Who Killed Black Wall Street?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: An incident in an elevator sparks deadly and enduring consequences.

The Tulsa Race Riot (Oklahoma Historical Society)
The Tulsa Race Riot (Oklahoma Historical Society)

It would be impossible, in this limited space, to recount every horror inflicted on black Tulsans through the long night — their businesses, their properties, their civic and cultural centers, their lives. For those seeking to know more, I strongly encourage you to read the findings of the government-sponsored 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Commission, released in a 188 page-report in February 2001. Other indispensible books include Scott Ellsworth’s Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 and Alfred Brophy’s Reconstructing the Dreamland: The Tulsa Riot of 1921: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation.

There would be no reconciliation the night of May 31 in Tulsa. After the courthouse gunfight, a dozen black and white men were dead or wounded. Outnumbered (it wasn’t even close), the blacks who’d driven down from Greenwood retreated through the streets while scores of whites were deputized on the spot by the Tulsa Police Department, which now perceived the event as “a Negro uprising.” Even one white who was turned away, a bricklayer named Laurel Buck, was told, “Get a gun, and get busy and try to get a nigger,” according to Ellsworth.

A black Tulsan was gunned down running out of an alley near Younkman’s drugstore.  Another was chased into a white movie theater, where, spotted in the projector’s glow, he was shot in the head. Still another was shot on West Fourth and knifed to the point where a white doctor, seeing him “writhing,” realized “it was an impossible situation to control, that I could be of no help,” reports Ellsworth.

In the Nation, Walter White tried to convey the terror that swept north to Greenwood into the next morning, June 1:

[T]he [white] mob, now numbering more than 10,000, made a mass attack on Little Africa. Machine-guns were brought into use; eight aeroplanes were employed to spy on the movements of the Negroes and according to some were used in bombing the colored section. All that was lacking to make the scene a replica of modern ‘Christian’ warfare was poison gas. The colored men and women fought gamely in defense of their homes, but the odds were too great. According to the statements of onlookers, men in uniform, either home guards or ex-service men or both, carried cans of oil into Little Africa, and, after looting the homes, set fire to them.

One incident White recounted involved a black doctor, A.C. Jackson:

Dr. Jackson was worth $100,000; had been described by the Mayo brothers ‘the most able Negro surgeon in America’; was respected by white and colored people alike, and was in every sense a good citizen. A mob attacked Dr. Jackson’s home. He fought in defense of it, his wife and children and himself. An officer of the home guards who knew Dr. Jackson came up at that time and assured him that if he would surrender he would be protected. This Dr. Jackson did. The officer sent him under guard to Convention Hall, where colored people were being placed for protection. En route to the hall, disarmed, Dr. Jackson was shot and killed in cold blood. The officer who had assured Dr. Jackson of protection stated to me, ‘Dr. Jackson was an able, clean-cut man. He did only what any red-blooded man would have done under similar circumstances in defending his home. Dr. Jackson was murdered by white ruffians.’ 

Reading these passages, it’s impossible not to recall President Obama’s remarks about Trayvon Martin: It “could’ve been me” — it could have been us. Really, it could’ve been anyone during the Tulsa Race Riot, because at one point, according to Ellsworth, “[a]t least one white man in an automobile was killed by a group of whites, who had mistaken him to be black.” In the fog of a riot, as in war, no one is safe from being profiled.

 It continued when the Tulsa police and National Guard troops arrived in Greenwood on the morning of June 1 and imposed martial law. Still convinced blacks were to blame for the riot, the troops focused their efforts on detaining Greenwood’s residents instead of shielding them from the terror. Estimates are that close to 4,000 to 6,000 Greenwood residents (almost half the population) were arrested and relocated to holding centers throughout the city, leaving their homes and businesses even more vulnerable to attack.

The “deadly pattern” was set, Scott Ellsworth writes: