America’s Secret Massacre: A History

User: Brittany Harlow

Published: 7/27/20, 11:27 AM

(TULSA, Okla.) Considered to be one of the deadliest and most destructive massacres in US history, how did the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre remain a secret to so many for so long?

VNN takes a look at a variety of factors that contributed to the silence surrounding the massacre, including a hard look at the media’s role in muzzling the truth about one of our nation’s greatest tragedies.

SEGREGATION HISTORY

To understand how such an atrocity was nearly wiped from our nation’s history, it is important to understand a bit of national history itself.

In 1865, news that the Civil War had ended and enslaved people were now free finally reached all of the states. Historians have said it was about this time that Jim Crow laws began to take shape, with Black Codes. These codes limited African American employment opportunities and pay, prevented them from voting and made it possible for children to be taken and forced into child labor. These codes eventually extended into segregation laws preventing African Americans from entering White businesses, receiving services from Whites, entering public parks, and sitting in the same sections as white people at theaters and restaurants. Black people were not allowed to live in white neighborhoods, or attend White churches.

It was not until the Civil Rights Act was signed in 1964 that such segregation became illegal. The following year, the Voting Rights Act ended tactics that kept Black people from voting. Finally, in 1968, discrimination when renting and selling homes also became illegal.

GREENWOOD HISTORY

In the early 1900s, the idea of white supremacy and segregation were very much mainstream.

Hannibal B. Johnson is a local attorney, consultant and author, with his next book “Black Wall Street 100: An American City Grapples With Its Historical Racial Trauma” due out September 1.

He told VNN Black communities were a direct result of segregation laws, spurring Black people to reinvest and build up their own communities, of which Greenwood was shining example.

“The community existed because it had to exist,” Johnson said. “The only reason that the Greenwood area existed as a successful economic and entrepreneurial community was because Black people were not allowed to engage with the mainstream dominant economy.”

The population of the Greenwood community in Tulsa had climbed to roughly 11,000 residents by 1920. The district had two high schools, a public library, a hospital, two newspapers, two theaters, three fraternal lodges, 23 churches, five hotels and 31 restaurants. Residents were mostly manual laborers and hospitality workers, but also included lawyers, doctors and the like.

“So, if you live in a white supremacist world and you are a white person and you’re not faring well economically yet you can look across the tracks at the Greenwood community, looking north,” Johnson said. “You see Black people with a high degree of home ownership. You see them driving cars, wearing nice clothes. Engaging in social and economic activity in this thriving Black community called Black Wall Street. That causes jealousy.”

“All we needed was a spark. An ignitor. A catalyst. That catalyst is an event that involves two teenagers, Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old black boy who shined shoes downtown. Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white girl who operates an elevator in a downtown building called the Drexel building.”

The consensus was later reached that Rowland most likely tripped and fell on Page, with police determining that whatever happened in the elevator, it was almost certainly not intentional.

Rowland was taken into custody. A white mob descended on the jail to take him away and lynch him. When Black men turned up to provide the sheriff with back up, the real violence commenced.

Set off by a gun discharging, it didn’t end until more than 200 businesses, churches and other buildings were destroyed. An equivalent to more than $25 million worth of damage today. Historians estimate hundreds of Black people were killed between May 31 and June 1, 1921. Thousands were left homeless.

The Tulsa Police Department aided in the destruction by deputizing 500 white men to take action against the African American community. The National Guard also responded, forcing as many African Americans as they could into internment camps while their homes and businesses were looted and set on fire. A machine gun was brought in. Witnesses and officials recounted that planes were brought in to drop bombs on those below.

When the smoke cleared, Greenwood was gone. And more than 6,000 African Americans were being held in camps at the Tulsa Fairgrounds.

“And so, to get out of these internment centers, they had to have a green card countersigned by a white person who would vouch for them,” Johnson said. “And then again, many Black families spent days, weeks and months living in Tent Cities that were set up by the Red Cross.”

The government then forced the prisoners to clean up the mess. The mayor threatened anyone who refused with arrest. The City of Tulsa refused all offers to help rebuild Greenwood from surrounding cities.

A Grand Jury later blamed the African Americans for inciting the violence and cleared the white people of all wrongdoing.

Despite repeated attempts from the City of Tulsa to rezone the area for industrial purposes and stop African Americans from rebuilding, Greenwood’s entrepreneurial spirit lives on to this day.

The second part in this series, titled “Media Silence”, will be released August 3.

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