Tulsa 100: A century (and more) of dealing with white violence

This week marks exactly 100 years since the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. A massacre that devastated a thriving Black community, that stripped people of their wealth and their futures, and that served as yet another reminder of the violence of white supremacy. But Tulsa didn’t mark the beginning or the end of this type of violence, equal parts vigilantism and state sanctioned brutality. The Tulsa Massacre came on the heels of the Red Summer of 1919, where dozens of race riots (massacres) took place across the country. Red Summer came at the end of the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic. The parallels to what’s happened over the last year and a half are unreal, with COVID-19 and the uprisings this past summer in response to Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and more.

Mass violence rooted in racism has been a feature of this country across every decade of its existence. And although today’s protests tend to be separate in our minds from the violence of the early 20th century, the underlying causes and mechanisms are essentially composed of the same elements.

What happened in Tulsa

Below is short summary, but for a full understanding with photos, visit the Tulsa Historical Society and Museums site for their multiple online exhibits

In 1921 Tulsa, there were at least 10,000 African American residents. The Greenwood District, a.k.a. Little Africa, a.k.a. Black Wall Street, was an affluent Black neighborhood in Tulsa, with dozens of Black-owned businesses. Any business that Jim Crow would have kept Black people out of, they had a Black-owned version of: grocery stores, beauty shops, eateries, churches, a library, a large theater, two newspapers, and two hotels, one of which, the Stradford, may have been the largest Black-owned hotel in the country. Additionally, there were several Black lawyers and at least fifteen Black physicians, including Dr. A.C. Jackson, who was regarded as one of the best Black surgeons in the country. Although known for its concentration of affluence and professionals, Greenwood was still by and large a neighborhood of hardworking laborers working for white employers, earning modest wages, and living in basic accommodations1.

In a matter of days, however, it was all destroyed. What ignited the Tulsa Massacre was much the same as what ignited every other race riot in the early 20th century: an accusation of a Black person crossing the invisible but tangible barrier between them and white people; a Black person stepping out of their “place.”

On May 30, 1921 a Black, 19-year old man named Dick Rowland was accused of assaulting a white woman named Sarah Page in an elevator. What followed over the next two days was one of the most devastating race riots known in history. Rowland was arrested the next morning by police and taken to jail, however, the Tulsa police, like the police in many cities at that time, weren’t known to adequately protect people in jail from mobs. Black men were routinely pulled out of jails by mobs of white men and lynched.1 The fear of that happening in Tulsa was amplified by the fact that this had been done not less than a year ago, but to a white man. If it could happen to a white man, they knew it was bound to happen to a Black man.1,2 So, Black Tulsans armed themselves and kept watch just in case they needed to protect Rowland from a white mob intent on serving their own vigilante justice.

As they predicted, there was a crowd of 400 white men standing outside the jail by the evening. Twice they offered to help the police protect Rowland. Twice the police declined and encouraged the Black men to leave. After they left the first time, members of the white mob, incensed that Black men would have the audacity to arm themselves, left the crowd and returned with more weapons. The crowd grew to the thousands. The second time Black men came and tried to leave, one of the white men decided to grab their weapons from them. Shots were fired and 12 men were killed: two black and 10 white. Fighting erupted, and being outnumbered, the Black men went back to their neighborhood.2

By the early hours of the next morning, the mob of white men had grown to nearly 10,000. These heavily armed men descended on the Greenwood neighborhood with everything in their arsenal, including machine guns and airplanes.2 The police escalated the chaos by deputizing hundreds of these men, providing them with additional weapons.3 City officials and the police force tacitly and actively gave their permission for the massacre by choosing not to intervene and stoking the flames. One police officer was even quoted as telling a resident to “get a gun and get a nigger.”4 The National Guard was called in, but all that meant was more people working on the side of the white mob.7

It was all over by mid-day June 1st, but by then irreparable damage had been done.  It’s unclear how many people were killed that day. The official report counted 36 deaths, but it is widely suspected, and accepted, that the figure is closer to 300 deaths.2

Greenwood was completely decimated: approximately 1,256 structures (homes and businesses) were burned to the ground, property was stolen, and wealth was eliminated.1 It is estimated that the amount of property destroyed and assets stolen would equate to about $200 million in today’s dollars.7 That erasure of wealth interrupted the possibility of passing down wealth for Black Tulsans, which would have a generational impact for decades to come.

Those who weren’t killed or didn’t immediately flee the violence when it broke out, would later flee in fear of incarceration after a grand jury laid blame for the massacre on Black Tulsans. Some 5,000 people, were arrested and held in detention centers, where they were subsequently abused.5,6 Unsurprisingly, not one members of the white mob was charged; the only criminal charges were levied against Black Tulsans.1,3 Those who stayed were unable to rebuild and were forced to spend the winter living in tents.1

City leaders punctuated the devastation by ensuring that Black families couldn’t rebuild, get compensation, or receive any aid. They denied hundreds of lawsuits, refusing to pay damages and claiming they were not liable despite the complicity of the police. They refused money from outside donors who wanted to aid in efforts to rebuild the community. A few days after the massacre, they re-zoned the neighborhood to be commercial in order to prevent Black Tulsans from rebuilding. Although the re-zoning was eventually deemed unconstitutional, most had lost all of their money in the massacre–many Black Tulsans kept their cash in their homes, which had been looted and burned to the ground.

And as if it couldn’t get any worse, most Tulsans (white or Black) didn’t have insurance on their assets. Because of the well-documented rampant crime in the area, most companies saw insuring property in Tulsa as too great of a risk.2 For those who did have coverage, most companies had “riot clauses,” meaning they wouldn’t have to pay out claims anyway–another reason to call Tulsa a race riot rather than the massacre that it was.

It’s All Connected

Today’s uprisings in response to police brutality and vigilante violence are echoes of riots past. The factors leading to the Red Summer of 1919, the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, the Rosewood Massacre of 1923, and all of the riots throughout the Civil Rights Era, are the same factors that led to the Watts Riot of 1992, the Summer of Ferguson in 2014, and this past Summer’s uprisings.  Mass protests are not riots, but the response to protestors trigger a cascade of events that allow the already mobilized and armed riot police to fulfill their own prophecy.

One could argue that the early riots (massacres) of white mobs destroying Black communities were fundamentally different from those that happened in the mid-20th century onward, where Black residents (presumably) destroyed their own communities. But that argument would be a mistake. A riot might simply be defined as “a violent disturbance of the peace by a crowd,” but there are riots that maintain the existing inequitable power structure and those working to disrupt it. The difference between Tulsa and Ferguson isn’t about who destroyed the property, but why.

“Urban riots must now be recognized as durable social phenomena. They may be deplored, but they are there and should be understood. Urban riots are a special form of violence. They are not insurrections. The rioters are not seeking to seize territory or to attain control of institutions. They are mainly intended to shock the White community. They are a distorted form of social protest. The looting, which is their principal feature, serves many functions. It enables the most enraged and deprived Negro to take hold of consumer goods with the ease the White man does by using his purse. Often the Negro does not even want what he takes; he wants the experience of taking. But most of all, alienated from society and knowing that this society cherishes property above people, he is shocking it by abusing property rights.”

-Martin Luther King, Jr. in a speech made at the American Psychological Association’s Annual Convention in Washington, D.C., 1967

Moreover, the justifications for race massacres in the early 20th century are just the beta versions of today’s justifications:

THEN – Black men “incited” the violence white mobs enacted by “stepping out of line,” and not knowing “their place.” When Black men, or Black people more generally crossed that ever shifting and invisible boundary, not only did white mobs have no choice but to violently put us down, but the police had aid, abet, and escalate that violence (if they didn’t start it to begin with). Black people’s audacity to try and live as equals, hell, to even just live while minding their own business was enough to be seen as “armed and dangerous” even if they had no weapon.

NOW – Same shit, different day. As with the Black Tulsans, Black people today are viewed as armed and dangerous in ways their white counterparts are not. Viewed as worthy of reactive and largely pre-emptive violence even when complying or acting peacefully. The popular narrative only seems to have gotten more sophisticated through these elaborate rhetorics of criminalization (paired with our thriving prison industrial complex) of the person or people at the center of events so that they “deserved” the violence, but it’s essentially the same argument that was made a century ago. It’s only with hindsight that we’ve been able to name and frame the statements of 1921 as fallacious and the idea of criminalizing being Black and alive as nonsense, despite our doing the same exact shit today.

As for today’s rhetorical attempts to separate protestors from “rioters and looters” among our so-called liberal or progressive politicians, let’s be clear that it’s just another extension of white supremacist victim blaming and another mechanism for justifying unnecessary violence and enacting state control. Riots only become riots when the already mobilized and armed riot police instigate it in order to fulfill their own prophecy. There’s never any condemnation of the police or scrutiny of their tactics, despite many of them being considered illegal by international standards.

More importantly, many of those so-called rioters and looters weren’t even the Black people and other folks protesting on the side of racial justice…they were white nationalists and other militia groups that the police ALLOWED to roam freely, only for their violence to be ascribed to Black Lives Matter.

What even is “our place?” What are we supposed to be doing? What would be the right way to exist? To protest our inhumane treatment? As we’ve seen over the last 6 years of protesting, there doesn’t seem to be a correct way to do it: not kneeling, not silently, not laying down, not marching on the sidewalks. No matter how protesting is performed, if the white power structure perceives so much as a whisper of threat to their continuity of violent repression and supremacy, then the whole thing will be deemed illegitimate and no response out of proportion—not poisoning entire neighborhoods with tear gas causing reproductive problems for women, not rubber bullets and beanbag rounds stealing eyeballs and causing traumatic brain injuries, not pulling children out of their cars and lying about the circumstances.

Juxtapose the response to last summer (and the entire history of policing Black people) with the violent insurrection on January 6, 2021. Capitol police acted with a gentleness towards people not only committing sedition, but who subsequently were responsible for the death of a police officer, among others. No tear gas, no rubber bullets, no open violent take downs. They kindly escorted people down stairs and let them roam around a building that’s been closed to visitors since the pandemic like they were taking a casual tour. All those Blue Lives assholes have been silent as Republicans (complicit in the event) ensure there won’t even be an investigation into what happened.

At the root of all these “race riots” and protests against police & vigilante violence lay mounting tension and frustration due to systemic poverty, a lack of economic opportunities, and rampant discrimination (interpersonally and institutionally). Under those conditions, one spark would be all that was necessary to ignite a riot.

Theory of Rioting

One theory of rioting proposes that at the convergence of harmful structural, cultural, and contextual elements of a society, one triggering event will ignite a riot. Structural elements include a community’s arrangements of policies, a shifting composition of population (i.e., too many Black & Brown folks for white people’s tastes), and the distribution of resources; Cultural elements include the ideologies, attitudes, and beliefs of its residents; and the Contextual elements include the social and historical landscape in which a community is embedded. Each grouping influences and is shaped by the others.8

Triggering events were usually one of a few things:

  1. The accusation of Black men assaulting white women
  2. Police brutality
  3. A lynching, and
  4. Being Black and not where you’re “supposed” to be
    • physically (i.e., in a white’s only section, or white neighborhood),
    • psychologically (i.e., feeling entitled to equality, self-determined, or confident)
    • economically (i.e., making as much or more than white people, or demanding better labor conditions).1,2,9

There are no shortage of examples:

  1. Tulsa (1921) and Rosewood (1923) both stemmed from Black men accused of assaulting white women. Emmett Till was killed because of this. And the echoes of the power that white women (the “Karens” and “Beckys”) wield with a mere accusation reverberates today, when Amy Cooper called the police on Christian Cooper and pretended like her life was in danger when she was in the wrong
  2. What else can I say on police brutality? It is the preferred tool of the white power structure to repress Black people. The ACLU recently published a damning commentary on the century-long impact of police brutality. The police are part and parcel of every act of anti-Black violence in this country.
  3. Lynchings have changed form, but are no less a part of our social fabric. Trayvon Martin (2014) was a lynching. Ahmaud Arbery (2020) was a lynching,
  4. And every single one of these events can be tied back to being “out of place” where Trayvon & Ahmaud were hunted for being in the “wrong” neighborhood, Tulsans were hunted for being in the
    “wrong” economic bracket (uppity negroes), Sandra Bland was taken by police and subsequently died (was killed for all we know) for being too confident.
NYT article quoting the work of Dr. George E. Haynes, Director of Negro Economics of the Department of Labor, which documents the riots of Red Summer 1919 and their underlying causes

Reparations, Now!

In every case, from Red Summer in 1919 and Tulsa in 1921 to the 2020 Uprisings around George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Jacob Blake, those who trigger the problem are left relatively unscathed. Those who respond to the violence, either through armed resistance (Tulsa) or through mass protests (Summer 2020), end up gassed, bruised, beaten, arrested, incarcerated, or killed. Their communities are left fractured, depressed, or completely destroyed. All of this is state sanctioned and widely accepted, and serves as a convenient cover for justifying the structural resource deprivation of Black communities without being called racist, since the narrative says that we caused it and we deserved it.

Tulsa and other cities in the early 20th century exemplified Black communities’ upward trajectory towards economic security and self-determination, only for it to be wiped out over the course of days and never rebuilt. The white power structure made sure of that, and made sure that we’d never approach that type of communal thriving ever again through their increasingly intricate web of policies and practices (from Jim Crow to mass incarceration to the war on drugs). What was lost in Tulsa, created inter-generational effects that are still being felt today by the descendants of that violence.

We have a nasty habit of focusing on property destruction in these situations, which is unsurprising given our capitalistic values as a nation, and the fact that Black lives have only marginally mattered when we were still considered white people’s property. Here’s what we should be focused on instead:

Individuals and institutions actively create and maintain the social and physical environments where inequity thrives. There are direct and indirect beneficiaries to the existing social arrangements, as well as to the aftermath of riots. In Tulsa, mob participants gained both monetarily, through their theft of property, and psychologically, from feeling like they took back their city and their rightful place at the top of the social hierarchy. The city and investors benefited from the potential commercial expansion of re-appropriated land–an early iteration of gentrification. The print media benefited from more stories to report, thus more sales.Today’s beneficiaries are largely the same, but include the web of investors in the prison industrial system, weapons manufacturers, and politicians whose careers can be made or broken depending on the messaging around riots given the place and the time. 

It may be hard to change mindsets, but we need to worker harder at deconstructing the prevailing ideologies and societal norms. Media are the crux of this–their representations of those in power vs. those not afforded that power, shape and are shaped by those ideologies and norms, and they need to be accountable to that.  We somehow have “racialized acts,” “racial bias,” and whatever other non-direct descriptor used to avoid saying racism, but no racists. Somehow everyone’s opinions are valuable and facts don’t exist anymore. We have to look beyond the immediate and overt, and explore the latent, the internalized, the whispered, and the historical. Understanding who is in control of how the narrative is framed, and the acceptability of what is said, needs to be centered. This is more important now than it ever was given social media, where everyone’s and expert and algorithms feed you information based on your current engagement with sites.

Behaviors repeat themselves until something interrupts the pattern. The continual lack of accountability breeds cultural normativity—no consequences means it will keep happening. Tulsans never saw reparations (has anyone though?), even after the 1997 commission recommended that reparations be made. We need more than these symbolic acknowledgments of previous wrongdoing. We need monetary reparations–cash in hand–AS WELL AS directed community investments. We need consequences for people known to have done wrong, which includes the de-memorialization of well-known figures when their harm comes to light.

I don’t have an insightful call to action – this type of violence is both preventable and intractable in the same way that racism and white supremacy are both preventable and intractable. All of it comes back to our unreckoned with history of racism in this country: racism in our structures, in our cultural norms, and across time in unacknowledged and un-repaired harm. And until we deal with it, we’ve decided we accept it.

If you want to learn more about what happened in Tulsa:

  1. Ellsworth, S. (2001). The Tulsa Race Riot. In Tulsa Race Riot: A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, 37 – 102. Retrieved from https://www.okhistory.org/research/forms/freport.pdf.
  2. White, W. F. (1921). The Eruption of Tulsa. Nation112(2921), 909–910. 
  3. Tulsa World (1921). “Commissions Invalid.” June 3: 3.
  4. Tulsa Tribune (1921). “Witness Says Cop Urged Him to Kill Black.” July 14: 1.
  5. Tulsa World (1921) “5000 Negro Refugees Guarded in Camp at County Fair Grounds”. June 2:
  6. Tulsa Tribune (1921a). “Blacks Tied Together.” June 1: 2
  7. Messer, C. M., Shriver, T. E., & Adams, A. E. (2018). The Destruction of Black Wall Street: Tulsa’s 1921 Riot and the Eradication of Accumulated Wealth. American Journal of Economics & Sociology, 77(3–4), 789–819.
  8. Messer, C. M. (2011). The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921: Toward an Integrative Theory of Collective Violence. Journal of Social History, 44(4), 1217–1232.
  9. New York Times (1919, Oct 5) FOR ACTION ON RACE RIOT PERIL: Radical Propaganda Among Negroes Growing, and Increase of Mob Violence Set Out in Senate Brief for Federal Inquiry. ProQuest Historical Newspapers, 112.