2015-02-23

As we approach the end of Black History Month, we take a look at a little known piece of Oklahoma's history. City Year Regional Recruitment Coordinator and Tulsa native Kemper Tell, shares the story of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921—an event that claimed an estimated 300 lives and shifted the dynamics of race relations in Tulsa.


Tulsa, Oklahoma. What is your first thought? Tumble weeds, land run, Native Americans…race riots?

The year 1921 presented Tulsa with another year of prosperity, thanks to the oil boom, and like many places around the world, a year of great racial turmoil. In Tulsa, white and black residents alike were profiting greatly from the discovery of local oil, so much so what is known as ‘Black Wall Street’ came to be in the Greenwood area of downtown. Due to segregation laws, Black Wall Street became a large concentration of prosperous black owned businesses, doctors, lawyers, etc. Some were even millionaires. Life was good in Tulsa. However, on May 30, 1921, everything changed and the start of Tulsa being home to one of the worst race riots in American history began."Captured Negros on Way to Convention Hall"

It all started with a claim that a black man riding an elevator assaulted the white female elevator operator. Later the truth came out that he accidently stepped on her foot, but rumors were already flying and the damage was beginning. Within a few days, officials began corralling Tulsa’s black population in the baseball stadium while white residents burned down 1,000 black homes. Black Wall Street was destroyed and hundreds of people lost their lives. 

To this day, many Oklahomans do not know this history. Despite growing up in Tulsa, I didn't learn of the event until my sophomore year of college. The wounds of the riot remain and have shaped the history and dialogue of race relations in our community. Many of the City Year schools we serve in educate families who were affected by this history, some of which are direct descendants.

“We thought we might live long enough to see something happen. Even though I live 99 years, nothing of that sort has actually happened. You keep hope alive, so to speak, and you keep right on trying—never giving up. Never, never giving up.”

Tulsa Race Riot survivor, Olivia Hooker, age 99. You can hear her interview at Aljazeera America.

While the Greenwood area is now home to a new set of businsses, a ballpark and Oklahoma State University's Tulsa campus, it is still a stark reminder of the past. Stairs remain to houses long destroyed, churches and buildings once used as protection for refugees of the area still stand watch. To learn more about the race riots or Tulsa’s history, check out Tulsa’s Historical Society http://tulsahistory.org/learn/online-exhibits/the-tulsa-race-riot/.

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