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At the turn of the 20th century, African Americans founded and developed the Greenwood district in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Built on what had formerly been Indian Territory, the community grew and flourished as a Black economic and cultural mecca—until May 31, 1921.
That's when a white mob began a rampage through some 35 square blocks, decimating the community known proudly as "Black Wall Street." Armed rioters, many deputized by local police, looted and burned down businesses, homes, schools, churches, a hospital, hotel, public library, newspaper offices and more. While the official death toll of the Tulsa race massacre was 36, historians estimate it may have been as high as 300. As many as 10,000 people were left homeless.
The incident stands as one most horrific acts of racial violence, and domestic terrorism, ever committed on American soil.
WATCH: The full episode of Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre online now.
In May 2021, 100 years after the massacre, 107-year-old Viola Fletcher testified before Congress: “On May 31, of ‘21, I went to bed in my family’s home in Greenwood," she recounted. “The neighborhood I fell asleep in that night was rich, not just in terms of wealth, but in culture…and heritage. My family had a beautiful home. We had great neighbors. I had friends to play with. I felt safe. I had everything a child could need. I had a bright future.”
Then, she said, came the murderous rampage, still vivid in her mind 100 years later: “I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams."
Below, a selection of photos that show Greenwood before, during and after the tragedy:
North Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa (above), prior to the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, was a main thoroughfare of the Greenwood commercial district. This photograph was taken looking north down the avenue from East Archer Street. Between segregation laws that prevented Black residents from shopping in white neighborhoods, and the desire to keep money circulating in their own community, Greenwood residents collectively funneled their cash into local Black businesses. Greenwood became a robust and self-sustaining community, which boasted barber shops and salons, clothing stores, jewelers, restaurants, taverns and pool halls, movie houses and grocers, as well as offices for doctors, dentists and lawyers.
READ MORE: 9 Entrepreneurs Who Helped Build 'Black Wall Street'
Greenwood: Tulsa's Black Wall Street
At the time of the massacre, Greenwood was considered by many to be the wealthiest Black enclave in the nation. As the seven photos above show, it wasn't uncommon to see its residents stylishly dressed. Some boasted new luxury motorcars.
READ MORE: Tulsa's 'Black Wall Street' Flourished as a Self-Contained Hub in the Early 1900s
The incident began on the morning of May 30, 1921, after a young Black man named Dick Rowland, who worked shining shoes, rode the elevator of Tulsa's Drexel building to use one of the few available segregated public restrooms downtown. After the female elevator operator screamed, Rowland fled the elevator and rumors quickly spread of an alleged sexual assault. The next day, he was arrested, leading to an armed confrontation outside the courthouse between a growing white crowd and Black men hoping to defend Rowland from being lynched. As things became heated and shots were fired, the vastly outnumbered African Americans retreated to the Greenwood district. The white group followed, and as the night unfolded, violence exploded.
Throughout that night and into June 1, much of Greenwood became enveloped in billowing dark smoke, as members of the mob went from house to house and store to store, looting and then torching buildings. Fleeing residents were sometimes shot down in the streets. Many survivors report low-flying planes, some raining down bullets or inflammables.
READ MORE: What Role Did Airplanes Play in the Tulsa Race Massacre?
Among the many buildings looted and torched by the white mob was the Mount Zion Baptist Church, above, an impressive brick structure that had opened its doors less than two months earlier. It was one of numerous houses of worship destroyed in the massacre.
The east corner of Greenwood Avenue and East Archer Street, the epicenter of "Black Wall Street," is shown above, in the early aftermath of the attack. Among the thoroughfare's landmarks left in smoldering ruins were the Stradford Hotel and the Dreamland Theater.
By noon of June 1, Oklahoma Governor Robertson declared martial law and sent in the Oklahoma National Guard. Officials arrested and detained thousands of Black Tulsans, shepherding them to the local convention center and fairgrounds. Above, the rear view of a truck transporting Black people to detainment.
National Guard troops carrying rifles with bayonets escort unarmed Black men to detainment, above.
Above, a truck is shown carrying soldiers and Black men during the Tulsa race massacre. Officials rounded up Greenwood's Black residents, deeming them to be the primary threat to law and order—instead of any members of the white mob who had murdered and pillaged. Indeed, for decades after, the incident was erroneously characterized as a "race riot," implying that it had been instigated by the Black community. No one was ever held to account for the destruction or loss of life.
LISTEN: ‘Blindspot: Tulsa Burning’ from The HISTORY® Channel and WNYC Studios
After being rounded up under martial law, traumatized Greenwood residents were kept under armed guard—some for hours, some for days. To be released, Black Tulsans had to be vouched for by an employer or white citizen.
At Tulsa's American Red Cross hospital, victims of the massacre are shown still recovering from injuries months later. More than 800 people were treated for injuries.
According to the 2001 Tulsa Race Riot Commission report, the most comprehensive review of the massacre, in the year after the attacks, Tulsa residents filed riot-related claims against the city valued at over $1.8 million dollars. But the city commission, like insurance companies, denied most of the claims—one exception being when a white business owner received compensation for guns taken from his shop. Above, Black Tulsans salvaged what they could from their burned homes and businesses and began to rebuild on their own.
November 1921: With millions in property damage and no help from the city, the rebuilding of Greenwood nonetheless began almost immediately.
Many Black Tulsa residents fled the city, and never returned. But many stayed and started from scratch—some housed in Red Cross tents until they could rebuild their homes and, later, community landmarks like the Dreamland Theater. In 2001, the Tulsa Race Riot Commission report recommended that survivors be paid reparations, calling it "a moral obligation." The pursuit of restitution continues.
Returning To Black Wall Street: Tulsa Race Massacre Descendant Continues Family Legacy Through Coffee Shop
His family’s entrepreneurial spirit brought him back.
Dwight, 57, is a third-generation business owner in the historic Greenwood District of Tulsa, Okla. Greenwood was once home to a thriving Black business district known today as Black Wall Street. In 1921, white mobs attacked its residents, homes and businesses during the Tulsa Race Massacre.
Dwight’s grandfather, Joseph Eaton, worked in a factory and cut hair in Greenwood in the years leading up to the massacre.
“[My grandfather] spoke about it, if I can recollect, probably two, no more than three times,” Dwight said. “He said it was very traumatic, you know. He lost quite a few friends to the massacre during that time. And it was a very scary, trying moment.”
Dwight said he felt the community’s sense of shame was rooted in the feeling that Greenwood residents could’ve done more to save themselves, though the reality of the highly orchestrated attack left little room for a matched response.
“They felt that talking about it could stir up more of a negative thing in the community, that it could happen again.”
Despite living through one of the country’s deadliest episodes of racial violence, Joseph Eaton’s dreams of being a business owner never faltered — once Greenwood was rebuilt in the 1930s, he opened his own barbershop. His son - Dwight’s father - later inherited the business, which served as an organizing hub for the Greenwood community.
Living in the shadow of the massacre left its toll on Tulsa’s Black citizens. Tulsa remained a deeply divided city. Growing up in North Tulsa during the 1960s and ’70s, Dwight remembers several incidents of racial violence and prejudice that have stuck with him throughout the years. One particular incident happened when he was just 8 years old.
In the summer of 1971, Dwight, his cousin and his brother went down to the local skating rink and bowling alley, which had closed about a year before. The children had heard a rumor the rink was giving away its roller skates, so they walked around the building and tried the doors, but they were locked.
“Lo and behold, the police just pulled up,” Dwight said. “You know, kids — we were scared. So we ran. And of course, me being 8 years old, [I] couldn’t run too fast.”
Police caught up to the boys, arrested them and took them to jail. The children were fingerprinted, their mugshots were taken, and their parents were called to come pick them up. Dwight thought the police were using a “scare technique.” But it wasn’t a technique — the police had arrested 8-year-old Dwight for grand larceny. He said the arrest still remains on his record.
“Nothing was stolen whatsoever,” Dwight said. “We just looked around, pulled a little [on the doors]. Might [have] been trespassing, but there definitely wasn’t grand larceny.”
Dwight said he also faced abuse at school — he was jumped by white students, kicked by a teacher and called the N-word. Once Dwight graduated from high school in 1981, he said it was time to leave the city behind.
All these traumatic moments led him to ask: Is there a future here?
“I mean, I really didn’t know because I hadn’t been anywhere else,” Dwight said. “However, those things, they rattle you, gnaw on you, that you want to escape from things such as this. … Once I graduated, I wanted to see somewhere else.”
Dwight said goodbye to Tulsa and never looked back — until last year, when his longtime business partner, Guy Troupe, moved there. The former NFL player’s family also has roots in Greenwood.
Dwight returned to the city his ancestors built their dreams in and opened a coffee shop. His grandfather’s legacy, he said, lives on.
“Owning the Black Wall Street Liquid Lounge, well that’s just kind of a manifestation of family lineage,” he said. “We just decided that, hey, this is something that we could put back into the place, in the space, in order to renew the vision of the original pioneers of Black Wall Street.”
Though the coffee shop sits on the bottom level of an apartment complex, Dwight said he rarely sees any residents — who are by and large white — in the Liquid Lounge. Every morning, he watches potential patrons walk right past his business.
Dwight advocates for the Black community to support itself as well as other cultural businesses, but said the Liquid Lounge — because it specifically honors Black culture — isn’t given the same consideration.
“Black Wall Street is an ethnic brand,” Dwight said. “Other cultures have no problem with being accepted . Chinese food, Mexican food, Italian food, you got Irish bars, so on and so forth. If we identify with our culture, it’s a negative.”
Championing the Greenwood community is a way of carrying his grandfather’s torch. Dwight said he’s unapologetic that the culture of the coffee shop honors Blackness and the resurgence of Black Wall Street. Ultimately, he said, being a Black business owner, especially in Tulsa, is about knowing how to push through challenges.
“I have a sports background, played football. So adversity is a core of that particular sport,” Dwight said. “So you get knocked down to get back up. You get knocked down, you get back up. So I’ve learned through that transition that I always have to be prepared. I always have to think three or four steps ahead. Because initially, I know I’ll get knocked back two, or maybe three, in order to be one step ahead.”
This story was reported and produced by Beth Wallis as part of NPR’s Next Generation Radio, hosted by the Oklahoma State University School of Media and Strategic Communications and KOSU.
Violence and devastation
In spring 1921 racial tensions were running high in the highly segregated city. On May 30, a 19-year-old Black man named Dick Rowland entered an elevator in the Drexel Building, located on South Main Street in downtown Tulsa. The young white elevator operator, Sarah Page, screamed for reasons unknown (the most common explanation is that he stepped on her foot or tripped). Rowland fled the scene.
The next day, the Tulsa Tribune published an article titled “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in an Elevator” and an editorial, “To Lynch Negro Tonight.” Rowland was arrested and taken to the courthouse to be tried. That evening, an incensed mob of white people assembled where Rowland was being held.
'The silence is layered'
Not only did Tulsa city officials cover up the bloodbath, but they also deliberately shifted the narrative of the massacre by calling it a "riot" and blaming the Black community for what went down, according to Alicia Odewale, an archaeologist at University of Tulsa.
The massacre also wasn't discussed publicly in the African American community either for a long time. First out of fear — if it happened once, it can happen again.
"You are seeing the perpetrators walking freely on the streets," Odewale said. "You are in the Jim Crow South, and there are racial terrors happening across the country at this time. They are protecting themselves for a reason."
Moreover, this became such a traumatic event for survivors, and much like Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans, many of them didn't want to burden their children and grandchildren with these horrible memories.
Ellsworth said he knows of descendants of massacre survivors who didn't find out about it until they were in their 40s and 50s.
"The silence is layered just as the trauma is layered," Odewale said. "The historical trauma is real and that trauma lingers especially because there's no justice, no accountability and no reparation or monetary compensation."
Pictures tell the story
In telling Mount Zion's story, Cole pointed to numerous pictures that adorn the halls of the present-day church building at 419 N Elgin Ave.
The pictures helped tell the story of a congregation that was fairly bursting with excitement as church members walked into their new building in the spring of 1921. Cole said the estimated cost of the building project was $92,000 &mdash a fortune then.
"When you start talking about the dollar value of $92,000 on a building, we're talking about a tremendous sum in 1921," he said.
A picture of the majestic Mount Zion building at the time of its completion is juxtaposed with a series of photos that depict the structure burning, with plumes of black smoke shooting up into the sky during the massacre. Another photo shows several people looking at the burnt shell of the building. Cole said all that remained after the fire was the building's basement.
Cole said at one point, a lie was spread that ammunitions were being stored in the church building. He said this concerned Whitacker, but the falsehood persisted.
"The devastation of only being able to worship in that facility for a couple of months, only to see that facility go up in smoke . when you take a look at the picture of the church as it was ablaze, what you will notice is that it seems as if the people in the neighborhood that are watching it are just in shock. They cannot believe in actuality what is taking place," Cole said.
Like the Black Wall Street residents whose homes were destroyed during the massacre, Mount Zion was faced with the devastating news that the insurance company that insured the church property would not pay any damage claims. Cole said the church owed about $50,000 on the building at that point.
"When they came back and redesigned the church, the momentum was hot. The problem in the insurance policy was that they (insurance company) didn't honor the policy because it was void if a 'riot' took place," Cole said. "That's why we believe they stuck with the word 'riot.'"
Cole said this turn of events "opened the door for fear, opened the door for depression, all at the same time."
But Whitacker wasn't ready to give up yet.
He turned to a sympathetic Jewish businessman who agreed to donate the lumber to rebuild the church. According to Mount Zion's records, the businessman and the preacher did not put their agreement in writing, and the deal fell through when the businessman died before construction on a new church building could begin.
Cole said Whitacker became dejected then, and perhaps it was around that time that a photograph was taken of the minister standing in a food line.
Cole pointed to the picture during a recent tour of Mount Zion. He said one look at the sadness in Whitacker's eyes and the dejected slump of the preacher's shoulders, and it wasn't hard to imagine how disheartened he was.
"You can see he was a well-dressed man, but his countenance had fallen in such a way. Of course, he stayed in such a traumatic mindset until he resigned because he ran into so many stumbling blocks, things that made him give up," Cole said.
He said Whitacker had become dispirited like so many of the Black Tulsans who survived the massacre.
The preacher had valiantly tried to rally his surviving church members in the immediate aftermath of the massacre. However, Cole said the massacre survivors had been left destitute, grief-stricken and fearful, so it wasn't surprising that Whitacker and many of his church members became demoralized.
The church building lay dormant in ruins until 1937.
That's when the remaining congregation called the Rev. J.H. Dotson as pastor.
Cole said Dotson wasn't from Tulsa and hadn't experienced the devastation wrought by the razing of Black Wall Street.
Because of this, he had a mindset that was different from his new congregation, Cole said. A picture on the current church's wall shows a smiling Dotson holding one of the first bricks that would be used in rebuilding Mount Zion Baptist.
"I believe at that period of time, the Lord had to send someone from the outside who was not devastated by the massacre to give hope to the people who had been traumatized," Cole said.
Turns out Dotson was a man on a mission.
Black Wall Street History: The Tulsa Massacre
The founder of Black Wall Street was O.W. Gurley, a wealthy African American landowner. In 1906, Gurley purchased 40 acres of land in Tulsa, naming it Greenwood after the town in Mississippi, from where many of new settlers travelled. Gurley had a vision to “create something for Black people by Black people.”
Gurley started by building a boarding house for Blacks. Next, he set up a system where he would loan money to people who wanted to start a business. Word began to spread that Greenwood offered opportunities for Black people. Former Black slaves and Black sharecroppers fleeing oppression relocated to the region.
Soon, other successful Black entrepreneurs started to move to Greenwood. J.B. Stradford, a lawyer and son of former slaves, built a string of rental properties and the famous 54-room Stradford Hotel on Greenwood Avenue. Gurley also built multiple rental properties, his own hotel and a grocery store which he supplied with produce from his 80-acre farm.
Other prominent Black business owners who moved to Greenwood included John and Loula Williams who built the 750-seat Dreamland Theatre cinema, and Andrew Smitherman who ran the Tulsa Star newspaper. With this level of investment, Greenwood soon had its own hospital, public library and a highly admired school system. There were offices for Black lawyers and doctors, restaurants and luxury shops.
By 1921 Greenwood was a thriving center of Black wealth which was completely self-sustaining. One dollar spent in Greenwood would circulate within the neighborhood’s Black-owned businesses at least 36 times. The district’s success inspired Black author Booker T. Washington to coin it “Black Wall Street.”
But all this was about to change. On the morning of May 30, 1921, a young Black man named Dick Rowland rode in an elevator operated by a young white woman named Sarah Page. The accounts of what happened next vary, but it’s widely believed that Rowland accidentally came into contact with Page, possibly by tripping and falling into her, causing her to scream.
A witness heard the scream and called the police who arrested Rowland. An article in the Tulsa Tribune falsely claimed that Rowland had assaulted Page. Wildly exaggerated accounts of what happened circulated among the city’s white community, with some even suggesting he had raped the woman.
On the morning of June 1, an angry mob of over a thousand white vigilantes ran riot in Tulsa, attacking and shooting any Black people they found. The white mob looted and burned businesses and homes. The Black residents fought bravely to defend their community, but they were vastly outnumbered and could not prevail.
When the violence was over, an estimated 300 people had been killed and 1,200 homes had been burned. Most of Greenwood’s 10,000 Black residents became homeless and were forced to live in tents. Rowland was eventually exonerated, but an all-white grand jury decided not to charge any white residents for the violence and instead blamed everything on the Black residents.
Rebuilding: We Have to Know to Grow
On Memorial Day, May 30, Dick Rowland got on an elevator. A White girl screamed.
On May 31, a race riot began.
On June 1, Black Wall Street was gone.
How quickly it all happened helps us understand how deep-seated the hatred and resentment for Black excellence was.
And now, as we reach the 100-year commemoration of this massacre, and recognize and support the effort and movements to rebuild, we should take this moment to reflect on the following:
• Why is this story, and others like it from the era—the St. Louis Race Riot of 1917, the Red Summer of 1919, and the Rosewood Race Massacre of 1923— not taught in schools and textbooks?
• Why don’t we know about the many successful Black communities that were created in the United States during and after slavery, and why don’t we know what happened to most of them?
• Why have no reparations been paid to the survivors or their direct descendants?
All of these questions have one answer: White supremacy.
Maybe you don’t like that term. You may prefer structural, systemic, or institutional racism. Those words are fine, but what they don’t address is who implemented these structures and who continues to hold the power that keeps them going. Who benefits from the structure of structural racism?
Powerful members of the White community created the “system” of systemic racism that assigns a level of superiority to White people, no matter their economic or educational background.
Survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre gathered at the entrance of the fairgrounds on June 1, 1921. Photo from GHI/Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty Images.
White supremacy is at the root of the Tulsa Race Massacre, and it perpetuates the thinking today that minimizes the significance of the wiping out of Greenwood and other successful Black communities.
It is the reason enslaved Africans created maroon communities.
The raw understanding of White supremacy is why Pap Singleton abandoned Tennessee and moved to Kansas to set up all-Black towns. It is why Edward McCabe sought to establish Oklahoma as an all-Black state.
It’s the reason that some Black nationalists and Pan Africanists sought a return to Africa.
So here we are, 100 years after Greenwood burned, and we are still fighting White supremacy.
Why? Or more importantly, when will we stop?
To know the history of what happened in Tulsa in the days after Memorial Day in 1921 is to know the power of White supremacy—and be motivated to dismantle it.
To understand the history and this power is to understand the United States of America, and ourselves. When we do that, we will be able to have a national call for repair: reparations for slavery, for Jim Crow, for lynchings, for housing discrimination, for education inequality, etc. And for race-based massacres such as Greenwood.
Black Wall Street Historian Has Inspirational Message During Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial
Kode Ransom is a Black Wall Street history tour guide and business owner on historic Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“Whenever I do tours, I use these people,” Ransom said while pointing to a mural inside a Black Wall Street coffee shop.
He shared why being a Black Wall Street historian is important to him.
“Mainly because the fact that the story wasn’t as public as it should be,” Ransom said. “I had the privilege of being able to sit with a few of the survivors and listen to their stories and they gave me information. They never sold it to me.”
Ransom added, “The stories that I learned and were given to me. I figured why not give them to other people.”
In 1921, Black Wall Street was a thriving business district on Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa. It covered more than 35 city blocks with an estimated 10,000 Black people living in the area.
Vince Sims Black Wall Street sign in Tulsa, Oklahoma
“You had your houses,” Ransom said. “You had hotels. You had pool halls, cafes, ballrooms, hospitals, grocery stores.”
In May 1921, a young Black man was accused of assaulting a white woman in a downtown elevator. That sparked the Tulsa Race Massacre. It sent mobs of white men into Black Wall Street destroying the area and killing hundreds of Black people.
Ransom shares that dark history but he also shines a light on the renaissance after the destruction.
“The fact that it rebuilt and made more money during the rebuild than it did before the massacre,” Ransom said. “So, I more so try to teach about the resiliency of the people here because that’s the story I think that African-Americans need to hear.”
History that connects to Tito Jackson of the famous R&B group The Jackson 5.
While passing through and shopping on Greenwood Avenue, he shared with NBC 5 reporter Vince Sims about his great uncle, a Tulsa business owner.
“Samuel M. Jackson, he was a funeral home owner,” Tito Jackson said. “So, he buried thousands of Black people during that period.”
He has a lot of respect for those people here making sure the history, that includes his relatives, isn’t lost.
“Black history especially is important to our people and me being connected as a family member somewhat to this whole situation makes it a little more personal to me,” Jackson said.
Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Princetta R. Newman S.M. Jackson with great nephews the Jackson 5. July 1972
Ransom does his part to try and make it personal and relevant to every visitor he shares with.
“I enjoy it knowing people get to leave with some good stories about this place as well and not just May 31 and June 1,” Ransom said. “So, people knowing the before the during and the after.”
It’s that after he said should serve as inspiration.
“We didn’t go through a massacre so we can do exactly what they did especially with the knowledge we have,” Ransom said. “That sense of community that sense of soul I want people to leave with that.”
A Century After the Tulsa Massacre, Inequities in Medical Infrastructure Drive Health Gap
One hundred years ago, a line of Black doctors’ offices in the Greenwood neighborhood were burned down during the Tulsa Race Massacre. After a brief recovery, the Black community’s medical infrastructure entered a long decline. It has never recovered.
The health divide between North Tulsa, the area within the city where Black residents make up around one-third of the community, and almost anywhere else in Tulsa is large. Disparities are often greatest when compared with South Tulsa, the area where roughly 70% of residents are white and 10% are Black.
North Tulsans die up to 13 years earlier than their neighbors to the south, according to Oklahoma health data collected in 2018. The data measured gaps in life expectancy between ZIP Codes.
The differences are also seen in other U.S. cities, Virginia Commonwealth University research on the topic showed.
North Tulsans face a dearth of primary-care doctors, federal data show, and nearly three-fourths of them live in a “food desert” with limited access to a grocery store, fresh produce and nutritious food options. The district has the city’s highest death rates from heart disease, lung disease, diabetes and cancer, according to the Tulsa County Health Status Report.
In Tulsa County as a whole, Black infants are 2.5 times more likely to die before their first birthday than white infants, state health data show.
“The way it feels, being a North Tulsan, and the way it has felt, since our community was destroyed with the great healthcare system we once had, was that the City of Tulsa has never been a place for us, and it’s a place where we sort of had to make do with the scraps,” said Gregory Robinson, a director at Metcares, a community wellness and education organization. “The data really bears that out.”
After their neighborhood was burned to the ground, the Black community rebuilt Greenwood with a number of thriving Black doctors’ practices and grocery stores serving the community in the 1940s and 1950s, older residents say.
The government later built an Interstate through the neighborhood, demolished buildings in the name of urban renewal and used eminent domain to force sales of Black businesses and properties. The moves tore apart the community and dispersed many of its residents, pushing them further North.
North Tulsa lacks urgent-care centers, and its closest hospital is located downtown, considered by residents to be outside the community, according to Tulsa Health Department’s Chief Operating Officer Reggie Ivey, who grew up in North Tulsa and is the first Black senior leader in the department.
Many Black doctors in recent decades have pursued opportunities at major hospital systems outside the neighborhood rather than going into private practice, contributing to the shortage of primary-care physicians.
“It causes our residents to delay getting care because the resources are not in the community where they live,” Mr. Ivey said. “By the time they do seek care, for many of them it turns into a chronic disease and for some of them it may be too late.”
Mr. Ivey said hospitals that were in other parts of the city never set up satellite branches serving North Tulsa.
In 1920, before the massacre, the Greenwood district was home to roughly 9,000 Black residents, and their medical needs were served by at least 17 doctors and physicians, including the nationally renowned surgeon, Dr. A.C. Jackson.
The neighborhood also had its own hospital and four well-equipped drugstores, according to Mary E. Jones Parrish, a Black typist and journalist who fled the violence with her young daughter but came back to gather eyewitness accounts. At least 10 doctors’ offices were destroyed, she said in her 1922 book, “Events of the Tulsa Disaster.”
Dr. A.C. Jackson, who was killed in the massacre.
Dr. Jackson was shot dead by the mob, after he walked out of his home with his hands held up, Ms. Parrish reported.
Another physician, James M. Key, was “forcibly arrested and taken to a detention camp” on June 1, according to a lawsuit he later filed against the city of Tulsa and its leaders. His property “had been burned to the ground” after the police dropped turpentine bombs from an airplane, according to his suit.
He tallied property losses totaling $13,798, including the destruction of two houses and valuables including a piano—the losses would be around $209,000 in today’s dollars. Dr. Key was “practically out of doors” for a “long time thereafter,” and his health was “seriously impaired,” the lawsuit alleged.
Gospel singer and Grammy Award nominee John P. Kee remembers the stories his father told him about the race massacre and his father’s great uncle, Dr. Key. Though his father’s family largely lived in poverty, the family knew there was a well-to-do family member named “Dr. James” in Tulsa and “he was an educated Black man”—at times resented for changing his last name from “Kee” to the more anglicized “Key,” according to family stories Mr. Kee’s father told him.
After Dr. Key lost everything in Tulsa, he migrated to New Jersey, the family lore goes. Mr. Kee doesn’t know what happened to the doctor’s direct descendants.
Greenwood residents after the massacre had closer access than North Tulsans do today to a hospital, the health department’s Mr. Ivey said.
The American Red Cross, which provided relief efforts after the 1921 massacre, helped set up a full-service hospital in North Tulsa, operated by Black nurses and physicians. It evolved to become Moton Memorial Hospital, named after a president of Tuskegee Institute, Dr. Robert Russa Moton.
The hospital closed in 1967, due in part to funding issues and competition from other hospitals, which after the end of segregation opened their doors to Black patients, residents say. It retained only its outpatient services.
The outpatient center, later renamed Morton Comprehensive Health Services—after a local physician named W.A. Morton—now operates primary-care clinics in North Tulsa but has no emergency room or urgent-care center.
A proposed remodeling and expansion of the Moton Memorial Hospital that was never built.
The old campus of Moton Memorial Hospital in North Tulsa this month. It closed as a full-service hospital in 1967.
A plan proposed in the 1950s to expand and remodel the old hospital never materialized, said Julius Pegues, 86, a lifelong Tulsan whose uncle, a survivor of the massacre, gave him the blueprint for the new hospital when he was 15 years old.
Oklahoma State University Medical Center is the closest full-service hospital to the North Tulsa community, home to about one-fifth of the city’s residents, though Mr. Ivey says North Tulsans consider the OSU hospital to be in downtown, since it is south of Interstate 244.
Another quarter of the city’s population lives in South Tulsa, where there are three general hospitals and another two specialty hospitals for heart disease and psychiatric care.
Between the two neighborhoods is the downtown area, with slightly more than a quarter of Tulsa’s residents, which has two hospitals and two psychiatric hospitals.
“If you break a leg, you have at least a 15-minute drive to get to a hospital,” said Janel Pasley, a longtime resident and advocate through the North Tulsa Community Coalition, an organization focused on community healthcare.
Healthcare inequities are worsened by discrimination in economic and social policies, such as banks’ past practice of avoiding lending in certain areas, and often to lower-income and Black communities, said Derek Chapman, interim director of the Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center on Society and Health, who helped map the life-expectancy gaps across ZIP Codes. “It didn’t happen by chance,” he said.
Life-expectancy gaps like Tulsa’s were found in 20 other communities across the country, from major cities to rural towns, the university’s research found. Dr. Chapman said residents in neighborhoods need access to an emergency room during a heart attack, but to prevent heart attacks, they need safe housing and access to affordable, nutritious food.
The Red Cross Hospital in 1921, set up after the massacre.
North Tulsans, on average, are exposed to a greater number of negative events during childhood, including substance-abuse and mental-health conditions, than South Tulsans, leading to chronic stress and worsened medical conditions in adulthood, according to new data compiled by Dr. Jason Beaman, chair of Oklahoma State University’s psychiatry and behavioral sciences department. The damaging effects of the massacre and racism also reverberates throughout generations, he said.
“Your body teaches itself to stay in that fight or flight mode,” said Dr. Jennifer Hays-Grudo, another psychiatry professor there, “and you see the rates of cancer, heart attacks, strokes” go up.
Susan Savage, the CEO of Morton and a former mayor of Tulsa, said 40% to 50% of Morton’s patients are uninsured. She said the health system has a variety of outreach initiatives for the community, including door-to-door transports and protocols in place to transport those with emergency needs to hospitals to get treatment.
In the decades after the massacre, there were a number of Black primary-care doctors who set up private practices in North Tulsa, older residents say. Among them was Dr. Charles James Bate, who was the first Black physician admitted to the Tulsa County Medical Society professional group, according to his obituary.
Dr. Bobby Woodard helped found the private-practice Westview Medical Center in North Tulsa.
But in the 1980s and 1990s, many private practices began to close their doors, Mr. Ivey of the health department said, as older doctors retired without anyone taking over their practices, and many doctors found it harder to run clinics without being connected to a major hospital system.
Dr. Bobby Woodard, a pharmacist, helped found the private-practice Westview Medical Center, a community clinic, in 1984, hoping to recruit Black physicians to work in North Tulsa. Westview became an incubator for attracting talent, he said, but there still aren’t enough doctors. He and others said North Tulsa is a tough sell for aspiring young, Black physicians in medical school, as many choose opportunities connected with working for a major research institution or hospital system elsewhere.
The dearth of community doctors has heightened the mistrust against the medical establishment, residents and healthcare workers say.
“A lot of African-Americans before would go to their private doctors because they trusted them, and now they are afraid to go to the big clinics because they may see someone new every time, and they have trust issues,” said Darlene Reynolds, a nurse at Morton, whose family has lived in Greenwood for generations.
Ms. Reynolds said she recently saw a patient who made no follow-up visits after a mastectomy. “There was no care coordination, no one sought her out,” she said. She later died, Ms. Reynolds said.
Such mistrust also is a factor in the slower pace of Covid-19 vaccinations among Black residents in North Tulsa. Only 16% of Black North Tulsans have received at least one vaccination dose as of late May, according to Tulsa Health Department data. Roughly 26% of the white residents in North Tulsa have had at least one dose.
Philanthropies, such as the George Kaiser Family Foundation, and the Tulsa Health Department have expanded outreach to the North Tulsa community in the past decade, including opening a community health and wellness center in September 2012. The city and philanthropic groups also have provided backing for a grocery store, Oasis Fresh Market, which opened its doors in North Tulsa this month.
Stephanie Vanterpool, whose mother began working in North Tulsa in the 1960s as a surgical nurse, said before the new store opened, it was common for North Tulsans like herself to drive at least 15 to 20 minutes to reach the nearest full-service grocery store.
For Dr. Runako Whittaker, a pediatrician who works at Westview, parents shopping for groceries at dollar stores—the primary option for groceries in North Tulsa—makes her worry about the increase in childhood obesity and the impact on the health of pregnant women. “I can counsel patients and their families all day long about, ‘Eat healthy, eat healthy,’ but when they are out of my office, where are they going to go to get the healthy snack foods that I talk about?”
Insurance Exclusions Left Black Tulsans Footing the Bill for the Massacre
Loula Williams ran a popular theater and candy store in the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Okla., during the 1910s, making her one of the most prominent businesswomen in the neighborhood.
Williams Dreamland Theatre was doing so well that she started two other theaters near Tulsa, according to newspaper accounts and Charles Christopher, her great-grandson. Together, the three formed the Dreamland Theatrical Co.
Ms. Williams bought insurance for her businesses—though like some in the neighborhood, she was only able to patch together partial coverage through several policies. Even that did her no good when white mobs destroyed Williams Dreamland Theatre, along with most of Greenwood, during the city’s race massacre in 1921.
Ms. Williams suffered an estimated $79,164 in losses, according to lawsuits she later filed, equivalent to $1.2 million today. The three insurance companies to which she paid premiums denied her claims.
The massacre took the lives of dozens of Black residents. It also left behind a devastated neighborhood and many property owners struggling to cover their losses. Ms. Williams was one of at least 70 Greenwood property owners who filed insurance claims after the massacre. After many of their claims were denied, Ms. Williams and others sued the insurance companies and later the city of Tulsa, unsuccessfully.
Loula Williams ran a popular theater and candy store.
Greenwood property and business owners suffered at least $1.5 million in losses in 1921 dollars, according to a 2001 report from a bipartisan commission appointed by the state to study the event. That’s roughly $22 million in today’s dollars, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The figure likely underestimates total losses, as not everyone had full insurance coverage or went to court.
Ultimately, insurance companies fell back on an exclusionary clause that prevented payouts on many claims. The policies with that clause said insurers wouldn’t be held liable for loss “caused directly or indirectly by invasion, insurrection, riot, civil war or commotion, or military or usurped power.”
Examined alone, riot exclusions weren’t intentionally racist, said Christopher Messer, a sociology professor at Colorado State University-Pueblo who has studied the Tulsa massacre. However, in the early part of the 1900s, insurance companies knew what the outcome would mean for Black property owners when the clause was enforced, due to the prevalence of such attacks, he said.
“These riots didn’t just happen anywhere—they were primarily characterized by white mobs coming into Black neighborhoods and destroying them. It was never the other way around,” he said.
The insurance issues have long cast a shadow over Tulsa. A lawsuit in Oklahoma filed by survivors and descendants of the massacre against the city of Tulsa and other local agencies cites insurers’ refusals to pay claims. Tulsa residents and politicians have questioned how insurance companies classified the event as well as the implications. Descendants of massacre victims wonder how their ancestors’ assets could have benefited their families today had claims been paid.
After the massacre, Ms. Williams is believed to have sold her two theaters outside Greenwood, her family said, and to have used the funds to help rebuild the one in Greenwood. “Maybe those insurance claims could have just gone to rebuilding the Dreamland, and she could have kept the other theaters,” said Danya Bacchus, Ms. Williams’s great-great-granddaughter. “The empire could have continued to grow.”
A view of the Williams Dreamland Theatre on North Greenwood Avenue that was destroyed during the 1921 massacre.
Court records don’t paint a complete picture of how insurers responded to the massacre, researchers say. Some business owners may have had their claims honored, while others may have been unable or unwilling to pursue litigation for denied claims.
Some people filed multiple lawsuits. Of the 96 lawsuits filed against more than 30 insurance companies, 76 were dismissed and the other 20 didn’t have documentation of the outcome, according to records maintained by the Oklahoma Historical Society.
Historians said the records indicate that before the massacre some of Greenwood’s most successful businesspeople had to piece together insurance policies with narrow coverage options that didn’t fully protect the value of their properties. Insurance regulators say having multiple policies on a property wasn’t uncommon for the time.
Ms. Williams suffered an estimated $79,164 in losses, equivalent to $1.2 million today.
Ms. Williams’s Greenwood properties and their contents, including the theater and the building that housed the confectionery, were worth nearly $80,000, according to her lawsuits. Her eight insurance policies through three companies on her various assets only covered $31,700. Ms. Williams reported paying $865.51 in premiums for policies that were in effect during the massacre, but her lawsuits don’t specify whether that was over one year or multiple years.
After nearly a year and a half of litigation, two insurance companies paid Ms. Williams $566.25 in returned premiums, court records show. Her claims were still denied.
One criticism of insurers at the time was that they didn’t conduct their own due diligence and instead relied on a characterization of the Greenwood event that proved to be false: that the destruction resulted from a riot instigated by unruly Black residents.
“It appears that it was convenient to take the words of the newspapers and the people that did it than to investigate and do the right thing,” said Kevin Matthews, an Oklahoma state senator and founder of the state’s 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, which formed in 2016 in part to commemorate the tragedy.
Danya Bacchus, great-great-granddaughter of Loula Williams, believes if the insurance claims were paid, it would have helped in the rebuilding of Dreamland.
Using the word “riot” to describe what happened remained a sore spot for Black Tulsans for decades, Mr. Matthews said. It suggests that there was a Black uprising and that Greenwood residents destroyed their own neighborhoods, he said. “Many people in my community still have heartburn with that word ‘riot.’ ”
When Mr. Matthews founded the centennial commission in 2016 it was originally called the “Race Riot” commission, he said. In 2017, Oklahoma passed bipartisan legislation to help fund its work. A year later, he and other leaders decided to change “riot” to “massacre” after constituent feedback, altering how people and historical markers in Greenwood refer to the event today.
Investigations into the event by insurers might not have made a difference in denied claims because the exclusion clauses were so broad, said Mr. Messer of Colorado State, including the words “invasion” and “insurrection.” The era’s racism would have made it easy to justify dismissing claims, no matter the actual reason, he added. “And the city really tried to paint this as an event that was caused by militant Blacks,” he said.
Two insurers that sold policies to Greenwood residents still exist today— Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. and Great American Insurance Group.
Hartford wrote a $1,500 policy for Emma Gurley, who owned multiple Greenwood Avenue properties. Great American wrote a $1,400 policy for a property Hope Watson owned. After denying claims for losses due to the massacre, each company was a defendant in separate lawsuits that were ultimately dismissed.
Each company declined to comment on the lawsuits or riot clauses, citing the difficulty of getting information about policies written decades ago. “Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to comment on litigation and what coverage may have been available a century ago,” said a spokesman for The Hartford.
Ms. Williams is said to have financed the rebuilding of the Greenwood theater by selling cinemas she owned in other towns.
CNA Financial Corp. and Chubb Ltd. have made acquisitions that could give the two companies control over the policies cited in as many as half of the 96 insurance lawsuits, with 39 for CNA and nine for Chubb. CNA and Chubb declined to comment.
Riot clauses date to at least the late 19th century, likely influenced by the tumult of the Civil War and concerns around labor strife, said Robert Hartwig, an insurance researcher and director of the Center for Risk and Uncertainty Management at the University of South Carolina.
By the 1930s, insurance regulators set out to simplify policy language. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners proposed removing riot exclusions in 1937, according to the proceedings of its annual meeting that year. The proceedings said the riot exclusion wasn’t needed as manufacturers, who risked facing labor riots, were often able to secure coverage against riots by getting endorsements, or riders, at no extra cost. The proceedings also noted that riots rarely resulted in building fires.
Assessing the risk associated with riots paved the way for the industry to eliminate riot clauses, said Mr. Hartwig. Since the 1950s, policies have generally covered multiple perils such as riots and civil unrest, he said, including riots in the 1960s and nationwide protests in 2020.
Scores of businesses and homes were burned during the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
After the Greenwood massacre, some property owners took out loans or mortgaged their land to rebuild. By 1941, there were more than 240 businesses in the section, according to a recent copy of the neighborhood’s application for the National Register of Historic Places.
Ms. Williams’s Dreamland theater doesn’t appear to have ever returned to its prior prosperity, Ms. Williams’s great-granddaughter Jan Elaine Christopher said, citing a 1924 letter she wrote to her son, William Danforth Williams, about the theater’s struggles.
“At first, the whole family was running it,” Ms. Christopher said. “And then after everything happened, it looks like she was just running everything, pretty much by herself. So it was a lot smaller.”
Several of Ms. Williams’s descendants said the trauma of the massacre played a role in her death in 1927 at age 47. Her husband, John Wesley Williams, who owned an auto repair shop in Greenwood, died in 1939. The theater is believed to have been sold after her death, but the family didn’t know any details of a sale. Today, part of the interstate highway sits where it once stood.
A view of the main commercial strip of the Greenwood district after the attacks.
&mdashLeslie Scism contributed to this article.
Write to Jared Council at [email protected]
The Tulsa Massacre | 100 Years Later
The Wall Street Journal explores the legacy of the Tulsa Race Massacre and its economic reverberations, piecing together a story of both resilience and loss.