The Tulsa race riot (or the Tulsa race massacre) of 1921 took place on May 31 and June 1, 1921, when mobs of whites attacked black residents and businesses of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This is considered one of the worst incidents of racial violence in the history of the United States. The attack, carried out on the ground and by air, destroyed more than 35 blocks of the district, at the time the wealthiest black community in the United States.
More than 800 people were admitted to hospitals and more than 6,000 black residents were arrested and detained, many for several days. The Oklahoma Bureau of Vital Statistics officially recorded 36 dead, but the American Red Cross declined to provide an estimate. When a state commission re-examined events in 2001, its report estimated that 100-300 African Americans were killed in the rioting.
The riot began over Memorial Day weekend after 19-year-old Dick Rowland, a black shoeshiner, was accused of assaulting Sarah Page, the 17-year-old white elevator operator of the nearby Drexel Building. He was taken into custody. A subsequent gathering of angry local whites outside the courthouse where Rowland was being held, and the spread of rumours he had been lynched, alarmed the local black population, some of whom arrived at the courthouse armed. Shots were fired and twelve people were killed; ten white and two black. As news of these deaths spread throughout the city, mob violence exploded. Thousands of whites rampaged through the black neighborhood that night and the next day, killing men and women, burning and looting stores and homes. About 10,000 black people were left homeless, and property damage amounted to more than $1.5 million in real estate and $750,000 in personal property ($32 million in 2019).
Many survivors left Tulsa. Black and white residents who stayed in the city were silent for decades about the terror, violence, and losses of this event. The riot was largely omitted from local, state, as well as national, histories: “The Tulsa race riot of 1921 was rarely mentioned in history books, classrooms or even in private. Blacks and whites alike grew into middle age unaware of what had taken place.”
In 1996, seventy-five years after the riot, a bi-partisan group in the state legislature authorized formation of the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (renamed to Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Massacre in November 2018). Members were appointed to investigate events, interview survivors, hear testimony from the public, and prepare a report of events. There was an effort toward public education about these events through the process. The Commission’s final report, published in 2001, said that the city had conspired with the mob of white citizens against black citizens; it recommended a program of reparations to survivors and their descendants. The state passed legislation to establish some scholarships for descendants of survivors, encourage economic development of Greenwood, and develop a memorial park in Tulsa to the riot victims. The park was dedicated in 2010.