Episode 3: A Reckoning in Tulsa

On the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, a look back at one of the worst incidents of racial violence in American history—as the search for mass graves of the victims continues.

Onlookers on Elgin Avenue witness Mount Zion Baptist Church aflame. The image was taken about mid-day from south of Cameron St.
Photograph courtesy of Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa.

A century ago, Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood was a vibrant Black community. One spring night in 1921 changed all that: a white mob rioted, murdering as many as 300 Black residents and destroying their family homes and thriving businesses. Archaeologists are working to uncover one of the worst—and virtually unknown—incidents of racial violence in American history, as efforts to locate the victims' unmarked graves continue. 

TRANSCRIPT

AMY BRIGGS: So I want you to close your eyes and imagine: It’s a sunny morning in early May 1921. You’re in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the bustling, all-Black Greenwood section of town.

A dapper, mustachioed man pulls up in front of the Stradford Hotel in a shiny Model T Ford. He’s a lawyer and real estate developer named J.B. Stradford, and the hotel is just one of his properties. He is not only one of the richest men in town, but one of the most prosperous African Americans in the country at the time. 

He steps into the lobby and stops for a quick shoe shine, maybe from someone like a young Robert Fairchild, who recalled in a 1978 interview that he used to earn good money shining shoes in Greenwood.

ROBERT FAIRCHILD: Tips were just fabulous. I'd make 7, 8, and 10 dollars a day—tip.

SCOTT ELLSWORTH: In 1920, 1921?

FAIRCHILD: That's right. And on Saturday, I'd make 10 and 12 and 18 and 20 dollars a day.

BRIGGS: That’s Fairchild being interviewed by Scott Ellsworth, a writer, historian, and Tulsa native. Scott has spent decades studying and writing about Tulsa’s Greenwood District.

And though we imagined that scenario with J.B. Stradford, the man himself was very real—one of hundreds of African American entrepreneurs who helped make Greenwood one of the wealthiest Black communities in the United States in the early 20th century.

ELLSWORTH: You know, in Greenwood, there were two movie theaters, the Dixie as well as the Dreamland. There were more than 30 restaurants. There were 35 grocery stores and meat markets. There were a dozen physicians and surgeons. There were lawyers, real estate agents, you know, all sorts of shops, you know, you name it.

BRIGGS: In short, the community was thriving. And while not all of these business owners and professionals were as wealthy as J.B. Stradford, he was in good company. 

ELLSWORTH: There was a minority of people who did quite well, who lived in nice, modern, two-story homes, with pianos and crystal chandeliers and automobiles and all that. But also it was a place where people shared ideas. There were book clubs, lecture groups, societies like that. So it was an African American version of the American dream, made real in the middle of the country in 1920, 1921. 

BRIGGS: On May 31, 1921, that dream turned into a nightmare. A white mob, spurred by a rumor that a Black man had assaulted a white girl, rioted. By the end of the next day, the group had murdered anywhere from 75 to as many as 300 Black residents, destroying their family homes and businesses.

What happened after that was an elaborate cover-up: a systematic attempt to erase the massacre from news accounts and history books.

ELLSWORTH: The story of the massacre was actively suppressed for 50 years. Tulsa's white daily newspapers went out of their way not to mention the massacre. Official records disappeared.

BRIGGS: I’m Amy Briggs, executive editor of National Geographic History magazine, and you’re listening to Overheard: A show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have at Nat Geo, and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.

This week, we explore one of the worst incidents of racial violence in American history, people’s attempts to erase it, and the historians and scientists determined to recover the full story of the Tulsa Race Massacre. 

More after the break.

A little more than a hundred years ago, Tulsa, Oklahoma, was booming, thanks to the discovery of the richest small oil field in the world at the time, just across the Arkansas River. The industry attracted both white and Black residents, and money was flowing, as historian Scott Ellsworth explains.

ELLSWORTH: Blacks were not allowed to work in the oil fields in the oil industry. But again, there was so much money, there were lots of jobs for African American women in particular, some men as well, working as maids, as domestic servants, as cooks in well-to-do oil mansions of these oil barons. There were jobs for Black men as janitors, as cooks, as dishwashers, as day laborers, whatnot. And the pay was good and it was steady.

BRIGGS: Because of Oklahoma’s Jim Crow and residential segregation laws, nearly all of Tulsa’s African American residents settled in a 35-square-block area of the city known as the Greenwood district.

ELLSWORTH: So you have Black men and women going off during the working week, working in the white community, getting a good, solid paycheck and then coming back to Greenwood. But they didn't spend their paychecks in the white neighborhoods. They didn't go downtown to shop where they were being treated as second-class citizens, where there are other fears as well, too. Instead, they shopped with Black merchants.

BRIGGS: And so Greenwood and its businesses take off, so much so that years later it earns the nickname Black Wall Street. Among the most successful is J.B. Stradford, the son of a freed slave who went on to graduate from Oberlin and then Indiana law school.

The Stradford Hotel was one of the largest Black-owned hotels in the country, a massive structure with 54 suites, a dining room, pool hall, a saloon, and a barber shop. The property was valued at $75,000. Adjusting for inflation, it would be worth about $2 million today. 

ELLSWORTH: The wealth in Greenwood was significant, there's no question about it. And it was stable. People were coming in all the time. Let's come to Tulsa, let's come to Greenwood, and let's have our chance in this brand-new town.

BRIGGS: While researching his book Death in a Promised Land—one of the first on the massacre—Scott Ellsworth had to dig into what race relations were like before the violence of May 1921.

BRIGGS: So in the late 19-teens what's the relationship between the Black Tulsa community and the white community? Is there tension, is there stability? What's that like?

ELLSWORTH: Well, sure, there's tension, but it's important to remember that that's true nationwide. I mean, the years right around and after World War I are some of the darkest times of race relations in the United States. 

BRIGGS: This period, beginning in 1917 and lasting to about 1923, included Red Summer, when white mobs around the country launched a reign of terror to destroy prosperous Black communities.

ELLSWORTH: This is the era of race riots. And what everyone understood a race riot to mean in those days, is there’s some sort of a spark of an incident between Blacks and whites that then turns into something much larger—where African Americans are attacked in in downtown neighborhoods, mobs and gangs of whites will invade African American neighborhoods, intent on burning, looting, killing. There was a major riot in Chicago. There were also riots in East St. Louis and Washington, D.C. So this is a very tense time, and it's still a tense time in Oklahoma as well.

BRIGGS: In 1921 Black Tulsans’ worst fears were realized. It started with an alleged incident in an elevator in the Drexel Building downtown. Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old shoeshiner from the parlor down the street, entered the building on the afternoon of May 30, Memorial Day, in order to use the restroom on the top floor. As an African American, he was barred from using the facilities where he worked.

ELLSWORTH: In those days, elevators weren't automatic, but instead you had an elevator operator who would turn this wheel to move the elevator up and down the floors. And they were typically young white women. And the elevator operator in the Drexel Building was a 17-year-old white girl by the name of Sarah Page.

BRIGGS: It’s not entirely clear what happened that Monday, but historians have an idea.

ELLSWORTH: What we think happened is that Dick Rowland tripped as he entered the elevator, that he threw his arms out, maybe caught Sarah Page along the shoulder, along her dress, maybe ripped her dress a little bit because he's trying to break the fall. She screams, and he realizes this is great trouble and he just takes off and runs away.

BRIGGS: Most people who knew Dick Rowland, including Robert Fairchild, the young shoeshiner we heard from earlier, believed he was incapable of assault. But a white store clerk spots Rowland running from the Drexel Building and calls the police. And the local white newspaper—the Tulsa Tribune—reports on it.

ELLSWORTH: And so in their first bulldog afternoon edition, there was a front-page article which was this incredible write-up titled, “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator.” They said that Dick Rowland had been seen stalking Sarah Page. But that wasn’t all the newspaper had. Because in this now lost editorial, it was titled “To Lynch a Negro Tonight.” So by four o'clock that afternoon, there was lynch talk already on the streets of Tulsa. And that soon leads to a mob of whites gathering outside of the courthouse with the express purpose of lynching Dick Rowland.

BRIGGS: Concerned by the editorial's call to action, a group of armed African American World War I vets drive down to the courthouse that night and tell the sheriff that they want to defend the courthouse. The sheriff tells them to leave.

ELLSWORTH: As they're leaving, an elderly white man went up to a tall, Black vet and said, Where are you going with that gun? The vet says, I'm going to use it if I have to. The white man says, Like hell you are—give it to me. A struggle ensues. A shot goes off, and the single worst incident of racial violence in America begins.

BRIGGS: Oh wow. It just—it's a snowball. One thing after another. So after that shot happens, what happens next?

ELLSWORTH: So once that first shot goes off, it's followed by another and another and another. We don't know how many people were killed or wounded right there at the courthouse, but it was certainly more than one. These members of the mob, they then start fanning out through downtown and to try to find—they don't care about Dick Rowland anymore. Now they're out to get any African American at all. It's this blood rage that's going through them.

BRIGGS: At this point, no one is safe.

ELLSWORTH: You have Black workers who are janitors, dishwashers, whatever, who are getting off of work—they have no idea what's going on—who are gunned down in the streets. We know an African American woman was gunned down on South Boulder Avenue.

BRIGGS: That night, members of the white mob gathered to hatch a plan to invade Greenwood at dawn. 

ELLSWORTH: We don't know how many whites there were—in the thousands. Whether it's two thousand, five thousand, we have no idea. They're there in different groups on the outskirts of the African American community. We know that right after dawn, there was a siren that was heard like a factory whistle. We still don't know where it came from. And once that happened, the white mob then begins this march into Greenwood and begins the destruction of the African American district.

BRIGGS: There are accounts of airplanes dropping fire on homes and businesses. What's your understanding of those accounts?

ELLSWORTH: So that's a really great question. It's one I've studied for a long time, and I think we know what's going on.

BRIGGS: Ellsworth interviewed a white man who recalled that back in the 1950s he spoke with an aviator who claimed to have flown a plane that day.

ELLSWORTH: He went and commandeered with another guy—commandeered one of these planes, and that this man lit sticks of dynamite and threw them out of an airplane. I don't think it was a lot of sticks of dynamite, but I think it happened. And when you have evidence from both the African American community and the white community that lines up, that's very, very powerful. But the reality is that Greenwood was destroyed on the ground.

BRIGGS: Prominent Oklahoma attorney Buck C. Franklin, father of noted historian John Hope Franklin, wrote a harrowing eyewitness account of the event. The yellowed, 10-page missive is now held at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

VOICEOVER (JOSH C. THOMAS): “Lurid flames roared and belched and licked their forked tongues into the air. Smoke ascended the sky in thick, black volumes, and amid it all, the planes—now a dozen or more in number—still hummed and darted here and there with the agility of natural birds of the air… I paused and waited for an opportune time to escape. Where, oh where, is our splendid fire department with its half dozen stations? I asked myself. Is the city in conspiracy with the mob?” 

BRIGGS: After the shooting, arson, and fire-bombing ended, all 35 square blocks of the once vital Greenwood district were reduced to rubble. The death count remains in dispute, but Scott puts reasonable estimates from as low as 75 to as high as 300.

People in power have often reacted to difficult truths by simply erasing them from history, a practice about as old as history itself. The ancient Egyptians did it. The Romans did it.

And after the 1921 race massacre, Tulsa pulled out this same playbook. Accounts of what happened to people like J.B. Stradford and destruction of the Greenwood district almost seemed to vanish. The final resting places of Black Tulsans killed in the mayhem were unmarked and lost.

BRIGGS: When you were first doing your work, how much of this was talked or written about? I think one of the things that's so compelling and mind-boggling about this event is how it was erased. 

ELLSWORTH: Well, it's important to remember that the story of the massacre was actively suppressed for 50 years—certainly in the white community, was actively suppressed. We know that there was an alleged list of riot casualties in the police department as late as the 1960s. It's vanished. It was very, very difficult to get photographs. As we understand it, the Tulsa police chief, in the week after the riots, sent his officers to the different photography studios in town to confiscate any photographs of riot dead. As late as the early 1970s, researchers had their jobs and lives threatened for simply trying to research the massacre.

BRIGGS: As a Tulsa native, Scott recalls that schools in Oklahoma also didn’t teach the history.

ELLSWORTH: In 1969 we had a textbook. There was a very brief write-up about the massacre. My teacher didn't teach it incidentally, but it said something like, well, there was an incident in an elevator and then some hotheads got out of hand. There was some shooting and some burning. And then the good white people rebuilt the community. That was that.

BRIGGS: But Scott says that ironically, African Americans in Greenwood also didn’t want to talk about the massacre.

ELLSWORTH: There were massacre survivors I knew in the 1990s who were still suffering from PTSD from what they had experienced. But if you think about massacre survivors, like we think about World War II veterans, like Holocaust survivors, people who are very reluctant to talk about what they had experienced. And many survivors in the African American community didn't want to burden their children and grandchildren with these traumatic events. And they wanted to look ahead to the future. 

BRIGGS: Tulsa’s attempts to look into the future have come in fits and starts as it tried to reckon with the events of 1921. A commission organized in the late 1990s issued a major report detailing the riot and devastation to Greenwood. Scholars and scientists began looking for burial sites of massacre victims and pointed to potential mass grave sites at the city’s Oaklawn Cemetery.

PHOEBE STUBBLEFIELD: So the thought was that somewhere in the Black Potters’ Field, there were individual burials that were obviously unmarked; we couldn't find them.

BRIGGS: That’s forensic anthropologist Phoebe Stubblefield, who worked on the project in the late ‘90s. But politics bogged down these early efforts, and they were halted.

As the 100th anniversary approached, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum restarted the work. And in the fall of 2020, archeologists and historians confirmed their suspicions. Using radar, scientists found evidence of closely arranged coffins.

STUBBLEFIELD: So then in October, we hit this mass grave. And Scott Ellsworth had recorded a narrative where someone had said my relative was made at gunpoint to deliver six coffins to a low spot in Oaklawn.

BRIGGS: Like Scott, Phoebe also has ties to Tulsa.

STUBBLEFIELD: I did not know about the race massacre until 1998—or whenever it was that Scott Ellsworth first contacted me that year for the commission.

BRIGGS: Though she’s a California native, her parents were born and raised in Tulsa. And like many Black Tulsans, they never discussed the massacre with their children.

STUBBLEFIELD: My parents hadn’t mentioned the history of the riot. They knew about it, but they only mentioned it after I said, I'm doing this thing. There was a riot there. Yeah, your Aunt Anna lost her house.

BRIGGS: Archeologists are planning to begin work in June 2021 to determine as much as they can about the remains they find.

STUBBLEFIELD: So I need to see if, by the way they're distributed and the distribution of sex and if there's bullets present, if they could be associated with this event.

BRIGGS: Given the numbers of dead reported, the work will be painstaking. But for anthropologists, bones hold clues for determining both sex and race. And by some accounts, dozens of white Tulsans were killed in the massacre, either by African Americans in self-defense, or by friendly fire. Phoebe has worked with enough remains to be able to determine the difference.

STUBBLEFIELD: This area here, the nasal aperture, the interorbital distance, the nasal aperture. That's the lazy approach. I'm not recommending this. I will look at it offhand, if someone needs a quick verbal assessment, and I'll go, Yeah, that is either one of two populations I'm very familiar with.

BRIGGS: Phoebe explains that other parts of the body—the pelvis, crania, even teeth—also hold clues for identification by ethnic ancestry and biological sex. But she’s particularly looking for signs of injury from the shootings that took place during the riot.

STUBBLEFIELD: Is there trauma that is observable, or the indicator of trauma, like having a bullet still in the body. I'm hoping for staining. But we’ll see. If the copper jacket [outer casing] traveled with the [bullet’s] lead body and they stayed together, then they both could still be in the [person’s] body. So the copper would leave a stain after all these years—green.

BRIGGS: But beyond the science, Phoebe hopes to contribute to filling out the Greenwood story.

STUBBLEFIELD: Well, one of the ultimate goals is to be able to say that this individual with a name has had this trauma associated with their death and they are one of the heroes of Greenwood.

BRIGGS: Unfortunately, one of those heroes of Greenwood, J.B. Stradford, lost his fortune, was falsely charged, jumped bail, and fled to Chicago, where he died in 1935 at age 75. According to his family, he was still despondent over his fugitive status and the loss of his fortune. But his descendants, like many Tulsans, were committed to correcting the story. And I learned about a surprising connection to him, right here in the office.

More after the break.

BRIGGS: So I was lucky enough to get to work with you on a feature for History magazine that you wrote for us on the Tulsa massacre.

TUCKER TOOLE: Yes.

BRIGGS: And I learned after the fact, because you didn't tell me that you have a family connection to Tulsa. Can you tell me what your family's connection is?

TOOLE: So I'm related to J.B. Stradford, who was touted in the research that I found when I was writing the story, as, you know, one of the most wealthy men on Black Wall Street, or Greenwood, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, at that time and in the country. And he is my third great-grandfather.

BRIGGS: That is Tucker Toole, who works with me as a history resident on the History and Culture Desk for National Geographic. Tucker’s a talented young writer, and I reached out to him to do a story on the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race riot. So when I found out about his relationship to J.B. Stradford after he turned in the story, I was floored.

Tucker grew up hearing stories about his formidable ancestor.

TOOLE: I knew of J.B. and the name. I had seen his face when I was younger. I remember my grandfather having conversations with me about how important that legacy is.

BRIGGS: In doing research for his article, Tucker sat down with his grandfather, Theron C. Toole, to learn more about J.B. Stradford and what happened to him after he left Tulsa. 

THERON TOOLE: They had, all these years, tried to blame the riot, point to him as being a major instigator of the riot.

BRIGGS: But thanks to the efforts of Stradford’s descendants, many who have also become lawyers and judges, the state of Oklahoma gave Stradford an honorary executive pardon in 1996.

THERON TOOLE: We have plaques that was issued in the name of the state and government that absolve him and talk about the situation. 

BRIGGS: What the family wouldn’t get back, however, is the fortune that J.B. Stradford lost when the white mob destroyed his home, business properties, and forced him out of town. The loss of that generational wealth is something that descendants of Greenwood’s entrepreneurs continue to grapple with.

TOOLE: In my grandfather's words, he said, You would have been born with a silver spoon in your mouth, if this didn't happen. Sort of in a lighthearted way, but, you know, it's really hard to think about. Because we know this isn't the only event or massacre that Black people have faced in the United States. But we know that these type of events have generational impact. 

BRIGGS: Some economists estimate the financial losses from the Tulsa race riots at more than 25 million dollars today. But in terms of lost generational wealth, the number tops $600 million. Human Rights Watch issued a report in 2020 making a case for reparations for descendants. They and others are calling on federal, state, and local governments to come up with adequate ways to repair the harm.

What's harder to calculate are the effects of decades of erasing the history of what actually happened in Tulsa. But organizations like the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, historians, and scientists like Phoebe Stubblefield are committed to reclaiming the story.

STUBBLEFIELD: I'm here for the decedents, and I hope that that will turn into a connection with their descendants. I think Scott and I both had this mission of let's tell as many people as possible so there won't be a round two of hiding the history. I don't want this story to be hidden again.

More after the break.

BRIGGS: For more on the Tulsa Race Massacre, check out the cover story on the anniversary from writer Deneen Brown in the upcoming June issue of National Geographic. You can also find the Race Card, a project from journalist Michele Norris, to capture people’s thoughts on race in just six words.

And poet Elizabeth Alexander will reflect on what it means to be Black and free in a country that undermines Black freedom.

Nat Geo subscribers can check out Tucker Toole’s piece on how Greenwood was destroyed by the Tulsa Race Massacre, in the May/June issue of National Geographic History magazine.

And soon, you’ll also be able read a personal essay Tucker wrote about his ancestor J.B. Stradford on our website.

And check out Scott Ellsworth’s new book on the Tulsa Race Massacre called “The Ground Breaking: An American City and Its Search for Justice.”

Finally, stay tuned this summer for National Geographic’s documentary Red Summer, which chronicles white supremacist terrorism and race riots that took place across the country in 1919, shortly before the Tulsa Race Massacre.

That’s all in your show notes, right there in your podcast app.

Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Brian Gutierrez, Jacob Pinter, Laura Sim, and Ilana Strauss.

Our senior producer is Carla Wills, who produced this episode.

Our senior editor is Eli Chen.

Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan.

Our fact-checkers are Julie Beer and Robin Palmer.

Hansdale Hsu sound-designed and engineered this episode. He also composed our theme music.

The music in this episode was composed by Thomas Ryan of PUSH.audio.

Joshua C. Thomas was the voice of Buck C. Franklin.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.

Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.

Susan Goldberg is National Geographic’s editorial director.

And I’m your host, Amy Briggs. Thanks for listening and see you next time.


SHOW NOTES

Want more?

For more on the Tulsa Race Massacre, check out the cover story on the anniversary from writer Deneen Brown in the upcoming June issue of National Geographic. You can also find the Race Card, a project from journalist Michele Norris, to capture people’s thoughts on race in just six words.

And poet Elizabeth Alexander will reflect on what it means to be Black and free in a country that undermines Black freedom.

Also explore:

Check out Scott Ellsworth’s new book on the Tulsa Race Massacre, The Ground Breaking: An American City and Its Search for Justice.

Finally, stay tuned this summer for National Geographic’s documentary, Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer, which chronicles white supremacist terrorism and race riots that took place across the country in 1919, shortly before the Tulsa Race Massacre.