“You might argue it was Harlem, but Harlem really came on after World War I.”
Built in the early part of the century, Greenwood had 10,000 residents and a thriving business district that included everything from hotels, theaters, restaurants and night clubs to grocery stores, doctors’ offices, pharmacies, dentists, barbers, law offices and real estate agents.
There were schools, churches, a hospital and two newspapers.
But near dawn on the infamous day 100 years ago, Greenwood found itself under a vicious attack.
It’s now called the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
The mob shot anyone who was Black, including children. Homes and businesses were looted and then set ablaze.
A machine gun had been mounted on a grain elevator to help mow down the unsuspecting. At least a dozen airplanes flew overhead from which dynamite and kerosene bombs were dropped on the neighborhood.
The mob was especially brutal.
A blind man with no legs had a rope tied around him and he was dragged through the streets behind an automobile one of the massacre’s survivors told an investigative commission that was finally empaneled in 2001 – 80 years after the fact.
Another survivor told of how an elderly couple, too feeble to flee, were kneeling next to each other at their bed and praying when one of the attackers came up and shot both in the back of their heads.
The well-respected Dr. A.C. Jackson – called “the most-able Negro surgeon in America” by one of the founders of the Mayo Clinic – came out of his home with his hands up and told the mob:
“Here I am boys. Don’t shoot.”
He was promptly shot and left to bleed to death. Meantime, the hospital where he worked was burned to the ground.
The Carters’ Aunt Helen, who was 12 at the time, their mom Maxine, who was 2, and their Aunt Dell (Adele) fled out the back door of their home with their mother, Heddie Edwards.
The two youngest survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre of the Edwards Family (left to right) Adele Edwards Butler and her sister, Maxine Edwards Carter, the mother of Darnell and Michael Carter. CONTRIBUTED
Mace Edwards, Heddie’s husband, was with the family’s two boys – Clarence and Judson – at their pig farm near Guthrie, almost 90 miles away.
During the school year, Heddie lived with the girls in Greenwood so the children could attend good schools. Michael said there was only a Native American school that went to the seventh grade in the vicinity of the farm.
Darnell said Heddie and the girls first took refuge in a church that hadn’t yet been set afire and then they were rounded up and taken to one of three internment camps hastily set up to corral Blacks.
“She said they were herded to a baseball field,” Darnell said. “On the way she said she saw lots of dead Black people, mostly men and boys that, in her words, were ‘stacked up like cordwood.’”
Many of those bodies, it’s now suspected, were either dumped into three unmarked, mass graves around town or into the Arkansas River.
It’s estimated 100 to 300 Blacks were killed in the assault and more than 700 people were injured. At least 1,470 homes were burned or looted – the fire department, like the police, did almost nothing – and more than 8,000 people were left homeless.
Some 6,000 Blacks were put into fenced-in areas at a baseball park, a fairgrounds and a convention hall. The only way they could get out was with the consent of a white employer. And then they had to wear a green badge attached to their clothes.
It may seem hard to imagine this happened in America, but, in truth, there were at least 100 race massacres in the U.S between the end of the Civil War and the 1940s, said Duke University economist and author William Darity, Jr., who has done extensive research on the subject.
Two years prior to Tulsa, there were some 25 attacks in what’s called the Red Summer.
In Elaine, Arkansas, 200 Black sharecroppers and their families were killed by white soldiers.
In Ocoee, Florida, 60 Blacks were killed on Election Day when they tried to vote.
And in Chicago, 15 Blacks were killed, 500 were injured and 1,000 were left homeless after a Black boy who was rafting in an area of a lake deemed “prohibited to Negroes” was drowned by whites.
For years the Tulsa Massacre was swept under the rug. It was not talked about by whites, not legally pursued – to this day, no one has been punished or prosecuted for the crimes – nor was it mentioned in the schools. And many of the Black survivors didn’t want to discuss it and relive the pain.
That’s changed recently and especially this past week with the centennial remembrance.
Four documentaries have appeared on TV in recent days including one on CNN – “Dreamland: The Burning of Black Wall Street” – which had basketball great LeBron James as an executive producer. Another shown on the History Channel – “Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre” – was produced by Washington Wizards’ guard Russell Westbrook.
On Tuesday’s anniversary, President Joe Biden became the first sitting president to visit Greenwood. He met with three survivors of the rampage – all of them over 100 years old – and had some strong comments about what happened that day and the attempts to cover it up.
Since last October – at the urging of Tulsa’s mayor G.T. Bynum, who reopened the investigation that was shut down by a previous mayor – a crew has been searching Oaklawn Cemetery for bodies in what’s thought to be a mass gravesite.
Thursday, five more coffins were found. Fifteen had previously been discovered.
Monday the formal exhumation will begin.
Although there is now some clarity coming to those terrible, long-hidden events of 100 years ago, there is far more damage than meets the eye.
Family trees – like the Carter’s – were forever altered.
“Our family never fully recovered from that day,” Michael said.
Darnell Carter at John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, which was established to commemorate the victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. CONTRIBUTED
‘All hell broke loose’
Greenwood prospered out of necessity back then because segregation and its Jim Crow laws prevented Blacks from going into many businesses in white Tulsa.
At the time of the massacre, it was estimated that 40% of the adults in Greenwood were professionals or skilled crafts people. But Black success often fueled white resentment and any incident could ignite confrontation.
That happened on Memorial Day in 1921 when Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old Black shoe shiner downtown, went to use the only bathroom he could, a “Colored Only” facility on the fourth floor of the Drexel Building.
He had to take the elevator, which that day was run by 17-year-old Sarah Page, who was white.
The hand-operated lift would sometimes lurch as it stopped and the doors opened and its thought that’s what happened as Rowland got into the car. As he fell, he instinctively reached out to stabilize himself and grabbed Page’s arm. She screamed, he fled and a nearby clerk called police to report an attempted assault.
Rowland was arrested the next day and the Tulsa Tribune immediately ran an inflated and inflammatory account under the headline: “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator.”
A white mob of some 500 people appeared outside the courthouse, which also housed the jail, and demanded the sheriff release Rowland to them. There was talk of lynching him.
Word got back to Greenwood and a group of armed Black men, many World War I veterans, went to the courthouse and told the sheriff they would help protect Rowland.
They were rebuffed and when they returned again, a white man tried to disarm a Black vet, the gun went off and, as Biden put it Tuesday: “All hell broke loose.”
The sheriff ended up handing badges and guns to many in the mob and within 24 hours, Greenwood was destroyed.
Crowds of people watch fires during the Tulsa Race Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 1, 1921. (Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa via AP, File)
Authorities tried to blame the massacre – which it called a riot – on the armed Greenwood residents.
Facing trumped up charges, several prominent Black citizens fled the city and never returned.
But some people refused to yield, none more so than the congregation of the Mount Zion Baptist Church.
Over the years they had raised and borrowed the $92,000 needed to build their worship house and it had been open less than two months when it was targeted in the massacre by machine guns and then burned down.
Afterward, the insurance company refused compensation, using an escape clause to avoid payment for damages caused in “a riot.”
The church members who remained, kept their faith, took 21 years to pay off their initial debt and then rebuilt.
Today their emblem of Black perseverance is on the National Register of Historic Places.
‘Genie is out of the bottle now’
“My grandmother (Heddie) was a Church of God minister and during the Dust Bowl, it was very hard for the farm to produce,” Michael said of the droughts that ravaged Oklahoma in the mid-1930s. “In that environment of desperation almost, she accepted the pastorate of the Washington Street Church of God in Springfield, Ohio.”
She moved to Clark County with her three daughters in 1935, Darnell said. Mace and one son stayed behind.
Maxine worked as a domestic and a cook and eventually married Darnell Carter Sr., who became the warden of the Clark County Jail. Living on Lexington Avenue in Springfield’s West End, the couple raised three children:
Nancy, who died last summer, Darnell and Michael.
While their mother never talked about the Tulsa Race Massacre, Michael said he did hear about it from a Black history teacher – Louis Butler – at South High.
Hettie Edwards, the grandmother of Michel and Darnell Carter. The Edwards home in the Greenwood section of Tulsa was one of some 1,250 burned down by a rampaging white mob in the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. The Edwards family escaped, but between 100 and 300 Black people were killed with many thought to be buried in unmarked mass graves. Hettie later moved to Springfield, Ohio, with her daughters and served as a minister. CONTRIBUTED
In Tulsa the incident was never addressed until 1997 when Don Ross, a Black state legislator authored a bill that created what was then called the Tulsa Race Riot Commission.
The investigation – under suppressive political pressure – eventually fizzled out.
“The biggest thing for me is the reluctance to talk about it,” Michael Carter said. “You often hear this refrain: ‘Just get over it. It happened in the past.’
“We never say that about the Holocaust. It’s only when you talk about experiences of Blacks in America that we shouldn’t talk about it. But not talking causes more pain.
“In the case of Greenwood, you want to it recognized and have it admitted that these were things America did to its citizens. When you do that you can heal.”
Darnell Carter at John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park which was established to commemorate the victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. CONTRIBUTED
Michael and Darnell and two other friends visited Greenwood in 2016 on their way to Ohio State’s football game at Oklahoma.
“It was really emotional,” Michael said. “You can read about something, but when you’re physically there and just kind of resurrecting some thoughts of what your family may have be going through back then, it’s pretty surreal.”
He is especially heartened when he hears people – whether it’s pro athletes using their platforms, the Tulsa mayor or the President – talking about what happened to families like his own 100 years ago,
“The genie is out of the bottle now,” he said.
That was never more evident than Tuesday when Biden addressed not only the aging survivors, but the nation, saying:
“For much too long, the history of what took place here was told in silence, cloaked in darkness. But just because history is silent, it doesn’t mean that it did not take place. And while darkness can hide much, it erases nothing.
“We can’t just choose to learn what we want to know.
“I come here to help fill the silence, because in silence, wounds deepen. As painful as it is, only in remembrance do wounds heal.”