The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 – Tim Madigan
The most catastrophic race riot in American history occurred in the summer of 1921 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Eighty years later, a state committee formed to officially address the tragedy concluded that the 18 hours of civil unrest that devastated the black neighborhood of Greenwood was more a massacre than a riot.
In 2001, the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 reported that up to 300 people were killed and nearly 10,000 people left homeless in just 18 hours of unrestrained white on black mob violence.
In The Burning, author Tim Madigan does an excellent job of recounting the ordeal of Greenwood’s citizens with stories from actual survivors who, as children, had the terrifying experience branded on their hearts and souls.
Located across the tracks from the white section of Tulsa, the Greenwood neighborhood was known as “Black Wall Street.” Greenwood was affluent in its own right and populated with many white collar professionals. Doctors, lawyers and clergymen — and the white folks of Tulsa apparently couldn’t abide a successful black community.
Throughout history the Tulsa Race massacre has remained America’s best kept secret. “The incident was not a part of the Oklahoma public schools’ curriculum until 2000, and only recently entered American-history textbooks.” (New York Manazine) Why? By the 1980s, the remaining elderly blacks expressed varying feelings of shame, loss of pride, and fear; while whites expressed fear of exposure of their involvement, (there is no statute of limitations on murder), or shame. In addition to Klansmen, city officials, legislators and other politicians were involved even if it was a matter of turning a blind eye.
The incident started when a black teen crossed the tracks and flirted with a young white female elevator operator (of ill repute) and as he stepped off the elevator she screamed assault. Of course he was immediately arrested and jailed. As the Klan would have it, a lynch mob congregated and demanded that the sheriff turn the black boy over to them . Vigilante justice. Blacks in Greenwood heard of it and went out armed to defend their own. The clash cooled but the incident was written about the next morning by a yellow journalist who slanted the story against the Greenwood men. The newspaper story reignited the incident. Here is where THE BURNING began.
In addition to The well armed KKK, white men acquired every sort of gun and ammo available. Emptied out every hardware store and crossed the tracks en mass. Think Jim Crow. Whites greatly outnumbered blacks. National guard was called in and told that the niggers had gotten out of line and started rioting. Fathers shot and then let their little sons shoot at the “niggers.” Gallons of petro were sloshed on homes and businesses and torched. Many fled from Greenwood, but flames were so thick it was hard to see their way out, or even to avoid being shot. Two planes flew over and fired on them.
Many couldn’t get out. Many feared leaving. The men of Greenwood made a heroic defensive effort, but were outmanned and outgunned.
Survivors tell stories of bodies “stacked like cordwood,” loaded on trucks, dumped in the Arkansas River, thrown down mine shafts or just burned when they didn’t make it out of their homes in time.
When it was over, little was left. Reports of lives lost vary to between 26 and 300. Thirty five city blocks lay in charred ruins, 1,256 homes were burned and another 215 looted.
Survivors had to move into tents and thrown together shacks.
Permanently scarred they were, but indefatigable they also were. Over time, Black Wall Street was rebuilt. Maybe not as opulent, and maybe missing many prime time players, it was still home to them.
Mt. Zion Baptist Church Burning
Mt Zion Baptist Church rebuilt
Thanks to Tim Madigan and a few other progressive thinkers for giving voice to what was the greatest race massacre in the last century.