Today’s post was written by Netisha Currie, archives specialist at the National Archives at College Park. This article also appeared in Social Education vol. 85, no. 1.
**Please note some of the images that are linked from this blog are graphic and disturbing, but we include them as important evidence in the historical record.**
Among the holdings in the American National Red Cross Collection at the National Archives is a photo album and report (NAID 157670060) documenting the destruction, relief, and partial recovery of the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma, known as Black Wall Street. With its photographs, newspaper clippings, and correspondence this report reveals both the racial divide created in the interest of white supremacy and the resilience of people of color.
The Tulsa Race Massacre (or Riot, or Disaster) began on Memorial Day, May 30, 1921. Dick Rowland, working at his shoeshine post in downtown Tulsa, took an otherwise inconsequential break to use the restroom. During this era, a simple bathroom break for a young Black man was not so simple. Most of the United States operated under a strict system of segregation, which meant Rowland did not have equal access to any available restroom. The only restroom apportioned for use by Black people was in another building down Main Street – on the top floor of the Drexel Building.
When Rowland arrived at the Drexel Building, he took a usually uneventful ride in the elevator, which was being operated by a young white woman, Sarah Page. It is not known for certain what happened in the elevator, but Dick Rowland may have possibly slipped or the elevator was jolted and he fell into Sarah Page, causing her to scream. The white stereotypical belief that Black men posed an ever present danger to white women was likely on the mind of the shop owner who heard Page scream and saw Rowland run from the elevator. And so he called the police.
The next day, on May 31, police took Rowland into custody for allegedly assaulting Sarah Page. Afternoon newspapers reported that a Black boy had assaulted a white girl, and that he was to be tried at the municipal courthouse that day. Tulsa’s segregated society responded in different ways, but came together at the Tulsa County Courthouse. A rumor of lynching had spread throughout the day, and white residents assembled to witness or take part. A group of Black men, also hearing of a planned lynching, arrived at the courthouse armed with firearms intending to protect Rowland from the lynch mob. The sight of armed Black men did not sit well with white Tulsans, who alternately called for the men’s disarmament or retrieved their own firearms. As tensions rose a shot was fired, sparking nearly twenty-four hours described in a 1921 liability lawsuit as “lawlessness and rioting […] between the white and colored citizens of Tulsa, to the extent that the colored business and residence portions of said city were practically wiped out of existence by the rioters” (RG 21, Law Case Files, NAID 68887332).
Before it was destroyed on May 31 and June 1, 1921, the Greenwood District of Tulsa was a bustling and thriving business and residential community for its Black citizens. It represented a community shaped by “economic detour” – in which the prevention of full and equal access to economic markets causes a population to forge a separate path. Systemic segregation meant that the Black residents could neither live in the same space nor patronize stores in the white section of Tulsa. The economic detour meant that Black residents needed to create a thriving self-sustaining economy. Many Black Tulsans earned money from white employers as domestics or assistants, but poured their money back into their own community. Within the confines of Greenwood, there were hotels, hospitals, a school system, public transit, newspapers, entertainment venues, as well as basic amenities such as grocers and barbershops.
When the bullets stopped flying and the fires ceased on June 2, Tulsa Mayor T.D. Evans sent a short communication to the Red Cross Society:
To the Red Cross Society:
Please establish headquarters for all relief work and bring all organizations who can assist you to your aid. The responsibility is placed in your hands entirely.
T.D. Evans, Mayor
Director of Disaster Relief Maurice Willows arrived in Tulsa with the stated purpose of “picking up the fragments – the relief of human suffering – the care of the sick and wounded, and bringing order out of chaos.” Their task was monumental, as displayed by the statistics given in Willows’ report on the number of people made homeless, wounded, and property damaged.
The Red Cross report and photo album contain narrative summaries, correspondence, newspaper clippings, statistics and accounting, as well as photographs of a devastated Greenwood, and the relief work of the “angels of mercy” (as the Black survivors called the Red Cross).
Stepping into a role of total responsibility for a relief effort was not novel to the Red Cross. However, this was the first time a mass undertaking was implemented for an event that was not a natural disaster. The Red Summer of 1919 (the period spanning most of the year that race-based domestic terrorism and conflicts occurred in almost forty cities throughout the United States) prompted the General Manager of the Red Cross to issue a policy for how to respond to civil unrest such as riots and strikes. The guidance issued directed staff to act in accordance with the Red Cross’s position of impartiality, as the organization is closely associated with the federal government and serves “the American people as a whole.” Even in the face of such clear race-based violence, the white staff of the Red Cross provided essential food, shelter, and medical care to the Black community, fulfilling their duty to treat people “in disturbances regardless of faction to which they may belong.”
Although the Mayor of Tulsa turned over control to the Red Cross in the recovery of Black Wall Street, the actions of city leaders throughout the rest of 1921 advanced the goals of white supremacy. Two weeks after the massacre, Mayor Evans sent a message to the Tulsa City Commission placing blame on “those armed negroes and their followers who started this trouble,” and laid out a proposal for the reconstruction of Greenwood that entailed displacing all of the residents and destroying businesses by building a railroad station and erecting an industrial park in the area that had just been destroyed by white Tulsans.
Newspaper clippings collected in the Red Cross report reveal that a new fire ordinance that prohibited people from rebuilding their Greenwood homes and businesses was struck down in court. Land owners filed suit charging that the ordinance was unconstitutional, as it attempted to confiscate property without due process.
In the face of ongoing attempts of oppression and disruption, the survivors of the disaster continued to rebuild. The Red Cross reported that in the course of the event, over 1,200 buildings were burned leaving upwards of 10,000 people homeless. Within a week, the Red Cross had distributed 384 tents that would be fortified with a wood floor, and eventually replaced by a standard wood frame structure of one or two rooms. The extent of aid and relief, as in many aspects of the Red Cross work, stopped short of a supportive hand. Survivors of the massacre were only supplied the lumber to rebuild their homes; for labor they had only themselves to rely on and any other able-bodied friends who could pitch in. Greenwood, once lined with homes ranging from fancy mansions to modest well-kept abodes, resembled a shantytown emerging from a war.
Burning down thirty-five blocks of a city not only rendered people homeless, but also jobless. The day after violence ceased, the Oklahoma National Guard issued orders that would force able-bodied men to work doing manual labor, and women to take charge in feeding “refugees.” When martial law was lifted, the Red Cross continued to recruit labor from Black Tulsans – paying men 25 cents an hour to dig sanitation ditches and the like. Women cooked or sewed garments to earn a similar wage. High school students, whose families had lost all of their possessions and possibly savings were also “furnished with work” in exchange for receiving school books.
Although the people of Greenwood had gone through a traumatic ordeal, those in charge did not allow idle time for mourning and processing. Paternalistic attitudes persisted among many white leaders of the city, and also within the Red Cross – driving the directive to make the people work for relief. “The whole relief program was bound to the principle of helping the colored people to help themselves,” Maurice Willows stated in the report. Similarly, the head of the city’s Reconstruction Committee commented, “Our object is to put the Negroes back on a self-supporting basis. Negroes are a servant class of people and there is no reason why the women should not work as well as the men.” The only work opportunities available that may have aligned with a person’s previous line of work were in the medical field.
The Red Cross wrapped up relief operations in Greenwood on December 31, 1921. In the six months since the event, 2,480 families had received some form of relief, over 700 semi-permanent buildings and homes were rebuilt, and 49 families were still living in tent-homes. With time and persistence, over the next decade, residents of Greenwood rebuilt and recreated another version of Black Wall Street.
Learning about the Tulsa Race Massacre may make people uncomfortable as they are met with a painful and ugly chapter of American history. The Red Cross photo album provides the visual proof of this event, and despite all the destruction shown, it also shows that people survived. Beyond the scope of these records from 1921, the Greenwood district was rebuilt and residents and business owners thrived again for a time. The report, presented from the perspective of the ostensibly neutral Red Cross, gives readers one account of the disaster and its aftermath (people are encouraged to question the Red Cross’s approach to some aspects of relief work at the time). The lesson of the Tulsa Race Massacre and other events of mass violence against indigenous and other peoples of color in this country is not to memorize the amount of bloodshed, but to delve into the root cause of the violence. In many cases, the mindset of perpetrators was shaped by generations believing in the idea of white supremacy, instead of living by the words of the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal.”
More on the Tulsa Race Massacre:
- Bob Nowatzki, “Everything was burned down to the ground”: The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre
- Featured Document: 100 Years Since the Tulsa Race Massacre
- Smithsonian, Tulsa 100
- Hannibal B. Johnson, Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District (Fort Worth: Eakin Press, 1998)
- Randy Krehbiel, Tulsa, 1921: Reporting a Massacre (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019)
- Scott Ellsworth, Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982)
- “Tulsa Race Riot: A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.” Oklahoma Commission to the Study of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, February 28, 2001
- “1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.” Tulsa Historical Society and Museum.
- Dreams of Black Wall Street (formally Black Wall Street, 1921).