Centenary of the Tulsa Race Massacre

Streamtext (secondary location where live captions can be viewed) at https://www.streamtext.net/player?event=UCBerkeley

A group of scholars on Friday resurfaced the history of the largely forgotten (or untold) 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, which was one of the worst bouts of racialized violence in American history.

No one quite knows exactly how many people were killed over May 31 and June 1 a century ago when a white mob in Tulsa, Oklahoma, supported by local law enforcement, attacked the neighborhood of Greenwood known as “Black Wall Street.”

The attackers set fire to homes, businesses, places of worship, and cultural establishments displacing hundreds of residents following a confrontation between Black and white Tulsans.

Estimates on the death toll range from 39 to 300, said Eric Stover, the director of the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley and co-producer of an upcoming documentary to be shown on PBS, titled, Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten.

Stover, one of the event’s panelists, said in his research for the documentary he found that following the massacre the town went into a “hush silence.” White residents didn’t want to tarnish the image of a prosperous oil producing state, and Black residents didn’t want to deal with the trauma of the massacre for which they would never see justice.

But in trying to suppress that history, the trauma of the experience has been passed down to successive generations and prevented Greenwood from healing.

This has begun to change, as young Black activists in the town in recent years have made deliberate efforts to uncover their history, make sure it is never again forgotten, and rebuild a sense of community in Tulsa, Stover explained.

Another panelist, Karla Slocum, who is a professor of Anthropology and director of the Institute of African American Research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, placed the massacre in Tulsa in the context of what Black communities were attempting to achieve in the post-Reconstruction era.

Across the country, dozens of Black Towns were being established in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries to fulfill certain pursuits—security, land, prosperity—which were unattainable in the Jim Crow South.

In a way, Greenwood succeeded in creating a community that was rich in arts & culture, business, and economic opportunities. Not everyone was wealthy in Greenwood, Slocum explained, but there was an imagination of what Black people could accomplish following their emancipation.

The attack on Greenwood was in essence an attack on the imagination of what freedom could look like, explained Jovan Scott Lewis, an associate professor of Geography at UC Berkeley and author of a forthcoming book on the massacre.

In later years, in the 1950s and 1960s, the project to crush that dream for freedom was carried over through the process of urban renewal, which led to the dispossession of Black residents from Greenwood, Lewis said.

For teaching resources on the Tulsa Race Massacre, visit a website co-created by Slocum called #TulsaSyllabus.

PBS will air Stover’s documentary on the massacre on May 31, marking the 100th anniversary of the killings.

 Othering and Belonging InstituteDepartment of African American StudiesInstitute for the Study of Societal IssuesCenter for the Study of Law and SocietyPublic Health, School ofInstitute of Governmental StudiesGoldman School of Public PolicyHuman Rights CenterThelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice