During the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, a devastating and violent riot obliterated Tulsa’s Greenwood district, commonly referred to as Black Wall Street for its concentration of Black-owned businesses and prosperity. The massacre’s victims were hastily buried in unmarked graves, and then a quiet effort began to suppress the memory of the atrocity.

Subsequent generations of people, including those born and raised in Oklahoma, never heard of the Tulsa Race Massacre. Starting in the 1990s, a series of events finally began to force the shocking history back into the public eye.

How the Tulsa Race Massacre Happened

The violence of Tulsa Race Massacre was not unique for its time, but was one among a series of mob attacks carried out against Black communities in the early 20th century. Tulsa’s dark chapter unfolded when Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old Black shoe shiner was arrested for the attempted sexual assault of a 17-year-old white elevator operator named Sarah Page, on May 31, 1921.

With the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, which had an estimated 100,000 members in Oklahoma by the mid-1920s, Black residents in Greenwood were keenly aware of white mob violence. To protect Rowland from being lynched, armed Black men, many who were World War I veterans, stood guard at the courthouse, where Rowland was being held. As tensions mounted, an angry crowd of white men arrived, and the outnumbered Black guards retreated to Greenwood. In the early morning hours of June 1, mobs of white men, descended on Greenwood, looting homes, burning down businesses and gunning down African Americans.

During the massacre, at least 4,000 Black residents were arrested by the Oklahoma National Guard and held in internment camps under martial law, while their homes and businesses were torched. According to oral histories of survivors, scores of massacre victims were then buried in unmarked graves, unbeknownst to those detained who waited days to be released and had no knowledge of where some of the victims had been buried.

The Aftermath and Cover-up

The mob destroyed 35 square blocks, including the entire business district and 1,200 homes. Although the number of dead remains undetermined, it is reported that 300 people, mostly African American, were killed in the massacre. While a handful of Black people were charged with riot-related offenses, no white Tulsa residents were charged with murder or looting.

“It was a big story,” says Scott Ellsworth, a professor at the University of Michigan and author of Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Several newspapers immediately covered the devastation, including the Tulsa World, the New York Times and The Times of London. And some white Tulsans boasted about the bloodshed and sold photographic postcards of the carnage. But a culture of silence soon became the norm.

“The businessmen, the political types and whatnot all realize fairly quickly that they had a huge PR problem with the massacre,” says Ellsworth.

With Tulsa trying to maintain its place as the oil capital of the world, the riot reflected terribly on the city and subsequently wasn’t included in history books or newspapers for decades, nor openly discussed in both the Black and white communities. Some newspaper accounts from the period were even removed before editions were recorded onto microfilms, according to Tulsa World. White residents didn’t want to admit that relatives or friends had participated in the massacre and Black residents didn’t want to pass on their pain to their children, says Michelle Place, executive director of the Tulsa Historical Society & Museum.

“If you told them the stories of how hard you had worked, what you had built and how we lost it, then that sets the children up for fear that it could happen again,” she says.

Rebuilding Greenwood and Preserving Its History

Greenwood residents lost everything. Some fled, never to return, while others were relegated to living in tents and getting assistance from the Red Cross, until they had the means and materials to rebuild. Though Black residents filed $1.8 million in riot-related claims, they were all denied. But rebuilding began within a few months and community gems like the Dreamland Theater reopened, along with stores and other buildings.

As the civil rights era brought hard-fought change to the nation, Greenwood began to decline. “All of these entrepreneurs began to age out and their children did not want to take over the beauty shop or the grocery store or the movie theater. Many of them had gotten their educations and became professionals and moved out of Greenwood to different parts of the country,” says Place, who added that with desegregation, dollars that were once concentrated in Greenwood, were spent elsewhere. 

That coupled with urban renewal efforts that inserted an interstate highway through Greenwood, drastically changed the area.

The Black Wall Street Massacre memorial, Tulsa, Oklahoma
Win McNamee/Getty Images
The Black Wall Street Massacre memorial in Tulsa, Oklahoma, pictured in June 2020.

Investigation of Mass Graves

After a series of overlapping events in the 1990s—including the Oklahoma City Bombing that flooded the state with reporters, who then learned about the Tulsa Race Massacre for the 75th anniversary; and Black city leaders who wanted to capture the oral histories of aging survivors and seek reparations for the victims—Oklahoma legislators created a commission to investigate the massacre, says Ellsworth, who served as the chief scholar for the commission. “Eventually the story broke in the press in 1998 that we had some potential locations of mass graves,” he says.

The commission’s official report, Tulsa Race Riot, completed in February 2001, pointed to three potential sites for the mass graves: Oaklawn Cemetery, Newblock Park and Booker T. Washington Cemetery, later renamed Rolling Oaks Memorial Gardens. The commission’s team of forensic archaeologists used ground-penetrating radar at the sites and found anomalies consistent with mass graves. But discord within the commission, along with various challenges over the grave searches delayed the investigation for years, says Ellsworth.

Oak Lawn Cemetery in Tulsa, Oklahoma where many believe there is a mass grave containing victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre
Shane Bevel for The Washington Post via Getty Images
Tulsa City Counselor Vanessa Hall-Harper and local activist Kristi Williams at Oak Lawn Cemetery on September 22, 2018 in Tulsa where many believe there is a mass grave containing victims of the 1921 massacre.

But with support from Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, the research resumed in 2019. In October 2020, 12 coffins that appeared to be from the era of the massacre were found in Oaklawn Cemetery. Ellsworth predicts more will be revealed.

“Hopefully, in the spring, we’ll have an exhumation order,” says Ellsworth, who chairs the new Physical Investigation Committee, one of the many groups in Tulsa tasked with uncovering the truth.