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Tulsa Race Riots

May 31, 2000

Historian's Notes

The Tulsa race riot of 1921 is one of the most sensational, albeit tragic, events to occur in the recorded history of Oklahoma. The virtual destruction of a town as well as a cultural center rendered many black Tulsans homeless and the physical signs of their heritage gone forever. The manner in which the riot started, who was to blame, etc. is really inconsequential as similar events were occurring simultaneously throughout the nation. All across the country in areas in which black and white communities shared common borders, riots erupted and violence was commonplace. The violence in Tulsa has been called some of the worst ever racially motivated rioting in the history of the United States; a sad day for Oklahomans, the United States, as well as the world. The search for a silver lining here is difficult and frustrating. One can only hope that because of the publicized horror of such events as occurred in Tulsa, tolerance, acceptance and forgiveness appear as welcomed alternatives.

Resources

Johnson, H.B. (2000). Up from the ashes: A story about building community. Austin, TX: Eakin Press.

Johnson, H.B. (1998). Black Wall Street: From riot to renaissance in Tulsa's historic Greenwood District. Austin, TX: Eakin Press.

Parrish, M.E.J. (1998). Race riot 1921: Events of the Tulsa disaster. Tulsa, OK: Out on a Limb Publishing.

Hower, B. (1993). 1921 Tulsa race riot and the American Red Cross, "Angels of Mercy": compiled from the memorabilia collection of Maurice Willows, director of Red Cross relief. Tulsa, OK: Homestead Press.

Ellsworth, S. (1992). Death in a promised land: The Tulsa race riot of 1921. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Almanac Transcript

Seventy-nine years ago on this date, the city of Tulsa, in particular the black neighborhood of Greenwood, erupted in flames, gunfire, death and destruction as racial tension burned out of control.

On May 31st an alleged altercation between a black man and white woman led to a police investigation. Sensation-seeking local newspapers fanned the already tense flames of racial tension with lurid and false headlines, creating an atmosphere of hatred and fear.

With rumors of lynching being spread in black and white neighborhoods, it was a short step before mob rule reigned over Tulsa. Throngs of angry whites roamed at will through the black district of Greenwood, looting and setting fire to houses and businesses, while innocent black bystanders were arrested and interned in city buildings.

For twenty-four hours anarchy spread throughout the northern section of the city. By the afternoon of May, 31st martial law was declared and the violence subsided.

The Tulsa Race Riot is considered to be one of the worst incidents of racially motivated violence in the history of the United States. The estimation of fatalities ranges from 27 to 250. Due to the destruction of official documents the exact number may never be known. It is known, however, that over 1000 homes and businesses of Tulsa's black community were destroyed.

The interned blacks, roughly half of Tulsa's black population, were finally released seven days after the riot ended, most of them to return to lost homes and shattered dreams.

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