Jun 7, 2021
At 5:08 AM on June 1st, 1921, a loud whistle blew in Tulsa Oklahoma. Thousands of armed white Tulsans, some in military uniform, marched on the city’s Greenwood neighborhood. Greenwood was a prosperous black community. White rioters shot black people in the street, looted their houses and businesses, systematically setting them aflame. Bullets rained down from planes overhead. By the end of the day, 35 city blocks lay in ashes, with as many as 300 black people killed, hundreds more injured and between 5 and 10 thousand left homeless.
Oklahoma had been seen as a refuge for black people. It had been “Indian Territory” until 1906. Many black people found in it an environment freer than much of the rest of the country.
The first black people came to Oklahoma as slaves of Native tribes such as the Cherokee. These tribes were uprooted and forcibly removed from Georgia to “Indian Territory”—what came to be known as the Trail of Tears. When the Civil War ended slavery, the black “freedmen” were accepted into some tribes as equals, or nearly so. Some tribes distributed land to freedmen—“40 Acres and a Mule” was put into practice. Other freedmen worked as sheriffs. Other black people migrated to Indian territory to take advantage of the relative freedom found among the already established black community.
Tulsa became a boomtown early in the 20th century, with the discovery of a gusher of oil. The town mushroomed, creating work and commerce for black workers and businesspeople. Greenwood soon boasted a 60 room hotel, two theaters, a newspaper, doctors, lawyers, and many shopkeepers.
World War One, and the economic boom that came with it, set off the Great Migration of black people out of the South, away from the circumstances that they faced there.
Many black men fought in Europe, returning with both training and a new militancy. They had traveled abroad, fought, risked their lives. They were able to escape some of the suffocating racism they saw in the States. They were determined not to return to the same. Many in the ruling class singled out this militancy as a threat to their order.
Once the war was over, jobs became more scarce, setting workers into competition with one another. With a tightening job market, the ruling class encouraged a widespread attack on the black population. The white working population was encouraged to violently reaffirm white supremacy, and to maintain second class citizenship through racist violence.
World War One created a violently reactionary environment. Members of the IWW, a radical union organization, sought to build a union among the oil field workers. Tulsa business leaders decided to give them a “lesson in patriotism.” They organized the “Knights of Liberty,” the local KKK, who then rounded up 17 IWW members and took them to the edge of Tulsa. There they whipped them bloody, before tarring and feathering them. The Knights were backed by the city’s ruling class—their action gave a glimpse of what was to come.
This period was full of racist violence against black people. In East St. Louis in 1917, white workers attacked and killed dozens of black people. In Chicago in the summer of 1919, white mobs attacked black people all over the South Side for three days. In both East St. Louis and Chicago, racial tensions were brought to a boil after the bosses hired black workers as strikebreakers. White workers attacked black people, instead of their own bosses.
In 1919, in Elaine, Arkansas white mobs hundreds of black sharecroppers who had begun to assert their rights. Later, in 1923, a white mob destroyed the black town of Rosewood, Florida.
In Tulsa, on May 31st, 1921, a black worker was accused of attacking a young white woman during an elevator ride in a downtown office tower. The same story played out over and over—a black man accused of rape or assault on a white woman was at the heart of many of these atrocities. It’s worth noting that after all was said and done, the woman in Tulsa dropped her charges in court.
One of Tulsa’s newspapers called for the black man to be lynched. A group of black people, upon learning of the lynching threat, armed themselves and gathered at the courthouse—some in army uniform. A white lynch mob confronted them. A scuffle broke out, and several, black and white were killed.
That became the signal the KKK was waiting for. Many white people were deputized and given badges, under the pretense of “restoring order.” The mob, which included the police, set upon Greenwood the morning of June 1st. Eldoris McDonichie, 9 years old at the time, remembered her mother saying, “Wake up! The white people are killing the colored folks.” Her family joined others streaming out of town. Eldoris saw men firing down on fleeing black people from planes—planes probably belonging to Sinclair Oil Company.
WD Williams was 16, his family owned a pastry shop and the neighborhood theater. He watched his father arm himself to fend off the mob. But the mob was too large to hold back. Williams witnessed a looter carrying his mother’s fur coat out of his home. Many black people would witness white people wearing their clothing on the street, like trophies, in the following weeks.
In the wake of the destruction, witnesses recounted “cattle trucks, heavily laden with bloody, dead, black bodies.” No one was ever brought to trial for the atrocity. In fact, the massacre was erased from official history for several decades.
100 years later, even President Biden admits to the violence carried out in Greenwood—though it is presented as an isolated incident, motivated by greed and envy.
The violence in Tulsa was not the exception—it was the rule. This society continues to carry racist violence within it. And to use racism to keep black and white people divided against each other. This division in the U.S. working class has held back unity and combativeness for generations, and has kept a rotten social system in place. It continues to keep the working class divided today, exploited by a united ruling class.