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This Month in Business History

Black Wall Street in Tulsa, OK Destroyed on 6/1/1921

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Tulsa, Tulsa County, Oklahoma. May 1911. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

On May 31 and June 1, 1921, mobs of white residents attacked Black residents, homes, and businesses, as well as cultural and public institutions in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, OK, an oil boom city. Greenwood was also know as "Black Wall Street," one of the wealthiest Black communities in the United States. As a result of this attack, thirty-five blocks were systematically looted and burned, destroying 190 businesses and leaving 10,000 people homeless. The property loss estimated by the Tulsa Real Estate Exchange was the equivalent of $31 million in 2017, likely an underestimation.

In order to orient yourself to the area of destruction and reconstruction, you may want to examine the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps from before and after 1921. Some of these maps are available digitally through the Library of Congress, but many are also available at local public libraries, where they are good sources of genealogical and business history information. This digital map available from May 1911 includes the Greenwood District, which was segregated at the railroad tracks. The Library of Congress has a digitized collection of Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps from Tulsa, OK from 1915-1929 that shows this destruction. No insurance claims were honored for African Americans in the Greenwood District, and according to the Red Cross reporting, by July 1921, there were lawsuits filed by African Americans with claims over $4 million, which would be worth nearly $60 million today.

The most significant humanitarian relief to the disaster came from the Red Cross, which was designated the official relief agency by Mayor T.D. Evans. Upon finding out about the situation, the Director of Relief from the St. Louis office, Maurice Willows, contacted the organization's Washington, D.C. headquarters to request an expansion of the mission of the organization from responding to natural disasters to aiding the survivors of this man-made disaster, which left 10,000 homeless African Americans in camps. The Red Cross provided critical medical aid by setting up a hospital to care for individuals with a variety of needs from injuries to dysentery, and by vaccinating victims to prevent the further outbreak of infectious disease. There were many individuals and groups who volunteered to assist the displaced, particularly women, including the Chicago company of Marvin Garvey's Black Cross Nurses. Funds were collected across the country to aid those who had become unemployed and homeless, with the Omaha Monitor reporting on a collection it started, noting the contribution of waiters from the Blackstone Hotel.

The Red Cross provided temporary tent housing with sides and floors of lumber, and Mr. Willows, an advocate for rebuilding Greenwood, developed a more permanent housing plan and secured funding. The Red Cross promoted the need for a proper sanitary sewage system to be in place before reconstruction. Rebuilding the district was determined to be the responsibility of the city, and the Red Cross refused to be part of the process, as the relief and reconstruction efforts became politicized. The mission of the organization was to provide relief by ensuring that: all homeless families were provided with shelter, laundry, and cooking facilities; families were reunited; destitute women and children were cared for; and the able-bodied were placed on a self-supporting basis, This tragedy resulted in massive job loss in the community.

The Red Cross documented the violence in reports, which are available through the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum. The Association surveyed 1,765 families and found that 1,115 homes were burned and 314 homes were looted but not burned. Victims were relocated to a variety of areas,& from Chicago to Houston, with approximately 300, mostly women and children, leaving to stay with relatives. In the preface of the 1921 report, Mr. Willows wrote: "The story of the tragedy enacted on the night of May 31st, 1921, and the morning of June 1st, 1921 has been told and retold, with all sorts of variations in the press of the country. Whatever people choose to call it a "race riot"; "massacre"; a "negro uprising;" or whatnot, the word has not yet been coined which can correctly describe the affair. This report attempts to picture the situation as representatives of the Red Cross found it, and to record the activities of the organization to bringing order out of chaos and administering relief to the innocents."

Print Resources

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Library of Congress Digital Resources

The following resources created or digitized by the Library of Congress can be used to find out more about the Tulsa Massacre as well as related events of the time.


Internet Resources

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