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Exhuming History: 100 years after an angry white mob destroyed a thriving Black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, descendants, survivors and concerned citizens demand justice

When Regina Goodwin was a little girl visiting her grandmother in Tulsa, Oklahoma, she would sometimes ask to see the book. It was concealed in a study, in a desk, inside a chest that opened with a key. Her grandmother would pull out a slender volume and allow the child to thumb through its worn pages. They held an account of the massacre that had shaken and shaped her family.

Oklahoma state Rep. Regina Goodwin
Oklahoma state Rep. Regina Goodwin, pictured above, tells the story of how her great grandparents and grandparents survived the Tulsa massacre in 1921.

The narrative was kept under lock and key because it was precious, not because the family didn’t want the child to know. On the contrary, the harrowing history of how Goodwin’s great grandparents and grandparents survived the two days of murder that came to be known as the Tulsa Massacre has long been a point of pride and resolve for their descendants. It became such a driving force for Goodwin that in 2015 this daughter of Tulsa was elected to the Oklahoma House of Representatives, where she serves the community whose stories she absorbed in her youth.

But for much of America and the world, knowledge of the massacre, the deadliest single racial attack ever committed in the United States, remains locked away, firmly closed off from history and memory by officials who for much of a century did everything they could to erase its legacy.

It is 100 years since those two terrible days from May 31 to June 1, 1921, when an angry white mob surged into the 35-block Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa and decimated what had been the most prosperous Black community in the nation, a place built by Black entrepreneurs into a proud concentration of Black generational wealth and achievement unmatched anywhere else in the U.S.

In a staggering surge of violence ignited when a Black man was wrongly accused of assaulting a white woman, a mob cordoned off the area, preventing Black residents from evacuating and shooting those they’d trapped. Looting and torching buildings while airplanes dropped firebombs from the sky, the mob ran rampant, fueled by resentment at the existence of such an affluent Black community in their city.

When it was over, the mob had burned 23 churches, dozens of businesses and more than 1,250 homes to the ground. The massacre left more than 8,000 Black men, women and children homeless. More than 800 people were treated for injuries. Historians now believe as many as 300 people may have died. City police officers joined the mob. City fire trucks did not douse the flames. No one was ever prosecuted for the killings.

ruined Greenwood community
The Greenwood community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was left in ruins after an angry white mob destroyed homes and businesses owned by Black people in 1921. (Credit: Library of Congress)

‘Justice denied’

These are the terrible memories that survivors – and descendants of survivors – do not forget. These are the terrors they want Americans to learn and acknowledge. These are the private remembrances of the Tulsa massacre, long relegated to locked chests and dusty attics, that now may truly begin to become public history.

“My grandmother kept that book under lock and key. You could read it, but you had to put it back,” Goodwin recalled. “It was like, we want to hold on to this because this is our history and it is precious and you need to treat it with great care, and it’s not going to leave this house.

Burned homes, businesses and churches
Homes, business and even churches were burned to the ground when an angry white mob attacked the Black community of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921. (Credit: Library of Congress)

“We knew this was significant, we knew that it was a part of our history and we knew that, when it came to the massacre, this was justice that was never served,” Goodwin said. “We knew that the cries of our people that their properties and their lives had been destroyed fell on deaf ears. So that’s what we grew up with, knowing that this was justice denied. And that this is justice that even to this day we are still seeking.”

For decades, the city of Tulsa and the state of Oklahoma refused to acknowledge the massacre and destruction of the Black community whose business district was dubbed “the Negro Wall Street” by Booker T. Washington. Developed in the early years of the 20th century by Black entrepreneurs, farmers and oil prospectors who achieved affluence just decades removed from enslavement, Greenwood was rich with Black-owned theaters, libraries, music clubs and savings and loans. Prevented by segregationist laws from shopping easily outside their neighborhood, Black people transformed their forced insularity into a vibrant and thriving place of their own.

In the aftermath of the mob rampage, accounts of Black people being shot and bodies lying in the street were expunged from newspaper archives and public records. For the better part of a century, Tulsa did nothing to mark the massacre. There was no memorial and no yearly commemoration. Modest city observances began only in 1996. After a Centennial Commission was formed in 2015 to inform and educate Oklahoma residents, the history of the Tulsa massacre finally became a required part of public school curriculums across the state this past fall. But it is not required to be taught anywhere else in the country.

Neither the survivors nor their descendants have ever been awarded restitution, despite a series of lawsuits, the first one filed by a Black lawyer named Buck Colbert Franklin in the days after the massacre, while the ashes of what had been his community were still burning. The last lawsuit seeking restitution for the massacre was filed this year. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case brought by massacre victims, who had appealed the decisions of two federal court judges who said the victims waited too long to file their lawsuit.

As with much of American history that is inconvenient, the story of the Tulsa massacre is, “actively unremembered, actively suppressed, forgotten, occluded, not told,” said Paul Gardullo, a historian at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and curator of the museum’s seminal new exhibition on the Tulsa massacre.

Like the remains first discovered in the 1990s in an alleged mass grave of massacre victims – which Tulsa city officials recently announced will be exhumed – “this history needs to be uncovered, it needs to be unearthed,” Gardullo said. “Whether it is in objects in people’s homes or in the search for human remains, we need to look at it with clear eyes and we need to assess it, because it hasn’t been totally assessed.

“And we need to recognize that this is not just something that happened in Tulsa, that these types of stories populate our landscape and our history as a nation,” Gardullo said.

‘Trouble was coming’

For the Goodwin family, the night of May 31, 1921, started with preparations for a school graduation dance. That’s what Regina Goodwin’s grandfather, Edward Goodwin Sr., then a 17-year-old high school student, and his sister Anna, Goodwin’s great aunt, had on their minds that evening, Regina Goodwin said. They were decorating a hotel ballroom when, unbeknownst to them, the mob started forming a few blocks away.

When they got word that “trouble was coming,” Regina Goodwin said, they fled home. Outside, bullets landed on nearby roofs. It sounded “like hail coming down,” according to one account.

Goodwin said her great grandfather, James Henri Goodwin, whose skin was so light he was often mistaken for a white man, may have saved their home. Seeing the mob coming down the street, the successful businessman walked out in his office attire and waved them off, she said. Thinking he was a white man, they left his home untouched. But they torched most of the other houses in the neighborhood. One neighbor took refuge in the Goodwin home, lying inside a bathtub. Of the 15 or so other buildings her great grandfather owned in Greenwood, Goodwin said, none survived.

On the other side of Greenwood, Black attorney Buck Colbert Franklin was living in a rooming house, apart for a few months from his wife and children so he could establish a law practice in Tulsa, when he heard the mob. A 10-page manuscript he wrote after the massacre was discovered in 2015. In it he wrote that from a porch of the rooming house, he witnessed the neighborhood lit up by blazes, “lurid flames” that “roared and belched,” and “thick, black volumes” of smoke.  He described hearing shooting from every direction and sidewalks “literally covered with burning turpentine balls.”

In the days after the massacre, Franklin sought compensation for victims from insurance company after insurance company. The claims went nowhere. But later, Franklin led the legal battle against the city of Tulsa to defeat an ordinance that would have prevented victims of the attack from rebuilding on the ashes of their neighborhood. The city planned to rezone the area from residential to commercial. Franklin sued the city before the Oklahoma Supreme Court, where he won.

“My grandfather described it as a land grab,” descendant John W. Franklin said. “He said to the people, stay where you are. Gather bricks to build, gather anything you can while we fight this in the courts. And they did. They did rebuild.”

Franklin is cultural historian emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. He dedicates his life to making sure that stories like that of his family do not remain in the shadows.

“This is just one of the many examples of hidden history,” Franklin said. As a boy, he said, he grew up steeped in this history, in the pain and trauma of those who lived through it whom he knew, but also the empowerment of knowing how his grandfather and others fought.

“It’s important not just to the nation, but to the world that it be told,” Franklin said. “I grew up being told you have to be courageous to fight a system that’s blatantly racist every day. You can’t give up. You have to know who you are and where you’re going. And it’s the same for our country. We can’t proceed as a nation until we fully know what is in our history.”

A shadow of what it was

If you had to choose a place where, today, the Greenwood story, in all its ascendence, tragedy and perseverance resides, you might choose the Historic Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Before the massacre, the church was an imposing building on Greenwood Avenue, surrounded by shops, theaters and thriving businesses. Among its more than 1,000 members were doctors, lawyers and businesspeople.

Only the basement of the church survived the inferno that took down everything around it. In the days after the massacre, men, women and children sheltered inside its wreckage.

Today the church stands again, rebuilt modestly by the few members of the community who did not flee or were not pushed out after the massacre. With about 130 congregants, many of them senior citizens living on fixed incomes, it is a shadow of what it was. Its neighborhood today is bisected by highways that in the decades after the massacre cut through what was left of Greenwood. The city of Tulsa is the largest landowner in the district that was once proudly Black-owned and built. While there has been some urban renewal, little of the profits have gone to Black-owned businesses. The streets outside the church are filled with poverty and want.

But under the leadership of its passionate young pastor, the Rev. Dr. Robert R.A. Turner, 38, Vernon A.M.E. is carrying on the spirit of Greenwood. Born in Alabama, Turner came to Tulsa in 2017, and has since made it his mission to seek justice for its Black community. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Turner and his congregants have delivered more than 360,000 meals to the needy, gathering donations to pay for them. In April, the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission donated $200,000 to help the church pay for renovations.

When he is not ministering, Turner keeps up another mission. Every week since Sept. 12, 2018, he stands in front of Tulsa City Hall for a half hour or so. He holds a sign, a Bible and a bullhorn. Sometimes he is alone, and sometimes he is surrounded by people. His message is simple. The city, he says, owes its Black community a reckoning. And it owes reparations.

“I really see my role as a person meant to represent the membership of this church, not just those living right now but those that used to live here and those that will in the future,” Turner said. “I do that by speaking up for righteousness, justice, reparations and criminal investigations into the worst race massacre in American history.

“My deeply held conviction is that there is no expiration date on morality,” Turner said. “If we all can admit as a society that what happened was wrong in 1921, well, just because 100 years passed doesn’t make it right.”

Photo at top: Smoke billows over Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921, after a white mob attacked the Black community of Greenwood. The mob killed as many as 300 Black residents and burned 23 churches, dozens of businesses and more than 1,250 homes to the ground. (Credit: Alvin C. Krupnick Co./Library of Congress)