• Nondiah Khalayi

The 100th Anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre | Does Time Really Heal Wounds?

They say time heals.

But does time heal a past one cannot honestly talk about? Tulsa City, Oklahoma, still bears the scars of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre because the truth is still untold.

Greenwood District in Tulsa, OK, set on fire by armed mobs in 1921.
Greenwood District in Tulsa, OK, set on fire by armed mobs in 1921. (Via: History.com / American Red Cross)

One hundred years ago, in Tulsa, OK, a violent white supremacist mob carried out what experts believe to be the single-most horrific incident of racial violence since slavery.

They raided, firebombed, and destroyed approximately 35 square blocks of the thriving Black neighborhood in Greenwood District, known as the “Black Wall Street.” It was one of the wealthiest Black communities in the U.S. and home to hundreds of Black-owned businesses.


One hundred years later, there are still so many unanswered questions.


Questions include where the bodies were buried, and why there is no definite story to this date. In the past, talking about the Tulsa Massacre in Oklahoma was taboo.


The top unanswered question is:


Why did the Tulsa Massacre happen?


An Impudent Negro, a Hysterical Girl, and a Yellow Journal


The main factors leading to the Tulsa Massacre were a white girl named Sarah Page, a nineteen-year-old black boy named Dick Rowland, and the Tulsa Tribune Newspaper.


Sarah Page was an elevator operator at Drexel Building, while Dick Rowland was a shoe-shiner. On Monday, 30th May 1921, Dick Rowland walked into Drexel Building, probably to use the only toilet downtown available to black people when he encountered Sarah Page. When Dick Rowland stepped into the elevator, Sarah Page screamed.


Witnesses claimed that Rowland wanted to assault her.


Looking back at such a claim, 100 years later, it is evident that maybe the whole arrest was planned.


Sarah Page had several versions of the story which is rather hysterical of her.


At first, she said Dick Rowland wanted to assault her. Her second story was that Dick Rowland had seized her arm as he entered the elevator. Thus, she screamed, and Dick ran away.


Later, it was found that the boy had accidentally stepped on her foot. What happened exactly remains uncertain. When Sarah Page screamed, Dick Rowland ran away for his life because at that time, Tulsa was racially segregated and there was so much lynching that caused fear among the blacks.


Tulsa Tribune published details of the alleged assault on Memorial Day - Tuesday, 31st May 1921, in the afternoon.


The story caught so much attention, coupled with the racial segregation in Tulsa at that time. Talks of the lynching of the boy were made known by several parties, including the police department, Tulsa Tribune, and citizens.


When the black community of over 15,000 people in Tulsa heard the threatened lynching, they feared for Rowland’s life.


A white man had been lynched in the same jail that Rowland was put in, and thus, they came up with a quick rescue plan. Some people, armed and unarmed, drove downtown to check that Rowland was safe only to find a crowd of hundreds of white men armed, outside the courthouse.


Conversing with Sheriff McCullough, the black men were assured that Rowland was safe, although the crowds of white men were not as convinced.


As they turned back to leave, a black World War I veteran and a white man got into a fight over who should wield a weapon. A shot was fired. Several gunshots followed, and the sheriff stated that within minutes, 12 men died - two blacks and ten whites.


Tulsa was at war.


The Consequences


National Guard Troops with rifles escorting the African American men after the massacre.
National Guard Troops escorting the African American men after the massacre. (Via: History.com / American Red Cross)

The war that began over who should wield a weapon and who should not brought lifelong dark consequences on Black Wall Street.


Perhaps it was all planned. Perhaps it was not planned but just happened as a result of the economic jealousy of the thriving black community.


Before the massacre, Black Wall Street was a dream in progress. A promising future. A place that was full of life.


In less than 48 hours, it became a nightmare.


People lost their lives. Buildings were burned down using kerosene bombs.


According to the American Red Cross:

  • 1256 houses were destroyed

  • 215 houses were looted

  • Over 9,000 black Tulsans were left homeless.


Some bodies were dumped into unmarked graves; others were thrown into the Arkansas River.


Damages of about $25 million were incurred but insurance companies and the city of Tulsa did not approve of the claims. The attack was deemed a riot.


Justice was not granted. Families affected were not compensated; everyone else would be at fault for the massacre but the white people who invaded Greenwood.


No specific plan has been put in place to compensate the victims to this day.


What Now?


The consequences of the Tulsa Massacre are felt even now.


Housing, economic development, and land - all have been limited in progress if not stuck. Inequalities between whites and blacks are still present, and the effects of inequalities thereof.


The horrific dark story of the Tulsa Massacre that has been hidden for decades has gained attention in recent years.


This could be the best way to let the city heal. This could be the best way to face its past. This could be the best way to acknowledge the long-hidden history of a once-thriving city. A city once valued and rich in culture.


This could be the best way, besides compensation, of honoring the lost lives, black and white.

In an interview, Phil Armstrong, the project director of Greenwood Rising points out that,


“Until you tell the truth. Until you are honest with your past, you cannot move forward.”

Greenwood Rising is a state-of-the-art history center and organization dedicated to honoring the Black Wall Street before and after the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921.


It is time for Tulsa to be honest with its past. It is time to move forward.


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References:


> https://www.cnbc.com/2021/05/31/tulsa-massacre-centennial-reviving-the-spirit-of-black-wall-street.html


> https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/tulsa-race-massacre-100-years-later-why-it-happened-why-n1268877


> https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/tulsa-1921/


> https://www.theringer.com/2018/6/28/17511818/black-wall-street-oklahoma-greenwood-destruction-tulsa


> https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/05/31/a-proclamation-on-day-of-remembrance-100-years-after-the-1921-tulsa-race-massacre/


> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=umNDQ7OuBhI




Nondiah Khalayi is a Kenya-based Statistics and Programming student at Kenyatta University, a Health Science student at the University of the People, and also a Content Writer at IYOPS. Being an INFJ-T personality, she enjoys a calm life, coding, data analysis, reading, and writing multiple-niche research-based articles.


Inputs and Edits by Sovena Ngeth, Aswin Raghav R.