Greenwood at 100

February 20, 2021   •   By Carter Brace

US SENATOR JAMES LANKFORD of Oklahoma is, by all accounts, a nice man. He was a Baptist student ministry director and youth camp director by profession. The listed hobbies on his campaign website are “spending time with his family, working in his yard, and reading.” He is from a state where the last Democratic presidential candidate to win a single county was Al Gore more than 20 years ago.

There’s clearly part of Lankford that would still like to be the friendly camp director or the youth minister talking with old ladies after church, and some were surprised when he joined those in the Senate who wanted to gum up the works of democracy and refuse to certify Joe Biden’s clear victory. But after the capitol riot, Lankford stopped objecting to the results and did something strange by the standards of his party: he apologized, writing in a letter that he failed to realize that talking about election fraud was “casting doubt on the validity of votes coming out of predominantly Black communities like Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Detroit.” The apology was addressed to the citizens of North Tulsa, the predominantly Black neighborhood irrevocably shaped by arguably the worst episode of racial violence in American history, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.


Before its population moved to the effectively segregated northern parts of the city, Black Tulsa’s home was Greenwood, a district some called Black Wall Street. The idea was something of a fantasy — this was no financial center with mansions. Many blocks lacked paved streets, sewage, and running water. But it was the wealthiest Black community in the United States, and it teemed with Black-owned businesses and solid middle-class homes even in the midst of Jim Crow. It had civic achievements to be proud of — prominent churches, the largest Black-owned hotel in the United States, a respected high school that is still one of the educational jewels of the city. It was a place of Black independence, with wages and liberties that were wonderous by the standard of poor Black people who emigrated from the Old South looking for prosperity in the Oil Capital of the World, a hub for a region where petroleum was known to collect in pools on the ground.

Black Oklahomans saw themselves differently. They were assertive about their rights, even in the midst of segregation, terrorism, and the entrenchment of white power. They filed lawsuits against voting restrictions and segregated railway cars, took to the streets to protest an ordinance mandating housing segregation in Tulsa, and published newspapers in Greenwood informing readers that the use of force to stop a lynching was a legal right, if not a duty. An armed Black posse in Oklahoma even freed a prisoner from the hands of police officers.

On May 30, 1921, a 19-year-old Black shoeshiner named Dick Rowland got into an elevator in the downtown Drexel Building and rode to the top floor with a 17-year-old white elevator operator named Sarah Page. He tripped on his way out the door and may have grabbed for Page’s sleeve. She screamed; a witness assumed she’d been assaulted. Police arrested Rowland, the Tulsa Tribune did a story, and rumors flew that touched on white Americans’ visceral fears of Black-on-white sexual assault. Mobs gathered outside the courthouse where Rowland was held; lynching rumors spread. A white cop grabbed at an armed Black man, whose pistol went off. The thin layer of law and order in a city that was equal parts Jim Crow and Wild West broke down completely. Many participants were veterans from World War I who used their combat training in their own city. Gunfire echoed for hours.

The Oklahoma National Guard showed up and disarmed and detained the citizens of Greenwood, while Tulsa police officers readily handed out guns and badges to the mob of white men. Rioters soon destroyed the neighborhood, yanking stragglers out of their homes, setting fires, and shooting indiscriminately into crowds. Thirty-five blocks were razed to the ground, a dozen churches burned, and 1,400 homes were either looted or destroyed. The death toll is estimated at 300. In the end, the only man who would be convicted and subsequently incarcerated was a Black man in possession of a pistol.

The mayor claimed “white Tulsans were as blameless as if the destruction had been caused by a cyclone” in the account of Alfred Brophy, a law professor and the author of Reconstructing the Dreamland, a book about the riot and its aftermath. Insurance companies refused to pay out, and relief money from the city and private donors was paltry compared to the outsize share of war bonds that the oil-flush city had paid for a few years earlier.

Greenwood was never the same. Industry moved into the burnt-over lots, and a freeway later cut it in half. Textbooks and commemorative histories of Tulsa omitted the massacre for decades. Entities like the Tulsa police, the Oklahoma Military Department, and even the Tulsa Tribune showed conspicuous gaps in their records for 1921. A local historian trying to write about the massacre in the 1970s received threatening phone calls. The first book-length treatment, Ellsworth’s Death in a Promised Land, came out in 1982. Bill LaFortune, mayor of the city in the 2000s and a third-generation Tulsan, could honestly claim to have never heard about what happened to Greenwood when he was growing up.

Basic facts about the 100-year-old event are still unknown. It’s not known to what extent the killing was premeditated, how many people died, or where all of them are buried. The oral histories contain gruesome details: biplanes dropping bombs on houses, elderly couples murdered in their homes, and bodies put in municipal incinerators, thrown down coal mines, or ground up for fertilizer.

These are not stories that you forget, especially if you hear them as a kid. They produce such powerful imagery that they exert their own kind of gravity. Future events become understood around the massacre, around an understanding of what a community is capable of inflicting. As a result, you might not automatically trust the dignitaries appointed to help commemorate the centennial. You might demand that their policies today align with their stated commitments to remembering the past.

James Lankford didn’t grow up here. He moved to the suburbs of Oklahoma City from Texas about a quarter-century ago. But he seems to have taken a genuine interest in North Tulsa and visited in 2017 for a listening session, an action so rare for an Oklahoma senator or congressman that Randy Krehbiel — in his treatment of the massacre and its legacy, Tulsa, 1921 — was unsure if such a thing had ever happened before. Lankford accepted a position on the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Commission and has said that the primary question around the slaughter is: “What have we learned in 100 years?”

In this light, Lankford’s apology for his disenfranchising stance may only be a necessary maneuver to preserve his reputation. With members of the massacre commission calling for his resignation, he surely wants to avoid the embarrassment of being removed. But perhaps Lankford really had a pang of conscience, recalling the atrocities of the previous century.

The official position of the Republican Party is that they don’t want to hear about all that. Their history can be found in the 1776 Report, released by the Trump administration in its dying days as a retort to The New York Times’s 1619 Project, which argued that slavery and white supremacy were foundational to American history.

The 1776 Report is at once banal and reactionary, claiming history should be “accurate, honest, unifying, inspiring, and ennobling.” Of course, there’s no reason that something honest will be inspiring. And interpreted in the most generous way possible, history is only unifying and ennobling after one has gone through the often painful reckoning of understanding how they are the product of that history.

That reckoning is only just happening in Oklahoma. Krehbiel, a longtime reporter for the Tulsa World, said that when he went to school in the late 20th century, “the purpose of teaching Oklahoma history was to make […] students feel good about their state, not to raise questions about it.”

This feel-good attitude is the spirit of the 1776 Report. It pays lip service to the virtue of truth, but it is really about avoiding discussions that might portray the US negatively, especially topics that focus on unpleasant things like race. It is about making sure people in positions of privilege don’t have to feel bad about themselves and can go on reading the textbooks that leave out ugly parts of history with an unburdened conscience.

To the authors of the 1776 Report, thinking too much about group identity is the common thread linking slavery, communism, the progressive movement, and affirmative action programs. Of course, that view is ahistorical because it ignores the actual intellectual lineages of those ideas. This blinkered historiography does not wonder why a segregationist would become an opponent of affirmative action, or why the Civil Rights movement praised in the report produces the Black power and Black nationalist movements condemned in the same document. Nor does it address why one of the most conservative states in the US would enact a conspiracy of silence around a shameful event.

That incuriosity was partially the problem for Lankford, which he acknowledged as a “blind spot” in his apology. Making baseless claims of voter fraud, especially about Black communities, is not a new idea, and it has never really been about “election integrity.” Perhaps he had never heard how white Oklahomans used the cunning devices of Jim Crow disenfranchisement like grandfather clauses and literacy tests. Maybe he didn’t know that Oklahoma in the 1910s used a tactic that would be a familiar tool to so many red-state legislatures today — a nine-day voter registration window. Lankford’s apology seemed earnest, but it is hard to tell whether his “blind spot” was intellectual or moral.

Lankford and the atmosphere of white Tulsa in 1921 are connected in a chain of causation. Ideologies are passed down. Donald Trump did not invent the idea that undocumented immigrants or Black people in big cities voted illegally. Trump had inherited a set of ideas about who is and is not a proper American citizen, ideas that were laundered by many hands, including white supremacists.

Black Tulsans have never forgotten the massacre. The current reckoning wouldn’t exist without them. The academics, legislators, and activists who first wrote about it, or who recorded the oral histories of those who remembered it, or who successfully lobbied for a statewide commission in 1996 were tied to it directly or indirectly. The next phase of reckoning will happen when the rest of Oklahoma cares about truth and reconciliation as sincerely as the descendants of Greenwood do.


Carter Brace is a writer and elementary school teacher based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He graduated from Dartmouth College with a degree in government and history.


Featured image: "Greenwood Cultural Center" by Marc Carlson is licensed under CC BY 2.0.