A National Travesty: A Comprehensive Summary of the 2001 Commission Report on the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre

by Staff Writer Britni Sharde

Editor’s Note: The term “race riot” is used several times throughout this text when referring to the official name of the report. We at the Tulsa Star fully understand that the tragic events that took place May 31st- June 1st of 1921 were indeed a massacre, not a riot. The term is only used for accuracy purposes in ensuring readers are aware of the actual name of the original report for reference needs and the like.

It was a massacre. An aggressive and barbaric act of uncontrolled individuals acting out in destruction. A deliberate disruption of a community of people, their property, and their progress. It happened the evening of May 31st, 1921 and continued through the early morning hours of June 1st, 1921. The account of what happened, the details of the racial climate before the massacre, and resolutions for restitution rest in the work of a commission report compiled 80 years after the incident took place. 

The Tulsa Race Riot Commission Report submitted to Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating in 2001 was originally proposed through House Resolution 1035 in 1997. The purpose of the report is to discuss what happened during the Massacre, develop historical records, and provide recommendations for both the community and government officials moving forward. At 20 pages long, Tulsa Race Riot: A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 was accompanied by eight other reports addressing many issues of “legislative interest and matters of enormous public consequence.” The committee members were comprised of several professionals from teachers and researchers to forensic scientists and retirees, all of whom “… comprise a uniquely special and significant contribution.” This publicly offered official document has “no binding legal authority to assign culpability, determine damages, establish remedy or order either restitution or reparations.” It does, however, provide insight into how restitution could take place and provides the “necessary appropriateness of tangible reparations” that are suggested to be dispersed to the Greenwood community and the descendants of those who were victims of the Massacre.

The Tulsa Race Riot

The details of the Massacre itself were written by historian and author of Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 Dr. Scott Ellsworth in his report titled “The Tulsa Race Riot” He indicates that 19-year-old black man Dick Rowland worked as a shoe shiner in a whites-only parlor on Main Street in downtown Tulsa. Since there were no restrooms for Black people in the facility, an arrangement was made for people of color to use the restroom in the Drexel Building located at the top floor, which required the use of a person-operated elevator. On May 30th, the elevator was operated by Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white woman.

Dr. Ellsworth makes it abundantly clear that no one knows exactly what took place in the elevator, although many presume he tripped walking into the elevator. Others suspect that the two could have had a love affair, of which many dispute. In some way, Rowland touches Sarah and she screamed, alerting a clerk from a clothing store nearby. The clerk assumed that Page was a victim of sexual assault after seeing Rowland fleeing the scene and instantly notified the police. Rowland was arrested Tuesday, May 31st by two Tulsa police officers. After his arrest, several hundred white Tulsans came to the courthouse with a desire to lynch him. However, about 25 armed black men approached the mob to protect Rowland. They requested to assist the Tulsa police in protecting Rowland but were turned away. It is reported that the first set of shots fired into the Greenwood community happened around 1 am. By 4 am, two dozen black-owned businesses and homes were set aflame and that was only the beginning of the depredation to come. 

The Final Report of the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921

Compiled by author and professor at the University of Oklahoma Danny Goble, “The Final Report of the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921” was intended to inform the public of the official findings requested by House Resolution 1035. To create this report, many community members stepped up to help with research and ads were placed in JET and EBONY magazines to contact the commission if anyone knew of survivors or witnesses with knowledge of what took place. Volunteers from all over the country contacted officials of the commission to give their insights. More than fifty ordinary citizens requested to help as unpaid researchers. Over 448 people called in to give their account to the Massacre. A large portion of this report “came from black sources that documented black experiences and recorded black observations.” 

History Knows No Fences: An Overview

In their historical approach to examining the Massacre, historians John Hope Franklin and Dr. Scott Ellsworth shed light on the city’s seemingly buried past and analyze the significance of what happened in the Massacre in detail. Franklin and Ellsworth’s cumulative research in this report shows that “Despite the many acts of courage, heroism and selflessness that occurred on May 31st and June 1st, the story of the Tulsa Race Riot [Massacre] is a chronicle of hatred and fear, of burning houses and shots fired in anger, of justice denied and dreams deferred.”

Airplanes and the Riot

In many verbal accounts over the decades, there’d been speculation of aircraft being involved in the massacre. Historian and scholar Richard S. Warner proves in his article Airplanes and the Riot that military planes were not used. However, there is reasonable evidence as well as several eyewitnesses, both black and white, that confirm the use of commercial or privately owned planes using incendiary devices to create more chaos during the Massacre.

Confirmed Deaths: A Preliminary Report

One question that remains unanswered is the exact amount of people (especially black people) that were murdered during the Massacre. Forensic anthropologist Clyde Collins-Snow could only identify “thirty-eight riot victims, along with the cause of death and burial site for each”. However, the most definite total would only start at 38. In his report “Confirmed Deaths: A Preliminary Report,” Snow elaborates on the classification of deaths and gives a data analysis of his findings. He asserts the possibility of humans remains found after the Massacre “were simply buried without documentation.” He also advises that archaeological exploration of several areas would “help provide a solution to a lingering mystery.” According to the final report, “the most accurate number is too many.”

The Investigation of Potential Mass Grave Locations for the Tulsa Race Riot and History Uncovered: Skeletal Remains as a Vehicle to the Past

State archaeologist Robert L. Brooks and geophysics professor with Oklahoma State University Alan H. Whitten contend in their report “The Investigation of Potential Mass Grave Locations for the Tulsa Race Riot” the archaeological and geophysical research methods that should be used during the search for mass graves. They also specify the equipment that should be used to conduct the research for mass graves. Searches were done over the course of five months in three phases in 1998 at Booker T. Washington Cemetery, New Block Park Cemetery, and Oaklawn Cemetery. Within the three phases of research, several anomalies were found and were scheduled to be examined at a later date. Research scientist Phoebe Stubblefield and Professor of Anthropology Dr. Lesley M. Rankin-Hill addressed how forensic and physical anthropologists could serve a role in the investigation in their report “History Uncovered: Skeletal Remains as a Vehicle to the Past.” They suggested that forensic and physical anthropology would “help to identify deceased individuals.” In order to properly distinguish human remains, there are six properties of examination that would need to take place. These were “sex, age, ancestry, stature, unique characteristics of the skeleton, and indications of trauma.”  These closely analyzed classifications could provide evidence for “reconstructing communities and historical events.” 

Riot and Property Loss

House Resolution 1035 also asked the commission to address the total value of property destroyed in terms of 1921 dollars and those of the present day. There were some numbers made available to give an idea of the property loss in dollars, but the exact amount is uncertain. In his report “Riot and Property Loss”, Larry O’Dell of the Oklahoma Historical Society states that between “June 14th of 1921 and June 6th of 1922, some Tulsa residents filed riot-related claims against the city for over $1.8 million,” which would equate to about $16,752,600 in 1999 during the time the report was being written. The courts denied most of the claims. This total does not include everyone who lost businesses or homes. Mr. O’Dell, with the help of many volunteers, conducted research and studied databases, including utilizing city directories, census info from 1920, insurance maps, warranty deed records, building permits, Red Cross reports, and many other forms of documentation to make the case for the significant loss suffered by the North Tulsa community as a direct result of the Massacre.

Assessing State and City Culpability: The Riot and the Law

In his report “Assessing State and City Culpability: The Riot and the Law,” legal scholar Alfred Brophy unveils the negligence of government officials in not safeguarding the community they were sworn to protect. Additionally, he illustrates how North Tulsa residents attempted to obtain relief from insurance companies after the Massacre and cites the testimony of the National Guard, who cited the actions of the local police force as questionable and unacceptable. The police chief at the time deputized about 500 or so white men to help put down the Massacre, many carrying the same “spirit of destruction that animated the mob.” A grand jury sometime during September of 1921 decided that the immediate cause of the Massacre was “the appearance of a certain group of colored men at the courthouse attempting to protect Dick Rowland.”

In conclusion, the overall purpose of the Race Riot Commission Report was to vividly illustrate a purposeful attack that set out to “intimidate” the Black residents of North Tulsa. In essence, “…a collective body –acting as one body — had coldly and deliberately and systematically assaulted one victim, a whole community, intending to eliminate it as a community.” After 80 years, Black Tulsans have received some answers in the hope of bringing healing and justice to the community. Nearly 20 years after the Commission report was completed, this week, subsurface scanning at Oaklawn Cemetery began, a recommendation that came directly from this report. However, the results of the scanning have thus far been inconclusive. The hope of the Greenwood community is that government officials, both now and in the immediate future, will do their due diligence, with integrity, in adhering to recommendations made from this report.

Below is a link to the full report:


Photo courtesy of Oklahoma Historical Society Research Division