The Tulsa Massacre, Greenwood, and the Trauma that still plagues Black America

The Daily Ardmoreite
The Tulsa Massacre, Greenwood, and the Trauma that still plagues Black America
The Tulsa Massacre, Greenwood, and the Trauma that still plagues Black America
The Tulsa Massacre, Greenwood, and the Trauma that still plagues Black America
The Tulsa Massacre, Greenwood, and the Trauma that still plagues Black America

“There are so many ways of being despicable it quite makes one’s head spin. But the way to be really despicable is to be contemptuous of other people’s pain.” — from Giovanni’s Room (1956) — Baldwin

One Hundred Years ago, on May 30th, a 19-year-old black male named Dick Rowland attempted to enter the Drexel Building elevator, in Tulsa Oklahoma. Reports suggest he stumbled entering the rickety elevator and unintentionally touched an equally startled white girl named Sarah Page. Sarah screamed, Rowland runs away, triggering someone on the first floor who accused Rowland of ripping her dress and rapping her. While Sarah Page denied that ether event happened, her utterances did not stop the mob from hunting Rowland down and jailing him. That scream and the subsequent community-wide repeated lie triggered the worse terrorist event in U.S. History. White folks terrorized the historic self-sufficient Greenwood section of Tulsa the evening of May 31st on into the morning of June 1st, in an all-Black neighborhood affectionally called Negro Wall Street. Negro Wall Street got its name from the founder of Tuskegee University, Booker Washington, in 1905. Rumors circulated into the Greenwood section of Tulsa that the white mob gathered outside the jail had detained and lynched Rowland. However, Rowland was jailed but was not lynched.

According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, lynching was a form of punishment primarily reserved for highwaymen and cattle rustlers prior or Oklahoma statehood. However, lynching took on a more sinister terroristic and racist tone after Oklahoma statehood. From 1906 to 1940, Oklahoma was ranked 13th in the total amount of lynchings. Before Oklahoma statehood, most of the reported Oklahoma Lynching’s occurred among Oklahoma’s non-African descendant community. After statehood, most of the lynchings occurred among people of African Descent. The rumor of lynching sent an emerging and empowered Black community into action in defense of Rowland. Greenwood residents confronted the white mob. Some of those residents World War I Veterans that had just returned from Europe. Oklahoma Black men fought in World War I. While U.S. soldiers did not want to fight besides Black Americans, the French gladly accepted the Black soldiers and their sacrifices. According to Krebs ‘Black Americans came out of the war keenly aware of the injustices they faced at home, more confident of their own abilities, and more willing to fight for their civil rights. Rev. Harold Cooke, one of Tulsa’s most outspoken white supremacists, went so far as to claim that treating African American soldiers “on the same plane as white soldiers” was the leading cause of the race massacre’ (Tulsa World, 31, May 2020).

Contemporary literature describes a rapidly changing America and Oklahoma social and racial environment during the early 1900s. From 1900 to 1920, the Oklahoma Black population tripled. During the first 20 years of the 20th century in Oklahoma, Black wealth, Black political participation, and a growing population of State Negros and Freedman emerged. Those shifts and racist attitudes that Black Americans should not be treated as equals created the perfect toxic environment for the Tulsa Massacre. White folks terrorized the historic self-sufficient Greenwood section of Tulsa the evening of May 31st into the morning of June 1st.

The Oklahoma Bureau of Vital Statistics officially recorded 36 dead. A 2001 state commission examination of events confirmed 39 dead, 26 Black and 13 White, based on contemporary autopsy reports, death certificates, and other records. About 10,000 Black people were left homeless, and property damage amounted to more than $1.5 million in real estate and $750,000 in personal property (equivalent to $32.65 million in 2020). The 10,000 Blacks, who were reported as homeless after the massacre, represented 75 percent of Tulsa's total black population in 1920.

The 1920s also saw the rise of Black thought leaders like Tuskegee University’s Founder, Booker T. Washington, and Marcus Garvey, leader of the Pan African Movement. Both leaders believed in collective worth, economic self-sufficiency. Garvey believed Black Liberation hinged on black nationalists… political equality via self-determination. He believed liberty would not come without personal sacrifice. Both leaders and their philosophies had an audience among Oklahoma Blacks.

After the massacre over 6,000 Blacks were placed in internment camps for more than a week. As residents attempted to rebuild, they were given fines. Rowland was never to rebuild his life. Sarah testified that she had not been rapped. Rowland left Tulsa for Kansas City and was never able to recover. In 2021, the story of his life is still relevant.

My cousin BC Franklin and his team offered to provide legal assistance to anyone who was fined for attempting to rebuild their home. Some Greenwoods residents lived in tents for more than a year. According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, the state attorney blamed the massacre on the terror victims. ‘The Tulsa Tribune, the state’s attorney general, many ministers, and the Tulsa mayor advanced this argument. The attorney general, in a speech in Tulsa on June 17, said:

‘The cause of this riot was not Tulsa. It might have happened anywhere, for the Negro is not the same man he was 30 years ago when he was content to plod along his own road accepting the white man as his benefactor. But the years have passed, and the Negro has been educated, and the race papers have spread the thought of race equality.’

The grand jury convened to investigate, followed the attorney general’s lead, and concluded in its report:

‘The crowd assembled about the courthouse being purely spectators and curiosity seekers…There was no mob spirit among the whites, no talk of lynching and no arms. The assembly was quiet until the arrival of armed negroes, which precipitated and was the direct cause of the riot.’

The lead attorney for the state used her power to give immunity to any whites who looted homes or murdered African Americans. This remained the dominant narrative until attention to the massacre began to fade outside the African American community in Oklahoma.

White hostility fueled the grand jury process and white fragility based on the decision that the residents of Greenwood that defended Rowland and the community were guilty. Guilty of thinking they were free and had equal rights.

In Buck Colbert’s Lost Manuscript, he wrote, ‘’lurid flames roared and belched and licked their forked tongues into the air. Smoke ascended the sky in thick, black volumes, and amid it all, the planes — now a dozen or more in number — still hummed and darted here and there with the agility of natural birds of the air.” Colbert also wrote, “The sidewalks were literally covered with burning turpentine balls. I knew all too well where they came from, and I knew all too well why every burning building first caught fire from the top.” Colbert was all too familiar with white rage and the politics of indifference. While practicing law in Ardmore, Oklahoma, he represented a client in Louisiana and was not allowed to speak in the courtroom. This experience affected my cousin Buck Franklin so much that he left his native southern Oklahoma to move to the safety of all Black Rentiesville, Oklahoma.

Tulsa was not the only city in Oklahoma where Black folks lived in fear of White Terror. The city of my alma mater, Norman, Oklahoma, maintained a Sundown segregation culture well into the 1960s. My uncle Captain James Willis, a Vietnam Veteran, and countless cousins were arrested while driving through after sundown. The genetic terror of trauma still permeates the DNA of Back Folks. We have been traumatized for over 400 years in America.

As we memorialize a brutal massacre that occurred one hundred years ago, I ask myself, what has changed? Are African American’s and indigenous peoples in Oklahoman any safer? Has our country and Oklahoma reckoned with its racist history? Four hundred years of historical evidence suggest we have not. There are still two Americas, one for whites and the other for everybody else.

“There are so many ways of being despicable it quite makes one’s head spin. But the way to be really despicable is to be contemptuous of other people’s pain.” — from Giovanni’s Room (1956) — Baldwin

— Dr. Maurice Franklin is a native of Pauls Valley and Ardmore, Oklahoma. He is a professor of Public Policy and Public Administration. Dr. Franklin loves to write about his family and growing up in Oklahoma. He attributes his activism and social justice commitment to the influences of James Baldwin, Marcus Garvey, and his cousin Dr. John Hope Franklin