Story at a glance
- Anywhere between 39 and 300 black Americans were reportedly killed in the 1921 Tulsa race massacre.
- The violent incident occurred 99 years ago in the affluent black district of Greenwood in Tulsa, Okla.
- The events that took place in 1921 still remain relevant today, as protests against the death of George Floyd while in police custody are happening across the country.
Protesters across the country took to the streets this weekend in reaction to police brutality against black Americans, the most recent case being that of George Floyd, an unarmed black man in Minneapolis who died as a result of an arrest last week.
Today, as protests continue in the U.S. and overseas, many are also paying reverence to those lost exactly 99 years ago as a result of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre — one of the worst incidents of racial violence this country has seen.
The exact events that took place nearly one hundred years ago in Tulsa, Okla., are still being investigated today, but what is known is that the affluent black community of Greenwood, otherwise known as “Black Wall Street,” was decimated by white rioters in a matter of mere days.
It began in the 1920s when the Greenwood District was once composed of more than 300 thriving black-owned businesses, from movie theaters to pharmacies and even a small private airline. Anger and envy from white civilians in nearby areas led to a wave of anti-black violence during a time of high racial tension throughout the entire nation.
This tension in Greenwood reached its fatal tipping point after an alleged attack of a white girl by a young black man in an elevator. The alleged victim never pressed charges herself, but after a series of racially charged confrontations outside the jailhouse white mobs descended upon the neighborhood. During the massacre roughly 1,200 homes were burned, 35 blocks burned and estimates of those killed are still being investigated today, though they range anywhere between 39 and 300.
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The incident finally came to an end when Oklahoma’s governor declared martial law and called in the National Guard, and while many black people were arrested as a result, whites were not.
On May 31, to pay remembrance to the 99th anniversary of the horrific incident, the commission was joined by state and city leaders who provided personal reflections about the tragedy, also serving as a call to actively participate in preparing for next year’s centennial. The event also opened with a surprise appearance by Damon Lindelof, creator and executive producer of HBO’s wildly popular TV series “Watchmen,” which begins with a cinematic reenactment of the Tulsa Race Massacre.
“Even though it was presented in the context of a fictional story, what happened in Greenwood was real,” said Lindelof, who recited a memorable line from his series. “Wounds need air.”
As a private candlelight vigil was held to honor the memory of those lost during the massacre, attendees remembered those lives lost during the massacre whose bodies may never be found and lives will never be counted. Phil Armstrong, project director with the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, called it “one of the least known acts of racially motivated violence in American history.”
Once the violence met its end, there were efforts made to cover it up. Nobody was prosecuted or persecuted, records disappeared and for decades it wasn’t present in history books.
In recent decades there has been a renewed effort by historians and others to learn more about the massacre, and during this year's anniversary, in the wake of recent events, demonstrators across the country are attempting to draw attention to the way black lives are still undervalued and mistreated. In Tulsa, hundreds of residents have been peacefully demonstrating for a community-wide call for justice and reform in the city.
“Ninety-nine years ago, the city of Tulsa was on fire. Hundreds of African Americans lay dead in the street. Thousands of African Americans were homeless. It was the tail end of the worst race massacre in American history,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) during the commemoration. “We should pause, we should remember and we should see if there are things we can still learn, and see what we can do to be able to grow in the future.”
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