The Tulsa Massacre

Today’s post is by Miriam Kleiman, National Archives Program Director for Public Affairs.

Even long after the Civil War, thousands of African Americans were hanged, burned and shot to death, beaten, and tortured by white mobs who celebrated these atrocities and were rarely prosecuted for their crimes. In 1918, Rep. Leonidas Dyer of Missouri submitted a bill (HR 13) to establish lynching as a federal crime. Dyer said that lynching—and the refusal by localities and states to prosecute the perpetrators—violated victims’ 14th Amendment rights.  

Following congressional action on child labor and Prohibition, Dyer appealed to his colleagues and questioned their priorities:  

If Congress has felt its duty to do these things, why should it not also assume jurisdiction and enact laws to protect the lives of citizens of the United States against lynch law and mob violence? Are the rights of property, or what a citizen shall drink, or the ages and conditions under which children shall work, any more important to the Nation than life itself? (Congressional Record, House, 65th Congress, 2nd session, 5/7/1918, pages 6177–6178.)

While his bill faltered, racial violence intensified and increased. Black servicemen who had fought for their country in World War I came home to an outbreak of racial violence known as the “Red Summer” because of the extent of bloodshed.

The Tulsa Massacre of 1921 was one of the worst instances of mass racial violence in American history. The violence centered on Tulsa’s Greenwood District (aka “Black Wall Street”), a commercial area with many successful Black-owned businesses. In 24 hours, hundreds were killed, thousands displaced, and 35 city blocks were burned to ruins.

The Tulsa Chapter of the American Red Cross aided many victims and compiled a report with photos of riot scenes, devastated areas, National Guard troops, destroyed homes, dead victims, and massacre survivors in temporary housing. Warning: Some images are graphic and viewers might find them disturbing.

Image from Tulsa Red Cross Photo Album of the Tulsa Massacre and Aftermath, 1921. (National Archives Identifier 157688056)

With NAACP support, Representative Dyer heightened his efforts. In 1922, after the so-called “Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill” had passed the House and awaited a Senate vote, Dyer submitted a “Red Record of Lynching Map” to Congress showing lynchings by state and naming congressmen who opposed the bill.

The “Red Record of Lynching Map,” 1889-1921. (National Archives Identifier 149268727)

The map was created by a leader in the anti-lynching crusade, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, editor of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight and author of two anti-lynching texts, Southern Horrors and The Red Record.

Dyer reintroduced the measure in each new Congress in the 1920s to no avail. Nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress during the first half of the 20th century alone, and such efforts continue today. 

Learn more in Rediscovering Black History blog posts:

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2 thoughts on “The Tulsa Massacre

  1. More people need to know about the resource here at the archives.

    Hearing about it, reading about this in an article, doesn’t compare to seeing the pictures and the documentations that clearly show the horror of those few days.

    People ran out of town to live somewhere else for fear of their lives. The archives help that reality sink in, in a way that other resources just can’t do.

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