Remembering the Tulsa Race Massacre

Written by
Collin Riggins, Department of African American Studies
June 1, 2022

One hundred and one years ago a tragic race massacre in Tulsa uprooted the lives and livelihoods of thousands of Black Oklahomans.

In 1906, an African American man named O.W. Gurley purchased 40 acres of land in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Gurley sought to create an oasis of Black prosperity and Black self-sufficiency—an audacious idea in 20th century Tulsa. 

At that time, Tulsa already had a deep history of segregation that subjugated Black Tulsans to second-class status and ingrained economic disparity. Despite this, O.W. Gurley envisioned more. His plot of land flourished into the community known as Greenwood, later coined “The Black Wall Street.”

It did not take long for this budding community to teem with Black-owned businesses. By 1921, a dollar spent in Greenwood circulated 36 to 100 times before ever leaving the community. Compared to today where a dollar lasts around six hours in Black communities on average, this figure was simply revolutionary.

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The Booker T. Washington High School parade processes along Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa, Oklahoma / Greenwood Cultural Center

This burgeoning Black prosperity resulted in disdain from white Tulsans who comprised the overwhelming majority of the city’s population. On May 31, 1921, those feelings boiled over into what became infamously known as the Tulsa Race Riot before its more apt renaming as the Tulsa Race Massacre in 2018.

On May 31, 1921,  a Black teenager named Dick Rowland traveled to Tulsa to shine shoes—the way in which Rowland made his living. When he took a break to use the restroom in the nearby Drexel Building, which housed the only public restroom for Black people in segregated Tulsa, he encountered a young white elevator operator named Sarah Paige. When the elevator door closed and she let out a cry for some unknown reason, Rowland fled the building out of fear.

A fear that proved to be valid.

The following day, The Tulsa Tribune released a front-page article alleging that Rowland sexually-assaulted Page. Rowland was arrested that same day. Unsatisfied with this outcome, a mob of white men gathered to storm the courthouse and lynch him—a tragic fate met by an estimated 59 Black people that same year. What is more, many of these men had been deputized and armed by Oklahoma city officials. 

In response, a significantly smaller group of Black men—largely WWI veterans—convened to defend Rowland. As tensions grew, shots were fired, and a race massacre ensued in Greenwood through June 1, 1921.

Homes and businesses were ravaged, Black people were slain en masse, and smoke filled the Greenwood air from raging fires.



Injured and wounded men are being taken to hospital by National guardsmen / Getty Images

Immediately after the massacre, little effort was made on behalf of the government to document the extent of damage that pervaded the once-bustling Black community. The initial death toll was 36 casualties, in which 26 of the victims were Black and the remaining 10 were white. 

However, historians reveal that the current number of casualties has climbed to nearly 300 lives lost. In addition to this stark rise in death tolls, the Red Cross has since approximated that 1,256 houses were burned, even more buildings were looted, two newspapers, a school, a library, a hospital, churches, hotels, stores and many other Black-owned businesses were either completely destroyed or severely damaged at the end of those fateful two days.


Tulsa Race Massacre, Oklahoma, 1921 / Public domain image

Furthermore, The New York Times reports that the Greenwood community amassed $1.8 million in property loss claims which is equivalent to $27 million today. 

Simply put, the loss was indelible. Overnight, the massacre overturned all the progress that Black Tulsans made to establish Greenwood from nothing, and it gave rise to even more anti-blackness, from the local Ku Klux Klan’s mounting presence to heightened segregation.

The aftermath of the race massacre continues to shape Greenwood’s Black community as they persist in rallying from this tragedy. Movements for reparations and unflinching research into the truth of what happened counter the erasure that plagued American historical consciousness for decades after the Tulsa Race Massacre. 

Below is a list of resources that readers can peruse to delve deeper into this important history.


  • In commemoration of the Massacre’s centennial, the Tulsa Library made a three-part video series, entitled Commemorating Tulsa's 1921 Race Massacre. It has invaluable information about Black Wall Street, the pillaging of Greenwood, and movements for justice that have come to fruition after.
  • Incisive reporting from Democracy Now! and The New York Times provide necessary insight into reparation movements and the state of Greenwood today.
  • The organization Greenwood Rising has curated a lineup of events throughout the summer for folks to “experience the legacy, inspiration and buzz” of their community.
  • The picturebook The Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre by Carole Boston Weatherford and the book The Ground Breaking: An American City and Its Search for Justice by Scott Ellsworth offer dynamic looks at the Tulsa Race Massacre.
  • The Tulsa Historical Society and Museum have compiled a list of resources, including a curriculum by The Oklahoma History Center Education Department that is useful for teaching others about the Tulsa Race Massacre.
  • Readers can always visit the Greenwood Cultural Center located on 322 North Greenwood Avenue, Tulsa, Oklahoma 74120. This center seeks to unearth and preserve the history of Greenwood.