Remembering the Tulsa Race Massacre, 100 years later

A century after armed white mobs killed between 100 and 300 Black people and destroyed Greenwood, a prominent Black community in Oklahoma, Americans are still grappling with the Tulsa Race Massacre of May 31 and June 1, 1921.

President Biden will visit Tulsa to mark the 100th anniversary of the attacks, meet with survivors and visit the Greenwood Cultural Center. He has pledged to combat racism, advance racial equity and support underserved communities.

People wearing vests work inside excavated site in cemetery (© Sue Ogrocki/AP Images)
Workers excavate a mass grave at Oaklawn Cemetery in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (© Sue Ogrocki/AP Images)

Researchers on June 1 will begin exhuming a mass grave they discovered last October, said Phoebe Stubblefield, a University of Florida forensic anthropologist.

They won’t know how many bodies are buried until after the exhumation, which could take up to two months. The researchers will attempt — with the community’s permission — to identify the remains with DNA analysis. They’ll also examine the remains for trauma, including gunshot wounds and burns, Stubblefield said.

Stubblefield’s parents lived in Tulsa and her great-aunt, Anna Woods, survived the massacre. The exhumation comes 20 years after Tulsa officials ignored a report and recommendation (PDF, 9.8 MB) from the Oklahoma Commission to search for a mass grave and consider reparations for survivors or their descendants. Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum reopened the case in 2018 and the city hired researchers such as Stubblefield to conduct geophysical surveys.

”We’re working toward this truth and remaking this history that the previous versions of Tulsa and the state tried to erase,” Stubblefield said.

Allegations that a Black teenager assaulted a white girl fueled the massacre, one of the deadliest acts of racial terror in U.S. history. After white vigilantes failed to lynch the teenager, they turned their rage on the oil-rich, prosperous Greenwood district, also known as Black Wall Street.

Over 48 hours, white Tulsans killed hundreds of Black Tulsans and injured more than 800. The mobs looted, destroyed and burned down homes, businesses and other institutions in Greenwood, leaving 10,000 people homeless.

Two pictures: Historical photo showing city buildings before race massacre (Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of the families of Anita Williams Christopher and David Owen Williams) Leveled buildings surrounded by smoke after race massacre (Library of Congress)
Left: Tulsa’s prosperous Greenwood district before the race massacre. (Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of the families of Anita Williams Christopher and David Owen Williams) Right: Greenwood in June 1921 after the race massacre. (Library of Congress)

From his office window, civil rights attorney Buck Colbert Franklin saw several airplanes circling and heard what sounded like hail falling on his office building, according to his eyewitness account. When he saw multiple buildings burning from the top, he realized the mob was also attacking from the air. As he fled his office, Franklin spotted burning balls of turpentine on the sidewalk.

Franklin went on to defend the massacre’s survivors in court, working from a tent because the mob burned down his office building. His work prompted the Oklahoma Supreme Court to strike down a Tulsa ordinance that blocked survivors from rebuilding their homes unless they used fireproof materials, a law Franklin thought was a city land grab.

Tulsa’s B.C. Franklin Park, built in 1972, honors Franklin for his contributions. John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, named after his son, the late distinguished historian and civil rights leader, memorializes the massacre and is part of the African American Civil Rights Network. John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park depicts scenes from the massacre and honors B.C. Franklin and Tulsa’s other early Black leaders.

“So often, we don’t have statues of people that we admire,” said John W. Franklin, grandson of Buck Colbert Franklin, son of John Hope Franklin, and senior manager emeritus for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. “So when you have … a park named after a Black man or Black woman in that community, you lift up that history, you see.”

Local officials and law enforcement never held anyone accountable for their role in the massacre. Survivors whose homes and businesses were destroyed never received compensation. Those who were killed were not officially memorialized for decades.

Profile of man and woman (© Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
Hughes Van Ellis, a 100-year-old Tulsa Race Massacre survivor and World War II veteran (left), testifies before Congress May 19. (© Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

The Washington Post reported that a 107-year-old survivor named Viola Fletcher, her brother, Hughes “Uncle Red” Van Ellis, 100, and a third survivor, Lessie Benningfield Randle, 106, are lead plaintiffs in a reparations lawsuit. They are suing Tulsa, Tulsa County, Oklahoma and the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce, alleging culpability for the massacre.

Congress invited them to testify 12 days before the massacre’s centennial. “Please do not let me leave this earth without justice, like all the other massacre survivors,” Ellis told lawmakers.