THE MURDEROUS shooting spree by two white men against five African Americans in Tulsa was a harrowing reminder of one of the worst episodes of anti-Black violence in US history—a 1921 riot that targeted Black businesses and included an aerial bombardment of the city’s African American neighborhoods.
Jake England and Alvin Watts have confessed to the shootings last weekend. They were apparently motivated in part by England’s desire to avenge the death of his father, who was shot and killed by an African American man in a domestic dispute in 2010. England used the words “fucking n——” on his Facebook page to describe the man who shot his father.
But the victims that England and Watts are accused of shooting had no connection with that incident. They were targeted simply because they were on the street—and they’re Black.
The killing spree terrorized Tulsa’s African American community. Some residents who had permits to carry guns armed themselves in self-defense. “We have to handle this because there are a number of African-American males who are not going to allow this to happen in their neighborhood,” said Rev. Warren Blakney Sr., president of the Tulsa NAACP. “We’re trying to quell the feeling of ‘let’s get someone’ and we will make as certain as we can that this isn’t pushed under the rug.”
And for good reason: According to the local Fox News affiliate, the United White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan have been on an organizing drive in the city since 2009.
Racist violence—and the resistance to it—is central to the history of Oklahoma, and of Tulsa in particular.
Before it became a state, Oklahoma was designated as Indian Territory, a place for Native Americans driven from their ancestral lands, particularly from the Southeast. During the Civil War, the territory was dominated by the Confederacy, but in the Tulsa area, a local struggle broke out between slaveowners—some Indians, “mixed-bloods,” and whites—against African Americans and Indians who supported the Union forces in the area.
The next clashes came with the coming of the railroads in the 1870s and the big business that followed. A rebellion by African Americans and sections of the Indian population opposed to the railroads’ incursion on their lands was violently suppressed. But in the following years, Oklahoma also became a center of the Populist movement and by the early twentieth century it was an important base for the Socialist Party as well.
These polarized politics came to a head in Tulsa, which became the center of an oil boom around 1900. The city’s population surged from 10,000 to 100,000 between 1910 and 1920. The new millionaire oil industry barons embraced the local right-wing traditions, relying on the Klan to run union organizers out of town—or murder them.
But the main targets of violence were Blacks. Between the end of the Civil War and the onset of the oil boom, African Americans had settled in the Oklahoma Territory and “enjoyed far more privileges than Blacks in the United States proper, either in the South or North,” wrote historian Murray Wickett. “They had every reason to believe they had found the ‘promised land.’”
But as the white population grew, so did the drive to implement Jim Crow segregation. The key organizer of this effort was William “Alfalfa Bill” Murray, a white supremacist and later governor of the state, who became an open admirer of Hitler. With Oklahoma’s statehood came segregation laws and restrictions on voting rights that were often more extreme than anything in the old Confederacy.
Racist terror was used to enforce Jim Crow, as historian James Hirsch pointed out. By 1911, more Blacks were hanged in the state than whites:
As communal events, lynchings were designed to intimidate and, when applied to Blacks, to reinforce the racial hierarchy that had been codified into law. The macabre rituals were featured on postcards, showing the victim’s well-dressed audience holding umbrellas to shade themselves from the sun, that delivered the message of fear.
A card from Durant, in 1911, captured a flume of black smoke and carried the phrase “Coon Cooking.” A mob of 500 had lynched a bullet-ridden Black man, carried his corpse to a vacant lot, and torched it on a pyre of lumber. The city’s remaining Blacks, warned “not to let the sun go down on them,” got the message. They all left by sunset.
Rising social tensions in Tulsa came to a head as union organizers from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) sought to organize in the city as the U.S. prepared to enter the First World War in 1917. Eleven men accused of being IWW organizers were tarred and feathered by vigilantes.
After the war ended in 1918, a new mood of resistance that swept Black America was felt in Tulsa, too.
In the spring of 1921, when a young African American man, Dick Rowland, was accused of attempted rape of a white woman, newspapers began inciting violence, with one calling for a lynching. As a white mob gathered around the courthouse, a group of seventy-five armed African Americans showed up to demand that Rowland be released to them to prevent a lynching. When a white man tried to take a pistol away from one of the Black men, a shot rang out, and a gunfight ensued.
The African American men retreated to the Black neighborhood of Greenwood, where they held off the racists for a time. But police and an armed white mob, joined by the National Guard, soon invaded, looting and torching homes and shooting down anyone who resisted. Several airplanes buzzed overhead, some of them dropping firebombs on Black homes below.
While Black Greenwood residents were rounded up in the streets, white women and children joined in looting their homes. As Hirsch wrote, “Black success was an intolerable affront to the social order of white supremacy, so taking their possessions not only stripped Blacks of their material status, but also tipped the social scales back to their proper alignment. This reassertion of authority, expressed through ransacked homes, was a cause for celebration.”
The final battle in the riot was a National Guard assault on the Mount Zion Baptist church. The guardsmen used a heavy machine gun to demolish the building.
The official death toll of the riot was nine whites and twenty-one Blacks. But this figure is almost certainly too low. Walter White of the NAACP, who reported on the riot for the Nation, estimated that between 200 and 250 people were killed, 80 percent of them African Americans. The Red Cross reported that 1,256 houses burned down, with another 215 looted. Hundreds of Greenwood residents were forced to live in tents for a year as refugees.
Tulsa’s racists looked at the destruction of Greenwood as a triumph. As journalist Tim Madigan noted, “In the immediate months and years afterward, postcards depicting burning Negro homes and businesses and charred Negro corpses were bought and sold on Tulsa’s downtown streets, and white participants openly boasted about notches on their guns, earned during Greenwood’s obliteration, which initially was a widespread source of civic pride.”
No one was ever held accountable for this racist pogrom, and the mass anti-Black violence of 1921 scars Tulsa—and the entire United States—to this day. A movement for reparations to the survivors and descendants of the riot has gathered momentum in recent years. One of its key proponents, law professor Alfred Brophy, wrote a book making the case for such measures:
First, the city and the state were culpable. Quite simply, had it not been for the misconduct of the city police chief and the special deputies, assisted by the local units of the National Guard, we would not now remember the names Dick Rowland and [his accuser] Sarah Page, nor would we be talking about the Tulsa riot—because there probably would not have been much of a riot. At a minimum, the local government forces bear key responsibility for the destruction of Greenwood.
The horror of the April 6 shootings in Tulsa should be a moment to renew the struggle for justice for the victims of 1921 as well as the uncounted other victims of racist violence since then at the hands of racists and police.
Just as the murder of Trayvon Martin has called attention to the targeting of African Americans by law enforcement and vigilantes, the Tulsa shootings should bring focus on the long-term struggle for racial justice.