1921 Tulsa Race Massacre

Here it is the end of May 2020, and America is experiencing racial unrest, with many cities feeling the effects of looting, vandalism, and fires – words that describe what happened 99 years ago, May 31 & June 1, 1921, in the Greenwood Business District of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Several of our storytellers shared their experiences of those days.

Tulsa Race Massacre

Otis was 19 years old on May 31, 1921. While not an eyewitness to the lynch mob, he and his friend were the targets of rifle shots. 

“Just across the Frisco tracks, on 1st Street, there was a mill, and the white men worked in that mill. It was some kind of grain mill, three or four stories high. And they (white men) could get up at the top of that mill and look across the tracks and see what we colored folks were doing. And sure enough, we got shot at from the men over across the tracks. And it hit the boy in the hand, and I’m standing right behind him. He dropped his keys and we left the old car in the garage, and ran off and left it.”

Chapters 2-5 of Otis’ story all deal with the race riot: Listen here.

Mt. Zion Baptist Church was destroyed, which former Pastor Dr. G.Calvin McCutchen talked about in his oral history interview.

“Mt. Zion was one of the five churches, five or six churches that were destroyed, but Mt. Zion suffered the most because it was the newest, and shall we say, the pride of North Tulsa. The members, of course, suffered greatly because of the fact that they had a heavy debt on that church when it happened. $50,000 mortgage on the church when it happened. R. A. Whitaker was the pastor. For a few days, they met in one of the member’s houses that were not destroyed. And then they managed to build some kind of tabernacle on the grounds. In the meantime, he was so devastated by the church being destroyed and the members all upset and important decisions to be made, his health failed him, and he finally resigned.”

Listen to chapters 8 and 9 here.

WWII veteran Rex Calvert talked about his father, who was in the National Guard during the riot.

“He was here when they had the Race Riot. Being in the National Guard, he was called in to quiet things down, because the Race Riot as you know was in 1921.
JE: It was in May 31 and June 1 of 1921. Did he talk about what he did during the Race Riot?
RC: Yes. They didn’t shoot a lot of people. He was guarding the railroad tracks. He and another man were stationed to keep that railroad track open. He laughs and tells the story about a stray bullet that ricocheted off a rock and hit his buddy on top of the head. His buddy said, “I’m shot!” He said, “No, you are not shot, it just grazed your skin.” Of course, the guy was bleeding pretty good. My dad just laughs and tells that story, but that’s all he ever said to me about his National Guard efforts.”
Listen to Rex Calvert’s interview here.
Race Riot survivor Wess Young was four years old in 1921 when he, his mother and older sister were told to run for cover during the devastation. His memory is filled with stories told to him by his parents and relatives. He talked about a mass gravesite.
“There was a rumor that they buried them at the cemetery out there on 11th street. I think it’s Oaklawn, on 11th and Peoria. Later on in the years, they went out dug up a space where they were supposed to have a mass grave, but they didn’t find any. The space they dug up was all virgin land, it hadn’t been no digging in that area. But they just dug in one certain area. I can’t call the young white man, he said he was sixteen years old and he said he saw them dig the graves and dump the black people in there. He stood by it and swore to it.”
Listen to Wess Young’s interview here.
Wavel Ashbaugh was eleven years old and living on Oil Road, now 11th Street, when the riots erupted. She was 105 when she shared her oral history and had this memory of the race riot:
“But I do know that there was trouble because we had a black man and his wife that worked for us. And my mother took them over back roads and got them to safety. I don’t know where she took them but they said, “Mama’s gone to take them to safety” And she took them away someplace to be safe.”
Listen to chapter 3 here.