‘Worst disaster in Oklahoma history’: How the Oklahoma City bombing shined a light on the Tulsa Race Massacre

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TULSA, Okla. (KFOR) – The Tulsa Race Massacre took place between May 31 and June 1, 1921.

It all started due to a rumored encounter in the Drexel Building elevator in downtown Tulsa between teenagers Dick Rowland, an African American shoeshiner, and Sara Page, a white elevator operator.

Page claimed that she was assaulted, though she later recanted. A newspaper embellished the story of the alleged crime.

There was talk that Rowland would be lynched, so armed African-American men came to the jail to protect him. A larger group of armed white men met them there. Then, gunfire rang out.

A white mob then set Greenwood on fire. All 35 city blocks of the community burned, including more than 1,200 homes, 600 businesses and a number of churches on Black Wall Street.

It has been estimated that between 100 to 300 people were killed, with many others wounded.

“The Oklahoma City bombing, of all things, played a huge role in getting the story of the Tulsa Race Massacre out.”

Scott Ellsworth

Another tragic day in Oklahoma’s history, the Oklahoma City bombing, helped spark the investigation into the Tulsa Race Massacre. The 1995 tragedy brought in news crews from across the country and ended up leading them to another story that needed to be told: the Tulsa Race Massacre.

“The Oklahoma City bombing, of all things, played a huge role in getting the story of the Tulsa Race Massacre out,” said Dr. Scott Ellsworth, historian and author of Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.

The bombing that cost 168 people their lives and injured hundreds of others shook
Oklahoma to its core.

Network news crews set up shop in Oklahoma City for an entire week of live coverage.

During that time, a reporter stated that the bombing was the worst disaster in Oklahoma history, but was corrected by then Oklahoma state representative, Don Ross.

“My father corrected him and said, ‘No. The worst one is just an hour and a half away in Tulsa, Oklahoma,'” said Kavin Ross, son of Don Ross.

Don then gave the reporter a copy of Death in a Promised Land, which provided a comprehensive history of the massacre.

“Ten days later the ‘Today Show’ called and said on the 75th anniversary of the massacre, in 1996, they will do a story,” said Dr. Ellsworth.

It was the first big breakthrough in getting the story of the Tulsa Race Massacre out.

That press acted as a catalyst for Oklahoma’s investigation into the event.

“Don took all of that press coverage to the governor and got the governor to help create the Tulsa Race Riot Commission,” said Ellsworth. “That was the next step in getting the story out.”

Unfortunately, politics got in the way and the commission stopped their work.

But fast forward some 20 years and the investigation has been reopened.

City of Tulsa leaders reached back out to the original crew, and others, to help finish what they started.

“We’re at a powerful moment right now in our state, especially when all eyes are upon us as we commemorate 100 years of Greenwood, and so people get a sense from all over the world what happened here and what lessons that are here for them to take back and learn and practice on their own communities,” said Ross. “I think we’re at the right place and right mindset to pull that off.”

On Tuesday, June 1, remains of what is believed to be race massacre victims will be exhumed from a mass burial site at Oaklawn Cemetery in Tulsa.

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