Earlier this month, the three known survivors of the 1921 Tulsa massacre testified in Congress about the world they lost when a white mob burned their thriving community to the ground. “The neighborhood I fell asleep in that night was rich – not just in terms of wealth, but in culture, community and heritage,” said Viola Fletcher, who was visiting the US capital for the first time in her 107 years. “Within a few hours, all of that was gone.”
After being willfully suppressed from the national memory for close to a century, in many ways the history of the massacre is now more visible than ever – in media, popular culture and even the US Capitol. But this history, and the question of who has the right to tell it, remain contested. That is true even in Tulsa itself, where Black Tulsans say official centennial commemorations have obscured its lingering effects on their community and failed to meaningfully involve descendants of survivors and victims.
We wanted to hear directly from those descendants about how the massacre affected their families, in 1921 and to this day. A number of themes emerge from the responses we received. One is the culture of silence that long surrounded the massacre. Most of the readers who responded told us they hadn’t heard about it until well into their adult years. Another is a sense of pride over their links to such a historic locus of Black prosperity. And yet another is a deep loss, over the relatives killed and displaced, the community erased and the wealth eradicated – wealth that could have changed the course of entire generations.
My grandparents, an aunt and an uncle were survivors of the massacre. My grandparents were land owners as well as business owners. I did not hear about the race massacre until I was well into my adult years, probably my 40s.
My grandmother, Daisy Scott, was a political cartoonist for the Tulsa Star. She drew cartoons that depicted the racial injustice of that time and the funny thing is her illustrations fit right in with today’s injustices still happening for Black people. My grandfather, Jack Scott, was a professional boxer and one of the men who went down to the courthouse to protect Dick Rowland. A very brave man!
This massacre affected our family in terms of generational wealth. My grandparents owned land on Greenwood Place that was taken by the city of Tulsa to build the University of Oklahoma. That land could have remained in our family’s name and we could have benefitted from it. Land never depreciates and it would have given our family members a running start. –Barbara Barros, 65, writer and retired educator
I’m the great-granddaughter and great-great-granddaughter of JB Stradford and his father, Julius Caesar, who were born into servitude. He was not given a last name during his servitude and adopted the surname Stradford.
Julius instilled his education and ethic values on to his son. Consequently, JB Stradford put emphasis on education, acquiring a law degree from Indiana University, and became an advocate for himself and others.
In 1881, JB enrolled at Oberlin School, in Ohio, where he met his wife, Bertie Wiley. After commencement, they moved to Kentucky. He became a college principal and proprietor of a barbershop. After witnessing a lynching in Kentucky, Indiana was their next stop. JB opened another barbershop and became a bicycle retailer. After hearing of business opportunities and growing Black towns in Oklahoma, he decided to move there in 1905. Bertie died unexpectedly shortly before the move.
JB arrived in Tulsa on 9 March 1905, and eight months later, oil drillers hit a primary gusher not far from Tulsa. Tulsa became a boomtown and the Black labor force was plentiful and well in demand.
Five years after his arrival in Tulsa, he met and married his second wife, Augusta L, in 1910. His independent projects included the Stradford Hotel, his crown jewel, at 301 N Greenwood, along with considerable other rental property, land lots and an apartment building. It was estimated that the JB Stradford empire was well worth over $3m dollars prior to 1917.
Twenty-three years after JB resettled in Oklahoma, the Tulsa race riot changed the landscape of what was Black Wall Street, Tulsa and my great-grandfather’s many accomplishments.
For his part in trying to protect Dick Rowland , my great-grandfather was said to be the instigator of the riot and was arrested. With few resources, he was able to escape to his brother in Kansas. From there, he joined his son, a lawyer, in Chicago.
In Chicago, my great-grandfather wasn’t able to recreate what he lost in the Black Wall Street massacre; however, he owned a sweet retailer, barbershop and pool corridor before he died. He died in 1935 at the age of 74 and remained embittered due to the loss and horrors he witnessed and endured.
JB Stradford’s descendants went on to become judges, doctors, professionals, musicians, artists, designers (of which I’m one), entrepreneurs and activists. We acknowledge our African heritage and continue the legacy of self-improvement and personal growth through determination, passed down.
In 1996, 75 years after the Tulsa race massacre, JB Stradford was exonerated for all wrongdoings in the Tulsa race riot accusations, against JB Stradford. –Teague Stradford-Dow, 76, fashion designer and teacher
Some of my not-too-distant relatives were both survivors and victims of the Tulsa race riots. My great-great uncle, Andrew Chesteen Jackson (Dr AC Jackson), was murdered by white teenage thugs. He was shot in the stomach and bled out, finally dying on 2 June 1921. His father, Captain TD Jackson, rode on horseback for five days so that he could bury his son in Guthrie. Capt Jackson did not want his son to suffer the final indignity that most other victims and families experienced; most deceased Black people were thrown into the Arkansas River. It was said that white citizens threatened Black funeral homes with death and destruction if they funeralized any Black victims.
My other relatives were survivors of the riots. HA Guess, a prominent Tulsa attorney and my great-grandfather, hid out in his chicken coop while his wife, Minnie Mae, hid under the family home with her daughters. (Their son grabbed his father’s gun and ran downtown to join the fight.) Their house was about to be torched until a white citizen threatened to prosecute these would-be marauders. Had things gone the other way, I wouldn’t be sharing this story with you.
The loss resulting from the riots is incalculable. Dr Jackson was on the cusp of greatness. Had he lived, he could have created some breakthrough treatments for infectious diseases. He saved my aunt Wilhelmenia from scarlet fever when she was just eight years old. There is no telling how many lives in Tulsa he could have saved, including of Tulsa’s white citizens. As for my family members who survived, they remained traumatized and heartbroken; my aunt could no longer bear to look at Dr Jackson’s picture in her home. The rest of my family’s survivors suffered mightily from trauma for the rest of their lives. Some 45 years later, Dr Jackson’s widow, Julia A Jackson, visited my family in Washington DC. She was still traumatized and broken-hearted about Dr Jackson’s death.
My family never really talked about the riots. It wasn’t until we were adults did I and my siblings learn of this horrific tragedy. Perhaps it was just too painful to talk about. Our children have just become aware of this tragedy and are eager to know more. Right now, my family is on a quest to leave no stone unturned in our research on the lives of Dr Jackson and other family members. We are particularly committed to building out a digital footprint of Dr Jackson’s life, trying to understand how he lived rather than how he died. To honor him, we placed a tombstone on his grave in Tulsa some years ago.
There is a through line from this disaster to many of today’s racial struggles, from the “birther” controversy to the many fatal struggles our young men have with law enforcement. None of us were left unscathed by Tulsa; none of us will be left unscathed from recent events either. –Jon Stuart Adams, 64, federal government employee
I am 61 years old. I live in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in a home built by my grandfather, the late John Reggin Emerson Sr.
Mr Emerson was a prominent businessman who purchased and developed large tracts of land in the city of Tulsa during the 1920s. Born on 22 February 1885 in Tennessee, John was the second child of Jerry D and Sallie Emerson. The Emerson family left Tennessee and migrated to Arkansas and then later on into the Indian Territories, in present day Logan county, Oklahoma. It was there that the family set up shop with a mercantile business in 1888. The store and its building provided goods to area farmers and the growing city of nearby Guthrie.
Upon his father’s untimely murder in the line of duty as the Guthrie jailer, John felt his family would have greater opportunities within the newly developing town of Tulsa. John built, developed and became the proprietor of the Emerson Hotel on Greenwood Avenue.
As the massacre unfolded in the early morning hours of 31 May 1921, John and his daughter took shelter, hiding under the railroad tracks. When the time came that they felt safe enough, they found their way home to a ruined Emerson Hotel. It had been ransacked.
Following the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, John erected a second hotel on the corner of Lansing and Pine streets. This newer hotel provided storefronts at the street level and hotel rooms on the upper floor. He also started the Bluebird Cab Company in 1924.
John expanded his financial portfolio by constructing over 140 homes in the Tulsa area. He also owned a large working cattle farm. He had five children.
John Reggin Emerson Sr was honored posthumously by the North Tulsa Heritage Foundation in 2001. His contributions before and following the 1921 Tulsa race massacre were instrumental to its initial growth and the rebuilding following the destruction.
I just learned about the massacre within the last 15 years. It was omitted from the textbooks and forbidden to talk about for decades.
The Black wealth that existed before the 1921 race massacre is no longer in Tulsa. North Tulsa, where the majority of Blacks reside, has been a food desert for over a decade. The life expectancy is far less for Blacks than whites. There are no hospitals in the community. To see how the massacre has affected our community, you just need to look at north Tulsa. –Jacqueline Weary, 61, retired insurance consultant
My great-aunt Janie Edwards was in the Dreamland Theater on a secret date when the massacre happened. She was able to escape with her date and ran to the nearby town of Claremore. It took her eight years before she mustered up the courage to go back to Tulsa.
As a child, my family always told stories about my aunt’s experience as a Creek Freedman and a victim of the Tulsa race massacre in 1921. One day while watching TV, I heard former state representative Don Ross talk about the history of Greenwood and the massacre. It was at that moment when I realized this was the story I heard as a child about my Aunt Janie. I knew then what I was meant to do.
The 1921 Tulsa race massacre has directly affected my family and community in more ways than one. It has had ripple effects spanning from the judicial system, loss of land, loss of homes, loss of businesses. In the 1920s, Black homeownership was at 30% and white homeownership was 35%. Today, Black homeownership is 32% and white homeownership is 57.9%. Racial discrimination in home appraisals and gentrification have continued to help destroy Greenwood and the Black community here in Tulsa. To address this history, we need reparations in the form of cash and land. Simultaneously, we need policies to end racial discrimination in home appraisals and lending and to support Black businesses, health and education.
After the centennial of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, the cameras will go away, journalists will go to the next popular story, but I will still be here. I will never stop fighting for my community or my ancestors. This has never been about photo ops or fame for me. It’s all about my community and ancestors. –Kristi Williams, community activist and chair of the Greater Tulsa African American Affairs Commission
Right around the time I enrolled in undergrad, my grandmother gave me a manuscript written by her great-grandfather, JB Stradford. It was a memoir that began with his father buying his own freedom from enslavement in Versailles, Kentucky, and continued through JB’s life as a successful business owner and hotelier in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
It was by reading this memoir that I understood a part of family history that I had only heard about in passing – the Tulsa race massacre that had destroyed our family business and criminalized our patriarch, JB Stradford. I know how lucky I am to have this family history passed down from generation to generation. This is the one thing that was not stolen from us.
Educated at Oberlin College and Indianapolis Law School, JB had a hotel business in Tulsa that would have been worth over $2m in today’s money. His hotel, the 54-room Stradford Hotel on historic Greenwood Avenue, was sacked and burned to the ground during the Tulsa massacre of 1921, along with 44 square blocks of Black-owned property, causing him to flee to Kansas and later to Chicago in order to save his life. He was falsely indicted for inciting the riot by an inflamed white grand jury for daring to stand up, with his community, to stop a mob from breaking into a jail and lynching a Black man, which is what began the massacre.
The history of theft from my Black community continues to this day in many overt and insidious forms, including for example through the historic redlining of Black communities and under-valuing of Black homes during appraisals. Like compound interest, this theft compounds exponentially over time.
Extra-judicial killings continue, both by police and civilian whites, as in the case of Ahmaud Arbery, because both groups are still indoctrinated on some level to believe that Black people are more property than brothers to them. –Lauren Usher, 32
My grandparents were Jack and Daisy Scott. Jack in his younger years was a professional boxer and worked as a janitor. My grandmother Daisy was an artist and worked as a political cartoonist for the Tulsa Star. Her work can be found on the front page of the issues prior to the massacre. They were present during the massacre and were able to escape with their two-year-old daughter, my aunt Juanita Parry, and their unborn son, my uncle Julius Warren Scott. Both my aunt and uncle are among the survivors whose pictures hang on the walls of the Greenwood Cultural Center.
My grandfather was one of the men who bravely went to the courthouse to defend Dick Rowland. As a result of the massacre my grandparents lost their home, property, business, and, most importantly, almost their lives. They went on to raise 11 children in Tulsa, though things were never the same. My grandparents, though they survived, were not able to pursue their dreams. They and the other victims were denied insurance claims, as is well documented. Though I did not have the honor of meeting them, I’m sure they relived the trauma of the devastation they endured each and every day.
I first heard of the Tulsa massacre as a young adult. It was then called the race riot. As a descendant, it is my duty and honor to keep sharing their (our) story so that the generations to follow understand what strength and perseverance is and help “re-right” history so it does not repeat itself.
The generational wealth that was lost by the taking of land and other properties directly affected my grandparents, their children and their descendants. I’m sure many of the people that suffered this massacre most certainly experienced PTSD and exhibited symptoms that were seen and passed down as generational trauma. Breaking this cycle is difficult, especially after years of not communicating about this tragedy. There is a great health disparity that still exists not only in Tulsa, but across the nation. It has been discussed for many years but is now being truly recognized.
I feel if this history was shared with us when we were young it may have changed the course of many of the descendants’ lives and it would have helped us to understand and appreciate what our ancestors were living with every day.
My family is rich with the talents of my Grandma Daisy, possessing wonderful musical and artistic abilities, and exhibit the entrepreneurship qualities of my Grandfather Jack. I’m certain they would be proud to learn of the many college graduates that make up their descendants. –Maureen Scott, 65, nurse practitioner
Red Summers is a 360 video project by the artist and film-maker Bayeté Ross Smith on the untold American history of racial terrorism from 1917 to 1921. The project is funded by Black Public Media, Eyebeam, Sundance Institute, Crux XR and the Open Society Foundations.