The 1921 Tulsa Race Riot: A Holocaust America Wanted to Forget

By Burger, Frederick | The New Crisis, November/December 1999 | Go to article overview

The 1921 Tulsa Race Riot: A Holocaust America Wanted to Forget


Burger, Frederick, The New Crisis


The official report into the infamous Tulsa, Okla., race riot of 1921 was initially to be issued Jan. 5, but it has been delayed and likely will not be completed until at least the spring.

That's the word from Scott Ellsworth, a former Smithsonian historian, who is writing the report with noted historian John Hope Franklin, who spent some of his formative years in Tulsa, moving there at age 10 in 1925, just four years after the riot occurred.

"This has turned into an incredibly tense investigation, much larger than people realized," Ellsworth says, referring to the work of the bi-racial, 13-member 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Commission. "This has been a tremendous effort, We've probably talked to over 500 Tulsans in the last two years. There's no question the report will be delayed. It will probably carry over into the spring."

Ellsworth, a Tulsa native now living in Portland, Oregon, is a consultant to the commission, which was created bN the Oklahoma legislature in 1997. The initial Jan. 5 deadline was set in hopes that the legislature would quickly address the issue of reparations for survivors.

The Tulsa race riot took place on May 31 june 1, 1921, and has been called the bloodiest race riot in the country's history. Opinions vary as to how many were killed. Some estimate that as many as 3,000 people, mostly blacks, died in the ramp-age. Ellsworth places the figure of dead at 200/300. But there is no doubt that about 35 blocks of the economically thriving black community of north Tulsa known as Greenwood (after the area's primary business street) were burned and leveled in a vicious, violent disturbance that pitted whites against blacks. Because of the area's bustling business community, Booker T Washington called the area "the Negroes' Wall Street."

The riot erupted after rumors spread that a black man had attacked a white woman. …

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