that I’m not going to hold back just because I don’t have this history of entrepreneurship in my family. This is how entrepreneurship happens.”

Guy Troupe, owner of the Black Wall Street Liquid Lounge, opened his coffee shop in Greenwood on Jan. 1, 2020.

“My great-aunt had a presence there, and I felt like it was important to pay homage to my family heritage on Greenwood,” he says.

His great-aunt, Lucille Troupe, ran C.J. Walker’s beauty franchises in Tulsa, Okmulgee and Muscogee. 

Madam C.J. Walker was the first Black woman millionaire in the United States, who made her fortune by creating a line of hair care products for Black women.

Troupe says his great-aunt was principal of a school for several years before opening a beauty college and storefront in Greenwood in the 1940s.

“I spent a fair amount of time with her; she died when I was a freshman in college,” he says. 

Troupe had no ancestors living in Greenwood at the time of the massacre, but he knew about it through his family. He says he was not particularly interested in the story as a child, but was respectful to the elders who told him about the proud history of Greenwood being rebuilt.

“What my family taught me was that this was a thriving community, and my great-aunt was one of many entrepreneurs and sort of bootstrap people, and that was a way of life we needed to embrace – that you can thrive under most any conditions if you work hard and you align with your people,” he says.

Schedule
of Events

Events are subject to change. Visit tulsa2021.org/events for the most current information.

May 1: Tulsa Opera Production – A musical production at the Tulsa PAC, spotlighting music by living Black composers, sung by Black opera artists 

May 23: Certified Piedmontese IRONMAN Tulsa, North American Championship

May 25-31: 2021 KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship – In partnership with the 1921 TRMCC, hosted at Southern Hills Country Club

May 26-29: John Hope Franklin National Symposium – The twelfth annual Reconciliation in America National Symposium, The Future of Tulsa’s Past: The Centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre and Beyond

May 28: Dedication of historic landmarks – The official recognition of historically significant locations in historic Greenwood, including the dedication to the Pathway of Hope walking path 

May 31: Remember + Rise Commemorative Program – Nationally-televised event to commemorate the centennial with key speakers, musicians and special guests

May 31: Candlelight vigil – A solemn ceremony commemorating the start of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre

June 1: Economic Empowerment Day – An interactive conference focused on closing the racial wealth gap

June 2: Greenwood Rising dedication – Official unveiling of Greenwood Rising: The Black Wall Street History Center

June 3: National Day of Learning – A global online history lesson on the story of Greenwood

June 4: Tim Reid’s Greenwood Film Series – A multi-theater event hosted by Tim Reid and Clifton Taulbert

June 5: Black Wall Street Memorial Run – A 5- or 10k run in honor of the official centennial commemoration

June 5: Dreamland Again – A multi-genre musical experience promoting remembrance with the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra, Dr. View and SymDesign

June 18: BWS100 cycling event – A 15, 30 and 100k cycling event promoting health in the Black community, hosted by BWS100 and the Bike Club Tulsa

June 19: Juneteenth – Event hosted by the Black Wall Street Chamber of Commerce 

A New Way Center
Mental health services
918-599-7277
anewwaycenter.com

Black Wall Street Gallery
Art gallery
918-986-2135
bwsgallery.com

Black Wall Street Liquid Lounge
Coffee shop
539-867-2477
bwsll.com

Big A Bail Bond Co.
Bail bonds service
918-428-6169

Blow Out Hair Studio
Beauty salon
918-576-6200

Blu Print Studio
Fitness center
918-986-2804
thebluprintstudio.com

Cheyenne’s Boxing Gym
Gym
918-808-6320
boxing-with-cheyenne.business.site

Dynamite Cleaning Services
Cleaning service
918-946-3559
facebook.com/dynamitecs

Fat Guy’s Burger Bar
Restaurant
918-794-7782
fatguysburgers.com

Frios Gourmet Pops
Dessert shop
918-949-9879
friospops.com

Greenwood Chamber of Commerce
Historical landmark
918-585-2084
historictulsagreenwoodchamber.org

Greenwood Cultural Center
History museum
918-596-1020
greenwoodculturalcenter.com

Hannibal B. Johnson, Esq.
Attorney/consultant
918-585-6770
hannibalbjohnson.com

King Architectural Solutions
Architect
918-794-0758
kingarchitecturalsolutions.com

The Loc Shop
Hair salon
918-955-2110
thelocshopbws.com

Modern Woodmen of America
Insurance agency
918-884-7474
modernwoodmen.org

Natural Health Clinic
Medical clinic
918-587-4500
nhgreenwood.com

The Pillar Group
Insurance agency
918-392-5665
tpginsandwealthmgt.com

Rose Tax Solutions
Tax consultant
855-818-2937
rosetaxsolutions.com

Silhouette Sneakers and Art
Shoe store
918-732-9166
silhouettetulsa.com

Suited for Life
Non-profit
918-636-0064
suitedforlife.org

Tee’s Barber Shop
Hair salon
918-584-1189
tees-barber-shop.edan.io

Tierre’s Jewelry and Company
Jewelry store
918-645-5326
tierresjewelryandcompanyllc.com

Vicky B’s Dance Co.
918- 928-9500
vickybs.com

Wanda J’s Next Generation
Restaurant
918-861-4142
wandajs.com

100 Black Men of Tulsa
Community organization
918-954-3690
100blackmentulsa.org