Post World War I, racial tensions had culminated in the Red Summer of 1919 when violence broke out in at least twenty-five cities, including Chicago and Washington, D.C. The riots originated from wartime racial tensions. Industrial war production and massive wartime service created vast labor shortages, and thousands of Black southerners traveled to the North and Midwest to escape the traps of southern poverty. But the so-called Great Migration sparked significant racial conflict as white northerners and returning veterans fought to reclaim their jobs and their neighborhoods from new Black migrants.
Many Black Americans, who had fled the Jim Crow South and traveled halfway around the world to fight for the United States, would not so easily accept postwar racism. The overseas experience of Black Americans and their return triggered a dramatic change in Black communities. W. E. B. Du Bois wrote boldly of returning soldiers: “We return. We return from fighting. We return fighting. Make way for Democracy!” But white Americans desired a return to the status quo, a world that did not include social, political, or economic equality for Black people.
Race riots had rocked the nation before, but the Red Summer was something new. Recently empowered Black Americans actively defended their families and homes from hostile white rioters, often with militant force. This behavior galvanized many in Black communities, but it also shocked white Americans who alternatively interpreted Black resistance as a desire for total revolution or as a new positive step in the path toward Black civil rights. In the riots’ aftermath, James Weldon Johnson wrote, “Can’t they understand that the more Negroes they outrage, the more determined the whole race becomes to secure the full rights and privileges of freemen?” Those six hot months in 1919 forever altered American society and roused and terrified those that experienced the sudden and devastating outbreaks of violence.
In 1921, Tulsa, Oklahoma saw one of the most violent attacks motivated by race in the country. The Black community of Greenwood was a thriving, economically successful community. This area was known as the “Black Wall Street” due to its economic success.
The Tulsa Massacre of 1921was inspired by an alleged attack upon a White woman named Sarah Page by Dick Rowland. Rowland was taken into custody and a lynching was said to have been planned. Members of the Black community attempted to stop this lynching, and a violent altercation erupted into a riot. This riot devolved into a full-fledged massacre and destruction of Greenwood.
Bands of White attackers descended into Greenwood to attack and kill Black men of the community, as well as loot and burn businesses. This attack only ended when state authorities instituted martial law. The details of this attack had been obscured over the years, mostly downplayed by White authorities. There was little to no justice served for any of the crimes committed. The number of deaths is still unknown and property damage was extensive.