The massacre that swept through Tulsa, Oklahoma a century ago has been called one of the worst incidents of racial violence in US history. Some historians count up to 300 lives lost, thousands homeless and estimates of $32 million in property damage, decimating the Greenwood district, which had been one of the most prosperous black communities in the country.
veteran journalist Randy Krehbiel, who writes for the Tulsa World, has spent more than two decades researching the details of racial terrorism. His book 2019 Tulsa 1921: reporting a massacre is a well-quoted play-by-play of the events leading up to the massacre, slaughter, and aftermath.
BET.com recently told him about what he learned. Below are excerpts from the interview:
BET.com: Randy, you’re from Oklahoma. Before becoming a journalist, had you ever heard of the Tulsa massacre?
Randy Krehbiel: You know, it’s an interesting thing. I am often asked this question and the answer is that I think so, but I am not sure. The reason I say that is when I was in school I was a bit of a history nerd and read my Oklahoma history textbook and several others alongside that. It just seemed to me that at some point I found a brief mention of it now, and I’m going to say it. But I will also say that it didn’t make a big impression on me. In other words, it wasn’t something I was really aware of until I moved to Tulsa.
BET.com: You’ve spent more than 40 years as a writer for the Tulsa World. What led you to start researching the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921?
Krehbiel: In 1999 the Tulsa Race Riot Commission was in operation and I was assigned to cover it. As part of this, my mission was to start building an archive for the Tulsa World, because other than microfilm we didn’t have many of our clip files and they only went back to WWII. No one had really looked at the newspapers. I worked for the newspaper. So I thought, maybe one thing I better do is go back to reading the papers, and that’s what I started doing.
I started reading the newspapers on microfilm, copying everything I could find that was related to the massacre and sometimes things that weren’t directly related. But I thought they revealed something about the time and that period of history. And so I did a lot. From there I got names and started going through other documents. I started talking to people and that was kind of the basis of my research.
I kept doing that for a while, and really I still do it now. I realized I was getting old and I thought, you know, I probably need to put this all in some kind of narrative form with quotes so that when I’m gone, the next person at the Tulsa World is responsible for covering this will not have to start from scratch. So basically what I was trying to do was leave a trail or a roadmap behind me.
PHOTOS: 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre: Images of a terrorized community
BET.com: During this period, Tulsa officials called the massacre a “Negro uprising.” Why did they use this term?
Krehbiel: I think the larger reason is that you had a system based on the unequal treatment of people. I mean, you had a system that allowed one group of people to treat other groups of people pretty much however they wanted, and that created friction. Now, regarding this specific event and why it was called an “uprising”, it is because after dick roland, the young black man who was charged with inappropriate contact with a young white woman in an elevator in downtown Tulsa, has been incarcerated in a county jail. There were talks that maybe he was going to be lynched or something was going to happen to him.
So these [Black] men armed themselves and drove into white downtown Tulsa to make sure nothing happened to him. This is what “Negro uprising” meant to officials. black men [with their guns] go to the courthouse because they think something is going to happen to Dick Roland.
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BET.com: After the Greenwood fire, what happened next according to your research?
Krehbiel: They immediately started rebuilding.
There is a story in the Tulsa World it says about five days after Greenwood was burnt to ashes, stores open. I don’t know how they did it, but it said everything from fresh meat to ice cream cones was sold in Greenwood. Within a year, there were quite a few buildings completed or in progress and there were many businesses in operation.
Business in Tulsa was largely segregated in those days, so if a black person was going to buy something, they were probably going to buy it from a black merchant, especially after what had happened. It was part of the secret of how Greenwood became or why Greenwood became successful. There were many people there who had regular jobs and who spent their wages within the community.
I think one of the really remarkable things is how many people stayed after what happened. They rebuilt fairly quickly, but it was really difficult. They didn’t have much access to credit. Often whether or not they could rebuild was tied to whether they had kept their money in a bank or kept it in a safe for a cigar box at home, because people didn’t keep not always have their money in the banks these days.
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BET.com: Tell me more about the people who never left Tulsa after the massacre.
Krehbiel: There were a lot of people who never really left. They may have fled, but they returned immediately. Then there were people who left and never came back, they are harder to identify, and then there were people who left and left for a while and came back.
If they owned that piece of property was all they had and it might have been a ruin but still it was all they had and if they left they wouldn’t even have not that. There were still jobs to be filled and there were still opportunities. So they stayed.
I think one thing to keep in mind in all of this is how difficult and constraining life was for black Americans to get ahead. You still had a lot of people living in what was called virtual peonage. They lived on small farms or on plantations. Theoretically, they were free citizens, but they owed the landowner everything from a sack of flour to a sack of seed, and they could never repay that debt. So having a glimmer of opportunity to own land was really important.
RELATED: The Tulsa Race Massacre a Century Later: What Black Wall Street Was and Why Its Descendants Demand Reparations
BET.com: Black Tulsans say they want to restore Greenwood. What does it look like?
Krehbiel: Old Greenwood is mostly gone except for about a block in Greenwood and Archer. And it was saved from urban renewal in the 1970s and 80s. Greenwood is now part of Oklahoma State University-Tulsa. So unless the college campus somehow comes back, it won’t be rebuilt.
Some people I spoke to said that Black Wall Street and Greenwood are separate entities. Greenwood is a spirit, an idea, but the business district is about a mile from Old Greenwood. I’m not really sure.
They build the Greenwood Rising Museum, most or all of the spaces in historic buildings in Greenwood are full, and part of what was Greenwood in 1921 is now a ballpark. I think a lot of where Greenwood is is where a lot of the country is, which is to say it’s still very difficult for black Americans to get the kind of financial resources they need to build big.
There are black Tulsans unhappy with Greenwood Rising because a lot of the donors aren’t black and I understand that. A lot of people want to control the story and that’s completely understandable. But it becomes kind of a circular deal where you need money to get things done and sometimes you have to get out of the circle to get the money to get things done.
I don’t know what the answer is, but I understand people who are upset and I understand why they are upset. I understand why people who say, look, either we have to do it this way or it won’t.
Jennifer Matthews is a Tulsa-based freelance writer.