America’s Secret Massacre: Media Silence

Collaborator: Brittany Harlow
Published: 08/03/2020, 11:35 AM
Edited: 05/05/2023, 12:54 AM

Photo Courtesy: The Library of Congress

(TULSA, Okla.) Want to learn more about the Tulsa Race Massacre first? Click here for America’s Secret Massacre: A History (PART ONE).


The year is 1921. With industry in widespread support of segregation across the United States, it’s no surprise that white-owned newspapers framed their coverage to favor white people and vilify African Americans. According to research from the Oklahoma History Center, Tulsa’s major newspapers, The Tulsa World and The Tulsa Tribune, frequently mocked and blamed crime on African Americans, even the crimes committed by white people. 

Tulsa attorney and author Hannibal B. Johnson described the Tulsa Tribune's story "Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in an Elevator" as a false narrative of an attempted rape in broad daylight that went out of its way to describe Sarah Page virtuously, thus Dick Rowland villainously. It is widely considered as a contributing factor to the massacre’s origins. The story was later removed from the paper’s bound volumes. 

Rumor has it the same issue also contained an editorial calling for Rowland’s lynching, but all known originals of that section were destroyed. An intact copy has never been found.

Historians have concluded that police and state militia archives detailing the events also disappeared. 

When the African American community was blamed for the massacre, it was a headline that made the front page in not only Tulsa, but all over the country. The papers also published Tulsa Mayor T.D. Evans’ statement, which said anyone who wanted to put half of the blame on white people were wrong. 

Anyone who said otherwise was silenced.

”A.J. Smitherman, the editor and publisher of the Tulsa Star, was an activist,” Johnson said. “An advocate. I mean he really put himself out there for civil rights on behalf of African Americans. In fact, he’s one of several Black men who were charged with inciting a riot. They were all indicted. Several dozen Black men after the event. That goes to that narrative of them being blamed for causing this uprising.” 

Meanwhile, nationwide coverage of the events quickly disintegrated. 

The Library of Congress’ online newspaper database “Chronicling America” contains nearly 400,000 records from that year. VNN ran a search for “Tulsa Race Riot” nationwide and hit 360 results. 101 made the front page. 

The following year, the phrase “Tulsa Race Riot” was mentioned in 32 newspapers across the U.S. Those mentions dropped to 1 in 1923, and zero in 1924. 

Out of more than one million newspaper records from 1925 to 1963, the phrase appeared briefly in just three publications. 

Much of the coverage the massacre received was held up by African American newspapers at the time, like The Phoenix Tribune, Arizona’s first African American newspaper. Their stories included a report that it was the “Completion of an $85,000 church” in Greenwood that fueled the white mob’s rage, and the publication of a former Tulsa policeman’s account of dropping nitroglycerine on buildings from airplanes during the massacre. 

The 1921 Race Massacre would not begin to see a resurgence in media until a public service was held at the historic Mount Zion Baptist Church in Tulsa in 1971, 50 years later. 

The Tulsa Chamber of Commerce wanted to commemorate the massacre with a story. Local journalist Ed Wheeler was commissioned to write it, but after it was finished, the chamber’s paper “Tulsa” refused to publish it. So did two Tulsa newspapers. 

Wheeler was finally able to publish his piece in Oklahoma Impact Magazine. 

In 1996, another public service was held at Mount Zion Baptist Church, this time for the massacre’s 75th anniversary. That same year, the Oklahoma State Legislature authorized the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. 

Its report, submitted in 2001, recommended restitution for Tulsa’s Black community, though no restitution has been paid to date. 

Despite the so-called news blackout, Johnson doesn’t fault the media for the massacre’s secrecy. 

”The reason this history is not known, is because people in positions of power and authority made sure that it wasn’t known,” Johnsons said. “And again, the reality is, back in 1921, and for many decades thereafter we lived in a white supremacist world. And so, white folks didn’t want people talking about this stuff. They didn’t want to take responsibility.” 

Media coverage has increased on the local and national level in the years since, with the massacre’s 100th anniversary approaching and the City of Tulsa’s continued search for mass graves. 


It is not just a lack of news media that has contributed to the secrecy of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. These crimes have also been absent from the oldest form of mass media: books. 

For nearly 100 years, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre was not taught in Oklahoma schools. As the dawn of a new century broke, more and schools began to teach their students about it, with Tulsa Public Schools taking the lead. 

The district holds an annual institute to educate other teachers on the Tulsa Race Massacre and ran the test pilot for teaching students about the massacre statewide. 

Starting in Fall 2020, curriculum prepared by the 1921 Race Massacre Commission will be required for students from elementary through high school. 

Extensive conferences and virtual meetings have been and will be held throughout this summer to prepare educators for the task. 


History clearly dictates that whoever controls the media controls the message. As the United States continues to address racial disparities and injustice, the need for diverse media coverage and ownership remains critical. 

“You need different perspectives,” Sydney Gray told VNN. “So, I think we are getting somewhere but we’ve got a long way to go.”

Gray is an Oklahoma State University graduate, now a multimedia journalist at KMTV in Omaha, Nebraska. A self-described “news junkie” her whole life, she said she was the only Black woman at her station for a year and a half. 

“When all the protests were going on, I know some of them did become violent, but a good majority of them were not,” Gray said. “If the only way that we’re telling these stories is riots and angry and unrest but we’re not talking about why people are feeling that way and why it’s gotten to that level, we’ve missed the whole story.” 

In 1978, the American Society of News Editors challenged news rooms to reflect the diversity of the nation. In the forty years that followed, diversity hovered around 20 percent of the news workforce at best. 

Meanwhile, Latino and non-whites climbed to about 40 percent of the population. Gray said that representation matters in the field, and at the office. 

“Racism in the workplace,” Gray said. “I hear a lot of comments that I don’t think would necessarily be said if a larger amount of Black people were around.” 

Another big threat to diversity is media consolidation. Currently, nine companies own 77 percent of all local television stations. None of them are owned by people of color. Only one of them has a non-white CEO. 

”The people making decisions,” Gray said. “Especially news managers, news directors, executive producers, any even at the top, top level. If it’s all one race, one group of people or, just call a spade a spade: white men making the big decisions, we’re going to continue to see the same things. We’re going to continue to see the same problems.“

The Public Sphere Project (PSP) is a non-profit organization dedicated to building a global collective of social research and ideas. Their section on “Media Diversity”, written by Douglas Schuler, states that, “Democratic societies rely on diversity of viewpoints and ideas for the intelligence, engagement, enthusiasm and wisdom that they need to stay alive.” 

He warned that when media becomes too concentrated, issues disappear out of the public eye and off the public agenda. In addition to media consolidation, industry leaders have also been sounding the alarm on news media being owned by private equity firms. 

Former FCC chairman Michael Copps was part of the petition to prevent private equity firm Apollo Global Management from acquiring Cox and Northwest Broadcasting TV in 2019, arguing that quality and diversity decline under private ownership. The deal eventually went through. 

Experts recommend people create and support independent media to combat the issues of media consolidation, private equity ownership and overall lack of diversity across the industry. 

Special thanks to the Library of Congress, US National Archives, the Smithsonian Institution and the Tulsa Historical Society & Museum for the extensive historical resources made available for this series. 


The Library of Congress: Chronicling America 

“To live as free men” 

Hampton Education 

All American News for African Americans 


Ed Wheeler’s “Profile of a Race Riot” 

Link to works by Hannibal B. Johnson:


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