‘The City Just Lied’: Remembering the 1921 Tulsa Massacre

Greenwood Cultural Center

This Memorial Day marks the centennial of one of the worst instances of racist violence in U.S. history. On May 31, 1921, white mobs in Tulsa, Oklahoma, launched a campaign of terror in Greenwood, a prosperous African-American neighborhood nicknamed “Black Wall Street.” The spark of the violence was ugly, and all too familiar: the lie that a white woman had been assaulted by a Black man. It was perpetuated by a local paper, the Tulsa Tribune, which published a story with the headline — or, really, the instruction — “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in an Elevator.”

When the dust settled, hundreds of Black residents had been killed. White rioters had looted Black businesses and destroyed Black homes. More than 30 blocks of Tulsa had been reduced to smoldering ruins. As is so often the case in a country where white power structures determine official history, the event soon slid into obscurity. For many decades, when it was recalled at all, it was referred to as a “race riot.” In truth, what happened was a massacre.

The centennial has occasioned widespread coverage of the massacre, much of it excellent. In The New Yorker, writer Victor Luckerson profiles two women who were committed to telling the full story of the violence when it seemed like no one else was:

As the centennial of the race massacre approaches, a raft of documentaries, along with a new thirty-million-dollar museum, are poised to make the story of Greenwood more widely known—and financially lucrative—than it has ever been. But the Black Tulsans who preserved the community’s history risk being forgotten, particularly the women who did the foundational heavy lifting. It’s not just Parrish—Eddie Faye Gates, an Oklahoma native and longtime Tulsa educator, continued Parrish’s work by interviewing massacre survivors more than seventy years later, recording their perspectives in books and video testimonials.

History lessons draw power from their perceived objective authority, but if you drill to the core of almost any narrative you will find a conversation between an interviewer and a subject. In Greenwood, Black women such as Parrish and Gates were the ones having those conversations. Now descendants of both women are working to insure that their legacies are recognized. “She was a Black woman in a patriarchal, racist society, and I think bringing all those elements together tells you exactly how she’s been erased,” Anneliese Bruner, a great-granddaughter of Parrish, said. “It’s convenient to use her work, but not to magnify and amplify her person.”

Luckerson himself is a dedicated chronicler of overlooked Black history: He is working on a book about Greenwood, and he publishes a newsletter, “Run It Back,” that documents his research findings.

In The New York Times Magazine, author Caleb Gayle, a Black Tulsa native, connects past to present, describing how the struggle for racial justice in his city continues. Recently, the last survivors of the 1921 massacre testified before a House subcommittee alongside Tiffany Crutcher, whose twin brother, Terence, was shot and killed in 2016 by Tulsa police:

She had started with hopes that justice would follow her brother’s killing. But it was in the dashing of those hopes that, Crutcher says, her “journey to justice” began. “We in Tulsa, Okla., aren’t going to sit by and say, ‘It is what it is,’” she said at one of the news conferences. The very narrative Crutcher has committed herself to undoing — one that says Black people are inherently bad people — is one that goes back a hundred years in her hometown, when one part of the community destroyed another part of the community, a place whose prosperity and potential belonged to, but was taken from, her ancestors.

Gayle’s article is part of a larger package about the Tulsa massacre, produced by The New York Times. Other components include an infographic revealing the extent of physical damage done during the event, and a visual feature about the excavation of victims’ gravesites.

For more on the centennial, here’s complete coverage from Tulsa World, a local newspaper.