The Undercurrent That Sparked the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot

Not an secluded Event

One can never look at the infamous 1921 Tulsa Race Riot as an secluded event. It was not that at all. Such cataclysmic incidents seldom are. The signs of the times were like neon lights flashing across the sky.

We can begin with World War I, when the black citizens of America answered the call to serve their country.

During World War I 380,000 African Americans served in the wartime Army. Approximately 200,000 of these were sent to Europe. More than half of those sent oversea were stated to labor and stevedore battalions, but they performed basic duties nonetheless, building roads, bridges, and trenches in sustain of the front-line battles. approximately 42,000 saw combat.*

It’s only natural that these men returned home with the belief that they would be honored in the same manner as their white counterparts. It was not to be.

unheard of Number of Lynchings

In 1919, there were an unheard of sixty-one lynchings of African-Americans in the U.S. In 1920, another sixty-one; and in 1921 fifty-seven. It’s difficult in these times to imagine the extreme degree of lawlessness that existed to allow such slaughter to occur.

Not relegated only to America, World-wide efforts abruptly arose to stop such racial hostilities. One such effort was the Pan-African Congress in Paris organized by Harvard-educated Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois. (Du Bois had distinguished himself as being the first African-American to earn a doctorate in the U.S.)

The more the black communities stepped out to assert themselves, the more fear, suspicion, bitterness, and jealousy grew among the white communities.

The Emergence of Greenwood

It was because of the discovery of oil in and around Tulsa, creating new millionaires, that the black community of Greenwood (located just north of Tulsa proper) blossomed. The two sections were totally and absolutely segregated – separated by the railroad tracks.

high oil barons needed domestic help — gardeners, cooks, nannies, chauffeurs, and the like — to take care of their needs. consequently the black community had jobs in Tulsa which then produced the opportunity for businesses to arise and prosper in Greenwood.

A number of entrepreneurs emerged in Greenwood, such as a lawyer named J.B. Stradford. Stradford owned a large hotel, a savings and loan company and many pieces of real estate. Businesses and sets produced a busy shopping district that included a movie theater, newspapers, churches, schools and a hospital. It is said that it was Booker T. Washington who named the area, “Black Wall Street.”

It was a strange and unsettled time that looked so perfect on the surface. But appearances can be misleading.

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