It is incontrovertible that on the evening of 31 May and early morning of 1 June 1921 a race riot took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It began because of an incident in an elevator between an African American young man and a young woman of European descent. The next day the young man was arrested and held in the county courthouse. That evening crowd gathered outside, and members of the local African American community reasonably felt that there was a strong threat of the young man’s being lynched, so they went to the courthouse to offer their help to the Sheriff in protecting his prisoner. Soon after that, shooting ensued and continued until well after midnight.
Starting in the night and continuing well into the morning, the local National Guard unit, activated by the Governor, began to round up the African American population and placing them in custody. Special deputies were recruited from among the white rioters. As the neighborhoods were cleared out, the homes and businesses were looted and burned. By 11 am, the Oklahoma City National Guard arrived, Martial Law was declared, but not before the Greenwood community was left in ruins. People died, were humiliated and terrorized, and had their livelihoods destroyed.
Beyond these facts, we are left with opinion, folklore and politics. The official tally of people killed is 39 dead, and the Red Cross listing of hundreds who died over the next year as a result of the riot and privations of the internment and rebuilding the community. Others claim that the dead on the night of the riot numbered in the hundreds, if not thousands, and that the bodies were driven out in trucks and buried in mass graves around the city.
This sort of folklore is why I prefer to work with the photographs.
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