TULSA, Okla. — John W. Franklin wept as he read his grandfather’s account of the Tulsa Race Massacre.
The fragile, yellowing, 90-year-old document, which recounts the worst race massacre in U.S. history, now sits in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
“I wept the first time I read it, the second time I read it and the third time I read it,” he said about B.C. Franklin’s eyewitness account of the 1921 massacre.
It describes the horrors in Tulsa's affluent, thriving Greenwood District, when a white mob — fueled by racism, envy and fear — murdered, looted and burned out the Black community with impunity. The account, written in 1931, was not discovered until 2015 in a storage unit.
For decades, many details of what happened in Tulsa a century ago were "rigorously suppressed," said John Franklin, now senior manager emeritus of the museum. And to the extent that what happened in Tulsa came down in history at all, it was inaccurate, blaming Black residents for what happened by calling it the "Negro uprising." Later, it was called the Tulsa Race Riot; today, it is known, more accurately, as the Tulsa Race Massacre.
B.C. Franklin called it a "race war."
“It’s crucial that we rename this event for what it is," said Paul Gardullo, supervisory curator at the museum. “I think the term that is being used right now — Tulsa Race Massacre — is the right term."
John Franklin thinks other terms do a better job conveying what happened. He notes that the Jewish press referred to the 1921 attack as a “pogrom" — the organized massacre and expulsion of a particular religious or ethnic group, such as Jews had experienced in Europe.
“I use the term pogrom as well," Franklin said.
The assault, which began May 31, 1921, lasted less than 16 hours and officially killed 38, according to an analysis released in 2001 by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.
A century later, the exact death toll — now estimated between 100 and 300 — may never be known because bodies lying in streets and yards were quickly scooped up and buried in unmarked mass graves without a coroner’s report or death certificate. Today, state archaeologists continue looking for mass grave sites in Tulsa.
Phil Armstrong, project director of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, said Tulsa was a “powder keg of racial animosity” at the time. The explosion was triggered May 30, 1921, when Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old shoe shiner, was accused of assaulting white public elevator operator Sarah Page, 17, according to the 2001 commission report.
"What happened next is anyone’s guess," the commission concluded. "After the riot, the most common explanation was that Dick Rowland tripped as he got onto the elevator and, as he tried to catch his fall, he grabbed onto the arm of Sarah Page, who then screamed."
There is no record of Page's version of events, but the next morning, Rowland was arrested. An angry white lynch mob gathered outside the courthouse on May 31. A group of armed Black men then arrived, intending to protect Rowland. The groups scuffled and a shot was fired, and events quickly escalated.
“These white men are deputized, given weapons and they raze the community," John Franklin said.
What is known for certain is that the mob destroyed more than 1,200 Black homes and businesses, along with churches, schools, a hospital and a library in Greenwood, which because of its affluence was also known as Black Wall Street.
All charges against Rowland were eventually dismissed.
B.C. Franklin, a prominent Greenwood attorney, described Black residents being attacked with a machine gun, buildings being set on fire by "turpentine balls" dropped from airplanes, and mothers frantically searching for missing children. Some Black residents attempted to fight back, while authorities — some of whom actually participated — did nothing to stop the carnage.
Martial law was eventually declared, and thousands of Black survivors were interned. During that imprisonment, white residents looted Greenwood. In all, Black residents filed more than $4 million in insurance claims. All were denied.
Period of suppression
“By the '20s, Tulsa isn’t talking about this," John Franklin said. "The Tulsa press isn’t talking about this. We begin the period of suppression.”
People who tried to investigate it were threatened, he said, and facts — including the use of airplanes to drop incendiary devices for the first time on an American city — were denied.
Suppression went on for decades; only relatively recently has the massacre been discussed, investigated and brought to the forefront. Still, John Franklin finds it telling of how far the country has yet to go that what happened is only now accurately characterized as a massacre. And while history knows the names of many of the Black victims and survivors, it has not recorded one name of any of the whites who committed atrocities.
He also thinks suppression has given way to what he characterized as "avoidance" — Black residents don't talk about it because they don’t want their children traumatized; white residents don’t want to feel guilty and accept responsibility.
“America doesn’t grapple well with its history of violence, especially racial violence," Gardullo said. “We need to help people develop their comfort with discomfort. We can’t avoid the past. People coming face to face with the reality of this story creates an atmosphere where avoidance gives way to empathy, and from empathy to action.”
'The other story ...'
Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, a Tulsa resident, led the push in 2019 to include the massacre in the state’s academic standards for the first time. Prior to 2019, the massacre was included as “a reference point,” or an example to teach a particular concept, like genocide, she said. But with the Legislature’s blessing, the massacre must now explicitly be taught in an age-appropriate way beginning in elementary school. In 2019, her agency worked with historians to draft a framework to guide districts when teaching the massacre, and it includes primary documents and resources to enhance the teaching.
While districts must teach it, the instructional materials and textbook selections are left up to local school district leaders.
Hofmeister said the massacre is now included in state and national history texts, but still not at the level of detail Oklahoma educators believe it deserves.
Armstrong, the centennial project manager, said there’s an ongoing push to make the massacre required teaching nationally. But Hofmeister said that's not enough; schools also have to teach the resiliency of the bustling Greenwood community, both before the massacre and after it.
“The other story people don’t know is the story of Black success that engendered the riot and the story of Black resilience," Gardullo said.
Monroe Nichols, a former member of the centennial commission, said that for decades it was more convenient not to talk about the massacre, but he now believes the events of Greenwood, along with the new Greenwood Rising museum being constructed in the district, will live on long after the international media spotlight generated by the centennial fades.
Nichols also said the centennial is only the beginning of efforts to educate the country and world about what happened 100 years ago.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of curiosity around what happened there,” he said. “I hope what the curiosity turns into is real recognition, recognition in the history books.”
CNHI reporters Janelle Stecklein, Adrian O'Hanlon III, Kaylea M. Hutson-Miller and Andy Ostmeyer contributed to this report.