In a 16-hour eruption of volcanic violence called the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, marauding white hooligans set upon the Greenwood District from May 31 to June 1, 1921. Planes circled about. While official reports cast the flyovers as mere reconnaissance missions, some eyewitnesses reported seeing the planes drop incendiary devices -- bombs -- on the already shell-shocked area.
The scorched earth assault on the Greenwood District left little unscathed: homes and businesses reduced to charred rubble; scores dead, dying and wounded; and hundreds homeless and destitute. More than 1,250 business and homes were destroyed. Property damage was conservatively estimated in the $1.5-2 million range in 1921 dollars.
More than 800 people were admitted to local white hospitals with injuries (the two black hospitals were burned down), and police arrested and detained more than 6,000 black Greenwood residents at three local facilities. An estimated 10,000 blacks were left homeless. The official count of the dead by the Oklahoma Department of Vital Statistics was 39, but other estimates of black fatalities vary from 55 to about 300.
Some African Americans fled Tulsa, never to return. The riot remains the worst of the many instances of mass violence against African Americans that marred the national landscape in the early 20th century. The breadth and brutality of it all etched psychic scars still palpable today.
The riot dimmed Tulsa's luster and threatened its reputation as America's economic darling. What happened, or perhaps more consequentially, what failed to happen, in its wake shaped race relations in Tulsa for decades after.
Until the late 20th century, the catastrophic riot remained shrouded in mystery, cloaked in secrecy and draped in conjecture. Despite its significance as a defining moment in the history of the city, state and nation, some Tulsa's, even more Oklahomans, and most Americans, remain largely oblivious to this event.