Historians note that many of the Greenwood District’s Black residents had moved to the area to escape the virulent racism of the Deep South.
However, while Greenwood’s “Black Wall Street” was a self-sustaining enclave for Tulsa’s Black community, it was also only blocks away from predominantly white neighborhoods that remained unwelcoming to their Black neighbors. What’s more, racist violence was on the rise in the U.S. at the time. Just two years before the Tulsa Massacre, the nation endured the Red Summer of 1919, when at least 25 riots and incidents of mob violence erupted in major cities across the U.S., killing hundreds of people, most of whom were Black.
Those pre-existing racial tensions set the stage for a bloody day of racist violence that erupted over a nearly 24-hour period, ending June 1, 1921, after an armed white mob descended on the Greenwood District.
The mob attacked black residents and businesses in the neighborhood, leaving 35 city blocks “in charred ruins,” according to the Tulsa Historical Society. In the skirmishes, as many as 300 people (mostly Black) were killed and hundreds more were injured, while thousands of Tulsa’s black residents lost their homes and businesses.
The violence had been sparked by an incident in the preceding days involving a young African-American shoe-shiner named Dick Rowland, who rode in an elevator operated by a young white woman named Sarah Page. While reports of exactly what happened in the elevator vary, it is widely believed that Rowland accidentally came into contact with Page (perhaps stepping on her foot, or tripping and falling into her, according to different reports), causing her to scream.
One witness who heard the scream called the police, who eventually arrested Rowland on May 31. Meanwhile, after a Tulsa Tribune newspaper article falsely claimed that Rowland had assaulted Page, rumors about the incident ran wildly and some accounts even falsely claimed he had raped the woman, according to The New York Times. (Local law enforcement later admonished the Tribune for publishing an “untrue account” that helped to incite the violence, according to the Tulsa World.)
Tulsa’s Black residents, fearing that Rowland would be lynched by an angry mob (a horrifically regular occurrence that’s estimated to have happened thousands of times in the U.S. during the Jim Crow Era) after he received threats on his life, gathered in front of the city’s courthouse where he was being held. A confrontation broke out between black and white groups at the courthouse, both of which were armed, resulting in shots being fired.
After that initial skirmish, Black residents retreated to the Greenwood District, while groups of white vigilantes reportedly spread throughout Tulsa attacking any Black people they encountered, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society. On the morning of June 1, a mob of over a thousand white people overran the affluent Black neighborhood, attacking and shooting residents.
The white mob looted and burned most of the neighborhood, firing on residents who tried to defend themselves but were outgunned by the attackers, some of whom reportedly had machine guns, surviving eyewitnesses later reported. Some survivors even said that the attackers flew over the area in private airplanes, from which they shot at Black residents and dropped firebombs on buildings.