What role did airplanes play in the deadly Tulsa race massacre of 1921?

Just after Memorial Day that year, a white mob destroyed 35 city blocks of the Greenwood District, a community in Tulsa, Oklahoma known as the “Black Wall Street.” Prompted by an allegation that a Black man had sexually assaulted a white woman, the Tulsa massacre resulted in between 100 and 300 deaths, the decimation of more than 1,200 homes and the burning of churches, schools, businesses, a hospital and library, according to a 2001 Tulsa Race Riot Commission report, the most comprehensive review of the massacre. For its part, the Red Cross reported that the attack left more than 10,000 Tulsa residents homeless. Calculated in today’s dollars, property damage would be assessed in the tens of millions of dollars. 

“I am able to state,” said Walter White, who visited Tulsa for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People shortly after the riots, “that the Tulsa riot, in sheer brutality and willful destruction of life and property, stands without parallel in America.”

When martial law was declared on June 1 to end the fighting, journalists, residents and others began gathering accounts of what exactly happened over those 18 hours in the Greenwood District. Historians are still assessing the viability of witness reports of low-flying airplanes, some raining bullets or incendiaries, that became an enduring theme in the reconstruction of the events. But even though only about 15 planes were known to have been stored at local air fields in 1921, it remains a mystery who owned the ones used in the Tulsa attack—and how exactly they were mobilized as part of one of the most heinous domestic terrorist attacks in America history.

“There is no question that there were planes flying over Greenwood during the massacre," historian Scott Ellsworth, a professor of African American studies at the University of Michigan who has studied the Tulsa massacre in depth, told HISTORY.com in an interview. “There is evidence of this from both the African American and white communities. But Greenwood was destroyed on the ground by a white mob. It was not destroyed from the air,” says Ellsworth, author of two books on the Tulsa massacre—Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 and The Groundbreaking: An American City and Its Search for Justice.

Tulsa map
Historic Maps/ullstein bild/Getty Images
Aerial view of Tulsa, Oklahoma, c. 1918.

‘Fast-Approaching Aeroplanes’ and Other Reports from the Black Community

Mary E. Jones Parrish was a teacher and journalist in the Greenwood district who gathered photos and firsthand accounts of the massacre, including her own. In her Events of the Tulsa Disaster, self-published in 1922 (and republished in 2021), she recalls seeing “fast-approaching aeroplanes” and that “more than a dozen aeroplanes went up and began to drop turpentine balls upon the Negro residences.” One of the anonymous eyewitnesses she quotes said they saw low-flying airplanes that “left the entire block a mass of flame” as they passed over the district. Reporting for The Nation, Walter White wrote that “eight aeroplanes were employed to spy on the movements of the Negroes and according to some were used in bombing the colored section.” According to the 2001 Commission report, Black newspapers were “full of stories of turpentine or nitroglycerin bombs being dropped and men shooting from planes.”

Buck Colbert Franklin, a Tulsa attorney and the father of historian John Hope Franklin, also remembered “turpentine balls” falling from the sky. “I could see planes circling in mid-air,” Franklin wrote in a 10-page manuscript on yellow legal pad that was discovered in 2015. “They grew in number and hummed, darted and dipped low. I could hear something like hail failing upon the top of my office building... The side-walks were literally covered with burning turpentines balls. I knew all too well where they came from and I knew all too well why every burning building first caught from the top.”

A Barbershop Confession

Anecdotes also emerged from other Tulsa communities. According to the Commission report, in the early 1950s, a middle-aged white man was overhead in a Tulsa barbershop bragging that he and a friend had flown a plane over Greenwood during the massacre and dropped dynamite. For historian Ellsworth, the account is credible. “Other than the 50 copies or so of Mary Parrish’s book, there was nothing [at that time] published about bombings,” Ellsworth said. “It wasn’t a subject that was out there in print. That’s why I believe that unless this old guy just made this up, which I doubt, his story rings true.”

Other accounts recall men with guns targeting fleeing residents from the low-flying planes. A Mexican immigrant, who lived at the edge of the Greenwood District, later told family members she witnessed two Black boys being followed down the street by a two-seater airplane. According to the Commission report, “the man in [the] rear seat was shooting at the boys. She then ran out and grabbed the boys and took them into the house."

Where Did the Planes Come From?

In 1921, Tulsa had two air fields. The larger of two, operated by the Curtiss-Southwest Airplane Company, contained two steel hangars and 14 airplanes. The smaller field housed just one plane. In her account of escaping the riots, Parrish refers to nearing the “aviation fields,” which would likely have been Curtiss-Southwest, according to the Commission report. There she recalled seeing the “planes out of their sheds, all in readiness for flying, and these men with high-powered rifles getting into them.”

At the time, the government didn’t mandate registration of airplanes, so it’s difficult to know their ownership. But the Commission report suggests that most were likely owned by Curtiss-Southwest, the oil companies and individuals.

The Ongoing Debate

The eyewitness accounts from Black Tulsa residents have been key to unraveling the truth about planes over the Greenwood district. To varying degrees, historians have accepted these accounts and tried to weigh this vast evidence against the plausibility of the bombings. “There is enough evidence from African American massacre survivors about seeing planes seemingly drop something from the planes and then hearing an explosion later on,” Ellsworth says. But he points out that massacre historians are still trying to figure out the “turpentine balls” referenced in some accounts. Ellsworth himself is less convinced of the reports of Molotov cocktails and turpentine balls: “I believe without a doubt that Greenwood was bombed from the air…but more likely with sticks of dynamite.”

In the Tulsa Riot Commission report, researchers concluded that some form of an aerial attack on the Greenwood District did take place, but they fell short of giving it the same prominence as did some of the eyewitnesses who lived through the massacre. “It is within reason that there was some shooting from planes and even the dropping of incendiaries, but the evidence would seem to indicate that it was of a minor nature and had no real effect in the riot,” wrote Richard S. Warner of the Tulsa Historical Society in the report. He cites Beryl Ford, an authority on Tulsa photographic history, who analyzed the building damage visible in pictures. Photos show debris scattered only inside the buildings’ shells; had explosives been employed, Ford points out, the debris would have been strewn outside as well.

“While it is certain that airplanes were used by the police for reconnaissance [and] photographers…there probably were some whites who fired guns from planes or dropped bottles of gasoline or something of that sort,” the report concluded. “However, they were probably few in numbers.” 

HISTORY Vault: The Night Tulsa Burned

By 1921, Tulsa’s Greenwood area was one of America's most affluent all-Black communities. But on June 1, in what became known as the Tulsa Race Massacre, white mobs set it on fire, destroying homes and businesses and leaving dozens dead.