Black and white photo of the Tulsa Race Massacre. Buildings with billowing gray smoke coming out from the top.

Deferred Justice for the Tulsa Race Massacre

Mother Viola Ford Fletcher, the oldest living survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre, celebrated her 109th birthday earlier this month. The same day, the Tulsa city government tried to dismiss a lawsuit from Fletcher and the two other living survivors of the mob violence. The lawsuit seeks financial reparations from Tulsa and the Oklahoma National Guard for allowing the 1921 massacre, whose perpetrators were never charged (Black Wall St. Times). “I will never forget the violence of the white mob when we left our home. I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street, I still smell smoke and see fire,” Fletcher testified to Congress in 2021. 


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In the early 20th century, the segregated Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was one of the most prosperous Black communities in the United States. Known as Black Wall Street, Greenwood was built “for Black people, by Black people” leaving the South. There were hotels, luxury stores, movie theaters, and barbershops, served by an independent school system, hospital, and post office. White resentment at Black Wall Street grew as the second Ku Klux Klan organized across the U.S., fueled by the film The Birth of a Nation and the support of President Wildrow Wilson (Encyclopedia). When World War I ended in 1919, many Black veterans returned to the United States, unwilling to remain second-class citizens. And many white returning veterans were convinced that their Black counterparts posed an unacceptable threat to the racial hierarchy

As one public official wrote: 

“As far back as the first movement of the American troops to France the negro publicists began to avail themselves of the argument that since the negro was fit to wear the uniform he was, therefore, fit for everything else” (History).

In DC, recently returned white soldiers went on a “days-long drunken rampage, assaulting, and in some cases lynching, black people on the capitol’s streets.” The violence spread across the country in what would be known as the Red Summer of 1919. There were 25 riots across the United States and 97 recorded lynchings. Two hundred Black men, women, and children were killed in a multi-day massacre in Elaine, Arkansas. Around 1,000 Black families in Chicago lost their homes because of white arsonists. Instead of trying to calm the white rampage, the New York Times blamed Black communities under “Soviet influence” (History). As a result, Black veterans organized armed self-defense groups to protect Black communities. 

As W.E.B. DuBois wrote: 

“This is the country to which we Soldiers of Democracy return… We are cowards and jackasses if now that that war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land” (History). 

Across the United States, white men rioted and murdered with impunity. The stage was set for continued violence when, two years later, a Black teenager, Dick Rowland, entered an elevator, and the white female elevator operator screamed. When the teen’s arrest for sexual assault the following day made front-page news, a mob descended on the courthouse, forcing the sheriff to barricade the top floor to protect Rowland from being lynched. Seventy-five Black men went to the courthouse to be confronted by a white mob of 1,500. When they retreated to Greenwood, the mob followed. 

By the next day, Black Wall Street was gutted. Over a thousand homes were burned down, hundreds more were looted, and up to 300 Black residents were executed in public. Many survivors reported Greenwood being bombed by airplanes (History). Nobody was charged for any of these crimes. For decades, the Tulsa Race Massacre was erased from history. Greenwood residents’ home insurance claims were denied (Black Wall St. Times). The Tulsa Tribune story about the massacre and police and state militia records were destroyed. A service for those killed would not happen until the 75th anniversary in 1996. New unmarked graves of murdered Greenwood residents were discovered as late as last year (NPR). 

The charges against Dick Rowland, whose alleged sexual assault of Sarah Page sparked the violence, were dropped later that year. Page never pressed charges or accused Rowland of assault, and it’s thought that her scream inside the closed elevator car was due to Rowland bumping into her or accidentally stepping on her foot (NBC News). 

The Tulsa Race Massacre was 102 years ago, but it is very much a current issue. There is a chance for the three survivors to see some measure of justice for the massacre, but at 109, 108, and 102 years of age, a resolution must come quickly. The legacy of the massacre lives on in Tulsa today. Like many U.S. cities, Tulsa remains segregated, and residents of the white area live 11 years longer than those in the Black portion (CBS News). The Black residents of Greenwood today face community destruction from economic gentrification (NPR). Though more indirect than a single massacre, gentrification also displaces Black communities and is accompanied by legal and extralegal violence, as in the murder of Jordan Neely (@AlexCatsoulisn+1). Providing reparations to Greenwood survivors and demanding resources and survival for Black communities around the U.S. is the only way to partially heal the damage done in the Tulsa Race Massacre.


• Tulsa’s Black Wall Street was destroyed and hundreds killed in the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. 

• Three survivors continue to fight to hold the government accountable. 

• The Tulsa Race Massacre was censored for decades and has only been acknowledged recently.

1996 1226 Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee is a writer and organizer plotting a better world in Philadelphia. His work has previously appeared in Notes From Below, Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, Plan A Magazine, ROAR Magazine, and Teen Vogue.

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