The Tulsa Massacre of 1921: Writing about Hidden Histories by PortiaLily Taylor

“Hidden histories are events of the past that are not widely known or taught. Most of the time, these histories which are not well known have a negative connotation. They are not favorably viewed for one reason or another and so they have been suppressed. Usually, hidden histories revolve around controversial events such as the oppression of Native Americans or slavery.” – Michelle Thomas

Hidden histories abound in our society. School books and television programs do not chronicle many events. For example, early American inventions are often studied in school. But, the inventions of enslaved people were often attributed to their slave owners so the inventors and their related plights are often ignored in history books. Another example is the hidden history of women who were early leaders in the Christian church. Yet, the role and influence of women such as Phoebe, Lydia, and Priscilla are usually not the focus of Biblical studies, especially when those studies are presented by individuals who want females to take a backseat to male church leadership. Most Americans do not realize Native Americans were not given the full rights of citizenship until the federal Snyder Act was passed in 1924. However, the right to vote was left up to the states. Because of that, it was over forty years before the last of the states complied with this Act and granted suffrage to Native Americans.

The reasons for “hiding” some events and some people from recorded history are many and diverse. Perhaps, their stories were so obscure and involved such a small number of people that they were unintentionally forgotten. Or, perhaps, the old saying “History goes to the victors” was in practice, and the stories of the vanquished were deemed irrelevant or even traitorous. But, for much of “hidden history,” the truth was an intentional victim of the promulgation of the false narrative.

I never thought much about the history of my home state of Oklahoma was hidden. After all, I was born there, went to school there, began my career there. I made As in Oklahoma History and Oklahoma State Government classes. In high school, I was Speaker of the House at Oklahoma’s Girls State where I learned more about the state. Later when I attended law school, I took courses dealing with the state’s legal system. Even at home, Oklahoma history and current events were discussed as my parents were avid newspaper readers and watchers of television news. So, from what I learned in school and at home, I thought I knew a lot about my state and its history. But, I certainly didn’t know about everything. I didn’t know about Oklahoma’s hidden history. In particular, I didn’t know about the Tulsa Massacre of 1921.

Although the tragedy took place in 1921, it wasn’t widely reported until the 1990s. And, another tragedy led to that reporting. In 1995, the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was bombed. At the time, most accounts said the bombing was the cause of the greatest loss of life in the United States from a terrorist act since the Civil War. Tragically, that sad milestone was later given to the death counts from the September 11, 2001 attacks.

When I heard of the federal building bombing – and visited the site a few days after – I never questioned details of the reported news stories. The horror of that day in Oklahoma City can not be diminished. However, I came to learn one matter in those news reports wasn’t true. The number of people sadly lost in Oklahoma City that April day in 1995 was not the largest loss of life in the United States by a terrorist attack until that time. It wasn’t even the largest loss from a terrorist attack in Oklahoma. Another incident over seventy years earlier actually held that grim distinction – the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. But, much of the history of what happened in Tulsa was “hidden” for many years.

Accounts at the time of the incident varied widely regarding what took place in Tulsa on May 31 and April 1, 1921. It appears that Dick Rowland, a Black, male teenager, entered an office building because it had the only public restroom open to Blacks in the area where he worked shining shoes. When walking into the building’s elevator, the young man tripped and fell onto the elevator operator, a white, female teenager named Sarah Page. As a result, the young man was arrested for attempted sexual assault.

Though the charges were eventually dropped and Page later wrote a letter exonerating Rowland, the accusation was enough to infuriate many white Tulsans. Their fury was stoked by a Tulsa newspaper article headlined “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator.”  Fearful that Rowland might be lynched, a group of Black men, many of whom were WWI veterans, came to the courthouse to protect the young man from a mob of white people who had gone there to lynch Rowland. A shot was fired and a melee began that ended in the deaths of twelve people, ten of whom were white. After that, the rest of the white mob moved to Greenwood, the part of Tulsa known as Black Wall Street for all the successful businesses and fine houses in the neighborhood.

As word of Rowland’s arrest and the courthouse incident spread, others joined in the attack on Greenwood. The explosion of violence continued through the next day. There were reports of low flying airplanes dropping incendiary devices on the neighborhood. But, most of the destruction was caused by the white mob’s shooting and burning throughout Greenwood. Finally, the destruction ended when the Oklahoma National Guard imposed martial law. About 6000 Black people were rounded up and interned at the fairgrounds. No arrests were made as to any members of the white mob although charges were brought against several Black Greenwood residents for inciting a riot. In fact, when reports in later years began to surface, the matter was referred to as the Tulsa Race Riot with inference that the situation was caused by Black Greenwood

In the aftermath, more than 1400 homes, businesses, churches, and other civic buildings were destroyed in the 35 block Greenwood area. About 10,000 Black people were homeless. 800 people were admitted to hospitals. It should be noted that the hospital in Greenwood that would admit Black people was destroyed, so the Red Cross created a makeshift hospital in Greenwood’s high school. But, more tragically the death count is estimated to be as high as 300 people. The official count was said to be 36 although unmarked, mass graves, as well as witness accounts, made that number questionable.

Many Greenwood residents who survived the massacre left Tulsa, while Black and white residents who stayed in the city largely kept silent about the terror, violence, and resulting losses for decades. Despite the nature of the events of 1921, the Tulsa Massacre was largely omitted from local, state, and U.S. history books until the late 1990s when the state legislature formed the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Schools in Oklahoma began to require teaching about the massacre in 2002.

Barack Obama once said, “The only people who don’t want to disclose the truth are the people with something to hide.” And, there were plenty of people who didn’t want to disclose the truth about what happened in Tulsa because they, indeed, had something to hide. The History Channel’s website includes an article, “How the Tulsa Race Massacre Was Covered Up” by Alexis Clark found at  https://www.history.com/news/tulsa-race-massacre-cover-up. It states, “With Tulsa trying to maintain its place as the oil capital of the world, the riot reflected terribly on the city and subsequently wasn’t included in history books or newspapers for decades, nor openly discussed in both the Black and white communities. Some newspaper accounts from the period were even removed before editions were recorded onto microfilms, according to the Tulsa World. White residents didn’t want to admit that relatives or friends had participated in the massacre and Black residents didn’t want to pass on their pain to their children, says Michelle Place, executive director of the Tulsa Historical Society & Museum.”

Thus, it wasn’t surprising that I never learned about this “hidden history” of my state while I was growing up. However, I did not want the tragedy to be “hidden” from eleven year old Cathryn, the main character of my novel Sarah Finn. Her story takes place in 1963 Oklahoma, a turbulent time for the civil rights movement. Those events are important to Cathryn’s story. But, to forget about the turbulence that occurred in her state in 1921 seemed wrong. So, I included a secondary plotline in which Cathryn discovers her Black grandparents were survivors of the massacre in which her white grandfather was part of the mob. The following excerpt from my book Sarah Finn is a scene from the discussion Cathryn has with the older woman Sarah Finn about the event.

“Sarah Finn turned off her sewing machine and pulled her chair closer to me. ‘There was a lot of pent up hatred of Black people in the hearts of some white folks. Maybe they were angry because Tulsa’s Black population was doing so well and they weren’t. Maybe they had been taught to hate and now they had an excuse to show the teachers of that hatred how well they had learned. Or, maybe Satan had just gotten a hold on them and they enjoyed the feeling. Whatever the reason, those people went berserk.’

Berserk. Now that word was something I only heard in Vincent Price double feature horror movies William and I saw at the Skytrain Theater in Wileyville. I thought of how William would scream a second before something bad happened because just knowing something bad was going to happen was scary enough. I felt like my brother in the Skytrain. Before I heard anything else, I wanted to scream. I just knew something really bad had happened 42 years ago in Tulsa.” (from Sarah Finn by PortiaLily Taylor)

When writing historical fiction, I believe it is important for authors to go behind the reported events during the time period of their stories and look for the “hidden history” of that era. That history might include “smaller stories” such as the treatment of certain groups to which your characters may belong or be involved with. But, there might be events that are “large” in nature and, like the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, still “hidden” from most published accounts. It will take research into the archives of newspapers, oral histories, and other resources, but your time and effort will be well worth it.

FINAL NOTE

There are now many accounts of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, especially those marking its 100th anniversary in 2021. In addition to the article from history.com I linked above, the History Channel had a compelling documentary on the subject entitled, Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre. A fascinating and innovative account of Greenwood as a thriving neighborhood as well as information about the massacre may be found in the article “What the Tulsa Race Massacre Destroyed” by Yuliya Parshina-Kottas, Anjali Singhvi, Audra D.S. Burch, Troy Griggs, Mika Grondahl, Lingdong Huang, Tim Wallace, Jeremy White, and Josh Williams through the New York Times website at https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/05/24/us/tulsa-race-massacre.html. I also appreciated the information from the Encyclopedia Britannica website at https://www.britannica.com/event/Tulsa-race-massacre-of-1921 and the Tulsa Historical Society website at https://www.tulsahistory.org/exhibit/1921-tulsa-race-massacre. The quote from Michelle Thomas is from her paper “History Impacts Intercultural Communication” found at https://www.coursehero.com/file/p5p3r9t/What-are-hidden-histories-and-how-might-hidden-histories-affect-intercultural/. The image, “Tulsa Greenwood District after Massacre” by the American Red Cross was found at the Library of Congress website at https://blogs.loc.gov/loc/2021/05/how-to-research-the-1921-tulsa-race-massacre/.

3 thoughts on “The Tulsa Massacre of 1921: Writing about Hidden Histories by PortiaLily Taylor”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s