More than 300 innocent people were killed when police assisted a racist mob in the burning and looting of the most affluent African American neighborhood in the United States.
On June 1, 1921, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a horrific act of racial terrorism took place, and the perpetrators were actually assisted by the local police and the national guard. The site of the attack was a region of Tulsa known as “Black Wall Street” in a neighborhood called “Greenwood,” which was a thriving center of culture and commerce for African Americans.
At the time, the community was a symbol of black success in America, which unfortunately made it the target of constant hostility from media, politicians and local racists who saw it as an economic threat. The attacks on the community were sparked by an accusation that a black man attempted to rape a white woman. Although the man accused of the crime was arrested and awaiting judgment, a mob of angry racists did not want to wait for the suspect to see a fair trial, and instead wanted the whole black community to pay for the alleged crimes of this one man.
At the courthouse, innocent black bystanders were attacked by a mob and forced to retreat back to Greenwood. The mob then descended on “Black Wall Street,” setting fires to buildings and shooting people indiscriminately, creating a night of terror throughout the city. Airplanes circled the sky dropping kerosene and nitroglycerin on the buildings and people below, according to survivors of the attack.
Authorities did nothing to stop the violence, and in fact, they actually assisted the mob by only arresting blacks, and some reports have even indicated that they also engaged in violence, possibly even flying some of the planes that were responsible for the bombings. These events came to be known as the “Tulsa Race Riots,” but as many survivors have pointed out, calling them “riots” just serves to take responsibility from the mob and the police that protected them.
As author Linda Christenson pointed out in her piece “Burning Tulsa: The Legacy of Black Dispossession“:
The term “race riot” does not adequately describe the events of May 31—June 1, 1921, in Greenwood… In fact, the term itself implies that both blacks and whites might be equally to blame for the lawlessness and violence. The historical record documents a sustained and murderous assault on black lives and property. This assault was met by a brave but unsuccessful armed defense of their community by some black World War I veterans and others.
During the night and day of the riot, deputized whites killed more than 300 African Americans. They looted and burned to the ground 40 square blocks of 1,265 African American homes, including hospitals, schools, and churches, and destroyed 150 businesses. White deputies and members of the National Guard arrested and detained 6,000 black Tulsans who were released only upon being vouched for by a white employer or other white citizen. Nine thousand African Americans were left homeless and lived in tents well into the winter of 1921.
In the aftermath of the attacks, Black Wall Street was left in ruins and many of its residents were left homeless and destitute. Instead of helping, the local government attempted to make it impossible for them to rebuild by placing impossible building regulations on the area and then attempting to take their land. The Oklahoma Bureau of Vital Statistics attempted to downplay the deadly nature of the attacks and officially recorded 39 dead. However, the American Red Cross, who was on the ground at the time, estimated the actual death toll to be 300.
While the attacks may have been sparked by the rape accusations, it was the culmination of years of hostility that was directed towards the community. Many poor and middle-class whites resented the fact that they had affluent African-American neighbors, and this envy was instigated by the establishment media and politicians of the day.
Race relations have come a long way in the past century, but sadly many of the same conditions that led to the violence on Black Wall Street in 1921 are still prevalent today. In modern times, politicians and media outlets build their careers by stoking division between races and social groups, often using fear of economic hardship to sow distrust.