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Tulsa’s shameful history is finally coming to light, with new information being released about the events leading up to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Considered by many to be a one-off event, these historical facts and figures paint a more sinister picture of the time before and after May 31, 1921.
Attorney-turned-historian Randy Hopkins has been researching the history of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre for years, and has written extensively on the subject for the local Center for Public Secrets. He knows there was more to the story than the oft-repeated story of an incident in an elevator involving young Dick Rowland, and a scream let out by elevator operator Sarah Page, whose true identity was recently released.
In fact, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre was a culmination of events in the years leading up to the genocide of hundreds of Black men, women, and families, and the displacement of thousands of others. While World War I and the tension due to financial difficulties facing families at home were merely one aspect, local Tulsa government agencies were also complicit in organizing and encouraging the massacre.
Lynchings in Tulsa
At the time, lynchings, although illegal, were commonplace in Oklahoma, and even supported by local law enforcement. In 1920, according to Tulsa Police Chief John A. Gustafson, “I do not condone mob law, but Tulsa has a peculiar situation and the sentiment here is not so prejudiced against this kind of lynching as it might be in some other community….I believe this will be a good object lesson to that class of criminals and do more to stop hi-jacking than anything else that could have happened.”
In fact, it was Tulsa Police Chief John A. Gustafson who deputized over 400 of the white men comprising the mob who attacked Greenwood. The chief of police first charged Dick Rowland with assaulting Sarah Page, although there was no evidence that Ms. Page, as she was known, was assaulted. Police Chief Gustafson, however, was setting the stage for an attack on the Black man who operated an elevator in the Drexel Building.
And attack Mr. Rowland the white men of Tulsa did. Mobilizing while the young man was still sitting in jail, the crowd grew to hundreds as the police and law enforcement sat on their hands, conveniently waiting for a spark that would ignite the flame of racism already pervasive across the city.
You dropped a bomb on me
The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre is the first and only time that bombs were dropped by American citizens against their fellow compatriots. This was another incidence of government aid for the mob of killers. The airplanes used were owned by the Curtiss Southwest Aeroplane company and flown by war-experienced pilots.
The men, women, and families of Greenwood, who comprised the thriving metropolis of Black Wall Street, were no match for the bloodthirsty mob, who had local law enforcement on their side. Over a three-day period, hundreds of Black men, women, and children were slaughtered, with those who remained facing criminal charges and forced internment.
Black Tulsans who stayed were interned in various buildings around downtown and only allowed to leave if a White person vouched for them. More than 1200 homes were burned to the ground along with hundreds of other structures, including businesses, churches, a library and a hospital.
This is part one of a continuing story focusing on the hidden facts behind the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Stay tuned for upcoming articles featuring previously-unknown information by Tulsa historian Randall Hopkins.