The massacre of Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street”


Something terrible happened here. And for decades, people didn’t talk about
it. “I was an adult before I ever heard about
it. It was something that was hidden.” “This entire historic community was obliterated.” “Bodies dumped in rivers bodies dumped in
mass graves. It was an absolute massacre.” This story isn’t one you’ll find in most
history books. And almost 100 years later, the facts of what
exactly happened that day…are still unraveling. “So we’re driving in what’s known as
Black Wall Street. It’s where one of the nation’s worst episodes
of racial violence took place.” In 1921 — a neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma
called the Greenwood District, was a bustling community of black-owned businesses. Tulsa locals know that period of Greenwood’s
history as a kind of Golden Age. “If you can imagine just like an old time
downtown, things like movie theaters, pharmacy’s, hair salons, and so forth.” They called it, “Black Wall Street”. “It was a mecca, it was a huge success.” But Black Wall Street was also an anomaly. It thrived at a time when the KKK was incredibly
active in Oklahoma and the nation had just been through the “Red Summer of 1919”
— when white mobs murdered black people in dozens of incidents across the US. “There needed to be a sort of match or an
igniter tossed on these embers and that event was, that trigger event, was an incident that
involved two teenagers: Dick Rowland, 19-year-old black boy who shined shoes downtown. Sarah Page, 17-year-old white girl who ran
an elevator in a downtown building called the Drexel Building. He went to the building boarded the elevator. Something happened. Sarah Page began to scream. They both ran out of the elevator.” Now we don’t know exactly what happened
in this elevator — but a day later, Rowland was arrested and taken to the courthouse. The local newspaper ran an article claiming
Rowland had assaulted Page. Even though Page refused to press charges, the
article was essentially a call to action for whites. “A large white mob began to gather on the
lawn of the courthouse. Dick Rowland was in jail on the top floor. A number of black men, several dozen, marched
down to the courthouse to protect him. Some of them armed. There was a struggle between one of the black
men in the small group and one of the white men in a larger group. And things sort of went south from from that
point.” Hundreds of white people descended upon Black
Wall Street, armed. Black residents withdrew behind the railroad
tracks that marked off the Greenwood district. Some of them were armed, and fought back. But they were outnumbered by the white mob, which
shot their way through. The white mob murdered. They looted. And they set fire to Black Wall Street. “This was the strategy, if you will, of
how to deal with these successful black communities. The effects were disastrous.” For two days, the Greenwood district burned. Martial law was declared. And the National Guard was brought in. By the time the massacre ended, Greenwood
was in ruins. More than 1200 homes were destroyed, and 35
blocks, burned. The exact number of casualties is harder to
pin down. Some initially only reported that white people
died. Others, reported somewhere between 30 and
100 mostly black casualties. But estimates now put that number closer to
300. As for those that survived, thousands of them
lived in tents cities in the months that followed…and were left to pick up the pieces of rubble
they once called home. After the massacre, the cover up started. Records went missing from city files — including
the very article that started it all. It makes photos from this time all the more
important as part of the historical record. But back in 1921, these images served a very
different purpose. “So photo postcards like these were widely
distributed after the massacre. At the time they were a part of white supremacist
culture, and kept as souvenirs of racially charged crimes.” Now, they’re preserved to make sure this
part of Tulsa’s history isn’t forgotten — and they paint a clear picture of how
much destruction there was that day. On the postcards, it’s called “The Tulsa
Race Riot” — a name that, itself, sort of erases what really happened. “By calling it a riot,  it’s a way of trying
to rewrite the history, assuming that there were both sides at fault and that was not
the case. I call it a massacre and I call it that, because that’s what
it was.” Greenwood eventually rebuilt. But nearly a century later, there’s a part
of this story that still haunts the city. No one actually knows where the victims’
bodies are. “We’ve got to find our people we’ve got
to put them at rest. If not we continue to be haunted by what was
done so many years ago.” Kavin Ross, a local writer, is one of many
in Tulsa, descended from people who lost everything in the massacre. “So in this cemetery there are only two
official victims of the Tulsa race massacre. How many victims do you think there are?” “After all these years, I think 300 is putting
it mild.” In 1997, the city finally put together a commission
to study the massacre, and help piece together what happened in 1921. They compiled records, and eyewitness accounts. “The bullets were just raining down over
us.” “They set our house on fire and went right
straight to the curtains and set the curtains on fire.” These accounts are especially important now
— because none of these survivors are alive anymore. And they also provided new information. Some mentioned trucks – like this one – loaded
with victims of the riot. One riot witness in particular came forth, testifying that he saw bodies being dumped in Oaklawn Cemetery. “This is it. This is the area.” Using the survivor accounts, records, and
eventually, radar —  the city was able to pinpoint three locations with anomalies
in the soil. Only one step was left, to excavate. But it was something the city, at the time,
wasn’t up for doing. For many Tulsans, it was a part of history
best forgotten, and not worth investigating. In some ways, today, that sentiment remains. “Kind of a waste of money.” “Why do you think that?” “It’s over. It’s done with.” But there are clear signs of a city that’s
ready to come to terms with a dark chapter in its history. “Honestly that’s a lot of missing people,
people that probably had families.” “We owe it to the people who whose blood
has actually fertilized the grounds of this place.” “There was a tremendous amount of racism” “Injustice plus time does not equal justice.” Today, a new mayor is re-opening the investigation. “I think a pretty basic compact that a city
makes with its citizens is, if somebody murders you we will do everything we can to find out
what happened to you and give your family closure. Whether you were murdered yesterday or you
were murdered 98 years ago.” The city will be looking into the three areas
that the commission noted. That process — of  finding out what lies
beneath Tulsa — and DNA matching any remains with descendants, could take years. The investigation is just one part of a bigger
historical reckoning. But the reality is, it can’t undo the crimes or the cover up
of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. “This story is the greatest conspiracy of
silence that I’ve ever seen in history.” “Thanks for watching. If you haven’t already heard, we’ve launched
a paid membership program called the Video Lab For a monthly fee, subscribers get access
to tons of special features. Becoming a member is the best way to support
our work, so head on over to Vox.com/join to sign up. See you there.”

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Reader Comments

  1. Vox

    If you liked this video, we've got good news! We've launched Missing Chapter, a new series with Vox senior producer Ranjani Chakraborty, focused on uncovering the hidden histories that didn't make it into our textbooks. You can watch the first episode, about North Carolina's 1898 coup, right here: https://youtu.be/LVQomlXMeek

    And be sure to explore the full Missing Chapter playlist, including episodes, a creator Q&A too! https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLJ8cMiYb3G5fR2kt0L4Nihvel4pEDw9od

  2. William Lackey

    I’ve heard stories about the financial prosperity of Black Wall Street… black folks supporting black owned businesses…. but I have never heard of this. Wow! Thank you Vox for this great content!

  3. Jonathan Adamson

    the globalists will do anything to keep us separated. don't let them trick you, they will not stop us all as long as we stand unified. no matter the color of our skin.

  4. Hits4Flicks

    Please remember that Black Wall Street symbolized progress WITHOUT WELFARE, AFFIRMATIVE ACTION or HANDOUTS. Hardworking Black Americans Built that. Lifting themselves UP by their bootstraps. Those racist murderous white supremacists couldn't handle the sight of Black people destroying their lies and propoganda. Rise, Black America, Rise….

  5. TRUTH HUNTER

    This world could have been Disneyland, whiteout whites. Anything involving whites they make toxic. Things become controlled and unfair for anyone who's not European.

  6. 65greedy

    Why do we learn about other countries history and hide are own? I’ve always wondered how different or country would be if whites never did such things to blacks and Indians.

  7. Elmo

    It says on wiki – "An official report later claimed that 23 black and 16 white citizens were killed, but other estimates suggest as many as 300 people died",

    it's funny Vox would never do a video on the holocaust and use figures that estimates, which a lot of people say was much less, rather than official figures, why would they do it here?

  8. CharlestonChica

    Black community of Tulsa: have a thriving business and residential district
    Colonizers: Stop being being a victim and pull yourselves up by your bootstraps.
    Also colonizers: take off in plane to firebomb successful black area of Tulsa

  9. Ash Longn'er

    There is satellite technology that they could potentially use to look for the mass graves… the same tech that has been used to find unknown historical sites all around the world. It looks for (man made) topographical anomalies….. js. Tulsa is small enough to target a specific search.

  10. Angel Venegas

    This should be in the text books
    I like how they claim Black people are dangerous
    “If you treat someone like a criminal they start to believe they are”

  11. Kaci Goicoechea

    I grew up in Tulsa and heard very little about this. When I looked into it on my own I was absolutely shocked. I've told as many people about as much as possible since then. People should know about this! That have said they are still finding Graves when they build downtown.

  12. hai on

    Thank you for all your important work. I saw the one about Indian children boarding school and the genocide attempt by the US government and its citizen recently. Sobering work and very well done.

  13. Unknown User

    Empathy is sorely missing in some people. Even if something terrible happened in the past. If it happened to your family your would want to at least know what happened to their bodies. It's human nature. And to deny people that is to deny their humanity

  14. Kourtland Perry

    The usa bombed the greenwood district abd 300 was a fairy tale HOW bout more like 3000 people were killed and slaughtered like dogs the history books are a total fabrication full of deception and lies..God has the 🇺🇸 number tho and my saviour havent forgot

  15. Flumanga

    I've actually learned about all of this In history class… Idk if it's cause I live in Oklahoma but we took it extremely serious, and we really took our time learning about what happened.

  16. EGP

    This isn't history this is the reality black America lives in on a daily basis. Instead of calling it lynchings they call it the war on drugs. Someone in the comments said this fits the definition of genocide, in my opinion the United states government has carried out genocide on black people with the United states prisons.

  17. the.mighty.kyuss

    From Tulsa. Was never taught about the Tulsa race riots from textbooks in schools, but it's well known to native Tulsans and a shameful part of Tulsa history.

  18. American Freedom World Peace

    The white hatred and jealously is still going on today, although not in a violent way but a more systemic way.. from gerrymandering & voter suppression, to underfunded black schools and communities, and even cops getting away with murdering unarmed black people…

  19. Samuel Rosander

    "History best forgotten" is history that you need to remember. You don't learn from your mistakes if you refuse to admit to them, refuse to study them, refuse to talk about them. All of the example you need is to look at the current climate of hate that still exists.

  20. Michael N

    The fact that the black community had a happy thriving community in that time and place only to be quite literally be murdered and erased from history is quite literally devastating.

  21. Steven Osburn

    It is still the Cherokee Reservation today. South of Admiral is the border with Creek Reservation and Osage Reservation starts west at Denver.

  22. AntiSocial Atheist

    It seems to me it's my job as a middle aged white man with three children to make sure I raise my children to despise racism and white supremacy as much as I do. If I raise good honest children to despise hatred, bigotry and racism it'll help insure this type of behavior doesn't happen again. I thought my parents were decent people and I don't recall much racism in my household but I do recall mild racism and I recall a good bit in my public school. I didn't really notice it until a few years ago. But even in families that are not white supremacists you'll still find mild forms of racism flourishing. People of color have been systematically attacked throughout history and they were not given an equal chance. From Jim Crow laws to attacking minorites seeking asylum at the border these white supremacists have done everything they can to keep minorites on the bottom of the socal ladder. It's time it came to an end

  23. C J

    This needs to be taught around the USA.

    When you stop seeing others as humans, when there is no humanity in the interaction, this is what we call evil. Those men murdered and destroyed the lives of the city because of the evil they gained from ignorance. The black people were seen as less as humans, this is the only reason such terrible things can happen.

  24. taraviolet

    an enraging and heartbreaking moment in history. saddening to think of all the lives lost, and families hurt by this massacre and attack on their community by white supremacists…and this history then being hidden and erased from knowledge in American history. thank you Vox for this piece of solid reporting and doc coverage.

  25. Jenna Knueppel

    Stay in the loop with the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission by liking them on facebook @tulsatriumphs2021! The Comission will be launching a city, state, and hopefully even nation-wide, commemoration initiative in 2021 to raise awareness of the massacre as well as highlight the beauty and culture within the Greenwood community. Although the painful effects of this massacre and the silence that followed still remains present within the community, the adversity and resilience found within it cannot be understated. After the occurrence was swept into the shadows, the people living there were left to rebuild everything that they had already built on their own, and they did. So much beauty is in the Greenwood and North Tulsa community, and needs to be highlighted, as they continue to fight for what is owed and more. My life was changed after being an intern with the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Commission last summer and I couldn't be more grateful to have learned about this history from some of the people in this video as well as many others who shared their stories and experiences with me.

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