The Stories We've Told: A Look at the Tulsa Race Massacre From The Root Archives

In this 1921 image provided by the Library of Congress, smoke billows over Tulsa, Okla.
In this 1921 image provided by the Library of Congress, smoke billows over Tulsa, Okla.
Photo: Alvin C. Krupnick Co./Library of Congress (AP)

The first time most (white) Americans likely heard about the Tulsa Race Massacre was when HBO’s Watchmen opened its first episode—aired on October 20, 2019—with the devastating reenactment of the death and destruction that took place on May 31-June 1 in Greenwood, the Black neighborhood known as “Black Wall Street.”

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Or if they missed that, HBO came through again when its genre-bending, horror/sci-fi series Lovecraft Country featured an entire episode in which the main characters traveled back in time to reconnect with their ancestors just as fire and white rage began to consume the Black community. (And shoutout to popular culture for doing a better job of teaching American history than most schools.)

But longtime readers of The Root—a site co-founded by noted historian Henry Louis Gates Jr.—have long known about one of the worst episodes of racial violence in American history. As the nation marks the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, The Root has pulled together a collection of stories from our archives, stories that capture the resilience of a community ravaged by racism—indeed, they are the stories of what it means to be Black in America.

How It Started

Who Killed Black Wall Street?” (Aug. 5, 2013): Written by our very own co-founder, this story reveals how the Tulsa Race Massacre began with a trip to the bathroom:

In a city of 100,000 people, high on oil, “The Drexel Building was the only place downtown where we were allowed to use the restroom,” Robert Fairchild Sr. recalled, according to the Tulsa Reparations Coalition. That was why 19-year-old Dick Rowland was there. His boss at the white shoeshine parlor on Main Street had arranged for black employees like Dick Rowland to use the “colored restroom” on the top floor of the Drexel. “I shined shoes with Dick Rowland,” Fairchild said. “He was an orphan and had quit school to take care of himself.”

On Monday, May 30, 1921, Rowland entered the Drexel Building and took a chance violating one of the unwritten rules of Jim Crow: He rode an elevator with a white girl — alone. Really, what choice did he have? Seventeen-year-old Sarah Page was the Drexel Building’s elevator operator. No one knows how the two greeted each other, or if they’d met before, except that minutes later, someone did hear a scream — a woman’s scream. Rowland ran.

By June 1, Greenwood would be burned to the ground and more than 300 lives lost, though the exact number of dead remains a mystery since most were buried in mass graves with no markers or headstones. This will become important later.

Greenwood, Okla.: The Legacy of the Tulsa Race Riot” (Feb. 24, 2011): The riot as told through the eyes of a descendant of Black lawyer and businessman J.B. Stradford:

J.B. Stradford, the son of a freed Kentucky slave, rose to prominence in Oklahoma during the early 1900s as one of the key developers of the all-black Tulsa enclave Greenwood. A lawyer and businessman, Stradford owned the 65-room hotel that sat right in the heart of the thriving community that would later become known as “the Black Wall Street.”

But in a single day, all of that would change. On May 31, 1921, the arrest of a young black man on a questionable charge of assaulting a young white woman touched off the deadliest race riot in U.S. history. Whites charged through the community in retaliation, leaving an estimated 300 people dead, another 10,000 black residents homeless and 35 city blocks in ruin.

Stradford and 69 other black men were subsequently charged with inciting the riot. Stradford, however, jumped bail after his arrest and fled Tulsa for Kentucky. According to his great-granddaughter Laurel Stradford, his son (her grandfather), who was also a lawyer, used legal maneuvering to help his father avoid having to stand trial, including filing a petition for a writ of habeas corpus to keep him from being unlawfully detained.

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The Aftermath

My Cousin Was Lynched. Here’s How It Changed My Life” (Nov. 14, 2017): Writer Lawrence Ware offers a powerful testimony of the lingering effects of the massacre on himself and his family:

What happened in Tulsa haunts me. And the fact that I’ve since learned, by talking to my father, that I lost not one but three family members in the massacre shakes my confidence in humanity. No one knows what happened to my cousins. No funeral was held. No headstones mark their graves. I searched public records and talked to family, but no one recalls their full names. I’ve been told they might have been buried in a mass grave with other victims of the massacre, but despite hours of research and multiple visits to the area, I haven’t been able to prove it.

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Gone but Not Forgotten: How This Black Woman Is Carrying on the Legacy of Her Great-Grandfather and Black Wall Street” (Sept. 24, 2020): Raven Majia Williams—great-granddaughter of A.J. Smitherman, a Black political activist and publisher who documented the massacre—is the founder of the A.J. Smitherman Foundation. She sat down for a video interview with The Root’s Felice León to explain how she’s keeping her family’s legacy alive: “My mission is to carry on the truth, but also to carry on his [A.J. Smitherman’s] mission.”

It’s Time to Stop Watching What’s Happening in Tulsa and Do Something About It. The 2 Remaining Survivors Are Waiting” (Oct. 19, 2020): The founder of the Greenwood Foundation, a organization seeking reparations for the residents of Greenwood, tells the courage story of Lessie Benningfield Randle, now 107, and Viola Fletcher, now 106, the two plaintiffs in the reparations lawsuit against the city.

...Mother Randle helped us make history by participating in the first-ever court deposition related to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, conducted by video due to the pandemic. Under oath and in the presence of the attorneys representing the same entities that destroyed Greenwood, Mother Randle boldly told her story of how the Massacre and the continued oppression of Black Tulsans ever since negatively impacted herself, her family, and the greater Greenwood community. Mother Fletcher followed suit by giving an equally powerful testimony.

These two extraordinary centenarians shared stories that have waited 99 years to be told, proving once again that Black women are stronger than they should ever have to be.

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Earlier this month, both Randle and Fletcher testified before Congress, a true testament to the resiliency of Black women.

“By the grace of God, I am still here. I have survived to tell this story,” Randall said, NPR reports. “Hopefully, now you will all listen to us while we are still here.”

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Recovering a Buried Past

Nearly 100 Years Later, Tulsa Begins Search for Mass Graves From 1921 Black Wall Street Massacre” (Oct. 8, 2019)

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Tulsa Begins Excavation Process Into Possible Mass Gravesite of Victims of the 1921 Race Riots” (July 13, 2020)

Tulsa Begins Another Round of Excavations Related to 1921 Race Massacre, Will Search for ‘Original 18' Victims” (Oct. 19, 2020)

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America has become quite adept at burying its secrets, especially when white supremacist violence snuffs out entire Black communities. It took nearly a hundred years for Tulsa to finally begin to reckon with its past—and among its first steps was reclaiming the dead.

Lasting Legacy

Oklahoma! Where the Black Towns Once Thrived” (June 7, 2011): A travel story that offers a bucket list of historic Black towns to explore to get a real taste of the state’s history.

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Las Vegas Is Only the Deadliest Shooting in US History Because Black Lives Aren’t Counted” (Oct. 3, 2017). This story was launched by a tweet sent by The Root 100 honoree Samuel Sinyangwe, which added much needed context to discussions about whose lives matter when it comes to mass deaths:

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The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Will Officially Become a Part of Oklahoma School Curriculum Beginning in the Fall” (Feb. 20, 2020): While Republican lawmakers are busy passing laws banning the teaching of “Critical Race Theory,” which they’ve incorrectly conflated into a catchall phrase for teaching Black history, students in Oklahoma will finally learn about one of the most significant events in the state’s history. It only took 100 years, which, for some Republicans, may still be too soon.

What We Lost In the Fire: Black Wall Street Before the Tulsa Race Massacre” (May 26, 2021): For our anniversary coverage, Michael Harriot recounts all that was lost 100 years ago:

What was destroyed in the domestic terrorism incident starting on May 31, 1921, can never be regained. But it was much more than just businesses and money. It impacted an entire race of people forever.

Four Black newspapers, the only Black hospital and countless businesses were burned to the ground during the white rampage. Professor Alicia Odeale estimates the losses at $50-100 million and most insurance claims were never paid out, as insurance companies were not responsible for “riots,” according to the Harvard study, After The Burning: The Economic Effects of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

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Tulsa Was Not the Only One

The Other Black Wall Streets” (Feb. 15, 2018):

A History of Black Excellence: The Mad King and Black Queen Who Built Black Wall Street (No, Not That One)” (Feb. 11, 2021):

While Tulsa’s Black Wall Street is the most well-known, that wasn’t always the case as several Black communities across the country had their own versions of Black Wall Street. As Michael Harriot notes in “A History of Black Excellence”:

In fact, before the tragic events in Greenwood, if the producers of Family Feud had asked 100 African Americans where “Black Wall Street” was located, Greenwood might have received the fewest number of votes. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, there were more populous sections of major cities that were more widely known as “the Black Wall Street.” To be fair, white people write most of the history and the actions of a lynch mob can sometimes overshadow nuance.

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Genetta M. Adams is Managing Editor of The Root.

DISCUSSION

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bassguitarhero

The first time I heard about the Tulsa Race Massacre (that’s a way better name for it than the ‘race riot’ people tried to taint it with), it was about 5 years ago (before I found The Root), when the sheriff of Tulsa went on TV to give an apology for trashing Black people for not showing up to a job fair a couple of days before.

It was just a random piece of news, a clip from the apology, but set me thinking. “Why was a sheriff complaining about Black people not showing up to a job fair and why was he apologizing?” and then looked it up.

The apology, of course, was because the stupid-ass sheriff was basically saying “It’s disappointing that Black people aren’t at this job fair because I guess they don’t want to work,” and then the apology was, of course, that not only was it racist, but it was especially heartless while standing on the actual land that was stolen from Black people nearly 100 years before.