Published May 27th, 2021 at 6:00 AM15 minute read
Last October an Oklahoma forensic team found 12 unmarked coffins containing human remains in a Tulsa cemetery.
What investigators called a “mass grave” represented evidence of what witnesses had described almost a century ago – that victims of what often is considered the worst incident of racial violence in American history had been buried together without any stone or memorial marking the spot.
The discovery also meant 21st century scientists had confirmed what some survivors had long insisted they had seen in 1921.
“The written word sometimes has been privileged in our society and for many years we often have not respected our own oral history,” Delia Gillis, a Kansas City area history professor, said recently from Tulsa.
“But it was through that same oral history, as well as through the archaeological work, that we were able to find that mass grave.”
Last fall and this spring Gillis, while in Tulsa, has led virtual classes for her University of Central Missouri students. With Gillis they studied what now is known as the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, the shock of which proved sufficiently seismic that it was felt as far away as Kansas City, some 270 miles to the northeast.
Tulsa soon will observe the centennial of the massacre, which destroyed about 35 blocks of the Greenwood residential and commercial district that had been built by Black families and business owners in segregated Tulsa.
A robust website (tulsa2021.org) lists seminars and speeches, with a lengthy list of corporate sponsors. Performers John Legend and Wynton Marsalis are scheduled to appear, and Georgia voting rights activist Stacey Abrams will deliver a keynote address.
While much of the centennial dialogue will detail the outrages of May 31-June 1, 1921, it also will describe the subsequent rebuilding of Greenwood, and how that story can serve as a metaphor for a new rise of local economic empowerment and enterprise.
“I give Tulsa credit for doing a deep dive into this,” said Charles Coulter, a Kansas City historian and Tulsa native who published “ ‘Take Up the Black Man’s Burden:’ Kansas City’s African-American Communities, 1865-1939,” published in 2006.
“I wish them well and I hope good things come out of it,” Coulter said.
“They are doing things that will be promoting education and entrepreneurship and I applaud them.”
The 1921 Tulsa massacre occurred in the context of more than three dozen racial incidents across the country in 1919 that then were referred to as race riots.
These incidents often involved white residents invading Black districts, sometimes after rumors of alleged sexual assaults of Black men on white women.
In Tulsa an alleged incident fitting that description prompted a white mob to descend on Greenwood.
And yet what then happened in Tulsa nevertheless was different, said Gillis.
“Greenwood was the most prosperous African-American community, not only in the region but the nation,” said Gillis, who also serves as director of the University of Central Missouri’s Center of Africana Studies.
“Greenwood was more significant economically than Harlem. From the moment African-Americans were enslaved and brought here to America, the mission of many of them was to overturn all the myths that had been used to justify that treatment and to disabuse the wider population of all those racial tropes.”
The wealth and abundance of Greenwood represented the industry and enterprise of its own residents and business owners, Gillis said. “They were doing well, in a self-contained community,” she said.
“And so to have that community obliterated was traumatic.”
Immediately after the destruction of Greenwood, some Tulsa officials suggested designating the area as a new warehouse district. But Greenwood residents nevertheless returned, rebuilding their residences and businesses while sometimes living in tents.
The re-born Greenwood flourished during the 1930s and 1940s.
In the early 1920s Tulsa – then known as the country’s oil capital – represented one of the country’s fastest-growing cities. It also, during the Jim Crow era, was largely segregated, with the city’s approximately 10,000 Black residents living and working in Greenwood. Its commercial district had come to be known as “Black Wall Street” before the 1921 massacre.
“That was what made Black Wall Street so impressive,” Coulter said. “African-Americans had pooled their resources and built something nice that was surrounded by ugliness.”
After about 18 hours spanning May 31 through June 1, much of Greenwood would be leveled, with about 1,000 homes and businesses destroyed. Officials confirmed 37 fatalities, issuing death certificates for 25 Black males and 12 white males. But some have estimated that as many as 300 might have died.
The question as to just how to most accurately refer to what happened has evolved. In 1997 the Oklahoma legislature authorized funding what was named the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Commission.
That body issued its report in 2001.
As the event’s 100th anniversary approached, a similar organization began meeting in 2016. That body is today known as the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission – even though a summary posted by the Oklahoma Historical Society has noted that the term “massacre” suggests there was no Black resistance, which wasn’t the case.
“In the 1920s everybody knew what a race riot was,” said Scott Ellsworth, a Tulsa native and author of “The Ground Breaking: An American City and Its Search for Justice,” just published.
“It meant there had been some sort of sparking incident, followed by mobs of white people invading Black communities, shooting, killing, burning and looting.
“What happened in Tulsa in 1921 hasn’t changed,” Ellsworth said. “But the definition of the term ‘race riot’ changed. It’s complicated. It’s been called a disaster, or a pogrom. I once called it an American Kristallnacht.
“I don’t think there’s a very good term to describe what happened in Tulsa.”
The centennial dialogue may not resolve all continuing emotion and contention. On June 1 forensic work at the mass grave discovered last October is scheduled to resume. Also, a lawsuit filed last year by a Tulsa lawyer calling for financial restitution for victims or their descendants has been controversial.
“The reparations issue is very hot and divisive right now,” said Ellsworth, who served as lead scholar for the initial commission, which recommended reparations for massacre survivors and their descendants.
In 2008 the mayor of Tulsa apologized on behalf of the community. Yet it had taken perhaps half a century, Ellsworth said, for some Tulsa officials to even acknowledge the 1921 event occurred.
Ellsworth, who in 1982 published “Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921” – what he believes to be the first comprehensive account of the event – found his project complicated by a lack of primary evidence.
“I just had a devil of a time finding anything,” Ellsworth said.
“I would go to all these archives and libraries and there would be no records there. In the white community there is no question that the story of the riot was deliberately suppressed for about 50 years.”
The report issued by the 2001 commission agreed.
“Until recently,” it read, “the Tulsa race riot has been the most important least known event in the state’s entire history.”
According to “The Ground Breaking,” on May 30, 1921, a Black teenager named Dick Rowland, employed at a nearby shoe-shine parlor, entered the elevator of a nearby commercial building, which contained a restroom he had been authorized to use.
He apparently tripped, and perhaps grabbed the arm of Sarah Page, the white teenaged elevator operator – who screamed.
Police arrested Rowland the next morning.
Some 300 white residents soon stood outside the Tulsa County Courthouse, where Rowland was being held. Nine months earlier a similar crowd had assembled at the same courthouse, demanding – and ultimately receiving from the sheriff – custody of a white teenager who had been charged with the murder of a white cab driver.
He had been lynched within 30 minutes.
“Tulsa police officers directed traffic,” Ellsworth writes.
This time, however, a new sheriff refused to hand Rowland over.
At 9 p.m. approximately two dozen armed Black men, some of them World War I veterans in uniform, arrived at the courthouse, telling the sheriff they were there to protect Rowland.
The sheriff told them to leave, and they did.
But the effect on the white crowd, Ellsworth writes, was “electric.”
The courthouse crowd soon grew to about 2,000 and in Greenwood a rumor spread that it had stormed the courthouse. This time perhaps 75 armed Black men climbed into 12 cars and headed there.
The rumor proved false and the sheriff again told them to leave. As they departed, one white man challenged a Black man over the pistol he was carrying.
One shot was fired, followed by others.
At dawn of June 1, the white mob descended upon Greenwood. Members torched homes and businesses, sometimes after looting them first. Some Tulsa police officers did not intervene while others handed out “special deputy” badges to white residents. At least one officer helped distribute stolen firearms after a sporting goods store had been broken into.
Many Greenwood residents, fleeing the flames and gunfire, began leaving only to meet armed white men who directed them into various holding areas, including a baseball stadium.
By the afternoon of June 1, martial law had been declared and state troops from Oklahoma City had begun establishing order.
About a month later an all-white grand jury placed blame on the armed Black men who had appeared at the courthouse. While indictments were issued against some Black residents, no white citizens of Tulsa, Ellsworth writes, “ever served prison time for the looting, arson and murders of May 31 and June 1, 1921.”
Some Black residents fled Tulsa entirely.
Through the afternoon of June 1 and into the next day, state guard patrols canvassed the countryside, picking up Greenwood residents. Some had gotten as far as Claremore and Bartlesville, according to a recent Tulsa World article, and “a few made it all the way to Kansas City.”
A committee organized by Kansas City funeral home director Theron B. Watkins assisted 43 displaced Tulsa residents, providing meals, clothes, lodging, employment and cash grants, according to “ ‘Take Up the Black Man’s Burden:’ Kansas City’s African-American Communities 1865-1939.”
The Kansas City Sun, a Black newspaper, printed the names of the Black dead and wounded Tulsa residents. It also published the lengthy account of G. Archibald Gregg, a University of Kansas graduate and faculty member at Western University in Kansas City, Kansas, who some two months before the massacre had been named executive secretary of the Tulsa YMCA.
Gregg had left Tulsa on May 26 to attend the Kansas City graduation ceremonies of two daughters.
He returned several days after the massacre to find the Tulsa YMCA destroyed.
“I left a happy, hopeful, progressive people,” Gregg wrote, adding how upon his return, “I found a crushed, humiliated, discouraged humanity.” Later that same summer Gregg left Tulsa to become executive secretary at Kansas City’s Paseo YMCA.
It’s difficult to precisely gauge the massacre’s impact upon Kansas City, said Coulter, who joined The Kansas City Star staff in 1977 and later served on the newspaper’s editorial board.
“We do know that the Kansas City Black population grew by about 8,000 in the years after the massacre, but I can’t attribute all of that increase to the events in Tulsa,” he said.
But Coulter can recall the reticence to discuss the massacre on the part of both white and Black Tulsa residents.
“White Tulsa didn’t want to talk about it. Maybe they were ashamed,” Coulter said.
“Black Tulsa didn’t want to talk about it,” he added. “They didn’t want to bring those memories back, or encourage violence.”
One set of his grandparents, Coulter said, had just moved to the outskirts of Tulsa before the events occurred.
“They were not directly impacted in terms of life or property loss,” Coulter said.
“But my grandmother would not talk about it. My mother, who would have been about nine years old in 1921, would not talk about it. It was not something that was taught in school, or often referenced, at all.
“To be honest I did not know anything about it until I read the Scott Ellsworth book,” Coulter said. “I wish I could remember how I stumbled upon it.
“But I picked up a copy and was blown away.”
That book had not come easily.
In 1975 Ellsworth, who was preparing for his final year at Reed College in Oregon, decided on his senior thesis topic.
That would be the mysterious events of 1921 in Tulsa – what his parents and their friends would stop talking about whenever the young Ellsworth would enter the room.
His experience was not unique among his peers.
“For decades afterwards,” Ellsworth and historian John Hope Franklin wrote in the 2001 Tulsa riot commission report, “Oklahoma newspapers rarely mentioned the riot, the state’s historical establishment essentially ignored it, and entire generations of Oklahoma school children were taught little or nothing about what had happened.”
Right after the massacre, however, newspapers across the country and world published the horrific details.
“The white city fathers of Tulsa immediately realized they had a public relations problem,” said Ellsworth.
“So, fairly quickly, the story started to get shut down.”
The Tulsa police chief, Ellsworth said, sent officers to photography studios to confiscate all the images they could find.
Also, according to Ellsworth, microfilm records of one Tulsa daily newspaper edition from May 31, 1921, had been completed decades ago without a particular front-page article detailing Rowland’s arrest. Bearing the headline “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in An Elevator,” the article likely had contributed to the angry atmosphere in the white Tulsa community, Ellsworth said.
That same newspaper, which in later years carried a daily editorial page feature summarizing that particular day’s news from 10, 15 or 25 years before, consistently seemed to ignore the obvious, Ellsworth added.
“In 1936 the newspaper reported about that year’s debutantes,” he said.
Ellsworth learned of similar irregularities in local academic circles. One University of Tulsa sociology professor in the 1940s, asking her students about the massacre, was told that nothing like what she was describing had ever happened.
““It would be like young people in New York today saying that they had never heard about 9/11,” Ellsworth said.
“There had been this culture of silence. The way to think about that is to think of the World War II veterans who didn’t like to talk about the war, or about the Holocaust survivors who didn’t want to burden their children or grandchildren – so they would not talk about it.”
Attitudes changed in a slow, cumulative way. In 1968 Don Ross, a columnist for the Oklahoma Eagle, a Black Tulsa newspaper, wrote a 10-week series of columns devoted to the massacre.
Other reporters and researchers also began to investigate the event.
Then came Ellsworth, who devoted the summer of 1975 to researching his thesis. But as the fall semester approached, Ellsworth had grown frustrated over both the lack of evidence and the unwillingness of many Tulsa residents to discuss the violence.
His break came when he visited W. D. Williams, a Black resident who had been a teenager in 1921.
The interview had gone poorly until Ellsworth pulled out a map he had fashioned from plat maps of Tulsa’s Greenwood district made for him by an employee in the Tulsa city engineer’s office.
After taping the sheets together Ellsworth had annotated them with a ballpoint pen, noting the addresses of individual businesses that once had stood along North Greenwood Avenue, which he found listed in an old city directory.
Williams, spreading the map across his kitchen table, smiled at seeing the names of businesses he recalled from his youth.
“That was the day that everything changed,” Ellsworth said.
Ellsworth completed the thesis, but he couldn’t quit the story. “I came back three years later and Mr. Williams introduced me to other African-American survivors,” he said. “God bless them, they agreed to talk to me.”
Ellsworth published “Death in a Promised Land” in 1982.
“My book had this almost underground existence,” he said. “Copies were stolen out of all the Tulsa branch libraries.”
But the full narrative of the Tulsa massacre only began to gain traction, Ellsworth said, after another Oklahoma tragedy, this one in 1995.
Following the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, the national media descended.
Among the correspondents present was Bryant Gumbel, host of the NBC morning show “Today.”
Don Ross, by then an Oklahoma state representative, gave Gumbel a copy of Ellsworth’s book.
Ten days later both Ross and Ellsworth received calls from NBC News for an interview.
“Don Ross used that coverage to go to the governor and the state legislature,” Ellsworth said.
In 1997 the Oklahoma legislature authorized the commission to study the massacre and issue a report, which appeared in 2001. The commission supported the paying of reparations to massacre survivors and descendants.
In 2003 lawyers filed a federal lawsuit against the state of Oklahoma, city of Tulsa and the Tulsa Police Department on behalf of survivors and their descendants. Courts dismissed the suit the following year, citing the statute of limitations.
Last year Tulsa lawyer Damario Solomon-Simmons sued the city of Tulsa and other defendants seeking reparations for the destruction of the Greenwood district. The city and insurance companies never compensated victims for their losses, and the massacre also resulted in racial and economic disparities that still exist today, according to the lawsuit.
The new litigation, Ellsworth said, “claims that the harm of the massacre is not over, that it is still a nuisance, and that the statute of limitations should not apply.”
In part because of the reparations issue, initial efforts to locate mass graves under the first commission eventually stopped, Ellsworth said.
“We got caught up in the politics of reparations, and the search for graves got shut down,” he said.
In 2018 Tulsa’s current mayor, G.T. Bynum, announced the investigation of possible mass graves would be reopened.
The following year the city began using ground-penetrating radar to search for possible sites throughout Tulsa, an inquiry guided in part by oral histories of massacre survivors and their descendants.
A team of scientists announced it had found anomalies at Oaklawn Cemetery, the city’s oldest burying ground, consistent with a mass grave. Supporting that possibility were records from a Tulsa funeral home which had billed the city for such work.
Last October, investigators confirmed the mass grave.
On June 1 researchers are scheduled to begin again, examining the remains in hopes of identifying the gender, race and ages of the deceased and perhaps extracting DNA samples, Ellsworth said.
“We eventually will re-bury them with honor,” said Ellsworth, chair of the graves investigation team.
“These were people who had been thrown away. We very much want to honor those people.”
There are several Kansas City connections to the Tulsa massacre.
Sarah Page, the elevator operator, sometimes is described as having been from Kansas City. But after declining to press charges against Rowland, she largely disappeared from history.
Several theories exist regarding the fate of Dick Rowland, some insisting that he sheltered in Kansas City during or after the massacre. But little reliable evidence has been found to document his precise whereabouts after 1921, Ellsworth said.
Hal “Cornbread” Singer, a jazz saxophonist who enjoyed a long career that included stints with bandleaders Jay McShann and Duke Ellington, was a toddler during the massacre. The white woman for whom Singer’s mother worked put him and his mother on a train to Kansas City until their home could be rebuilt.
Singer later returned to Tulsa. He died in Paris, France in 2020.
One substantial Kansas City coda to the Tulsa Massacre, however, is represented by three Kansas City area granddaughters of Almeda Pennington Sears.
When the Tulsa violence began 1921, Almeda was living in Hillsboro, Texas, with her children. Her husband, Herman Samuel Sears, Sr., a carpenter, traveled the Southwest working as a homebuilder and sending money home to the family.
After the 1921 massacre, Tulsa needed homebuilders.
That’s where the family went.
“I feel very proud about that today,” said Lucille H. Douglass, “knowing that my family was part of Tulsa coming back.”
“I feel good about the part they played in that,” added Pearl Spencer, “and also that my grandfather had that idea to go there and help rebuild.
“I think that was very forward-thinking of him.”
Almeda, added Cora D. Thompson, also wanted her children to grow up where Black students could gain a quality education.
That would be in Tulsa, at Booker T. Washington High School, one of the few Greenwood landmarks not destroyed in the massacre.
“Grandma insisted that education for the children was the highest priority,” said Thompson.
Evidence of the family’s emphasis on education can still be seen today in Parkville.
Lucille Sears, the eldest of Almeda’s children, went on to earn an education degree. She was teaching in Arkansas when she met another educator, Frank Scott Douglass.
They married in 1938 and relocated to the Kansas City area, where Frank soon began raising livestock on property in Parkville and also serving as principal and teacher of the two-room Banneker School, which had welcomed Black students before area schools desegregated in the 1950s.
In 1942 Frank left for World War II and Lucille Sears Douglass began teaching at the Banneker school before serving about 30 years as a Kansas City social worker.
Later, during the 1980s, Lucille grew interested in the restoration of Parkville’s original one-room Banneker school, which operated from 1885 through the early 1900s and had served the children of formerly enslaved people.
When the building was threatened with demolition Lucille – with colleague Gaylon Hoskins, Sr., and others – helped raise money to acquire the building.
Lucille Sears Douglass, who died in 2003 at age 89, often said the original one-room Banneker school deserved to be preserved because it represented the “visible roots” of the Black population in the Parkville area.
Today a foundation raises money for the original Banneker School, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Her mother’s determination to see the Banneker building preserved honored the same resolve that drove her grandmother Almeda to enroll her four children in Tulsa’s Booker T. Washington High School, Thompson said.
Education was among the principal priorities of the formerly enslaved persons who embraced freedom after the Civil War, she added.
“They built colleges and universities, schools like Spelman and Morehouse and others, because they recognized that not only did they have to educate themselves, they also had to educate their children.”
Flatland contributor Brian Burnes is a Kansas City area writer.
Kansas City artist Krystle Warren performs “Red Clay,” inspired by the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, in TV Studio A at KCPBS.