In Tulsa, Oklahoma in the spring of 1921, a race massacre devastated a 35-block (possibly bigger) majority Black neighborhood and business section that went by the name of Greenwood. Hundreds of victims were killed — the exact number is unknown because their bodies were buried in unlabeled mass graves.
Race riots and massacres were happening in Chicago, Illinois, Ocoee, Florida, and other cities across the US around the same time. The history of Greenwood is unique because it was omitted from Oklahoma school curriculum for almost an entire century and is still not told accurately in all narratives to this day.
I’m a middle-class, middle-aged white woman who moved to Tulsa from Norman, Oklahoma in 2006. I’d never heard of the Tulsa Race Massacre or Greenwood until I moved here. Locals mentioned the race massacre and I had no idea what they were talking about. Living in a place helps one understand its history — good and bad.
I admitted my ignorance. After receiving a brief history lesson, I was horrified to learn what happened in Greenwood. Eventually, my children attended a diverse elementary school in which the Tulsa Race Massacre was taught. Over the years, the narrative has evolved to be known on a local and national level.
The common national narrative claiming a small incident incited the race massacre is false. In reality, the Tulsa Race Massacre was premeditated — there are recorded police confessions. Greenwood is not only a story of systemic racism but of historians' omission of a resilient Black community that rebuilt and hosted a thriving jazz and blues scene in the 1920s through the late 1940s.
The history of the Tulsa Race Massacre’s whitewashed narrative illustrates the systemic racism inherent in the fabric of civilized and hierarchical societies.
The story of Greenwood is one of resilience and hope. That this side of the story isn’t being explored in the history books is part of the whitewashing of history. We must look at the past -- the good and the bad, discuss it--and decide our way forward.
Greenwood — A history 1921–2020
“I could see planes circling in mid-air. They grew in number and hummed, darted and dipped low. I could hear something like hail falling upon the top of my office building. Down East Archer, I saw the old Mid-Way hotel on fire, burning from its top, and then another and another and another building began to burn from their top,” wrote Buck Colbert Franklin (1879–1960). — Smithsonianmag.com
The Greenwood community was assaulted on May 31 to June 1, 1921. The common local and national narrative claims a story was fabricated that a Black man attacked a white woman in an elevator, sparking the fury of white mobs and the KKK to destroy Greenwood.
This is simply not true.
When the 35 blocks were burnt to the ground, hundreds of Black people had been murdered and assaulted. Residents who lived through the massacre found their homes and businesses demolished. All that remained of Greenwood was ashes and cinder. In an example of human brutality, riot postcards showing detailed photographs of the assault were handed out as propaganda for white supremacy.
For many years, the Tulsa Race Massacre was swept under the proverbial rug.
It was omitted from the history books. Many locals were unaware of what happened unless they had ancestors directly involved or affected.
Author Carlos Moreno gives a brief history of Greenwood in a Pod4Good interview. After the race massacre, BC Franklin sued the city of Tulsa and won the lawsuit. Greenwood was rebuilt by Black residents as good, if not better, than before. In 1922 a couple of movie theaters and a sweet shop opened up. The Greenwood jazz scene was vibrant. Jazz great Count Basie first discovered big band jazz in Greenwood. Greenwood remained a bustling Black community into the late 1960s.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, the urban renewal highway program destroyed Greenwood for a second time, building the Tulsa downtown highway loop, the IDL, smack dab in the middle of Greenwood.
Fast forward to 1995. The Greenwood Cultural Center opened its doors in the formerly named Black Wall Street district of Tulsa, now named the Greenwood District. The mission of the Greenwood Cultural Center is “to preserve African-American heritage and promote positive images of the African-American community by providing educational and cultural experiences; promoting intercultural exchange; and encouraging cultural tourism.”
In 2001, the Tulsa Race Riot Commission issued a 200-page report with damages from the massacre. Efforts to provide reparations for the survivors have so far failed both legally and legislatively. The early 2000s is when the conversation emerged into a broader, locally public view.
Looking back, the actions taken then with this report were a catalyst for the massive change seen in the city of Tulsa today. It’s still far from perfect. However, the Tulsa Race Massacre is acknowledged, mourned, and discussed within the community. City leaders have implemented many actions between 2001 and 2020, with ongoing plans.
Why did it take 99 years for the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre to be required school curriculum?
At the Tulsa magnet demonstration school my children attend/ed, some Tulsa upper-elementary school kids have experienced a Tulsa Race Massacre lesson plan. The students created a beautiful model city out of paper. They worked hard on the project and took great pride in it. When they weren't looking, the teachers burnt their project. This was a visceral and emotionally charged experience for many of the students. When I heard of it, I worried it would be too intense, too much. Feedback from students, parents, and teachers said that it was an impactful way to teach and even process some of the history and trauma.
The project wasn’t over when their teachers burnt the model city district.
It was at this point students sat down to write poems expressing how they felt when they saw their hard work destroyed.
The lesson taught history, empathy, processing trauma, and emotional communication. It opened up the conversation about a difficult subject.
For 99 years, neither the race massacre nor the resilience of Greenwood has been required curriculum in Oklahoma’s public schools. By omitting the teaching of the massacre, it has come across as a psychological denial of it ever happening.
Early in 2020, Oklahoma’s Education Department announced it would be requiring the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre as required curriculum beginning in fall 2020 — for the first time ever.
The plan was for the curriculum to be taught starting in the fall of 2020 to elementary through high school students. This decision was made in February 2020. There is some criticism that this was enacted to avoid public embarrassment when the 2021 centennial arrived.
Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial
In November 2020, National Geographic named Tulsa one of its 25 “Destinations on the rise for 2021” citing the city as “A hub for discussions on race in the U.S.” Greenwood Rising, a state-of-the-art history center is scheduled to open in the fall of 2021.
“The history center is designed to be a catalyst for revitalizing Greenwood and for confronting and ending systemic racism across the U.S., says Phil Armstrong, project director of the Centennial Commission.
‘There’s a real sense in Tulsa and throughout the country that we are much better than this,’ Armstrong says. ‘Greenwood Rising will be a launching pad for continuing the discussion of racial trauma and reconciliation, and the entire historic district will be a place where people can come to learn, acknowledge implicit bias, and personally commit to enacting real change within their own spheres of influence.’” — National Geographic
Striving for a country in which it isn’t a privilege to educate yourself about racism
The city of Tulsa has now marked the Tulsa Race Massacre centennial. There are a lot more conversations to be had. Discussions about reparations continue. Our city and nation grapple with the whitewashing of history.
Even as systemic racism is being more openly explored, journalists and documentarians are missing a big part of the Greenwood narrative.
In the lead-up to author Carlos Moreno’s Victory of Greenwood, he has been publishing articles in the Tulsa Star, a Black-run newspaper.
It's imperative we teach accurate history and curriculum across the US--we must strive for a future where equality isn’t just a buzzword, but a reality.
Suggested reading to learn more about antiracism
We must be willing to have respectful conversations in which our beliefs may be challenged. We must learn to know we are okay when we are uncomfortable. It is time to work our edges in the name of hope and progress. Although this article focuses on one community in one city in one state in the United States, it’s a story that’s told over and over throughout history, in every corner of the nation and world.
Our species has a history of creating oppression.
I ask you to consider how we will shift from the old paradigm into a hopeful, inclusive one, with peace and justice for all.
The suggested reading list contains books that are often included on antiracism lists, books I believe contribute to the conversation.
Suggested Books and Resourcs For Antiracist Reading
Anderson, C. (2020). White Rage: The unspoken truth of our racial divide. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Publishing.
DiAngelo, R. J. (2019). White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Kendall, M. (2020). Hood Feminism: Notes from the women white feminists forgot. New York, NY: Penguin Publishing Group.
Kendi, I. X. (2020). How to Be an Antiracist. New York, NY: Random House Large Print.
Little, M., Haley, A., Shabazz, A., Handler, M. S., & Davis, O. (1999). The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York, New York: Ballantine Books.
Myers, A. (2018). Tulsa Burning. OK City, OK: The RoadRunner Press. [YA book]
Ortiz, N. (2018). Sustaining Spirit: Self-care for social justice. Berkeley, CA, CA: Reclamation Press.
Tatum, B. (2017). Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: Revised Edition. New York, NY: Basic Books.
A previous version appeared in An Injustice