How to Commemorate the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre This Weekend
The centennial anniversary happens this week, with events—both IRL and virtual—happening all through June.
In early 1921, Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood was humming with commerce and entrepreneurship. Dubbed “Black Wall Street,” these 35 blocks contained the wealthiest Black community in the country—a “by Black people for Black people” utopia successful both because of and in spite of Jim Crow laws: This land above the railroad tracks was “only to be sold to the colored,” who were only allowed to shop within its boundaries.
But Greenwood’s 10,000 residents had no need to go anywhere else. The bustling community had restaurants, shops, churches, a skating rink, and movie theaters. It had its own hospital, post office, library, school system, black-owned newspapers and even private airplanes. Six of them. Residents could get dolled up in Mable B. Little’s beauty salon before strolling over to John and Loula Williams’s Dreamland theater, then spend the night in Simon Berry’s boutique hotel (Berry was apparently quite the visionary entrepreneur. His jitney company paved the way for the current-day Tulsa Transit service).
Then on the morning of May 30th Dick Rowland, a Black shoeshiner, and Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white elevator operator, had an encounter in an elevator, which turned into an allegation by Page of sexual assault. (One theory is that Rowland tripped and grabbed onto the arm of Page to stop from falling.) Rowland was arrested and was being held at the Tulsa County Courthouse when a white mob descended, threatening lynching. Black men came to the courthouse to protect Rowland, and in a scuffle a gunshot rang out.
Then, the dam broke. White residents, some deputized and given weapons by city officials, invaded Greenwood; private aircraft that just happened to be locked and loaded with bombs attacked from above. When the fighting ended on June 1st, 800 people were sent to the hospital, an estimated 300 died, and more than 1250 homes were burned. The 35-block affluent Black utopia was turned to rubble.
Decades later, the memory of those two horrific days has mostly been left to the city’s residents. But shows like HBO’s Watchmen and Lovecraft Country have recently put the Greenwood Massacre back into the spotlight. This week, a resolution passed by the Senate acknowledges the Tulsa Race Massacre as the "worst in US history," and calls for the Greenwood District to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Possible mass gravesites of the riots have also begun to be exhumed by city officials, working with archaeologists, driving home the significance of 1921's Greenwood to young Tulsa residents like Carel Lee-Bernard, who moved to the city last year as part of the Tulsa Remote program. “We live across the street from a cemetery. Under any other circumstances we’d be like ‘Oooh, a cemetery, that’s really creepy!’ Lee-Bernard said. “But this cemetery was recently exhumed for bodies of Black and brown people who they think died during the massacre. We call it our cemetery, because we think of it like: We live three minutes from historical Greenwood District. And the people buried in that cemetery were people who look like us.”
This weekend, the city commemorates the centennial of the massacre with a packed roster of events—some virtual, so you can participate even if you aren’t in the area.
Through May 29th, the 12th Annual Reconciliation in America National Symposium discusses "The Future of Tulsa's Past: The Centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre and Beyond," both in-person and online. On May 31st, a candlelight vigil will also be broadcast virtually.
And if you’re in Tulsa, the free Black Wall Street Legacy Festival brings a weekend of music and parades; the main event on Sunday is hosted by actors Alfre Woodard and Jay Ellis. On May 28th is a dedication of the Pathway to Hope, which connects the Greenwood District to the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park; and on June 2nd is a dedication to Greenwood Rising, the new world-class center focused on the history of Greenwood. The center officially opens on July 3rd, with admission free for the first year.
June 3rd is the free National Day of Learning, with a discussion facilitated by Dr. Cornel West. June 3rd also kicks off a run of a new historical play about the event told through true stories. On June 6th, the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra joins Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to present his All Rise (Symphony No.1), that “was written with themes of unity and spiritual ascendance.” And from June 17 to 20 you can catch the Tulsa Juneteenth Festival, a weekend of music, food, arts and entertainment, featuring paintings by Amy Sherald (who also did the official portrait of Michelle Obama). Admission is free.