What Really Happened at the Tulsa Massacre?

HBO's "Watchmen" opened with a visceral imagining of the Tulsa Massacre in 1921. That destruction of "Black Wall Street" was real, and a moment that history books have yet to fully reckon with.

Believed to be the single worst incident of racial violence in American history

One of the worst instances of racial violence in U.S. history is one many Americans don’t even know happened. For 18 hours in 1921, the black neighborhood of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma was burned to the ground by a white lynch mobs. On May 30, 1921, Black teenager Dick Rowland was arrested for allegedly assaulting a white elevator operator. When an angry white mob threatened to lynch Rowland, a group of armed black WWI veterans arrived to protect the teen. Pandemonium soon broke out.

Soon, thousands of white citizens, deputized by the police, began looting and burning black homes and businesses in Greenwood. The Greenwood district was known as Black Wall Street — a thriving black-owned business district and the wealthiest black community in the U.S. Many claimed the attack was motivated by anxieties about new black financial mobility. During the massacre, firebombs were dropped from planes. 1,256 houses were burned and up to 300 people were killed. Property damage amounted to up to $32 million in 2019 metrics according to the Oklahoma Commission.

In 2001, an official Race Riot Commission was organized to review the details of the event. No one will ever know the absolute truth of what happened during the hours of the Race Riot. However, by examining historical resources, members of the Race Riot Commission determined a number of details to be undeniable. “These are not myths, not rumors, not speculations, not questioned. They are the historical record.” No prosecutions took place for any actions committed during the massacre, and the tragedy was subsequently omitted in local, state, and federal history books. It wasn’t until the riot’s 75th anniversary that the state of Oklahoma finally expressed a desire to bring the events to light.