99 years ago today, America was shaken by one of its deadliest acts of racial violence

Jun 1, 2020, 6:09 AM
Tulsa race massacre...
Photograph of damage from the Tulsa Race Riot, Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 1921. (Photo by Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty Images)
(Photo by Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty Images)

    (CNN) — As Americans’ rage over racial injustice boils over into a sixth day of protests, Monday also marks the 99th anniversary of one of the worst acts of racial violence the country has ever seen.

This year’s anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre comes amid nationwide demonstrations sparked by the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old unarmed black man who died last week at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

And while Floyd’s name along with his repeated plea, “I can’t breathe,” have been exclaimed by thousands of protesters, the victims’ names of the Tulsa race massacre have been rarely spoken as the incident went unmentioned for decades in classrooms across the state.

Here’s how the massacre, also known as the Tulsa Race Riot, unfolded.

It started with an elevator encounter

In the 1920s, the Greenwood District was dubbed “Black Wall Street” as the community boasted more than 300 black-owned businesses, including two theaters, doctors, pharmacists and even a pilot who owned his own private airplane.

The success of this black community, however, caused some white people in Tulsa to become envious and angry, according to Mechelle Brown, director of programs at the Greenwood Cultural Center.

They commented, “‘How dare these negroes have a grand piano in their house, and I don’t have a piano in my house’,” Brown told CNN’s Sara Sidner in 2016.

The tension reached its tipping point after an elevator incident between a 17-year-old white girl named Sarah Page and a 19-year-old black man named Dick Rowland.

Page worked as an elevator operator and Rowland would use the elevator almost every day.

“This particular day after the elevator doors closed and Sarah Page and Dick Rowland were alone in the elevator a few moments, there was a scream,” Brown said.

After the elevator doors opened, Roland ran and was later arrested. Page initially claimed that she was assaulted, Brown said.

Other historic accounts say Rowland tripped leaving the elevator, grabbed Page’s arm, she screamed and an onlooker went to authorities.

While Page never pressed charges, authorities did, and by the end of the day the rumor was that Page had been raped.

White armed mobs storm Greenwood

On May 31, a group of black and white men confronted each other at the courthouse where Roland was being held. After shots were fired, all hell broke loose.

Outnumbered African Americans retreated to Greenwood District, but early morning the next day, a white mob started to loot and burn businesses in Greenwood, according to the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum.

In a span of just 24 hours, 35 square blocks were burned and over 1,200 houses destroyed. Contemporary reports of deaths began at 36, but historians now believe as many as 300 people died, according to the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum.

At the end of the violence, Black Wall Street had been decimated. Photos show dead African American residents lying in the streets. The scene was recreated in the first episode of the HBO series “Watchmen.”

Absent from history books

In the decades following the 1921 massacre, it was largely unacknowledged.

“Oklahoma schools did not talk about it. In fact, newspapers didn’t even print any information about the Tulsa Race Riot,” US Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma told CNN affiliate KFOR in 2018. “It was completely ignored. It was one of those horrible events that everyone wanted to sweep under the rug and ignore.”

Oklahoma leaders announced in February that the state would move forward with embedding the story of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre into the curriculum of all Oklahoma schools.

The city of Tulsa continues to investigate what happened to the victims’ bodies and has been digging for mass graves.

Same themes of racial injustice stand today

Protests erupted across the nation in cities including Atlanta, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Washington over the weekend, with demonstrators demanding justice for Floyd who died at the hands of former police officer, Derek Chauvin.

Chauvin was fired after video footage showed him with his knee on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes, 46 seconds in total. He was charged last Friday with third-degree murder and second degree manslaughter. The other three police officers involved have yet to be charged.

“As you watch protests today, remember the #TulsaRaceMassacre,” nonprofit organization ColorofChange tweeted Sunday. “The fight to end police brutality won’t end #UntilJusticeIsReal.”

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99 years ago today, America was shaken by one of its deadliest acts of racial violence