Tulsa, Oklahoma



Tulsa, Oklahoma


The Tulsa race massacre marked a definitive point in black Americans’ perception of equality of treatment under the law. Rising violence from the late 1870s onward led to a growing sense of unease among black Americans about equality of treatment under the law. After Tulsa, African American inventors and other economic agents concluded that hate-related violence would likely not be adjudicated and that the rule of law, typically through federal government intervention, would likely not prevail.

"The creation of the powerful black community known as Black Wall Street was intentional. “In 1906, O.W. Gurley, a wealthy African-American from Arkansas, moved to Tulsa and purchased over 40 acres of land that he made sure was only sold to other African-Americans,” writes Christina Montford in the Atlanta Black Star. Gurley provided an opportunity for those migrating “from the harsh oppression of Mississippi.” The average income of black families in the area exceeded “what minimum wage is today.” At that time, the “state of Oklahoma had only two airports,” yet “six black families owned their own planes.”" "Despite racial discrimination and Jim Crow segregation, the Greenwood district offered proof that black entrepreneurs were capable of creating vast wealth. ‘This “modern, majestic, sophisticated, and unapologetically black” community boasted of “banks, hotels, cafés, clothiers, movie theaters, and contemporary homes.” Not to mention luxuries, such as “indoor plumbing and a remarkable school system that superiorly educated black children.” ’ In 1921, Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Greenwood District, known as Black Wall Street, was one of the most prosperous African-American communities in the United States.

On May 31 of that year, the Tulsa Tribune falsely reported that Dick Rowland, a Black teenager who was falsely accused of attacking a young white woman operating an elevator in a downtown Tulsa store.The massacre began as whites in the area refused to wait for the investigative process to play out, and attempted to lynch Rowland sparking two days of unprecedented racial violence. When a group of Black World War I veterans raced to the Tulsa courthouse to protect Rowland, a battle erupted between the veterans and the white mob. A shot was fired, a white man was hit, and chaos erupted. Hours later, a white mob descended on the nearby Black community of Greenwood.

Over the next 18 hours the white mob, including Tulsa police officers and members of the National Guard, shot Black people in cold blood, looting and burning houses. Witnesses said airplanes dropped turpentine onto houses and businesses. “According to Messer, the police force also contributed to the riot. Due to their ineffective leadership, they allowed mobs to gather at the courthouse for hours before seeking additional assistance. Furthermore, they actively participated in the riot by deputizing whites without discretion, arming them with guns to multiply the police force overnight. The police disregarded due process, arresting blacks and interning them in detention camps; meanwhile, no whites were arrested during the riot.”

“Evidently, private industry and the state stood to benefit economically from the destruction. Two days after the riot, the mayor wasted no time in establishing the Reconstruction Committee to redesign the Greenwood District for industrial purposes. Blacks were offered below market value for their property. White men who offered “almost any price for their property” perceived survivors as desperate and destitute." "In essence, African-Americans posed a “geographical problem because their community was situated in an ideal location for business expansion.” The government and private industry worked in concert to bring down land prices and maintain white dominance in the Tulsa area. Poor whites’ resentment of successful, landowning blacks allowed elite whites to use them as pawns to obtain more land, wealth, and prosperity. Judging by the legal impunity granted to whites by law enforcement, the state endorsed and, in fact, supported the Tulsa riot for self-serving, capitalistic gains." Defense of white female virtue was the expressed motivation for the collective racial violence. A mass grave was recently uncovered during a four-day search for victims of the massacre.

Dr. Lisa D Cook points to “conflict and hate-related violence, and the resulting uncertainty in property-rights enforcement,” as a significant depressor of economic activity in general and black economic activity in particular. She identifies Tulsa as a turning point, solidifying the growing unease by the black economic community about the absence of the rule of law to protect black Americans and their property from white mobs. In her systematic study of black inventive activity notes that:

“patenting rates by African Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries systematically declined in areas affected by race riots and lynchings. … extrajudicial killings and loss of personal security depressed patent activity among blacks by more than 15% annually between 1882 and 1940. The increase in scope and intensity of hate-related violence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries depressed patent activity among African Americans by 1% per year, or the equivalent of a year’s worth of African American patent activity. … This violence would have implied a decline of roughly 40% in patenting and greater volatility in output among most U.S. inventors during that period. The most valuable patents—assigned, electrical, and mechanical—were sensitive to acts of hate-related violence and to laws promoting racial segregation.

Historians Messer, Schriver and Adams point out in a 2018 article that “Prior to the riot, the Greenwood community was among the wealthiest African-American neighborhoods in the state. Residents of Greenwood had successfully developed their own business infrastructure, and the neighborhood was rapidly expanding and flourishing economically. The attack by white citizens on a flourishing black neighborhood not only resulted in mass casualties, but it destroyed nearly all of the African-American-owned businesses and churches, as well as many residential properties. The economic prosperity of Greenwood was obliterated overnight. The Greenwood community was perceived as a threat to white hegemony. The Tulsa riot of 1921 was one of many examples of racial violence during the early part of the 20th century that had long-lasting economic and social legacies for African Americans."

Thirty-five city blocks went up in flames, 300 people died, and 800 were injured. Black Americans filed $5 million dollars worth of claims in the aftermath of the massacre. Insurance companies cited riot clauses to deny these claims - only 1 claim was honored. This represented $76,043,785.31 100 years later in May 2021 that was wiped out by the massacre over the 2 day period in 1921.

An IU McKinney Law alum, J.B. Stratford, had built up an empire in Tulsa, including the Stradford Hotel. Because of segregation laws, almost all African-Americans who visited Tulsa stayed at his hotel, and it was considered one of the best hotels in the nation for African-Americans. During the riot, the hotel was bombed from an airplane, likely owned by the Governor of Oklahoma. After Stradford was arrested and released, he never returned to Tulsa, losing all of his real estate, personal property, and business.

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