Explaining the Tulsa Race Massacre to kids
This interview is from A Kids Book About: The Podcast, with host Matthew Winner, author of A Kids Book About The Tulsa Race Massacre, and former mayor of Tulsa, Oklahoma, Kathy Taylor. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
What was the Tulsa Race Massacre?
Carlos: A hundred years ago, there was an attack on a neighborhood called Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma and this attack resulted in the destruction of 40 blocks worth of property, 1,256 homes, and resulted in the death of 300 people. And it occurred on the night of May 31st and during the day of June 1st in 1921.
We’re packing a lot into this episode today because while I will always commend you for asking questions and finding your own conclusions and understandings, I think it’s important that history be understood as clearly as possible. In fact, that will only serve to make your questions stronger.
So let’s start with a neighborhood in Tulsa called Greenwood.
Carlos: What's important to know about Greenwood is that it was a very large neighborhood of 40 blocks. And there were about 10,000 people who lived in Greenwood.
There were all different classes of people from working class people to business owners and entrepreneurs, to very wealthy people, all living together in this community. And it was a very communal neighborhood, everyone shared, and everyone worked together to build this neighborhood together.
Greenwood was originally Native American-owned land. It was owned by the Creek and Cherokee tribes. In 1905, there were some Black business owners who had moved into this was Indian territory before it became the state of Oklahoma. And they bought this land from the Native tribes and they founded their own mostly Black community.
This was during a time when there were more than 50, all-Black towns in Indian territory. And so Greenwood was one of these communities, amongst many, many other Black-owned communities in Indian territory during this time.
And one of the things that made Greenwood so accessible to the rest of the country? It was built along a railroad.
Carlos: So one of the most important things to know about Greenwood is that it was built along the railroad.
Oil was discovered in Oklahoma in 1901. So back during this time, the very early 1900s, if you had your businesses and your community along the railroad tracks, you would be tremendously successful.
It was like being on the internet today. You know, if you have a business and you're on the internet, you're going to be super successful. If you're not on the internet, you're probably not going to be as successful as a business.
The railroad was exactly that. So communities that were near the railroad, really had a huge advantage when it came to business and commerce and drawing people in.
So everybody from across the country that who would stop in Oklahoma, they would stop in Greenwood because Greenwood was one of these railroad stops and everything that you wanted was right there.
So hat shops and clothing stores and movie theaters and candy stores, and if you wanted to get a haircut, if you wanted to hear music, everything you wanted was right there in Greenwood. Right there in this neighborhood.
So this beautiful, thriving, amazing neighborhood called Greenwood… it seems like it had absolutely anything you could want, right?
Well, what do you call the feeling of seeing something someone else has and wanting it for yourself?
Go ahead. Call it out.
Jealousy is a great word for that. Coveting is also a word that works well.
The people who lived in Tulsa on the other side of the railroad tracks were mostly white people. And those white people, especially a handful of them in positions of power in the city—they wanted Greenwood for themselves.
Carlos: A few business owners on the other side of downtown—they wanted the entire downtown area for themselves. They wanted to build their own train depot and they wanted to have their own commercial district right where Greenwood was. And in order for them to do that, they had to drive the community of Greenwood further north, outside of the downtown area…
And so this was a planned attack on the neighborhood of Greenwood in an attempt to steal Greenwood's land. Greenwood had something that the white community wanted and so they had planned at this attack. They coordinated it with the police department, with the national guard and the mayor and the city commission. So these businessmen who were in power collaborated with the leaders of Tulsa to steal this land away from the Greenwood community.
When I first heard about this event (and maybe when you first heard about it, too), it was referred to as the Tulsa Race Riot. But all along so far, you’ve heard us refer to it as the Tulsa Race Massacre.
A “riot” is when a crowd disturbs the peace in an often violent way. A “massacre”, on the other hand, is a brutal slaughter of people. It is taking the lives of a great amount of people with force and, often, when they are defenseless.
Carlos offers up some insight around the language used to describe this event.
Carlos: So there's a couple of reasons why the event was called a riot and the first reason is that business owners have insurance. So if something happens to your business, like a flood or maybe a car crashes into your business or something like that, and you have insurance, you get paid by the insurance company to rebuild your business.
All of these businesses that were destroyed in this attack had filed claims with insurance companies to try to get money to rebuild their businesses.
Well, the insurance companies denied all of them because they said, “Well, if this event was a riot, then we're not going to pay any of these insurance claims.”
The second reason is that the mayor and the city commission blamed this event on the people of Greenwood. There were 55 Black men who were criminally charged with inciting a riot, and these charges were not dropped until 1996.
After 1996, we could start having a conversation about what this event really was. We acknowledged that it wasn't the fault of these 55 Black men. The police department apologized to the city for their involvement. And we could start calling this event what it really was.
I invited Kathy to join the conversation to talk about where Tulsa is now and what work lies ahead.
And since we’re all meeting each other, why don’t we take a minute to check in. You’ve heard about the history of Greenwood and the events of June 1st, 1921. How does thinking about the Tulsa Race Massacre and the people of Greenwood make you feel?
Carlos: They're very complex feelings. You know, hearing about all the success and all the wonderful things that were in Greenwood. And just all of the amazing people that lived in Greenwood and learning about all of their lives brought me a great amount of joy. And then learning that everything that they had built for 15 years all being destroyed over two days was just, it was very hard to learn about, to hear about. And to learn that it was the whole thing was planned.
You know, this is information that is pretty new, even here in Tulsa. A lot of us learned about the Tulsa Race Massacre in a very different way. We learned about it through the story of Dick Roland and Sarah Page. And a lot of us thought that was the reason; that their encounter in the elevator, and this newspaper article that said that he hurt her, that that was the cause of this destruction of Greenwood.
Kathy: It makes me feel very sad. It makes me feel very angry and it makes me feel motivated, not only to make sure this never happens again, but play my part in helping for reparations for the survivors and the descendants of those who were killed.
Reparations have happened all over this world, when there are horrific massacres or events like this, to repair, to repay, those people that the government and humanity harmed. And in this case, harmed in one of the worst racial violence events in our country, in the United States, killing over 300 people.
Change can be very slow, as you might have guessed. Especially when the changes you’re working to accomplish might be the same changes others are working to prevent.
But that doesn’t mean that change isn’t happening.
Kathy: Well, I grew up in Oklahoma and moved to Tulsa in the early eighties. I did not learn about it when I was in school. My friends, my contemporaries who grew up in Tulsa, went to school all of their lives in Tulsa—one of whom was another former mayor—did not learn about it when she was in school either.
So when Mayor Savage was in office, which was about the late nineties, early 2000s, I think is when the discussion about the history [of Tulsa] first began.
We are fortunate to have had one of the lawyers involved, Buck Franklin. His son, John Hope Franklin, became one of the renowned African American historians in the world at Duke University. And he maintained his connection with Tulsa and began to come and have that discussion.
Mayor Savage issued the first apology on behalf of the city to those killed, their descendants, and the survivors. And in 2007, we raised money to offer to bring every survivor to Tulsa, to honor them, and to publicly apologize, and to also have the judge who had filed the charges against Mr. Roland, who's talked about in the book, formally released and expunged because they still were on the books from 1921.
Mr. Roland, or Dick Roland, was the man mentioned earlier by Carlos. He, a Black man, was in an elevator with a white woman named Sarah Page, who claimed that Mr. Roland hurt her in the elevator. This interaction and Mr. Roland’s arrest was used as an excuse for the start of the Tulsa Race Massacre, an invasion we now know was planned all along.
Kathy: And so I think the discussion has continued from then. I think that attitude has significantly changed as we have received more national attention, more books have been written about it, and we are having that hard discussion about how do we keep history from repeating itself and how do we repair what happened.
Another word I want to give you to help you understand the intention of some of the things that are going on in Tulsa is the word ‘reconciliation’.
Kathy: Reconciliation means coming together with understanding. Coming together with empathy and understanding over what has happened in the past.
And to me, it is a base from which you move forward to work to ensure history does not repeat itself. That you leave the world a better place than it has been in the past or that you found it.
Carlos: You know, in a lot of ways, what you see in Greenwood today is a community that is divided by a highway. That's divided by housing segregation. There was housing segregation in Greenwood until 1963. There was school segregation between Black and white Tulsa until 1971. So we're only one generation away from having a very divided city.
And you see this not just in Tulsa, but in many, many cities all over the country, where there's a Black part of town and a white part of town. Or that might be in your city, a Latino part of town and a white part of town, or maybe an Asian part of town. And I think that these types of segregations really don’t allow people to get to know each other and talk to each other.
When I first moved to Greenwood, they welcomed me with open arms. It didn't matter to them that I looked different from them and came from a different place and maybe listened to different music or ate different food or read different books, you know? They just wanted to learn all about me and I wanted to learn all about them.
It might sound really simple, but having conversations with people who might not necessarily look like you or listen to the same music you listen to or eat the same food that you eat or worship in the same church that you worship in.
I think having these cross-cultural and cross-racial conversations are hugely important. And supporting Black-owned businesses and supporting Latino businesses and Asian businesses and just getting out there and exploring your city and everything it has to offer, not just maybe your little corner of your little corner of town, you know?
Each week on A Kids Book About: The Podcast, we talk about the big things going on in your world with a different author from our A Kids Book About series. This week we spoke with Carlos Moreno, author of A Kids Book About the Tulsa Race Massacre, and Kathy Taylor, former mayor of Tulsa, OK.