Teaching social justice in the elementary classroom and beyond has long been ignored in the United States, and sadly, Black history in the public education system has largely been relegated to the month of February. With that said, many Americans are still unaware of the terror that unfolded in Tulsa, Oklahoma over the course of two days in 1921. This year marks 100 years since the Tulsa Riots (May 31st – June 1, 1921). In observance of this solemn anniversary, we pause to recognize one of the worst incidents of racial violence in American history.
The Timeline Of Events
Following World War I, Greenwood was a flourishing community of affluent African-American families and entrepreneurs, with a population of 10,000 people. Surrounding a residential area of fine homes was a thriving business district known as Black Wall Street — a bustling epicenter of high-end shops, restaurants and social venues in a time of Jim Crow discrimination and a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the state of Oklahoma.
On May 30, 1921, rumors spread that a young Black man named Dick Rowland had assaulted a white woman in a downtown Tulsa elevator. After his arrest, and an inflammatory editorial by the local newspaper stating that a lynching was being planned for that evening, a mob of 1,500 white men descended on the courthouse where 19-year-old Rowland was being held. In response, 75 Black men arrived in an attempt to protect Rowland. A confrontation erupted and shots were fired, resulting in the death of a white protestor. The Black men retreated from the courthouse considering they were greatly outnumbered.
In the early hours of June 1, 1921, the white mob then descended on Greenwood, setting fire to black-owned businesses and homes across 35 blocks in the district and shooting people on site. When the massacre ended, experts believe at least 300 people were killed, 800 were injured, and an estimated 10,000 Black residents were left homeless.
After a brief inquiry, the crimes that occurred during the Tulsa Riots went unpunished and mostly ignored, likely due to the fact that deputies and public officials were complicit and failed to stem the eruption of violence. In recent years, an official Race Riot Commission has been organized, and an investigation into accounts of mass graves with victims is ongoing. While no one knows for sure the exact details of this horrific event in American history, we do know that the charges against Dick Rowland were highly questionable and later dismissed.
Observing History Through Today’s Lens
A new PBS documentary, Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten, chronicles this often overlooked tragedy, including present-day efforts to commemorate the massacre and to examine the truth behind this and other horrific events of social injustice in the history of our nation. Through interviews with the descendants of the impacted Greenwood residents and business owners, as well as community activists today, we can gain a better understanding of the Tulsa Riots and the resilience of those who lived to tell the story while striving to find a way to move forward.
As we fight for a better tomorrow, it is vital to understand and recognize the past. While we applaud schools celebrating the historical achievements of Black Americans, teaching social justice in the elementary classroom and throughout all stages of education will help the next generation to avoid the mistakes of the past and to build a better future for all.
Brandywine Health Foundation is a philanthropic organization striving to advance a more equitable, resilient and healthy community for all residents of the Greater Coatesville area. We pursue our mission through funding and running programs and services to improve the health and development of children, teens, and families in the Coatesville Area School District. We also provide funding to non-profit organizations and scholarships to students who need our help most. 100% of contributions go directly to those in need.