Tensions between the Black and White residents of Tulsa, Oklahoma, had started rising. Whites had grown resentful of the Black wealth and success of the residents of Greenwood District, according to Mechelle Brown, director of programs at the Greenwood Cultural Center.
On May 31, 1921, everything came to a head.
It all started after an elevator encounter between a 17-year-old White woman named Sarah Page and a 19-year-old Black man named Dick Rowland. It was alleged that Rowland had assaulted Page in the elevator, which he denied. But it didn’t matter. News of a Black man’s alleged assault of a White woman spread like wildfire throughout the White community of Tulsa and tempers flared.
Black residents rushed to the Tulsa County Courthouse to prevent Rowland’s lynching, while White residents were deputized by the Tulsa Police and handed weapons.
A White mob, estimated to include some 10,000 people, descended upon the Greenwood District. Over the next 12 hours, the city of Greenwood experienced an all out assault of arson, shootings and aerial bombings from private planes. By the morning of June 1, 1921, Greenwood had been destroyed.
It would eventually be known as the Tulsa Race Massacre.
“The race massacre was a part of American culture and lynching culture of the time. However, the scope and the scale of the violence and destruction was unprecedented,” said Karlos K. Hill, associate professor and chair of the Clara Luper Department of African and African American Studies at the University of Oklahoma and the author of “Beyond the Rope: The Impact of Lynching on Black Culture and Memory.”
All 35 city blocks of the Greenwood District were completely decimated.
The Red Cross reported that 1,256 homes and 191 businesses were destroyed and 10,000 black people were left homeless. And it’s believed that as many as 300 people were killed, according to the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum.
Survivors were left with nothing after their homes were looted and $2.7 million in insurance claims were denied, according to a 2001 state historical commission report.
Another research report out of Harvard University estimated that, in 2020 dollars, total financial losses were between $50 and $100 million.
For decades to follow, accounts of what happened in the summer of 1921 would remain largely unknown.