Tulsa Historian Looks Back At Race Massacre On 99th Anniversary

Monday, June 1st 2020, 8:11 am
By: Craig Day


In the first two decades of the 1900s, Tulsa's Greenwood district was a hustling and bustling place. Full of life and energy, Greenwood was an affluent and thriving African American business district.

"You could hear music; you could smell food. You could see anybody you wanted to. Just stand on the corner long enough, they would come by," said Tulsa Historian Princetta Newman.

The area was known nationally as Black Wall Street. 

In late May 1921, everything would change. Reports vary, but the basics of what happened include a young black man riding in an elevator with a white woman.

Accounts of an incident circulated among Tulsa's white community, becoming exaggerated to allegations of sexual assault. A white mob burned most of Greenwood over 18 hours.

"Your living arrangements are gone, your furniture is gone, your clothes are gone, your food is gone, everything is just gone," Newman said.

Newmans' grandmother lived through the Tulsa Race Riot, now called the Tulsa Race Massacre. 

The mob burned more than 1200 homes, dozens of black owned businesses, even a hospital, school and churches.

"It makes me angry to hear how they had to live," said Newman.

Over the years, Newman has collected 1500 photographs of life in the Greenwood District, before and after the race massacre. 

145 of them are on display at the Smithsonian. 

She's writing a book where she tells the histories of a number of families, of what life was like, and how people overcame tragedy.

"My little problems in life, I know have to be nothing compared to what they endured," Newman said.

The story about what the black community endured in the 1921 Race Massacre is getting more, long overdue attention. 

Newman believes it's good for children to learn about what happened.

"Got to have the opportunity to learn of it, it's got to go into the schools," said Newman. "It's got to go into their minds this is physically possible, and in Tulsa?"

Newman believes it's important to know the past, to ensure it doesn't happen again and children play an important role in that, as we are now a year away from the 100th anniversary of a tragedy not widely known about for far too long.

"That they grow, and love, and strive for a better Tulsa, a better world," said Newman.