“What I saw was bad enough, and yet I cannot tell all that I saw.”
- "Events of the Tulsa Disaster," by Mary E. Jones Parrish
On May 31, 1921, Tulsa, Oklahoma, became the site of a horrific massacre that was shrouded in silence for decades.
A White mob descended on the city’s prosperous Black enclave of Greenwood and proceeded to burn, loot and kill until scores were dead and 35 city blocks were destroyed.
One hundred years later, Tulsa is still reckoning with this violent history. As it does, Americans across the country face another truth: Tulsa wasn’t alone.
Between the end of the Civil War and the 1940s, the destruction seen in Tulsa happened in various ways to communities of color across the country.
These acts of racial violence took aim at the roots of generational wealth, shaping the nation and its inequities in ways we still see today.
Burned from the land: How 60 years of racial violence shaped America
By Channon Hodge, Breeanna Hare, Tami Luhby, Elias Goodstein, Priya Krishnakumar, Nadia Lancy, Toby Lyles, Amy Roberts and Clint Alwahab, CNN
Published May 30, 2021
As the Civil War neared its end, Union General William Sherman had been convinced that newly emancipated slaves needed their own land to secure their freedom. He issued Special Field Order No. 15, setting aside 400,000 coastal acres of land for Black families and stating that, “…no white person whatever, unless military officers and soldiers detailed for duty, will be permitted to reside.” A provision was added later for mules.
In three months, the potential of Sherman’s order vanished with a single shot. That April, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, and in the fall President Andrew Johnson reversed Sherman’s order, allowing Confederate planters to regain the land. It demonstrated a ruthless appropriation that would be repeated for decades to come.
Still, Black Americans created pockets of wealth during the Reconstruction years and into the early 20th century. Yet where Black Americans created a refuge, White Americans pushed back through political maneuvering and violence. This year marks the centennial of one such event: the heinous attack on the Black enclave of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
The Williams Dreamland Theatre was destroyed during the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921. (Photo by Greenwood Cultural Center/Getty Images)
A glistening city-within-a-city, Greenwood was home to grocery and retail stores, theaters, restaurants and hotels – all the businesses and services that would cater to Black residents of a segregated state. Greenwood’s streets were lined with the stately mansions of doctors and business tycoons as well as the more modest dwellings of domestic workers. It was so prosperous it became known as “Negro Wall Street.”
The affluence of Greenwood “created this tie-in between Black Tulsans and White Tulsans,” says University of Tulsa anthropologist Alicia Odewale in CNN Films’ “Dreamland: The Burning of Black Wall Street.” “But it’s all about perspective. White Tulsans talked about Greenwood as ‘Little Africa’ or ‘Nigger Land.’”
One hundred years ago, on May 31, 1921, that racial animosity became fuel for a massacre.
A lynch mob formed in downtown Tulsa after a 19-year-old Black man was accused of assaulting a White woman. That night, thousands of White Tulsans launched an all-out assault on Greenwood with rifles, machine guns, torches and aerial bombings from private planes.
The rampage lasted into the next afternoon, leaving 10,000 Black Tulsans homeless and their community burned to nothing but ash and rubble.
The Greenwood District is seen burning during the riot on June 1, 1921. The text seen on the image was etched onto the negative at the time of printing, according to the Smithsonian. (Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture/Gift of Cassandra P. Johnson Smith)
It’s still unknown how many people were killed but it’s estimated as many as 300 lost their lives in the massacre.
It was one of the worst acts of racial violence in American history. And it was part of a larger pattern of assault.
“We estimate that there were upwards of 100 massacres that took place between the end of the Civil War and the 1940s,” says William Darity Jr., a Duke University economist who co-authored “From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century,” with writer and folklorist A. Kirsten Mullen. “And they take place North and South, East and West.”
We looked back through research and news clippings, paying particular attention to around 50 racially charged incidents between 1863 and 1923 when people of color lost property or economic opportunity. The events highlighted here reveal how acts of racial violence of different scope played out across the country and targeted various ethnicities. Historians then helped us examine how and why they had occurred and where we still see the impact today.
"The South lost the Civil War. The South’s response to that loss was that it was going to win the race war."
1863: Detroit, Michigan
On March 6, 1863, a tavern owner named William Faulkner was found guilty of sexually assaulting a White girl. Outside the courthouse, a mostly White crowd clashed with officials as they tried to get at Faulkner.
When they couldn’t, they roamed Detroit’s streets, attacking African Americans and setting buildings on fire, which left nearly 200 Black residents homeless. Local papers had called Faulkner a “negro,” though Faulkner said he was Spanish Indian. Faulkner’s accusers later recanted, and he was released from prison, as noted in research by the late Matthew Kundinger when he was a University of Michigan history student. (Michigan Journal of History)
1875: Clinton, Mississippi
On September 4, 1875, between 1,500 and 2,500 people, most of whom were newly enfranchised Black Republicans and their families, gathered at the site of a former plantation for a picnic and political rally ahead of an election.
A White Democrat who’d been invited to the event heckled a speaker, inciting a fight. Witnesses said the White Democrats turned their weapons on the crowd and started firing. In the days after, a “presumed race riot” became a “massacre.” (Mississippi Encyclopedia)
The achievements of Black Americans made them vulnerable to attack, said Trina Shanks, a nonresident fellow at the Urban Institute.
“If Blacks were successful and actually were visibly prosperous, that made them a target. Some of the violence might have been triggered by this economic envy,” said Shanks, director of community engagement at the University of Michigan’s School of Social Work. She explains that some White Americans thought, “How can we make sure that we reserve these economic benefits and opportunities for the White population and our children and push Blacks out so there can be more for us.”
The front page of the Detroit Free Press on March 7, 1863.
This dynamic played out in Wilmington, North Carolina, where many Black Americans achieved economic success for several decades in the late 1800s. They worked throughout the major port city as professionals, skilled artisans and industrial workers. They formed a building and loan association, built libraries and created baseball leagues. During the 1870s and 1880s, some Black businessmen and entrepreneurs amassed wealth rivaling that of many Whites, according to a 2006 historical report produced by the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission, which was created by the state’s General Assembly.
They were gaining political power, too, having an impact on multiple elections in the 1890s and securing seats in the city government.
As Black people increased their political and financial capital, many White residents grew increasingly angry and organized to regain control of the city.
It all came to a head just after the November 8 election in 1898. White Democrats in Wilmington forced the resignation of the city’s White mayor and local government members of both races in a coup, as well as the removal of Black employees from their municipal positions. At least 60 members of the city’s Black community were killed, according to the News & Observer, while some have estimated a death toll into the hundreds. More than 2,100 Black residents fled, and the homes of at least 1,500 Black people were then taken by White residents at low cost.
White supremacists burned down Wilmington, North Carolina’s Daily Record newspaper building in their 1898 attempt to overthrow the city’s biracial government. (Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images)
This result, where White people benefited in the aftermath of violence, repeats itself well into the 20th century in places like Ocoee, Florida, where a successful Black labor broker’s attempt to vote in 1920 sparked a massacre so violent that Black residents abandoned their properties. Within a month, their land was advertised for sale at “special bargains” by a Confederate veteran, the Orlando Sentinel found.
The racial violence during and after Reconstruction in the South began as Whites sought to maintain their supremacy economically, politically and socially, historian Dominic J. Capeci Jr. wrote in a foreword to the “Encyclopedia of American Race Riots.”
“The South lost the Civil War. The South’s response to that loss was that it was going to win the race war,” Capeci told CNN. He noted that White people sought to repress Black people, Chinese immigrants and others throughout the nation in the subsequent decades, sparked in part by growing competition for housing and jobs.
"Once upon a time in the West, there were over 200 Chinese communities until the Chinese [people] who lived in them were driven out."
1877: San Francisco, California
Weary of the high unemployment brought on by a depression, White Americans and recent European immigrants turned on the city’s thousands of Chinese workers. On July 23, 1877, around 8,000 people gathered for a labor rally in front of City Hall. Violence broke out and the rally turned into an anti-Chinese mob that set fire to a city wharf before torching, looting and murdering its way through the city’s long-established Chinatown. (SF GATE)
1885: Rock Springs, Wyoming
In the mid-1800s, Chinese immigrants started flowing into the US in search of gold. When the gold rush ended, Chinese people found jobs throughout the country. At a coal mine in Wyoming, White Americans and European immigrants resented the Chinese laborers for accepting lower wages and lashed out.
When a fight broke out between the workers on September 2, 1885, White miners gathered weapons, surrounded the Chinese enclave in Rock Springs, killed 28 Chinese men and burned down 79 of their shacks and houses. (WyoHistory.org)
Chinese laborers had been coming to the United States since the mid-1800s, with many fleeing the destruction caused by the Taiping Rebellion, which began in 1850. In the 1860s, the Chinese population in the US nearly doubled as many came to do the dangerous work of building the Pacific Coast Railroad, according to researchers for the PBS series “American Experience: The Chinese Exclusion Act.”
An article from the San Francisco Examiner on July 25, 1877.
Historian William Wei told CNN that Chinese laborers were paid lower wages than White Americans and European immigrants who saw the Chinese as an economic threat.
“Once upon a time in the West there were over 200 Chinese communities until the Chinese who lived in them were driven out,” said Wei, a University of Colorado Boulder professor and author of “Asians in Colorado: A History of Persecution and Perseverance in the Centennial State.”
Wei and other Coloradans have dedicated themselves to retelling the history of Denver’s Chinatown. On October 30, 1880, political organizers held an anti-Chinese parade ahead of the presidential election. The next day, a bar fight morphed into a mob that lynched a Chinese man, beat every Chinese person they happened upon, then tore down the neighborhood that had been a respite for Chinese miners in the region.
The anti-Chinese riot of October 31, 1880, in Denver is depicted in this wood engraving first published in November 1880 in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. (Library of Congress)
Our study of similar incidents reveals the anti-Chinese fervor spread like wildfire through the West, moving from California to Washington to Wyoming. Anywhere Chinese people were trying to make a living, White and recent European immigrants, often united through unions, threatened and executed them, burned their encampments and at times even packed them up on rail cars destined for ships heading back to Asia. Wei pointed out the irony when Congress used the violence as an excuse to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, claiming that barring more Chinese laborers from entry would keep the peace.
The Chinese built much of the infrastructure that made expansion into the West possible, enriching the pockets of Gilded Age tycoons and enabling generations of Americans to make the Western half of the US their home, but the Chinese never benefited. They eventually disappeared from communities like Denver, said Wei.
“In our particular economic system, we tend to use up people a lot, right?” asked Wei, referring to immigrants and people of color. “And once we use them, we dispose of them or we deport them, as has been the case recently.”
The 1885 massacre at Rock Springs, Wyoming, is depicted in this Harper’s Weekly wood engraving. (Library of Congress)
Monica Muñoz Martinez is one of several historians working to bring more attention to the long history of persecution against Mexican people who, along with Native Americans, suffered as White American interests expanded West into territories they’d already been living in.
The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican-American War also granted citizenship to Mexican residents living on newly-acquired land. The treaty was also supposed to protect their property rights.
Mexicans had long prospered as ranch owners in California, New Mexico and Texas but then saw their lands slowly siphoned off into White hands by fraud, taxation, squatting and sometimes outright robbery, Martinez explained.
“When Anglos are stealing land from Mexicans, it was perfectly legal or sanctioned by Texas law,” said Martinez, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “But then when Mexicans tried to take land back — they were bandits that were heavily policed and murdered by groups like the Texas Rangers.”
The Texas Rangers, immortalized later as heroes of the Wild West, were a state-sanctioned force responsible for the murder and banishment of hundreds of Mexican and Mexican American people. The violence peaked in 1915 in a time called La Matanza, or the massacre. Murders often took place in quiet rural areas, often with the excuse that the people the Rangers killed were threatening White communities.
In Presidio County in January 1918, Texas Rangers went into a Mexican community and took the owner of a ranch, along with 14 other men and boys. They later executed them with no trial, suggesting the men had been involved in a raid. That summer, in response to public pressure over what was called the “Porvenir Massacre,” the state disbanded the Texas Ranger company responsible for the murders, according to congressional testimony from Martinez.
The families of the victims often fled their communities, abandoning their property in the face of the onslaught of government-sanctioned violence. Martinez noted that it took only one generation for tens of millions of acres of Mexican-owned land to shift to White hands.
"Entire communities of people were being effectively reduced overnight to the lower class."
1917: East St. Louis
“I saw negro women begging for mercy and pleading that they had harmed no one, set upon by white women of the baser sort, who laughed and answered the coarse sallies of men as thy beat the negresses’ faces and breasts with fists, stones and sticks,” wrote reporter Carlos F. Hurd — the day after watching a White mob stone and murder Black people indiscriminately on the streets of East St. Louis on July 2, 1917.
The mob killed nearly 50 people, mostly Black, and drove 6,000 from the city. The mob had formed because of an earlier incident that began with a White man in a Ford who’d been shooting into Black homes. Black residents had armed themselves and fired on two men approaching in a car, killing them. Those men later turned out to be police officers. (St. Louis Post Dispatch Archive)
1919: Corbin, Kentucky
Known for being the birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Corbin is still grappling with its history as a “sundown town.” On October 30 and 31, 1919, an armed mob forced out hundreds of Black residents, bringing in extra rail cars to send them out of town.
From that point on, Black residents simply weren’t welcome there. Corbin was one of thousands of White-only communities throughout the US that became known as a “sundown town,”and remains predominantly White.
1923: Johnstown, Pennsylvania
In early September, after four police officers were killed during a shootout with a Black man, the mayor ordered all Black and Mexican people who had lived in Johnstown for less than seven years to leave the area. He relied on the local Ku Klux Klan to enforce the order, which he said wasn’t directed toward Johnstown’s “law-abiding” Black population, according to the Pittsburgh Quarterly.
An estimated 2,000 Black and Mexican residents were forced out. Black newspapers relentlessly covered the story, drawing national attention. (Pittsburgh Quarterly)
Though these massacres happened many decades ago, their economic impact was widespread and long-lasting — and it can still be felt today.
An article from the Owensboro Messenger on Nov. 1, 1919
The wealth disparity between White and Black Americans is stunning. The typical non-Hispanic White family had a net worth of $188,200 in 2019, while the typical non-Hispanic Black family’s wealth was $24,100, according to the most recent Federal Reserve Bank data.
This enormous gap stems in part from the historic destruction of Black towns, homes and businesses, which hampered Black Americans’ ability to amass financial assets – particularly housing — and to pass them down to their children and grandchildren to help build wealth. A 2013 report using research gathered on families over a 25-year period found Whites were five times more likely to inherit than Black people, and among those receiving inheritances, Whites heirs got 10 times as much.
It’s hard for many people to understand why the massacres continue to have economic significance today, said Chris Messer, a sociology professor at Colorado State University-Pueblo. But the average American doesn’t have a grandparent or great-grandparent whose home was burned to the ground – and who received no insurance proceeds or government aid, he said. Black Americans who kept their cash at home – reluctant to put their money in White-owned banks – often lost their life savings and any other assets when their homes and businesses were destroyed or they had to flee to other communities, Messer said.
“There are plenty of really wealthy individuals in America today – they would not be wealthy if it weren’t for their parents being able to give them wealth or put them in a good school or hand their business down,” said Messer, who estimated that the property lost in the Tulsa massacre would come to $200 million based on today’s home values.
“Entire communities of people were being effectively reduced overnight to the lower class,” Messer told CNN. “They had to start completely over.”
Six blocks in East St. Louis, Illinois, were reduced to rubble during racially motivated riots in 1917. (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)
The Tulsa riots led to a decline in homeownership, lower average occupational status and less educational attainment among Black residents of the city and throughout the state through 1940 at least, according to a research paper published last year by Nathan Nunn, a Harvard economics professor, and two other researchers. Among their findings: More Black women entered the labor force, possibly because they had to work to support themselves and their families after the massacre.
“The massacre put Black Americans living in Tulsa, or exposed to information about the massacres, on a different trajectory,” Nunn told CNN.
Additional findings show that the massacre’s effects on homeownership have lingered even longer. The share of Black Tulsans who live in homes that either they or their families own was 25 percentage points lower in 2000 than it would have been had the massacre not occurred, Nunn said.
The gap between Black and White homeownership remains wide today. About 74% of White people owned homes in the first quarter of 2021 versus 45% of Black people, according to census data. Elsewhere, riots led to a greater divide between the races that further hindered Black Americans from building wealth.
1919 was a particularly violent year, later known as Red Summer, with nearly a hundred lynchings and dozens of racially charged incidents. In Chicago, riots broke out in July 1919 after a Black teen on a raft drifted into a swimming area unofficially restricted to Whites. After he was killed, violence raged for days, which led to more formal separation between Blacks and Whites.
An African American man moves his belongings to a safety zone under police protection during the Chicago race riots of 1919. (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)
Segregation in the Windy City, which is no longer sanctioned but remains pervasive, has led to a 30-year difference in life expectancy between a mostly Black neighborhood and a mostly White one less than 10 miles away, according to Helene Gayle, CEO of The Chicago Community Trust. It fostered discriminatory real estate practices, such as redlining and contract home buying, that made it more difficult for Black residents to purchase property and build wealth. And it has led to lower wages for Black workers.
“As a result of these riots, what once was an imaginary line became codified in law, as it was determined that the only real way to prevent this from happening again was to segregate the races,” Gayle wrote in a 2019 essay marking the centennial of the riots. “Though this separation is no longer mandated by our government, it continues to shape Chicago 100 years later. The ‘solution’ of segregation was inspired by racism and fueled a system of inequity that continues today.”
Forsyth County, Georgia, is an affluent, mostly White community near Atlanta that was once home to a thriving Black community until a brutal attack in 1912. CNN’s Ryan Young went to learn more.
The acts of racial violence we’ve described here represent only a few of the atrocities historians continue to learn about today.
Anniversaries, like that of Tulsa, become an opportunity for entire towns to reinvestigate their pasts, and we found that individuals did a lot of this work – either professional historians or local history enthusiasts.
Local media have been key in publicizing historians’ work that has sparked conversations about these events. We’ve also seen newspapers that were able to rely on their own archives for these reinvestigations, like the Chicago Tribune.
Researchers who’ve long studied these events are increasingly combining them into digital projects, where patterns are more visible to a broader audience. The Racial Violence Archive was created by professor Geoff Ward at Washington University in St. Louis. He told CNN he created the archive because he saw that so many of these stories had been suppressed and “the digital archive offers another way into this research and hopefully the work of reckoning.”
James Loewen, who wrote the bestseller “Lies My Teacher Told Me” before his book “Sundown Towns,” has long had a database where he and his small, mostly volunteer team collect submissions on towns that tried to push out people of color. He told CNN he still hears of new incidents and puts them on his site.
Organizations like Blackpast.org, the Smithsonian Institution and PBS also have put free resources online about this history.
Like Forsyth, communities across the country are working with the Equal Justice Initiative and others to erect markers commemorating their violent histories, an interesting phenomenon as more and more monuments to the Confederacy come down.
Finally, whenever we researched an incident for this project, we looked to see if there had been any official repayment of funds or return of property. In many cases, governments have offered official apologies or recognized the victims of racial violence, but survivors and descendants have rarely received any monetary compensation for what they suffered.
That includes the 1921 Tulsa massacre, for which no one has ever been held accountable, and no compensation has been provided to those who survived despite ongoing efforts.