The Tulsa race massacre, during which white mobs killed African American residents and destroyed destroyed businesses in an affluent area known as Black Wall Street in the south-central U.S. city, is arguably the worst outbreak of racial violence in U.S. history.
Eighteen hours of violence that erupted May 31,1921, in the Oklahoma city left dozens if not hundreds of people, mostly African Americans, dead and the city’s prosperous black community of Greenwood destroyed.
News reports initially said 36 people were killed, but most historians now believe the death toll was as high as 300.
Nearly 10,000 people were left homeless after the mobs, which included people deputized by Tulsa police, torched over 1,400 homes, scores of businesses, a dozen churches, a hospital, a school and a public library over 35 square blocks.
The riot was sparked by a confrontation between the mobs and black men — some of them World War I veterans — who were protecting an African American teenager accused of trying to rape a white female elevator operator in a downtown Tulsa building on May 30.
What happened in the elevator remains unclear. The most common account is that the teenager inadvertently stepped on the woman's foot as he entered the elevator, prompting her to scream.
On May 31, the Tulsa Tribune published a story of the alleged attempted rape and an editorial declaring a lynching was organized to take place that night.
The Tulsa race massacre, also known as the Tulsa race riot, erupted during a period of especially heightened racial tensions in the U.S.
In the summer of 1919, race riots took place in at least 26 cities, generating some of the most intense white-on-black violence in recorded U.S. history. The period was called the “Red Summer” because of the blood that was spilled.
The riots broke out after millions of U.S. troops returned home after World War I and found competition for jobs in a dramatically altered social landscape.
Competition for jobs was intensified by the Great Migration — the movement of millions of African Americans from rural Southern states to urban areas in the Northeast, Midwest and West. By 1919, 500,000 African Americans had relocated, seeking employment.
In the early hours of the Tulsa massacre, local authorities did little to contain the unrest. National Guard units arrived on the morning of June 1, but they spent much of their time protecting a white neighborhood from a black counterattack that never occurred.
Black citizens fought hard to defend their homes, businesses and other institutions but were outnumbered and outgunned.
Martial law was imposed briefly, and the teenager was eventually exonerated. An all-white grand jury blamed black residents for the mayhem. No whites were ever imprisoned for the killings and acts of arson.
Most of Tulsa’s black population was pushed into homelessness. White leaders tried to force them to relocate, but they began rebuilding Greenwood within days.
For decades, no public events acknowledged the riot victims or commemorated the violent event. In 1997, an Oklahoma state panel, the Race Massacre Commission, was established to investigate the massacre. In its report, the commission recommended reparations for black survivors.
In May 2020, Human Rights Watch issued the report, “The Case for Reparations in Tulsa, Oklahoma: A Human Rights Argument.” It called on Tulsa and state officials to implement a comprehensive reparations plan in collaboration with the local community.