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The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre: A look back 100 years later

Tulsa Massacre Lost Wealth
Posted at 8:08 PM, May 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-01 14:41:04-04

Monday marks 100 years since the Tulsa Race Massacre, which is considered one of the worst incidents of racist violence in U.S. history.

The horrific event occurred in Tulsa over a 14-hour period from May 31 to June 1, 1921.

Many lives were lost, and over 1,200 homes were destroyed by an angry white mob in the Black district known as Greenwood or Black Wall Street.

Here’s a brief timeline of what happened that day, 100 years ago.

Tulsa Race Massacre Political Power
In this photo provided by the Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa, a group of Black men are marched past the corner of 2nd and Main Streets in Tulsa, Okla., under armed guard during the Tulsa Race Massacre on June 1, 1921. (Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa via AP)

May 31, 1921

Details vary of what transpired between 19-year-old Dick Rowland, a Black shoeshiner, and Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white elevator operator at the Drexel Building on May 31, 1921.

According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, a clerk told officers that he heard Page scream and saw Rowland run out of the building. After Tulsa police officers spoke with Page, they did not consider investigating the incident or arresting Rowland a high priority, so they waited until the next day to arrest him.

According to the 2001 Race Riot Commission Report, more than 1,000 white men descended upon the jail where Rowland sat.

In response, more than 50 Black men came to defend Rowland and aid the police to protect the jail.

Outnumbered, the Black men retreated to Greenwood.

According to a report issued by Human Rights Watch, the white mob followed them into "Black Wall Street," destroying 35 square blocks, burning down homes, businesses, churches, schools, and a hospital.

Tulsa Massacre Lost Wealth
In this photo provided by Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa, two armed men in walk away from burning buildings as others walk in the opposite direction during the June 1, 1921, Tulsa Race Massacre in Tulsa, Okla. (Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa via AP)

AFTERMATH

While the Tulsa Race Massacre official death toll was 36, but historians estimate the death toll may have been as high as 300.

As many as 10,000 people were left homeless, at least 6,000 of the remaining residents were detained in internment camps a week after the tragedy.

Tulsa Race Massacre Inequality
This photo provided by the Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa shows an unidentified man standing alone amid the ruins of what is described as his home in Tulsa, Okla., in the aftermath of the June, 1, 1921, Tulsa Race Massacre. (Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa via AP)

According to NBC News, at least $1.4 million ($25 million in today's dollars) in damages were claimed after the massacre.

On June 25, 1921, a grand jury found that Blacks incited the riot.

Afterward, property owners filed lawsuits against various officials, the city, the county, and insurers, the Tulsa World reported.

In Redfearn v. American Central Insurance, a white property owner sued local officials, stating they were responsible for the destruction of Greenwood.

In 1926, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled in favor of the insurance companies from having to pay liability due to a riot.

In 2003, a class-action lawsuit was brought by survivors and descendants seeking damages for the destruction of Greenwood against the city, county, and state.

But on March 19, 2004, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma dismissed the suit, saying the statute of limitations had expired.

The 2001 commission report recommended the city search for mass graves, But then Tulsa Mayor Susan Savage closed the investigation without physically investigating the mass graves sites.

In 2018, Tulsa’s current mayor, G.T. Bynum, announced he would reopen the investigation.

In October 2020, at least 12 wooden coffins were uncovered at Oaklawn Cemetery in the Potters’ Field section.

The Tulsa World reported that the exhumation process could begin around June 1 and would likely take four to six weeks, depending on the weather and what is found.