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Tulsa boasted thriving business district dubbed 'Black Wall Street'
Historical account says 300 blacks were killed
When the police shooting of unarmed father Terence Crutcher happened on September 16, 2016, in Tulsa, the city’s reaction was furious – but peaceful.
There were prayer vigils at black churches and, within a week, first-degree manslaughter charges filed against the officer who shot him.
But the incident also shed fresh light on a dark moment in American history that has largely been forgotten – or was never learned.
Almost a century ago, the very streets where protesters marched, chanting against the police killings of unarmed black men in America, hundreds of African Americans died in just one terrible day.
It is known as the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. But that is not how the granddaughter of one of the survivors sees it.
‘It really was a massacre’
“It was really murder. It was a massacre,” Joi McCondishie said. Her grandmother survived the ordeal. Hundreds of others did not.
“Some type of confrontation between blacks and whites was inevitable because of the racial climate at the time, because of the presences of the Ku Klux Klan in almost every aspect of our society,” Mechelle Brown said.
Brown is the director of programs at the Greenwood Cultural Center, which has collected and preserved memories, photos and memorabilia from 1921 Tulsa.
Tulsa also had something special that did not exist in much of the country in the 1920s. African Americans had dubbed it “Black Wall Street.”
In segregated America, Tulsa’s Greenwood District was home to black millionaires, a bevy of black business owners, doctors, pharmacists and even a pilot who owned his own private airplane.
‘Black Wall Street’ boasted 300 businesses
Black Wall Street boasted more than 300 black-owned businesses, including two theaters.
Black success, Brown said, was the source of friction in the town because it “caused some envy and anger among white people who commented, ‘How dare those negroes have a grand piano in their house, and I don’t have a piano in my house’,” she said.
Not everyone was well off – but Tulsa was fast becoming known as a place of opportunity for blacks who wanted to make a good living. What they didn’t know is that by the end of the night on June 1, 1921, their neighborhood would be decimated.
Historians say the spark was an encounter between a 17-year-old white girl named Sarah Page and a 19-year-old black man named Dick Rowland.
“Dick Rowland worked as a shoe shine boy in downtown Tulsa,” Brown said.
There was good money to be made because of the wealthy white oilmen who had cash to throw around. It was late May.
Charges pressed after elevator incident
Rowland, Brown said, had been given permission to go into the Drexel building, a white establishment, to get water and use the restroom when he became overheated.
Page worked in that building as an elevator operator. The two saw each other just about everyday because Rowland would use the elevator that Page operated. On that day, the ride didn’t end as quietly as it had so many times before.
“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.”
The elevator doors opened. Roland ran and was later arrested. And 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.
Page never pressed charges. But authorities did. And the damage was done. By the end of the day, the rumor mill said Page had been raped.
Angry crowd demanded lynching
Largely inaccurate press reports added to the furor. Photos show large crowds of white residents gathered at the courthouse. They had one demand: They wanted Rowland to be lynched.
Brown says the black community decided to protect him. No one believed he would have done such a thing and they came to his rescue.
“They were willing to risk their lives, they knew that they would be risking their lives to help defend Dick Rowland,” Brown said.
When they got to the courthouse, thousands of whites had also gathered in front. They were angry and upset about what had happened. The whites were armed. One of the armed men got into a confrontation with a black resident who asked him why he was brandishing his gun.
Brown says historical records show the two men argued. There was a struggle over the gun. It fired. The white resident was shot. All hell broke loose.
Whites decided to storm the black neighborhood. Some estimates put the number who stormed across the railroad tracks dividing black north Tulsa and white south Tulsa at 10,000.
At least 300 black lives lost
“Blacks were so outnumbered and outgunned, whites eventually broke through the railroad tracks and invaded what was home to Black Wall Street, the Greenwood district,” Brown said.
By the end of the night, 35 city blocks had been burned to the ground. Black Wall Street had been erased. There are photos of the dead bodies of African American residents lying in the streets. Some had been shot to death.
The historical account is that at least 300 black people were killed.
“There’s really no way to knowing exactly how many people died. We know that there was several thousand unaccounted for,” said Brown, citing survivor accounts and population tallies. Many simply fled the city.
Survivors reported planes dropping bombs
Some of the survivors have said they remember death not just in the streets, but raining down from the sky.
“Many of our survivors have commented that they remember seeing planes dropping bombs. Dropping nitroglycerin bombs. We know that at least one company allowed white rioters to use their planes to drop bombs,” Brown said.
There’s no official account of the bombings, but lawyer Buck Colbert Franklin, the father of historian John Hope Franklin, described the air attacks in a manuscript that’s now housed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Franklin saw a dozen or more planes circling midair and heard “something like hail falling upon the top of my office building,” he wrote. Down the street, he saw the Midway Hotel and then other buildings burning from their roofs downward.
“The sidewalks were literally covered with burning turpentine balls. I knew all too well where they came from, and I knew all too well why every burning building first caught from the top,” he continues. “I paused and waited for an opportune time to escape.”
A state commission report in 2001 did say, “Tulsa was likely the first city in the (United States) to be bombed from the air.”
In 2016, there was at least one living survivor left in Tulsa. Hazel Smith Jones is 97 years old now but was turning three when the attack happened.
“My daddy wasn’t at home, just the kids and mamma. They came and got us,” Smith Jones said. White men in a truck began gathering residents and taking them out of the neighborhood.
Survivors left with nothing
“They carried us to the fairgrounds and we was there for two or three days,” Jones said. “We stayed there and my dad didn’t know where we were.”
She said her mother thought it would be the safest thing to do. Jones was one of 13 children. Her mom was frightened and thought if the family was around other people in the same predicament they would all be safer. They may have been right but the absence of homeowners also meant it was easier for the white mob that was roaming the streets to loot their properties. And they did.
Black families who survived the burning, looting and shooting were left with nothing when they returned.
An opinion piece published in one of the local newspapers after the incident seemed to condone the actions of the mob saying: “such a district as the old ‘niggertown’ must never be allowed in Tulsa again.”
Those words still sting. So does what happened when once wealthy black businesses owners contacted their insurance companies.
Insurance claims all denied
Every insurance claim from the Greenwood neighborhood was denied.
The claims totaled $2.7 million. Still, Black Wall Street was rebuilt but never to its former glory.
Since officials dubbed what happened a race “riot,” its white residents were shielded. While there is no statue of limitations for murder there is for a riot. And Brown says Tulsa’s black residents were never compensated.
“They never received any justice for loosing their loved ones, their homes and the businesses that they worked so hard for, that they built from the ground up,” Brown said.
But Black Wall Street was rebuilt nevertheless. Brown says it was actually desegregation that was the final blow.
“The dollar used to circulate 19 times in the black owned shops before leaving the neighborhood,” Brown said.
But once white establishments were forced to accept black folks’ money too, the money began migrating. Black residents wanted to exercise their newfound freedoms – not realizing what that would do to the businesses in their own neighborhood.
CNN’s Christopher Lett contributed to this report.