The Tulsa Race Massacre – A Hundred Years of Pain

Graphic by Chaitali Bagwe

Race has always remained a personal and painful subject to mention for millions across the USA. We can reflect on why this remains a sensitive topic, by bringing up one of the, unfortunately, many examples of race-based crimes. A hundred years later, at such a pivotal point in the fight for equality, the Tulsa Race Massacre offers an insight into the complicated history of race-based violence.

The incident that sparked the fire of this massacre occurred in the heavily-segregated Tulsa, Oklahoma. Tulsa had been divided into Black-majority and White-majority neighbourhoods, Greenwood being the neighbourhood of the former. The Black-majority neighbourhoods were significantly less developed, compared to their white counterparts. People residing here were also ostracised and subject to heavy racism, colourism and elitism almost on a daily basis. They were met with the close-mindedness of the early twentieth century with every step they took. Despite being faced with numerous injustices, areas such as Greenwood did their best to thrive, only to be set back by another wave of the same injustices. On 30th May 1921, a young Black teenager named Dick Rowland entered an elevator with operator Sarah Page present. She later ran out of the elevator screaming. The details of the following events have been heavily tampered with over decades and perspectives. Rowland was then accused of sexually assaulting Page. 

Rowland was arrested by the police the next morning. Once evening fell, however, an angry white mob had gathered outside the jail demanding Rowland be handed over to them. 

Hearing this, a small group of the Black residents showed up armed, to offer assistance to protect Rowland, only to be turned away by the sheriff. Fearing a lynching by the mob, more Greenwood residents turned up armed, only to be met with an armed mob of higher numbers. 

Shots were fired between the two groups and the mob took to Greenwood to riot. The appalling fact about this, was that many members of the white mob had been equipped with weapons provided by officials. The mob proceeded to loot and destroy Greenwood, even resorting to attacking innocents. 

On 1st June 1921, the death toll stood at 10 White and 26 Black people, and the Greenwood area in complete ruins. Historians have speculated that the death toll stood at much higher, however, as officials at the time actively tried to conceal the occurrence of the events. Rowland was released on the same day, after officials concluded that he might have bumped into Page. 

The city was no longer under attack, but the aftermath left a deep scar in the residents’ lives. 

To this day, the effect of the massacre lingers. Tulsa, so far, has had no Black mayors. Furthermore, the booming and flourishing culture and business in Greenwood took a serious hit, never to bounce back. It was once infamously known as the Black Wall Street. Thousands of Black citizens lost their jobs, houses, businesses and livelihoods to the riots. The once self-sufficient area was driven into poverty. The landowners were later even denied access to their own plots, and had to start their businesses and livelihoods from scratch. They resorted to living in house-tents, while trying to make ends meet. This created a domino effect that eventually ended up disabling the following generations. The next generation of Black Tulsans were reportedly never taught or informed about the massacre their predecessors experienced. No compensation was provided then, or now.

The massacre most importantly dug the root of racism and elitism even deeper, implanting it in the minds of all the citizens. The White communities continued to prosper, without a trace of the massacre evident, however, the Black communities faced a dire situation of survival. An ugly rake of racism and hatred had been drug through Greenwood, and Tulsa itself, creating a heavy atmosphere of inequality.

A hundred years later, has anything changed? The answer is yes and no. One could not help but compare this massacre to the atrocities committed to George Floyd, just a year ago. Instances of racism, malice, police brutality, lynching and power abuse are all congruent among the two. The root of the hatred and prejudice has not been removed from the minds of people. 

However, the difference this time around is that people have the power and resources to make their voices heard. Their experiences and suffering can no longer be swept under the rug by the media. 

Through social media, people can now express themselves freely and broadcast events in real-time all across the world in seconds. People can advocate to stop prejudice and racism, thus shifting the narrative. Resources can also be collected and directed to those in need. 

There is much to be learnt from the Tulsa Race Massacre. After all, only through awareness and caution, can we prevent history from repeating itself. 

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