Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre | Transcript

An in-depth, sobering look at the tragic events of a century ago. Focusing on a specific period, from the birth of Black Wall Street to its catastrophic downfall over the course of two bloody days, and finally the fallout and reconstruction.
Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre

The Tulsa race massacre took place on May 31 and June 1, 1921, when mobs of white residents, some of whom had been deputized and given weapons by city officials, attacked Black residents and destroyed homes and businesses of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma, US. Alternatively known as the Tulsa pogrom, the Tulsa race riot or the Black Wall Street massacre, the event is considered one of “the single worst incident[s] of racial violence in American history”.

The documentary Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre is in-depth, sobering look at the tragic events of a century ago. Focusing on a specific period, from the birth of Black Wall Street to its catastrophic downfall over the course of two bloody days, and finally the fallout and reconstruction.

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(foreboding music)

[Robert] You are standing in a crime scene.

(crowd clamors)

Underneath the grass that you are standing and kneeling on is the blood of those who were slain and still to this day, 99 years later, (gun fires) bodies are lying in mass graves.

[Michele] By the 1920s, Greenwood is this incredibly prosperous community. People referred to it as black wall street.

[Robert] Black people, a generation out of slavery, built a mecca for themselves and how did their government respond to them? They burned it to the ground.

And the worst single incident of racial violence in American history begins. This wall of white people start moving towards Greenwood. They’re carrying pistols and shotguns but also carrying cans of gasoline and matches.

That lynch mob, they wanted it to definitely devastate the Greenwood district.

[man] Firing into front parlors and kitchens and children’s bedrooms.

[Hannibal] They had bombs dropping from the air and going out in your neighborhood and seeing everything burning.

[man] All hell broke loose from that point.

[woman] The memory, not only of the community but the violence enacted against it was erased.

[Robert] Not one of those men that participated in the race massacre were ever brought to justice.

(percussive music)

When I came to pastor Vernon church in Tulsa, I knew nothing about the history of this church. One of my trustees gave me a tour and when I saw the cornerstone outside and the cornerstone is still there, it reads, “basement erected 1919.”

I said, “is that the same one we have?” He said, “yes, that’s the same basement that you just walked through.”

“So it survived 1921 race massacre?”

He was like, “yes.”

I was like, “do you know what this is?”

I said, “we have something left, right? All is not lost.”

[Brenda Nails Alford, Descendant of James and Henry Nails] I always knew that my grandmother had to hide in a church for some reason but I never knew what that meant and when family members would come to town, my great uncles would come to town and maybe we’d be driving around and we would pass Oaklawn Cemetery, someone in the car would always say, “you know they’re still over there, the victims of the race massacre,” and everybody in the car would agree. I always had a little thing about that cemetery growing up as a kid because I was like, what’s over there and I would find out so many years later that the family member and community members were there.

But in 1921, the people who were killed, the people who lost lives, loved ones, they never had the benefit of having a funeral. That touches me at the core and it should any conscious human being. The fact that we just dump bodies of human beings, of patriots, of veterans, of teachers, of husbands, of wives, of children in mass graves.

(country music)

Nobody ever had a chance to say goodbye.

[Hannibal Johnson, Historian] If you’re a black person and you’re living in 1890, what does the world look like? So it’s post civil war, it’s post the collapse of the reconstruction of 1877. It’s a place rife with structural systemic oppression and racism of the deep south places like Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, et cetera.

You have a sense amongst some African-Americans, the black men, women and children really wanting to assert their rights as citizens but you also have this tension.

[Brent Staples, Columnist] And what happened essentially was white people who had once owned black people had to endure what was in their minds, a humiliation of passing a polling place and seeing a person they once owned casting a vote. After the collapse of reconstruction, meaning when the government withdrew troops from the south to no longer guarantee black freedom, the southerners began to reimpose slavery by another name.

(foreboding violin music)


[Steve Hahn, Historian] These were laws that were designed to create really a status for former slaves that was not enslavement but involved all sorts of repression and subordination.

[Kimberly Ellis, Author] Black codes were created to criminalize African-Americans in the most arbitrary manner possible and it essentially encouraged racialized violence against African-Americans, running them off their land, burning their homes, killing members of the family, raping women, lynchings.

[Michele Mitchell, Historian] You also have the formation of the Ku Klux Klan.

(eerie music)

Organizations that are really meant to control black people, limit their mobility, terrorize them and if black men deigned to vote, mobs visit their houses, they beat the black men, they often kill them, rape women in the household, daughters, mothers. So you have this ritualized terror.

[Kendra Field, Historian] An African-American owning his own piece of land, his own farm, his own horse and buggy, these kinds of things were rallying cries for racial violence on the part of white southerners.

So you have black people really looking west as a place of opportunity, as a place where they can get away from the oppression of southern whites. You know, you were going to a promised land.

That’s a huge political statement. That freedom of mobility, freedom of self-determination and so you start to see people moving in the south saying enough of this, I’m gonna find someplace else to go.

(jazz music)


[Wilhelmina Guess Howell, Unpublished memoir] My grandfather was in that run of ’89. He lived in Memphis, Tennessee. They call him Cap Jackson. He didn’t like the way the negroes were being treated and he said, “we gotta do something to protect ourselves.” This wasn’t too long after the civil war and so my grandfather, he told my grandmother, he says, “I’m going to Indian territory, see what I can find up there and if I can find a place for us to live, I’ll send for you.”


The first wave of African-Americans in Indian territory in Oklahoma came in the 1830s as part of Indian removal, more commonly known as the trail of tears.

The trail of tears was an act to remove native Americans from the south and to have these native Americans go west to what was then called Indian territory, which was essentially a wasteland. I mean, there was no value assessed to Indian territory.

The so-called trail of tears, the forced migration of the five civilized tribes out of the southeast of the United States into Oklahoma, the Cherokees, the Muscogee Creeks, the Choctaw, the Chickasaws and the Seminoles. All those tribes had people of African ancestry enslaved.

[Karlos Hill, Historian] Black people were brought to Oklahoma as enslaved people and after the civil war when they were freed, they received land allotments from the United States government.

The tribes executed treaties with the federal government whereby they accepted their formerly enslaved persons as tribal citizens, that citizenship entitled those former enslaved persons to land allotment. It’s significant because it provided succession to wealth for those people and their descendants.

So that became the basis upon which freed men could own land but also build communities in.

(somber music)

My grandmother grew up in Oklahoma. She would tell me these spectacular stories about her grandfather who had come into Indian territory, acquired a great deal of land. He married into creek family and they were able to build a church, a school and they called it Brownsville after grandpa Brown. His name was Thomas Jefferson Brown. My grandmother’s grandparents were part of what I call freedom’s first generation.

[James Hirsch, Author] There were some leaders in the Oklahoma territory who envisioned this being a haven for African-Americans set apart from the oppression of the old confederate states.

One of the key players here is Edwin McCabe. He is really thinking that maybe this is an opportunity for a black state. He advocates for the establishment of a black state.

He goes to work on this front in Washington. When that does not come to pass, he moves on to pushing for black towns.

He acquires 320 acres of land and he names it Langston City.

There’s Lincoln, liberty, there’s Boley, which is fairly well known, Taft, Rentiesville, Tatums, Grayson, Summit, Vernon, Redbird, Clearview and Wybark. Those are some of the communities.

The black towns were incredibly prideful places.

(cheerful guitar music)

My grandmother grew up having black teachers, black principals, knowing black judges, having black doctors, black nurses. This was considered an all black world.

It was an opportunity for people to live largely unmolested, to show their economic prowess, to govern themselves sort of laboratories of democracy and capitalism.

Their very existence gives black people a sense that they can truly be free and equal, a sense that there were places, communities where black people didn’t have to worry about terrorism in the same way, they didn’t have to worry the about every day slights and indignity of segregation.

(somber music)


When Oklahoma was a territory before it became a state, blacks and native Americans lived together. They lived, died and were buried together.

African-Americans and native Americans did not want for Oklahoma to become a state because they knew that southerners were bringing their racism directly from the south out west.

Jim Crow segregation, white southern racism, white supremacy, the KKK, that is what came with the state of Oklahoma.

(somber music)

[Reverend Robert Turner, Vernon A.M.E. Church] Today is the eve of the mass grave excavation where members of our church were killed in the race massacre of 1921 but unfortunately, the pastor at the church at the time never had the chance to give them a proper burial because they dumped their bodies in mass graves.

God, have your presence reign, dwell in this place.

You know their souls, their bodies are here.

I ask you, god that you protect them and that you cover them and that you keep them.

I pray that, lord that your mercy shines on them.

Your love and your grace.

God, this process of excavation.

We need your (indistinct), we need your grace to overcome white supremacy, we need your grace for the oppressed to see your salvage and your justice.

Forever more in Jesus’ name, amen.


Mh, it’s ready.

(tractor beeps)

Ground is ready.

[Brenda Nails Alford] Good afternoon, my name is Brenda Nails Alford. As I ponder today’s events, I thought of my grandparents and our community members and I know that they could never have imagined this day in time when we will be speaking about the race massacre, let alone looking for the remains of those who were lost so tragically during those horrible days.

(tractor revs) (choir hums)

(dramatic music)

Oklahoma becomes a state in 1907. What happens upon statehood is the immediate imposition of the (indistinct) regulations of the Jim Crow south.

[Kimberly Ellis, Author] In housing, in transportation and even the segregation of telephone booths.

With this imposition of the sort of southern way of life, it’s a real disillusionment. Oklahoma is your last chance to get land, so this is the place you wanna go. This is the place you wanna be and then to have, upon statehood, the southern way of life imposed upon you, that’s heartbreaking.

[Hannibal Johnson, Historian] The other thing that’s going on in the same period is lynching.

(somber music)

Lynching is nothing short of domestic terrorism, to keep black people in their place, to reinforce white supremacy.

[Kendra] The first reported lynching happens in Oklahoma on the Christmas eve of 1907, right after statehood and from there on, there’s a spate of lynchings.

Those lynchings happened in over a dozen communities and those communities included Oklahoma City, Norman, Oklahoma, Purcell, Shawnee, Wagoner, Madill.

[Brent Staples, Columnist] They preserve segregation, they preserve second-class citizenship by essentially picking out black people and shooting them, hanging them or burning them alive in public. This is part of what happens when blacks begin to assert self-determination.

One thing I think that is underappreciated about black communities in Oklahoma is that you did have black people fight back and you have figures such as Ida B. Wells saying that a Winchester rifle should have an honored place in every black home. Ida b. Wells is probably the foremost anti-lynching activist to emerge in the late 19th century.

She realized that African Americans being run off their lands and being lynched was not for the purposes of avenging a rape, those false accusations. It was due to economic jealousy.

She writes, “this is what opened my eyes to what lynching really was, an excuse to get rid of negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and lest keep the race terrorized and quote “keep [bleep] the down.”

[Jonathan Holloway, Historian] If we look back to this moment, it had to be a moment of great confusion for African-Americans. Where do they fit in, where do they work? Where do they live safely and freely? One of the key things that’s undergirding this for African-Americans is the right to make their own decisions, the right to move where they wanted to move.

(dramatic music)

(somber music)

I was raised in the Greenwood district.

My grandmother owned a house over on Elgin, over on Elson and they would tell stories about the Greenwood riot.

I heard it was bodies buried over here.

It’s good to see the people show interest about it, even though it happened so long ago and some stuff might not never just come out.

It might not ever be no closure but the awareness is there and that’s almost enough for me.

It’s a travesty that in 1921, they come and destroy a community.

Now, they looking for the bodies.

Ain’t nobody ever apologized, like the state.

No reparations paid to the families who lost loved ones and whose business was destroyed because of their actions.

Some reports say that there was over 300 bodies so they gon’ get to dig in here soon and we gon’ see.

(calm music)

Oklahoma had 45 black towns and municipalities.

It was capital of black self-determination.

Black people came for the same reason as whites, for new possibility.

They saw in Tulsa an opportunity for business.

Tulsa itself was a boom town.

The reason was in 1905, an oil well wildcatter discovered the Glenpool, which was the richest, small oil field in the entire world.

So when the city began to boom because of oil, it just drew more people.

These professionals and merchants in these smaller all-black towns, they then migrated to Tulsa.

They’re coming by train, they’re coming by wagon, they’re walking.

They’re getting there any way that they can and as the city of Tulsa goes from this sleepy cow town into something else, there’s a part of the city in the north eastern corner that becomes the primary African-American settlement known as Greenwood.

I liken it to a city within a city.

Greenwood itself is an area of nearly 40 square blocks with individual neighborhoods, individual churches that have their own parishes.

About 40 to 45 blocks of a residential community with a business district.

The Greenwood community was staked out by a fellow named O.W. Gurley, who really is the father of the Greenwood district and established the first business there in 1906.

Gurley was a very community focused, visionary leader who saw in Greenwood the promise of creating a community where black people could flourish.

O.W. Gurley and J.B. Stradford, they worked together and they had a specific intent to make African-Americans wealthy, land owners, entrepreneurs.

They both knew what the state of Oklahoma was offering.

They knew that they needed to be very intentful in creating Greenwood.

These were members of a black community who were showing black people that a new world was possible.

They were a sign and a symbol to black communities about all of the wonderful things that we could be.

Mary E. Parrish is such an important figure.

She was a teacher and a journalist in Tulsa and she wrote what I believe to be the very first depiction of what happened in Tulsa.

[Mary] I had heard of this town since girlhood and of the many opportunities here to make money.

But I came because of the wonderful cooperation I observed among our people and especially the harmonious spirit and action that existed between the businessmen and women.

This section of Tulsa was a city within a city.

You have all sorts of businesses in Greenwood.

You have everything from funeral parlors to theaters, a hotel.

There’s a public library, a black library.

There are chili houses, cafes, restaurants.

There’s just everything there.

There were a dozen surgeons and doctors.

There were several lawyers.

There was a black owned photography studio.

(camera clicks)

[Kimberly] there are black working people.

They’re not working necessarily in oil but they’re working in all sorts of businesses that were supporting the oil boom.

My grandfather was a very proud college educated shoemaker from prairie view a & m and he, along with my great uncle were the owners of the nails brother’s shoe shop and record shop that was located on north Greenwood avenue in Tulsa.

There were john and Loula Williams that had come to Tulsa on a wagon.

John Williams was a mechanic who was very good with machines and he had secured a job for himself working for an ice cream company.

His services were in such demand that he was able to make a pretty good living and the family bought the first car in Greenwood but it was Loula Williams who was the real entrepreneur.

She had purchased a building right on the corner of archer and Greenwood.

And on the first floor was a confectionery, a sweet shop.

She also across the street, had opened up dreamland theater.

She actually owned three movie theaters.

If you wanted to see and be seen, that’s where you would be.

Greenwood was a community of necessity.

It was a segregated enclave.

Black folks couldn’t apply their trades or purchase goods and services in the larger white community so they created their own economy.

That economy became successful because black folks did business with one another and kept dollars largely in the black community.

What happens in Greenwood is that segregation, which is not necessarily desired, segregation actually enables black businesses to thrive, black professionals to thrive.

It was a district where in fact money, dollars could turn over five or six times.

In Greenwood you could, as a black person you could advance and you had a number of individuals in the community that were, prospering.

[Wilhelmina] My uncle, he was a physician.

His name was Andrew Jackson, lived up on Detroit street in the 500 block, sort of a hill right up that street.

Detroit in those days had the nicest houses.

The negros did, the principal of the school lived up there.

We had dentists up there, we had wonderful doctors and my uncle, I told you his name was Dr. Jackson.

My great grandfather’s name was J.B. Stradford.

He grew up in Kentucky.

His parents were slaves and he was able to get a law degree, go to Oberlin college and really start his entrepreneurial career in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The Stradford hotel was one of the largest black owned hotels in the United States.

It was a beautiful building and leaders from throughout the country when they came through the Midwest would often stay at the Stradford hotel.

You got black entertainers that are playing there, jazz being a really important scene.

We think about jazz in Kansas, in Kansas City, it’s also important in Greenwood.

Because of the success of Greenwood, booker T. Washington coined the phrase Greenwood as the “black wall street” or the “Negro Wall Street of America”.

As the community grows and grows in affluence and grows in confidence, these race men and women come to the front.

They articulate a kind of outreach about racism.

They articulate a kind of self-determination.

They articulate a resistance.

Andrew Jackson Smitherman worked as an attorney and as a journalist.

He was a creek freedmen and teamed up with J.B. Stradford to create the Tulsa star, the first daily black newspaper in Oklahoma.

The black newspaper at that time was a forum for pointing out black achievement at a time when white newspapers presented black people only in crime but the heart of it was an agitation for justice and an agitation against lynching.

At the same time that’s happening, you see in the summer of 1919 a rise of racial terror all over the country.

New York, Philadelphia, Memphis, Chicago, Washington DC, Elaine, Arkansas and we can go on and on and on.

A lot of these riots are really fueled by anxieties about black advancement and black success and we’re not only talking about cities like Chicago or DC or New York, we’re talking about cities like Tulsa.

In 1921, those same tensions in the United States were present in Tulsa and it did revolve around jealousy and resentment.

It threatened the system of white supremacy.

Certainly in Tulsa, which was an incredible concentration of black wealth, you can look at Tulsa as a tinderbox like, what is the spark that’s going to ignite it?

(upbeat music)

[presenter] It’s time for the Bobby Eaton Show.

Turn the volume up, it’s the Bobby Eaton Show.

All right, hey, welcome to the Bobby Eaton Show and this is where we tell our stories our way.

Got a great show going on today.

We gon’ be talking about Black Wall Street and some of the things that have been taking place down there then and now.

So that’s what we’re gon’ be…

Hey, Ramal from the hometown heat.

How we doing, bro?

[Ramal] Bobby, what’s going on?

Making it do what it do, man.

Do what it do. Yeah.

We got Damali Wilson.

Hey, what’s happening world?

Charles harper. I’m up in this place.

Great, so as you go down on Greenwood right now, it’s so sad to see this, a very small section of um, the buildings that are left.

They ran a freeway through it.

You know what I mean?

Ran a freeway through it.

Osu, Tulsa came and balled up all that down there.

So now the land is not owned by us, it’s been stolen.

It’s been all taken away from us.

And what they really was trying to do is cover it up.

They was trying to hide it because after that massacre took place, it was never really discussed.

[Charles] No, I didn’t learn about it until I was 22 years old.

Yeah, most of us did.

[Wilson] Yeah.

[Charles] The devastation and I cried.

[Ramal] Wow.

[Charles] I’m from here.

[Ramal] Why do you guys think that anybody didn’t say anything?

Well, a lot of the blacks and African-Americans didn’t want to talk about it.

[Charles] And you gotta think about the trauma that was created.

Nobody wants to speak about trauma.

It’s so sad because it devastates a city.

I mean like really, literally our city has been stuck since then because the black community has never been the same since then.

Never recovered.

We’ve never recovered.

I mean, we’ve never ever been able to actually get back to the black wall street.

[man] Yeah, you gotta think about, that’s our stolen inheritance.

That’s so true.

(wistful guitar music)

The story of the deadliest race massacre in American history begins with two individuals, Dick Rowland and Sarah Page.

(thunder rumbling)

On memorial day, may 30th, 1921, a young African-American male is walking in downtown Tulsa on main street. His name is Dick Rowland. He dropped out of Booker T. Washington High School where he’s a football player to take a job shining shoes downtown but he worked in a white patronized shoeshine parlor where there were no toilet facilities for African-Americans.

So the white owner of the parlor arranged it so his African-American employees would walk down main street, go to the Drexel building, ride the elevator to the fourth floor where there was a colored bathroom.

The elevator operator in the Drexel building was a young white teenager named Sarah Page. Sarah page is manually operating the elevator.

Something happens that cause the elevators to jerk or to lurch and Dick Rowland bumped into Sarah Paige.

She began to scream.

Dick Rowland, frightened, ran from the elevator.

We don’t know exactly what happened but we know something happened.

Dick Rowland bumped into her, Dick Rowland stepped on her shoe.

She was not expecting him and she screamed.

Then Dick Rowland is seen running out of the Drexel building.

Sarah page exited the elevator.

She was comforted by a clerk from a locally owned store called Ren Burges.

She told him about being assaulted on the elevator.

The clerk who was comforting her called the police.

The next day, Tulsa police show up at Dick’s home.

He’s arrested.

He’s taken downtown to the courthouse awaiting arraignment.

That could have been the end of the story had it not been for the intervention of the Tulsa Tribune on the daily afternoon newspaper.

The Tribune published a story the next day entitled “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in an Elevator.”

It was a false narrative about an attempted rape in broad daylight in downtown Tulsa.

The story was very incendiary.

It used all kinds of buzz words and menacing images that invoked this notion of a black man assaulting the white woman, which was a euphemism for rape.

The newspaper story is published around three o’clock.

By four o’clock, a small group of white men have began to assemble around and mill around the courthouse.

This goes on for several hours, more and more whites showing up murmuring about lynching Dick Rowland.

First, the crowd is 50, then 100, then 200, then 300, 400, 500 whites gathered outside of the Tulsa county courthouse in whose jail Dick Rowland is held in a top floor jail cell.

The crowd wants the sheriff to turn over the prisoner because they’re gonna kill him, they’re gonna lynch him.

When black people began to hear around nine o’clock, 9:15, that there is a possible lynching of Dick Rowland, that’s when J.B. Stradford, that’s when O.W. Gurley, that’s when A.J. Smitherman have a meeting at the offices of the Tulsa star.

As the newspaper editor, A.J. Smitherman knew that this was a dog whistle, that this was the call for lynching, that it was trouble.

A.J. Smitherman was a civil rights advocate.

He had a voice because he had a newspaper.

Not only would he write stories, he would actually put his body at risk.

I mean, he would actually engage in incidents where there was threats of racial violence.

There is a debate and rightly so, what is the best plan of action?

Is it to go downtown armed and offer assistance?

Is it to just send a small group or send one?

[J.B.] The day a member of our group is mobbed in Tulsa, the streets will be bathed in blood.

If I can’t get anyone to go with me, I will go single-handed and then resign myself to that fate.

Ultimately, the idea of going downtown armed is what prevails.

At about nine o’clock, a group of African-American world war one vets, all of whom are armed with pistols, rifles, shotguns, many of them had put on their army uniforms, marched up to the front steps of the courthouse and they approached sheriff McAuliffe and they say, “sheriff, we are here to help defend the prisoner.”

They were told, “don’t worry.

He will not be lynched, no one’s gonna take him.

He’s gonna be safe here.”

The men leave but the effect that the vets had on the white lynch mob is just transformative.

Upon seeing this group of black men who have come downtown boldly holding their weapons in this very manly, courageous way, it electrifies the whites.

They go nuts.

Members of the mob run home to get their own guns.

[Karlos] Not only came back with weapons, brought others with them.

The mob is getting bigger.

600, 700, 800 people armed, angry.

[Karlos] 20 minutes, 30 minutes later, a larger group of black man return to downtown.

But they know that a black person is about to be murdered by a lynching in Tulsa, Oklahoma and they are not gonna let that happen.

By this time, the crowd has grown to nearly 2,000 if not more.

One of the white man approaches one of the black man who’s holding a gun and said, “what are you doing with that gun?”

The black man says, “what’s it to you?”

The white man who’s bumped into tries to take away the gun.

A struggle ensues, a shot goes off and then another shot and another shot.

Then in the words of the sheriff, all hell broke loose.

And the worst single incident of racial violence in American history begins.

(dramatic music)

(ominous music)

The mob, they don’t care about Dick Rowland anymore.

He is now forgotten.

They are now out to get any African-American that they can.

As white people, we must put this down.

This is a negro uprising.

This isn’t just a rebellion, this is an uprising.

Meanwhile, the Tulsa police have now suddenly shown up.

They haven’t been around before and what they do is amazing.

They start handing out special deputy badges to members of the lynch mob.

They then start to break into pawn shops and sporting goods stores, the police do and start handing out guns and ammunition.

The police deputize some people from the lynch mob and tell them, get a gun and go get a [bleep].

Black people are being shot and killed black people are fleeing.

They’re fighting as they go.

But ultimately the blacks do get back along the perimeter of Greenwood.

And they knew the advantage of having a fortified place from which to resist.

Some of them line themselves up along the Frisco railroad tracks because this is the entrance to Greenwood.

They wanna protect the neighborhood.

J.B. Stradford goes to the second floor of his hotel because it’s a good view and he can fight hard from there.

There are some men, African-American war veterans, they seek out the highest point in Tulsa which is the Mount Zion Baptist Church.

They climb up into that tower.

During the nighttime hour, there was an effort by some white mob members to cross the tracks from the white part of downtown into deep Greenwood but every time they tried to cross the tracks, they were met with volley after volley where black property owners and other residents are defending their properties.

There was a certain type of silence that occurred late in the night and you might have thought that it was over, that the black men won the war that night and that they had successfully defended Greenwood.

By 2:00 and 3:00 in the morning, things seemed to get quiet but it’s a false quiet because what’s happening is that all across Tulsa, angry whites, members of that mob are now organizing.

They rally thousands of whites.

They get their guns, they get their torches, they get their kerosene and they line up around the perimeter of black Tulsa and they wait.

They wait until the sun rises.

We don’t know how many whites had organized but certainly in the thousands and they’ve gathered along the railroad tracks that divide Greenwood from much of the white community.

Right after dawn, there was this weird siren that is heard downtown.

(siren blares)

And when that siren went off, there was just a full onslaught of gunfire, of, um, airplanes flying and dropping incendiary devices, which we now know are turpentine balls onto the tops of buildings and it was just an all-out massacre of Greenwood.

[Wilhelmina] We could hear the mob coming.

You could hear ’em coming up the street house by house saying, “come out of there! Come out of there!”

We didn’t go out the front way.

We went out our back door and we went up under the porch.

[Mary] After watching the men unload on first street, we heard such a buzzing noise.

There was a great shadow in the sky and upon the second look, we discerned that this cloud was caused by fast approaching airplanes.

[Wilhelmina] We could hear bombing, what they were using for bombs, whether it was just dynamite or what but we could hear the bombs.

[B.C.] Smoke ascended the sky in thick black volumes and emitted all.

The planes, now a dozen or more than the number hummed and darted here and there.

Planes began to fly over, the machine gun fire begins and men, white men rush into the community, firing into homes.

Firing into front parlors and kitchens and children’s bedrooms.

[Karlos] This was an intentional military styled attack.

There are a number of gunfights that we know about that breakout across Greenwood as groups of black men and women armed with rifles and shotguns and pistols are attempting to save their community.

Stradford decided that he needed to defend his hotel and so from the second floor, he was able to aim down at the street.

He had a shotgun and he had a pistol and he would have his son load one weapon while he fired the other.

There’s a furious firefight that happens at Mount Zion Baptist Church.

This incredibly new, beautiful church that had been just dedicated a few months earlier.

There were men in the bell tower trying to defend, not only the church but all the homes in the community as well.

The white rioters start firing at them.

They have machine guns on a nearby hill.

They open up on the church, destroy the rose glass window.

Other folks hear the gunshots, they get worried.

They start to stream out of town.

Where in the hell you going?

You, and he uses the n-word.

[interviewer] Mmm-hmm.

And my grandpa said, “we’re headed out, going out of town.”

And he said, “not this day, you’re not going outta town,” bam!

Mill and valley track was just lined with people going north and some were in their head rags, old gowns because they didn’t have any time to get dressed to get out.

Even some women left their shoes and was just walking down the tracks with no shoes on.

People were coming out of their homes, they’re surrendering to the special deputies, the national guard but it’s at the point that black people have been removed for their homes detained, that the burning, the systematic burning of homes, of businesses began.

What I remember mostly is when all of a sudden, my mother was excited is because that she saw four men coming toward our house and all of them had torches,

Lighted torches on their side coming straight to our house.

What happens is that Greenwood citizens are not there to defend their property.

Whites then start smashing in to the stores and homes on Greenwood avenue breaking glasses, breaking windows, busting down doors and helping themselves to whatever they’d like.

At no point did police or the fire department try to prevent that burning.

The community was simply allowed to be destroyed.

That next morning when the national guard had come in to evacuate Greenwood, they coerced Stradford to come out and they said, “as long as you surrender, we promise nothing will happen to your hotel.”

But of course, that was a lie.

He surrendered, he turned himself in and they immediately torched his hotel.

[Scott] They’re being led away at gunpoint to these so-called internment centers around town, the fair grounds, the municipal auditorium, the baseball park.

To get out of these centers, people generally had to have a green identification card countersigned by a white person that was willing to vouch for them.

So here you are.

You’ve been illegally arrested by white civilians.

You have no idea what’s happened to your loved ones if you’ve been separated from them, if that was your uncle, your brother, your son, your father, you’re gonna never know what happened to them.

(somber music)

We have to acknowledge that the destruction to the community was intentional.

It was conscious, it was systematic.

(somber music)

When the dust settled, somewhere between 100 and 300 people were killed, at least 1,250 homes in the black community were destroyed.

35 square blocks, 36 square blocks, 40 square blocks, just obliterated it.

You could see the iron metal bed stands where there used to be homes.

$2 million in black wealth went up in flames, right, that was never recouped.

For people who didn’t know what happened to their loved ones, identified as well as unidentified, African-American massacre victims were being buried in unmarked graves across the city.

(somber jazz music)


I learned about the race massacre in college and then when I came here and I found out that nothing had been done for the African-American community and pastoring a church where the members died and the survivors never saw justice, that aggravated my spirit.

I would want somebody to speak on behalf of my great-grandmother.

I would want somebody to speak on my behalf, god forbid, if I was dumped in some mass grave somewhere.

(somber violin music)

It’s an embarrassment that we have never had a district attorney investigate the worst crime in this city’s history.

So I’m excited but I’m definitely not saying that the battle is won by any stretch.

Thank you all very much for being here.

In Tulsa if you’re murdered, we’re going to do everything that we can to find out what happened to you and to render justice for your family.

It should not have taken 99 years for us to be doing this investigation.

I don’t think that it’s an accident that all of a sudden now, there was the political ability to do something like this and frankly, I will say that it may have as much to do with the city of Tulsa not wanting to look bad as it does with them wanting to actually achieve justice.

I think that’s a thing that has just been true, frankly of Tulsa for a very long time, a city that has not dealt, frankly, with its past.

(somber music)

After the riot, what are they left with?

The community has been wiped out.

Number one, how are they going to rebuild?

Then number two, will there be any accountability the whites who destroyed the community, the sheriff who deputized members of the mob, the fire department that didn’t show up to put out the fires?

After the massacre, the city government refused to take responsibility and mayor Evans was adamant that it was the black community that was responsible.

The black people coming downtown has been used as a cover for the very direct ways in which the city leadership propelled the violence.

J.B. Stradford was actually indicted for inciting, it was called inciting the riot.

J.B. Stradford was arrested.

He was bonded out by his son and they immediately hopped a train to Chicago.

J.B. Stradford never returned and he lost everything he owned in Tulsa.

A.J. Smitherman also lost everything he owned.

Smitherman ended up being charged with inciting a riot.

His brother helped him escape to St. Louis.

He eventually ended up in Boston.

As retaliation, his brother who was a deputy police officer, the Klu Klux Klan cut off his ear.

You could see before the ashes are cooled, the city fathers are beginning to try to figure out, suppress news covers because it’s bad for business.

Tulsa’s white city fathers, they realized, we have a big PR problem.

They told the world that Tulsa was ashamed of this event and that white Tulsa would rebuild the destroyed African-American community.

Initially, there were some promises made by the city saying that there would be restitution, there would be reparations.

You had the NAACP coming up with a relief fund.

They’re saying to these people, please send in money.

When Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association offered a hundred black nurses from Chicago to come out, city fathers told them, no, don’t come down here.

The people of Tulsa will take care of it.

Well, what did they really do?

They tried to steal the land where the Greenwood commercial district had been located.

(dramatic music)

The city saw opportunity.

They wanted to take the land that blacks had occupied just north of the rail track.

They did so by passing a fire ordinance that was designed to prevent most African-American homeowners and business owners from rebuilding again.

(dramatic music)

It was B.C. Franklin who said, “no, we’re going to stay here.”

B.C. Franklin sets up a tent and begins to churn out legal documents to preserve the rights of Greenwooders to rebuild.

Franklin told folks, just start building, build with whatever you can.

With orange crates, with charred pieces of timber, with old bricks.

Get your stores and houses going and they did.

(ominous music)

The race massacre was something that was swept under the rug for many years.

No one talked about it.

Tulsa’s daily white newspapers, the Tulsa World and the Tulsa Tribune refused to write anything about the massacre for more than 50 years.

In fact, they would go to extreme lengths not to mention it.

The reason that we really understand the history of the massacre has to do with the fact that certain elderly African-American massacre survivors decided to talk about it.

They went on record with what they saw and what they witnessed.

That’s really why we know how the massacre unfolded as it did.

A local historian named Eddie Faye Gates interviewed all the living survivors that she could find at the time.

This was between 1997 and 2001.

Just tell us what it was like to be nine years old and caught in a race riot.

At nine years old, it was most disturbing because I was asleep.

My mother awakened me and she told me to get up.

She says, “Eldoris, Eldoris, get up so I can get you dressed.

The white folks are killing the colored folks.”

Bullets were zinging around, telephone poles were burned and falling and my poor sister who was two years younger than I am, “Kenny, is the world on fire?”

I said, “I don’t think so but we in deep trouble.”

We got to the convention hall.

They searched us before they would let us go in (clears throat) and my mother had picked up my oldest brother’s service revolver before we left and had in a little satchel and they wanted to see it.

She said, “I don’t have anything in here but some important papers.”

So, one of them says old dogs have new tricks like young ones and they searched and took the pistol.

If we wanna understand the black experience of the race massacre, we have to start and end with how black survivors narrated the terror of what occurred.

Thank you so much, Mrs. Davis.

We need you.

You are a treasure and we hope your words of wisdom will help Tulsa to become a better place.

God bless you.

You’re doing a wonderful thing.

[Eddie] Thank you.

It’s not just a story of victimization, it’s also a story of resistance, it’s also a story of courage and resilience and that can’t be forgotten.

My grandfather, he was a very proud, college educated shoemaker who did everything he was “supposed to do.” he got his education, he worked hard.

He started the businesses and still, that wasn’t enough.

And so on this day in time, my question is, when is it enough?

When are we enough as a people?

They did everything that they could do.

They wanted to be successful.

These were proud, outstanding members of our community who simply wanted a piece of the American dream and truly received a nightmare.

At the end of this experience, no white person was convicted of an offense related to killing people or destroying the property in the Greenwood district.


And that is not surprising.

Really, when you think about the context, it’s not surprising at all.

There are new calls for a federal investigation into the police shooting of an unarmed black man in Tulsa, Oklahoma raising questions yet again about the relationship between law enforcement and citizens of color.

[reporter] Terence Crutcher died Friday after police responded to a report of a stalled vehicle.

Protestors now want officer Betty Shelby to be fired and arrested.

The state’s governor called video of the shooting troubling.

[betty] I’ve got a suspect who won’t show me his hands.

[pilot] Oh, he’s got his hands up there for her now.

[officer] That looks like a bad dude, too.

He might be on something.

[reporter] The 40-year-old father of four was tased by one officer then shot by another.

The same anti-black white supremacy and racism that caused the 1921 Tulsa massacre and its continuing impact is the exact same attitude that caused Terence Crutcher to be shot with his hands up in the air by officer Betty Shelby and allow the city of Tulsa to cover that up.

It’s the same attitude that Terence’s life did not matter.

That’s how you come over and you destroy a community of over 10,000 people, burn their houses down, kill them, loot them, then put them in what the Tulsa world called concentration camps.

That is the same mentality that allows a family like the Crutcher family to suffer so many years without any closure, without the city saying, “you’re right, we should not shoot unarmed people with their hands up in the air,” but you know what?

He just looked like a bad dude, he’s a black guy.

What’s the deal, what’s the problem?

You all wanna know who that big, bad dude was?

That big, bad dude was my twin brother.

That big, bad dude was a father.

That big, bad dude was a son.

That big, bad dude was enrolled at Tulsa community college just wanting to make us proud.

That big, bad dude loved god.

That big bad dude was at church singing with all his flaws every week.

That big, bad dude, that’s who he was.

We just want justice ’cause I want for everyone to know that that big, bad dude, his life mattered.

[woman] Yes. (crowd chatters)

His life mattered. (crowd claps)

[crowd] Justice for crutch! Justice for crutch!

Justice for crutch! Justice for crutch right now!

Justice for crutch, right now! Justice for crutch, right now!

This is about love today, this is about healing today, this is about prayer today.

We’re crying out to god to give us love and peace and justice and healing for this family, healing for this community and healing for this nation.

I think it’s wonderful that we’re here on Greenwood, black wall street.

We’re on Greenwood!

Black wall street.

On Greenwood! (crowd applause)

I grew up in north Tulsa.

We started the justice for Greenwood foundation which is focused on respect, restitution and repair for those who have suffered the massacre and the continuing harm that continues to this very day.

Well, good morning.

I am attorney Damario Solomon Simmons.

Along with my team, I’m so excited to announce this lawsuit to finally get justice for Greenwood that we’ve been waiting on for over 99 years.

You take the descendants of a person like A.J. Smitherman, one of the families that we represent.

A.J. Smitherman was one of the wealthiest men in Greenwood or J.B. Stradford who owned the largest African-American owned hotel in the nation at the time.

He would have been Marriott, he would have been Hyatt.

Their wealth never recovered and so what does that leave the community?

Look around today.

We see the massive disparities in wealth accumulation and there is no question, no question if those black entrepreneurs had been able to continue to build upon the tremendous wealth and businesses that they had created, that that would not be the case because at the time, Tulsa was the best place in the nation for African-Americans.

Tulsa, make some noise for Mr. Greg Robinson.

(crows cheers)

I want y’all to repeat after me.

It is our duty to fight for our freedom!

[crowd] It is our duty to fight for our freedom!

It is our duty to win!

[Crowd] It is our duty to win!

[Greg] We must love each other and support each other.

[crowd] We must love each other and support each other.

We have nothing to lose but our chains.

[Crowd] We have nothing to lose but our chains.

We can choose a just Tulsa, where we can stand up as Tulsans and for Tulsans then have been wronged, whether that’s the families of those who lost their businesses and their lives in 1921 or the families who lost their sons to police violence today.

[crowd] All lives don’t matter till black lives matter!

All lives don’t matter till black lives matter!

All lives don’t matter till black lives matter!

All lives don’t matter till black lives matter!

All lives don’t matter till black lives matter!

All lives don’t matter till black lives matter!

All lives don’t matter till black lives matter!

When you look at the city of Tulsa, we are at a critical point where 100 years later, many factors are converging that are very similar to the factors that existed 100 years ago.

Are we gonna move forward in a way where we want to profit everyone?

It’s a question that we have to answer here in the city of Tulsa but I would say that it’s a question that our country is still yet to answer.

(crowd shouts)

One of the things that justice looks like is listening to what this community says that it wants because they live in the legacy of a city that committed acts of harm against black communities and set it back generations.

(jazz music)

My name is Kevin Matthews.

I’m Oklahoma state senator for senate district 11 here in Tulsa which encompasses all of downtown Tulsa and north Tulsa.

I was asked, what was I doing for the Greenwood area and we formed the centennial commission.

Our mission is to tell the story effectively and bring economics and finance and tourism to the area.

Greenwood right now is about two blocks when in reality, Greenwood was 40 square blocks.

The amount of business, the amount of commerce that is currently being generated in those blocks should be benefiting in some way the descendants and the original inhabitants of the Greenwood area.

We thought this story should be told, created this portal for African-American history on the corner of Greenwood and archer.

If we could bring 1 million people here to tell our story, we would bring more money into our coffers and this community will benefit.

That’s the idea behind Greenwood rising.

It’s absurd that a building will receive $25, $30 million while the descendants of Greenwood, the survivors of Greenwood are uprooted, sent further out north where there’s zero, zero development, zero economic activity, zero opportunities to really be successful.

If you go further into Greenwood, historic Greenwood, you will see multimillion dollar buildings being built.

You’ll see multimillion dollar housing being built.

These are not owned by African-Americans.

The land is not owned by African-Americans.

The core issue is justice hasn’t been done and so Greenwood rising can either be a tourist attraction that is a slap in the face of the ancestors or it can be a monument to the history that those ancestors created and a symbol of a new way forward.

Black communities deserve the opportunity to confront the past because we cannot heal the things that we will not confront.

We cannot do justice to the things that we will not tell the truth about.

We cannot simply bury the dead in this instance.

[reporter] Mayor Bynum, assuming remains are found, folks who are identified, unidentified as victims of the massacre, is the city of Tulsa committed to any sort of compensation reparation process for descendants?

We haven’t had any conversation about reparations as part of this.

Job one is just to identify the victims of the event, try to find them.

My focus as mayor has been entirely on trying to move this investigation forward and if there’s a conversation to be held later on down the road, then that’s a conversation that Tulsans can have but right now, I want our focus to be on the investigation itself.

(somber music)

♪ It started right ♪

♪ It started in the fields right ♪

♪ You can have my… ♪

♪ Mmh ♪

♪ And all the fathers before me ♪

Today, I have the opportunity to report to you that we have now encountered human remains.

Clearly, the main thing we’ll be really focusing on is the extent to which the remains are of a condition that would allow for any indications of trauma.

[reporter] Tonight, they’ve confirmed a second coffin.

They’ll go over the remains, looking for signs of trauma, signs of burns or bullet wounds, perhaps even bullets.

♪ And all the fathers before me ♪

♪ Mmh ♪

♪ And all the fathers before me ♪

♪ Mmh ♪

♪ And all the fathers before me ♪

♪ Mmh ♪

♪ And all the fathers before me ♪

♪ Mmh ♪

(somber music)

Today was a big day.

We have uncovered at least 10 coffins in an area where we believe that massacre victims were buried.

We’re not certain yet as to the condition of the human remains inside of them but the coffins and their outlines are very clear.

[Bynum] We believe that part of 18 African-American massacre victims that we know through funeral home records were buried here at Oaklawn cemetery.

(somber music)


I just can’t get over the fact that they actually saw something.


You know, from human remains over 100 years later.


This is so beautiful and sad at the same time.


Beautiful that we actually found it here and sad that this, it really happened.

[Kristi] Yeah, exactly.

You know?

[Kristi] It took this long.


[Kristi] It means a lot to me, too because now we can give them a proper burial but justice is about to start right now.

This is the drum, that’s hitting the drum for justice.

When we did in fact find coffins and remains, I have to say that time stood still for a moment for me to know that the history that had been shared all those years, finally, we were seeing some evidence of that.

We held hands so tight and there were tears shed and it was just a joyous moment.

It was one that I will never ever forget.

I hope in some ways that those who have gone on before us felt that and know that in some way.

It was quite the moment.

[Narrator] Name of deceased, A.C. Jackson, negro.

Date of death, June one, 1921.

Cause of death, gunshot.

Name of deceased, unidentified still born negro.

Date of death, June one, 1921.

Cause of death, probably neglect.

♪ Ooh, ooh ♪

♪ Ooh, ooh ♪

♪ Ooh, ooh ♪

♪ Everyday, I keep walking ♪

♪ Trying to keep my head from falling ♪

♪ Tell me, who can I lean on ♪

♪ I turned to you but you were gone ♪

♪ Every time we feel this pain, you look at us in shame ♪

♪ And when you ask us why this will be our reply ♪

♪ We’ll sing their names, sing their names ♪

♪ Oh, yes we will, sing their names ♪

♪ Sing their names, sing their names ♪

♪ We’ll sing their names, sing their names ♪

♪ Sing their names ♪

♪ Oh, we sing their names ♪

♪ Yeah, oh, we sing their names ♪

♪ We sing their names ♪

♪ Ooh, ooh ♪

This is Tulsa’s time to shine.

[Charlie] Yes, I agree.

This horrible atrocity happened here and how we deal with it coming up on this anniversary of the massacre is gonna be big and it’s gonna be telling.

There’s trauma here and until we heal that trauma and one of the ways that we’re gonna be able to heal that trauma is to let these families put their loved ones to rest.

And here’s the thing.

It’s like you could feel it.

Literally when you was there, the wind started doing some weird stuff.

You could just kind of feel like the ancestors were saying, thank you.

Finally. Like, breathing.

Like a relief.

Then once people saw on the news that that was happening, everybody started coming out.

That was emotional, that was emotional wasn’t it?

It was.

Being there and being a part of that moment, you just felt like, you know, these are the people that we’ve been looking for.

These are the people that we’ve been talking about for all of these last 99 years.

That can start some healing for our city if we do it right.

(crowd cheers)

When you come to Greenwood, you are standing in a crime scene.

Underneath the ground that you are standing and kneeling on is the blood of those who were slaves. [woman] yes, it is.

Black people, a generation out of slavery built a mecca for themselves and how did their government respond to them?

They burned it to the ground.

[crowd] Black lives matter!

[crowd] Black lives matter!

[crowd] Black lives matter!

The movement, black lives matter, if we’re really taking that to heart, then we need to know, remember and even do something about what happened in Tulsa.

[crowd] No justice, no peace!

People are still being impacted by the race massacre.

It’s not dead in any way, it’s still reverberating through the community.

And so this question of reparation, this question of restitution is very much alive.

I decided by god’s conviction to go down to city hall and to speak in advocacy for reparations.

I got my bible and bull horn and it was honestly like, I felt I had a thousand angels walking behind me.

It was as though the heavens opened up and I had help, I had support and I felt also that the folk who were slain, I felt like I had a cloud of witnesses.

We tried reparations in the courtroom, we tried it in the state legislature.

All of those times have been unsuccessful.

The city of Tulsa said, we’re not culpable. It wasn’t our fault and that’s been the legal posture of the city of Tulsa ever since.

They’ve claimed no culpability, which is laughable.

(somber music)

I shudder to think what Tulsa as a whole could have been if the race massacre had never occurred.

The destruction was so complete.

The suffering was so biblical.

The betrayal was so profound.

So the fact that justice has not come to Tulsa makes you wonder, well what does that tell us about the rest of the country?

Tulsa matters for all kinds of reasons.

It matters because if we are going to be a country that realizes its ambitions, its aspirations, we must be a country that is willing to be honest with itself, to tell truth about its own histories.

The massacre is not about buildings.

It’s not about businesses.

It’s not about culture or tourism.

It’s about those 10,000 plus black people whose lives were destroyed, whose family lineages were cut off forever.

So many of these men and women, they truly believed that if the world really knew what happened, that they will get justice.

They truly believed once it was exposed, what the city did, the state of Oklahoma and the county, they would have to pay because they would be so ashamed.

They would have to do what’s right.

There cannot be any justice for Greenwood until there is proper respect, restitution and repair.

(somber music)



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