The Tulsa Race Massacre stands out as one of the worst acts of racial violence in American history—and, for decades, it remained one of the least known. Over the course of 18 hours, from May 31 to June 1, 1921, a white mob attacked residents, homes and businesses in the predominantly Black Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma. News reports were largely squelched for decades, despite the fact that hundreds of people were killed and thousands were left homeless.

Black Wall Street Had Flourished as a Self-Contained Hub

The violence in Tulsa in 1921 claimed more than lives, it also decimated 35 blocks of what had been a bustling, self-contained hub in the city's Greenwood District, commonly known as Black Wall Street. 

African Americans had relocated to the region after the Civil War as Oklahoma became known as a safe haven for African Americans. Between 1865 and 1920, African Americans founded dozens of Black townships and settlements in the region. Soon the Greenwood neighborhood that was “built for Black people, by Black people” was thriving.

The Black Entrepreneurs Who Developed Greenwood

African Americans in Tulsa pooled their resources and built wealth to foster successful businesses in the self-contained Greenwood neighborhood amid Jim Crow discrimination. 

Among the early entrepreneurs was O.W. Gurley, who purchased 40 acres of land on the north side of Tulsa and opened a rooming house and provided loans to help other Black people start their own businesses. J.B. Stradford opened a luxury hotel that was considered the largest Black-owned hotel in the country, with 54 guest suites, a pool hall, saloon and dining room. Meanwhile, A.J. Smitherman founded the Tulsa Star newspaper, a Black newspaper based in Greenwood.

Before and After the Massacre

In May 2021, 107-year-old Viola Fletcher testified before Congress about the events of May 31, 1921: “I went to bed in my family’s home in Greenwood," she recounted. “The neighborhood I fell asleep in that night was rich, not just in terms of wealth, but in culture…and heritage. My family had a beautiful home. We had great neighbors. I had friends to play with. I felt safe. I had everything a child could need. I had a bright future.”

Then, she said, came the rampage, still vivid in her mind 100 years later: “I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams."

The Role of Airplanes in the Tulsa Race Massacre

When martial law was declared on June 1, 1921 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.

Only about 15 planes were known to have been stored at local air fields in 1921, and it remains a mystery who owned the ones used in the Tulsa attack—and how exactly they were mobilized.

The Cover Up

As devastating as the Tulsa Race Massacre was, subsequent generations of people, including those born and raised in Oklahoma, had never heard of the event until the 1990s. Several newspapers immediately covered the devastation, including the Tulsa World, the New York Times and The Times of London. But the massacre’s victims were hastily buried in unmarked graves and a culture of silence soon became the norm.

Following a series of events that drew reporters to Oklahoma, local legislators created a commission to investigate the massacre. Eventually the story broke in 1998 that there were potential mass graves in Greenwood.

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.