Apr 30, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Uncovering the Tulsa Race Massacre after 100 years

Photo illustration collage of archival photography from the Tulsa Race Massacre.

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photos: Corbis, Oklahoma Historical Society, Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Activists, scholars, and families of survivors are working to unearth the horrors of a 1921 race riot that destroyed a thriving, middle-class Black community and killed 300 in Tulsa, Okla.

Why it matters: Following the death of George Floyd, communities of color are demanding the U.S. finally confront episodes of racial violence that have been forgotten, dismissed, or denied to address systemic racism. The Tulsa Race Massacre was one of the nation's worst. And survivors want reparations.

The details: On May 31, 1921, a white mob descended on Greenwood, a successful black economic hub in Tulsa, following unsubstantiated rumors that a Black teen assaulted a white woman.

  • City officials deputized members of a white mob who randomly shot and killed innocent Black residents.
  • In 24 hours, the mob torched 35 blocks of Black-owned businesses, churches, homes, a library, a school, and a hospital.
  • The vigilantes wiped out Greenwood's vibrant Black economic hub, known as “Black Wall Street."

No one was charged in the mass killing of Black people. The city later prevented many Black residents from rebuilding by refusing to sell them construction materials. Many moved into makeshift tents.

The intrigue: Phoebe R. Stubblefield, a University of Florida forensic anthropologist, is among the scholars excavating Tulsa's ground for evidence to document the massacre.

  • She told Axios scholars are combing through surviving basements of burned homes and exploring the ground of the African Methodist Church downtown to examine charred coins and residue.
  • Researchers recently found a mass grave at Oaklawn Cemetery that some believe are victims of the race riot.
  • "It corroborates the historical account of what occurred and the written account. We still have three other sites to investigate for our mass graves narrative," said Stubblefield, who had an aunt whose Tulsa home burned during the massacre.

Between the lines: Activists, writers, and families are saving oral histories to keep the public from forgetting the massacre. It's rarely taught in Oklahoma public schools.

  • Survivors and descendants of victims will host a "Black Wall Street Legacy Festival" in May to draw attention to the 100th anniversary of the attack.
  • The last known massacre survivors — 106-year-old Lessie Benningfield “Mother” Randle, 106-year-old Viola “Mother” Fletcher, and 100-year-old Hughes Van Ellis — are scheduled to lead a procession at the event.
  • A children's book, A Promise Deferred: The Massacre of Black Wall Street, co-written by inclusion expert Dr. Tamecca Rogers and her son, Keith Ross, seeks to educate children about the riot and the community that once stood.

PBS is set to release a new documentary, Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten, tackling present-day public efforts to memorialize the massacre and racial terror.

What they're saying: "The saddest thing to me is when Black people come from other places in the country and they come to Black Wall Street and point to the direction of Greenwood and they say, 'Is this it?'" Nehemiah Frank, a massacre descendant and editor of The Black Wall Street Times.

  • "And we have to tell them, ‘Yes, this is it.' Just these two buildings that were left of what was there."

Frank and other descendants are pressing for reparations from the city and state for a massacre that left generations in poverty.

  • "There's been continuing harm that is a result of the failure to address the massacre," Laura Pitter, a deputy director for New York-based Human Rights Watch, told Axios.
  • Human Rights Watch and lawyers for descendants published a report last year documenting the impact of the Tulsa Race Massacre and the systemic racism that followed.

Where it stands: Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said reparations would "divide" the city, and instead supports developing property where Black Wall Street once stood.

Don't forget: The Tulsa Race Massacre has generated more interest after it was depicted in two HBO series, Watchmen and Lovecraft Country.

  • The U.S. in 2019 marked the 100th anniversary of Red Summer — a series of similar race massacres where white mobs across the country destroyed Black communities from Chicago to Elaine, Ark.
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